Saviz Shafaie: An Iranian Gay Activist Leader
By Jack Nichols
Badpuppy Gay Today
Tuesday, 27 May, 1997
Saviz Shafaie and other exiled Iranians are currently pondering results from Iran's recent presidential election, one in which a more moderate leader has been chosen by the overwhelming majority of a mostly youthful public. Shafaie, although he considers Iran's electoral process an undemocratic sham, says the presidential vote is, nevertheless, a protest against Iran's current regime and bespeaks his country's widespread dissatisfaction with zealous sexual privacy-invaders who operate under "religious" trappings. With this protest vote comes a major setback to hard-core fundamentalist clergy who, it is now clear, are beginning to lose the iron grip they've held since 1979 on one of earth's oldest evolving and most fascinating civilizations, an exotic land once known as Persia.
As a university student in 1972, Shafaie, baffled by sociological questions surrounding sexual orientation, delivered a pioneering research speech, an investigative look at the treatment given same sex love that was prevalent in Iranian social patterns. Expecting a small turnout, Shafaie was astounded when several hundred of his peers at the University of Shiraz (formerly Pahlavi University) gathered to hear him. It showed, he knew, that fellow students were thirsty for knowledge about matters that had too long remained taboo, that a natural curiosity had been unearthed the moment he pulled aside the curtain of silence. In Iran, he realized, same-sex love, though unspoken, was, nevertheless, prevalent in its own way.
In 1976, pursuing his education, Shafaie arrived in the United States, where he continued his studies of sexuality and gender. At Syracuse University he gradually became involved with the growing gay and lesbian liberation movement. He finally emerged--as a result of a conscious and deliberate decision-- as an openly gay man, all the while earning his master's degree in sociology.
Moving to Orlando, Florida in the early 1980's, Shafaie turned his personal evolution into a series of ongoing political statements. He was quick to see that various social crusades---including the peace movement, the anti-sexist men's movement, the feminist cause, as well as racial, ethnic, and human rights concerns, could be linked. He took an active part in these various movements, successfully urging---in the Orlando area---that they support civil rights and social acceptance of those who, like himself, felt strong emotional and sexual bonds with individuals of their own gender.
Shafaie opened a natural foods store, located in one of the city's finer neighborhoods, where he provided materials relevant to the aforementioned causes, including gay and lesbian rights. He organized demonstrations and educational events, appearing on TV and radio, and receiving Central Florida's Spectrum Award (1995) for his efforts at promoting a meaningful recognition of diversity among the area's citizens. Again, on March 9, 1997, he received both the Spectrum Male Activist and Role Model (male) Award, the latter shared with Jim Ford, his life's companion.
In 1993 Shafaie joined Homan, the international movement to defend the rights of lesbian and gay Iranians. Currently, he is enrolled at the University of Central Florida in an MSW program while remaining active organizing, and planning Homan's agendas.
Badpuppy: What brought you to make a deliberate decision to come out as a gay man?
Shafaie: While I was studying about homosexuality at school I felt that the information provided me with a better knowledge than is available through friends, family, and judgmental people around me. The combination of knowledge, self-confidence and growth provided me a chance to share my new insights with others. I was reading passionately and growing more solid, free and open. Public speaking, first under the safety of an academic roof resulted in dialogue and finally encouraged me to be more outspoken and honest. I eventually felt I knew enough to overcome my fear and insecurity. I had a sense that I owed it to myself to be open.
Badpuppy: Weren't social mores more open in Iran in 1972 than they are now?
Shafaie: Although legal punishments were not as harsh, still there was prejudice, misunderstanding and negative assumptions about gays and lesbians. Even then I had to face jokes and put-downs. But the more I became confident about my sexuality the more I could handle any negative slurs and challenge them.
Badpuppy: My youthful experience in the 1950's among Iranian adolescents in the United States found me surprised that Iranian boys could hold hands with me, kiss, recite poetry, hug, and, short of sex, be intimate. What's the difference between what I experienced and the negative anti-gay Iranian male attitudes you describe?
