A leading Iranian actor has apologised after coming under pressure over a tweet he posted in support of a historic US supreme court ruling on gay marriage.
Bahram Radan, who is known as the Iranian Brad Pitt, created controversy in the country when his tweet hailed a verdict last week which made same-sex marriage a legal right across the entirety of the US. Homosexuality remains a taboo subject inside the Islamic republic and is punishable by death.
“The US supreme court’s ruling that same-sex marriage is legal was historic, perhaps on the scale of the end of slavery … from Lincoln to Obama,” the award-winning actor tweeted in Persian at the weekend.
But within a few hours, after many users bombarded him with homophobic abuse and hardline media criticised him, Radan deleted the tweet.
The ultra-conservative Keyhan newspaper, whose director is appointed directly by the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called for Radan to be put on a blacklist and said he had been summoned to the ministry of culture and Islamic guidance for questioning, a claim which could not be independently verified. The ministry is in charge of vetting all cultural materials, including films, before they are released in public.
On Thursday, Keyhan published a letter of apology from Radan, who has more than 900,000 followers on Instagram, in which said he was clarifying his position on same-sex marriage.
The letter was addressed to the paper’s managing editor, Hossein Shariatmadari, a hardline figure who is notorious for targeting dissidents and opposition figures and orchestrating media campaigns against them.
“What was published on the internet as my opinion about the US supreme court’s ruling on gay marriage was a mistake and does not reflect the dignity of the Iranian people, for which I apologise,” he writes in the letter.
“We’re living in a country which celebrates marriage as a tradition of the prophet [Muhammad]. American laws have no bearing on the Islamic republic and gay marriage is reprehensible under our social and religious laws and according to our social values.”
The controversy over Radan’s tweet could not have come at a more polarised time for gay rights in Iran. Thousands of Iranians both inside and outside the country have in the past few days joined millions of people across the world to apply a rainbow flag over their Facebook profile pictures. This has ignited a debate about homosexuality among many Iranians online, splitting opinions in a scale hardly seen before.
Soudeh Rad, a Paris-based Iranian gender equality activist, said reactions inside Iran to Radan’s tweet showed the authorities want homosexuality to remain a taboo. “They’re afraid that people in Iran are beginning to talk about homosexuality as a sexual minority, not an illness, and they don’t want that to be normalised,” she told the Guardian.
Hardliners are particularly worried that people in Iran are increasingly using the term “Hamjensgara” (homosexual) instead of the offensive and hitherto common word “Hamjensbaz”. The new Iranian penal code, which still criminalises homosexuality, also mentions Hamjensgara, as do many Iranian officials even when they are condemning such relationships.
Rad said Rainbow-coloured profiles created “a golden opportunity” for LGBT activists as people began to seriously debate the issue.
“You’d see people defending homosexuality, and others who were opposed to it, but there was a genuine debate for the first time,” she said. “I’m 34, and I was debating this with a 17-year-old living inside Iran and another 59-year-old simultaneously.”
Homophobic views did not solely come from those who support the establishment. Saba Azarpeik, a prominent journalist who was jailed last year, posted on her Facebook page in condemnation of homosexuality: “I’m constantly reminded of the fate of the Lot tribe [a religious reference to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah]”.
Last year, Iran’s queen of pop, Googoosh, who lives outside the country, became the first prominent Iranian with a huge following to speak out against homophobia by releasing a video which portrayed a lesbian couple.
Until recently, lavat (anal sex between men) was punishable by death for all parties involved in a sexual intercourse but under new amendments to the penal code, the person who takes the “active” role will be flogged 100 times, while the one in the “passive” role will be put to death. Women engaged in same-sex acts will face 100 lashes.
Mohammad-Javad Larijani, secretary general of Iran’s state-run high council for human rights, said in 2013 that “we consider homosexuality an illness that should be cured”. The World Health Organisation delisted homosexuality as a mental illness in 1990s.
In contrast to homosexuality, transsexuality has been legal in Iran since a fatwa was issued in 1987 by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Iran permits more sex-change operations than any other country, except Thailand, and has long subsidised such surgeries.
The authorities often conflate homosexuality with transsexuality or either of them with pedophilia. Despite this, they appear to be amending such views. Activists welcomed the news in March that Iran was poised to criminalise forced sex operations and ban reperative therapies for its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
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