Surgery, Escape or Death?

Since the 1980s, thousands of Iranian gays and lesbians have undergone sexual reassignment surgery to avoid the alternative — execution.
Religious leaders in Iran contend that homosexuality is a “tremendous sin” and that therefore, gays and lesbians act “against God.” Transsexuality, however, is not formally addressed in the Quran, and Iranian doctors perform about 300 sexual reassignment surgeries per year.
These startling facts emerge in the gut-wrenching “Transsexuals in Iran,” part of a recent episode of Vice on HBO, a mini-documentary series that investigates global issues. The series has received numerous awards, including a 2014 Emmy for Outstanding Informational Series or Special. Its 2015 episodes have continued to captivate viewers with intriguing content and excellent reporting.
In only 15 minutes, Vice correspondent Thomas Morton delivers an informative and shocking exploration into a part of the world where the LGBTQ community faces grave danger because of their personal identities, sexualities, and gender expression. The report tells the stories of several LGBTQ Iranians facing persecution.
One story that the Vice episode follows is that of a transsexual man named Amir Reza. His brother is shown explaining that if Amir had chosen to identify as a lesbian before his surgery, his family would have had him killed. But because he instead agreed to get sexual reassignment surgery, his family has “gradually accepted [Amir’s> situation.” As Vice points out, it’s shocking to hear these sentiments coming from the brother of a transsexual man.
Sexual reassignment surgery has been legal in Iran since the early 1980s, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, unexpectedly issued a fatwa (an Islamic legal ruling) allowing transsexuality. Since then, Iran has become one of the world capitals for sexual reassignment surgery – but not because of a large population of trans-identified Iranians.
As a solution for what the Iranian government calls the “disease” of homosexuality, the Iranian government has begun to pressure gays and lesbians into undergoing sexual reassignment surgery and thereby becoming acceptable citizens in the eyes of government officials. Although there are currently no laws ordering homosexuals to transition into the body of the opposite sex, many Iranians choose to undergo surgery when faced with governmental pressure and the threat of death.
Morton delves further into the state of LGBTQ rights in Iran, exposing the harsh reality that some political and religious leaders deny the existence of homosexuality altogether.
At one point during the documentary, former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who served from 2005 to 2013, is shown stating: “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country. We don’t have that in our country.”
Morton was sent to Toronto by Vice to explore alternatives for gay Iranians who do not wish to undergo sexual reassignment surgery. Wealthier LGBTQ Iranians facing execution often choose to flee the country, if they can. Many people escape to Turkey, a trip that does not require a visa, as a temporary stop while attempting to find places to move more permanently. But fleeing from Iran is expensive and dangerous.
Fortunately, human rights organizations have given financially stressed Iranians opportunities to escape the oppressive government in recent years. The Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees (IRQR) is a Toronto-based organization that helps Iranians flee the country and emigrate to Canada. Their mission, as stated on the IRQR website, is to “Assist persecuted LGBT Iranians seeking asylum to find refuge to live free and equal in dignity and rights.”
IRQR founder Arsham Parsi states that the organization has helped roughly 885 gay Iranians escape Iran since 2005 and now averages about five cases per month.
Although American LGBTQ communities face continuing issues of acceptance and equity, we live in a country where we are largely able to wear our identities freely and proudly. As we enter Pride month this June, we must remember the areas in the world where LGBTQ communities are forced to hide their identities, flee their countries, or face death penalties. Vice on HBO does a terrific job of investigating one of these places, forcing its viewers to consider LGBTQ struggles in Iran and around the world.
“Transsexuals in Iran,” part of Episode 27, is available on HBO Go, HBO Now, and HBO on demand. For more information on the series, visit “

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