Shafaie: Some degree of male bonding, close friendship and even physical touch is tolerated but there's a negative response if you are labeled as having homosexual tendencies. You can be with someone that you love for a long period without daring to express your honest erotic feelings. Open sexuality might cause rejection, a loss of friendship. In that homophobic culture being at peace with your own homosexuality is challenging.
Badpuppy: In other words, you can have passionate emotions, but they mustn't cross the sexual border?
Shafaie: There is a conditional permission for erotic games or even rape as an exercise of male power. Pretend it is a joke, or a put-down and you can get by. But call it true love or honest and real sexual desire and you are in trouble. If you cross beyond traditional sex regulations and fail to prove that your ultimate desire is dominating a woman, you would be considered a suspect. If you act upon your passionate lust and disclaim it, you are safer than claiming an honest love. As Iranians we need to learn to be more honest, direct and welcoming of our own healthy sexual desires. Keep them natural, healthy, and real. We should not subscribe to the cultural bias which says that homosexuality destroys life, love or dignity.
Badpuppy: There are heterosexually-identified men in Iran who maintain their acceptable credentials by being dominant and taking only the active sexual part. In a sexually-segregated society isn't there a lot of this activity?
Shafaie: Is it a healthy activity? I have some problem with that. Such sex is not based on mutual agreement, mutual freedom of choice, mutual political power or mutual feeling and desire. When only one person controls an encounter by forcing another to submit, it sounds more like sexual exploitation and rape rather than a healthy sexual attraction. We cannot victimize somebody else, play with somebody, and unfortunately when rape has been rewarded and mutual affection has been condemned we are dealing with unhealthy and corrupted sex codes of conduct. I call it aggression, not sex.
Badpuppy: What was your family's response to your coming out?
Shafaie: My mother, who lived with me, had a chance to know a lot of my gay friends. Gayness had a face for her instead of being an abstract concept. It is easier to understand and accept people rather than submitting to your own irrational fears. I'm proud that after many years its not a pity or mere acceptance, but rather a conscious defending she does of the rights of gays and lesbians. Its not motherly acceptance but a social responsibility that she claims for herself. I asked my father to give me and himself a chance to delay any judgment before feeling fully informed. We agreed that he needed sufficient time. I told him I'd honestly answer any question and promised him to provide him with information. We did not label each other ignorant or sick. I didn't want to start a conflict with him, rather I respected him and wanted to approach him through his most positive characteristics. I encouraged him to use his intelligence, his commitment to acting responsibly and reasonably. After a year and half of honest communication we find we can work together, trust each other and grow together. I'm glad that now he feels comfortable and safe enough to approach me and my companion as a truly valid member of the family. With my brother it was much easier. He was dating a feminist woman and was already in support of gay and lesbian rights. He could easily ally with me to openly critique homophobia. It fits his politics and matched his credentials as a supportive and outspoken person. He even encouraged other family members to better understand. In my family we knew that we were not each other's enemies, but that we had a mutual enemy, homophobia, which we challenged together. When we work as a family we can have pride and self-respect that comes with solving a problem and growing together.
Badpuppy: How are Iranians in the Orlando area responding to you?
Shafaie: Mixed. There were some Iranians that even participated in the homophobia workshop I offered. There are friends that feel comfortable being part of our circle of friends and come to parties Jim and I throw. However, there have been hostile and angry responses to me, my mother, Jim, and even my supportive Iranian friends. For example, a local Persian poetry reading group kicked out some of its members because they participated in discussion group I facilitated. An Iranian peace gathering I started asked me to leave because The Orlando Sentinel wrote about my active role in the gay pride celebrations. An Iranian woman who teaches in Orlando approached an Ayatollah asking to issue a decree to expel me from the Iranian community. There were several life-threatening calls to my mother, harassing her and insulting her for having a son like me.
Badpuppy: You've had a long-going relationship. I was present at your commitment ceremony. What do you think about relationships?
