It is difficult to overstate the importance of the internet to LGBTQ Iranians. The internet operates almost exclusively as the – relatively – safe place where those who are LGBTQ, or questioning, can find information, form communities, and express themselves.
Mani Mostofi, in an article entitled Iranian’s Queer Internet: Human Rights Successes and Setbacks, in the recent publication Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights in Iran by the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission, conducted 48 interviews with LGBTQ Iranians to, in part, learn about their internet useage. And what Mostofi found was an overwhelming need for Iranians to have unrestricted access to the internet.
One of the critical uses of the internet for Iranians – and for many LGBTQ globally – is self-discovery and self-identification. Before accessing the internet, many of the participants reported simply feeling different or only knowing perjorative slang terms as a way to name themselves.
A 22 year old lesbian named Marjan described what it was like to more fully discover her identity: “When I was in highschool, I had a girlfriend but I didn’t understand what it was meant to be a lesbian. I went on the internet and found more information on what it meant to be LGBT. When I first started researching, [I remember thinking] ‘oh, so this is what I am?’ Until this point, I thought I had a problem, that I was the only one, that I was alone. I read stories about other women and their relationships online. That’s when I realized I was part of a homosexual community.”
Others, such as Sassan, described using the internet as a launching point for real-time meetings: “When I was 15 or 16, I found a gay website […] At the time I still thought I was the only homosexual in Iran, and that no one else in my city shared the same feelings. We started having small gatherings; we would move from place to place to avoid authorities. And I realized there is a community.”
Beyond information and finding a community, the internet also functions as a place to express oneself in a way that cannot be typically done, due to fear of stigmatization and arrest. Mohammad, a blogger, explained: “Writing on my blog was the first time I felt a sense of security. It also gives you a chance to meet others who think like you. Because in our society people like us are invisible. When you create a blog, you also create a larger group of people that interact with you.”
While the internet offers these positive interactions for those who can access it in Iran, Iranians still face punishment, even death, for engaging in same-sex relationships. Online, too, the 2009 Computer Crimes Law vaguely prohibits “immoral content” or anything that “violates public decency,” which, in coded language, means LGBTQ material.
Thus, the government of Iran does it’s utmost to prohibit these positive experiences described by Marjan, Sassan, and Mohammad. Facebook is blocked in Iran, Yahoo has chosen not to operate in Iran, and the Iranian gay male dating site Manjam was shut down by censors. Those in Iran, then, often resort to “circumvention tools” which can sometimes allow access to blocked sites.
Knowing the good that the internet offers those who identify as LGBTQ, Mostofi believes that it is a “conduit to key human rights – expression, association, and assembly – in a context where laws and official policies criminalize LGBT activities, and social norms isolate LGBT persons. By going online, LGBT Iranians can express their ideas, access information and communities, and strengthen their identity formation.”
Gwen is a writer who has an education degree, a social work background, an extensive knowledge of vegetables, and a devotion to queer revolutionary politics. She lives deep in the woods of Maine with two dogs, a magnificent partner, and an ever-growing collection of plants.