Shafaie: I worked with Jim Ford for a year as co-activist, finding him a resourceful organizer and a committed, responsible person devoted to causes in which I believe. It didn't start as love at first sight. Our friendship grew and finally we acknowledged our personal and emotional feelings. Being lovers for a while we decided that we were ready to redefine our relationship as a family unit. Commitment, trust, mutual support, care for each other's extended families, mutual plans, sharing home, are aspects of our union. A deeper love continues to grow in us, rooted in respect and appreciation. Seven years have passed and we are still building on that love.
Badpuppy: What are some of the most effective things you've done in the gay and lesbian community of Central Florida?
Shafaie: My present interest is in gay politics. There was a time I needed a support group to deal with my personal issues, a rap group to talk about gay and lesbian concerns, a chance to educate myself. But right now gayness is more than a personal concern. It is not any longer my problem, but gay and lesbian rights is part of my personal political and social agenda. I'm glad I was part of a growing gay and lesbian visibility and political activism in Central Florida. In the last few years I was able to organize a range of cultural events such as concerts, theater events, workshops, demonstrations, rallies. I lobbied city officials, worked with local peace and justice groups, PBS broadcasting, providing educational conferences and seminars, but most importantly being able to work in teams with local gays, lesbians, and peace activists. When Deputy Tom Woodard was fired by Sheriff Gallagher WE THE PEOPLE, the group I co-founded, was able to bring together progressive groups like the Coalition for Peace and Justice, the Unitarian Church, the Quakers, the ACLU, and gay and lesbian groups to critique that injustice informing Orlando through the media. This taught me that activism in the community is most possible through coalition-building and networking.
Badpuppy: What difficulties do gay and lesbian Iranians face coming out?
Shafaie: Fear of persecution that could face them in Iran when they return. We are dealing with a very brutal government in Iran that promotes, justifies, and legalizes the execution of gays. Here, there's homophobia in the Iranian community causing rejections and put-downs. We're not facing rationality. Many Iranians carry the baggage of traditional religious hostility: the misjudgments, false assumptions and rigid pseudo-moral codes.
Badpuppy: Kayhan Havaie, the official newspaper of the Islamic Republic of Iran, wrote about the Iranian gay lib group, Homan, and you. What did it say?
Shafaie: Kayhan Havaie made fun of Homan's gay and lesbian demonstration and of my letter published in another Iranian newspaper in which I corrected a wrong term used to describe homosexuals. Although they ridiculed Homan and any rational comment about homosexuality it was interesting to see the existence of Homan affirmed in a press otherwise closed to such mentions. It is sad that the official Iranian press still can't see homosexuality except through cheap jokes, insults, and a pornographic lens.
Badpuppy: How have Iranian opposition groups in exile responded to Homan's Iranian gay activism?
Shafaie: They flee from the issues. For many of them, homosexuality is dismissed as a purely personal or private matter. Of course, my private life is something personal, but my human rights are obviously political and social concerns. Some political groups find gay rights unsafe politics, claiming that the Iranian public isn't ready to understand it. Isn't it the duty of any progressive group to bring up significant human concerns, introducing them to the public? There is a claim that homosexuality is a reflection of the capitalist or corrupted West. Have they forgotten that there are many gay and lesbian Iranians in Iran victimized by stale traditions? Some groups simply claim that if they defend individual rights, it will include everyone. They still lack the courage to pronounce the word "Gay" and acknowledge our existence.
Badpuppy: What kind of stereotypes exist in Iran?
Shafaie: Similar to the stereotypes that fundamentalists everywhere are spreading. Child molesting. Immorality. Promiscuity. Disease spreaders. Sex-obsession. Always passive. Rapists. If the assumption is that you are inferior, they feel free to assault you. If you are assumed dangerous they want to stop you. If they assume you're a pervert they want to change you. They confuse the fact of sexual orientation with sexual aggression and violence. In such a patriarchal society where sexuality is considered a male prerogative, a man has a right to sexually abuse whoever he can dominate or control. A man assumes he possesses his sexual object only for his sole enjoyment. When woman is labeled and treated as inferior to man any woman or any person assumed to have woman-like qualities is devalued. The assumption that homosexuals are feminine and less than manly justifies a domineering man's aggression against us. Sexual liberation would not be possible in Iran without challenging "masculine" values and tradition that works against equality between sexual partners. Stereotypes prevent us from understanding the healthy nature of sexual tendencies.
Badpuppy: What do you mean by healthy?
Shafaie: Sex is healthy when it does not harm, hurt, or destroy. Sex is an instrument of aggression when somebody hurts the other physically, biologically, emotionally, socially, politically, etc. through the sexual act. One should not call that kind of behavior sex. One cannot pass the virus, cause physical pain, humiliate, abuse his political power, or emotionally hurt his partner and still call it healthy sex. Healthy sex creates joy, self-respect, and personal growth. It elevates. It provides safety and trust. It makes for good feelings like warmth and happiness. Healthy sex needs to be based on equality: on mutual desire, free decisions, and on knowledge of the rightness of one's own motives. Such things, for me, are healthy.
Badpuppy: What about religious beliefs and sexuality?
Shafaie: I am not a believer, but I do believe that we need to be very cautious how we let our religious beliefs determine our rational behavior. If religion promotes sexual exploitation, if it creates a negative feeling of "sin" self-hatred and guilt, those negative feelings should be considered dangerous, unwanted and unjustified. Codes from holy books should not holify what our minds and senses tell us is nonsense. We could learn about our heritage and our religion, but this does not mean a blind acceptance or being a prisoner of our pasts. Religion in Iran has played a destructive, unhealthy approach toward sexuality and has created painful, confusing situation for gays who otherwise deserve to respect themselves as sexual beings.
Badpuppy: How does the Islamic Republic of Iran treat same-sex lovers?
Shafaie: According to 1991 Islamic penal law, article 110, I quote: "Punishment for sodomy is killing, the sharia judge decides on how to carry out the killing." Article 111 says: "Sodomy involves killing if both the active and passive persons are mature, of sound mind, and have free will." Harsh punishment is not only being used against gays but is used as a political weapon to falsely discredit opponents of the Islamic Republic. By discrediting homosexuality they can accuse and humiliate any opponent and apply a punishment. Recently, a well-known opposition writer, Sirjani, was labeled as gambler, drug addict, and homosexual prior to his suspicious death in prison. In 1992 Dr. Ali Mozafarian, a surgeon and leader of the Sunni branch of Islam, was labeled as an American spy, an adulterer and a homosexual. He was executed. Official anti-homosexual policy justifies public homophobia, fear, hate, anger, and aggression against gays. There is official discrimination and a vacuum of valid information. There are few, if any, role models. There are only dead ends for social, political and community gay life. As a result homosexuality in Iran has been narrowed to nothing more than the sexual act itself. Gays are characterized as being sex-obsessed while, ironically, affectionate same-sex relationships and gay social visibility are prohibited and made impossible.
Badpuppy: What is Homan?
Shafaie: Homan is a worldwide coalition of groups and individuals working together to defend the rights of Iranian gays and lesbians. The group originated among gay Iranians in Sweden and by now includes branches and a membership in many countries including those on this continent and in Western Europe. Its basic goals are to educate Iranians about homosexuality, provide accurate images, create safe environments for political activism. Homan works through its publishing arm which puts out a magazine, Homan. Through local and international meetings Homan was able to create a network of activists, planners, and organizers. It has monitored Iranian media, provided seminars and workshops, and worked with gay and lesbian rights groups in many cities. We are collecting an archives of Iranian gay and lesbian literature and history.
Badpuppy: What does Homan hope to accomplish?
Shafaie: It hopes to substitute information in place of gossip and false assumptions. It hopes to change the self-image of Iranian gays who might feel passive and desperate to that of responsible, confident persons able to live openly, joyfully, freely, and affectionately. Homan wants to provide encouragement and support for Iranian gays who wish to come out. Homan hopes to challenge and eliminate both gay-bashing in Iranian communities and that which has been officially sanctioned. Homan advocates political activism to these ends. Through Homan we hope to encourage healthy values, resulting in just behaviors and non-discriminatory policies.