The Gully; November 13, 2000
A mother takes on the Ayatollah
In the Islamic Republic of Iran, lesbians and gay men risk the death penalty. Sex-change surgery for transsexuals is legal, but the recommended year of transition is skipped, because until the surgery is complete, you are considered criminally homosexual.
Of course, surgery does not guarantee safety. It's no walk in the park for women [See Time magazine on women in Islamic countries, an official Iranian site on women in Iran, an Iranian exile pubication, Iran Bulletin on women, and a PBS feature]. Minorities, and anybody with a mind of their own are at risk. Though a reform President was elected by a landslide in 1997, and there is a growing clamor for a more moderate Islam.
The battle for Iran's Muslim soul could go on for years, and may depend on the cumulative importance of modest figures like Mahin Yusefi, 51, a slender, soft-spoken woman who went from being a retiring, fairly conservative professional in Iran to a transgender rights activist in the United States.
This is her story as told to THE GULLY. Names and other identifying details have been changed to protect her family in Iran.
"The 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran happened very fast. We didn't even know the Ayatollah Khomeini existed. We hoped the change would bring real justice, more freedoms, a free press. During the Shah's dictatorship dissenters had been jailed, tortured, killed. There was a rumor at first that Khomeini even knew five languages. But in the fall of 1979 we heard Khomeini's voice on tape for the first time and he was just a religious dictator.
"All of a sudden there were all these fundamentalists in the factory where my husband was general manager, and I was a marketing consultant. Where were they before? Where did they come from? When had they grown their beards and become radicals? I think they were just opportunists. That's what you had to do to survive. Opportunism, not religious convictions, was what motivated many people.
"My husband was fired for not abiding by the regime's rules: he refused to grow a beard and pray at lunch, and he continued to wear a tie. He refused to be a hypocrite. I had a post-graduate degree in business administration, but was accused of having the job only because I was the manager's wife. I was fired, too. (Later they had to admit I was qualified.) After a while, I found an adjunct job teaching business administration. My husband, who is still in Iran, now works as an engineer in a different factory.
"In Iran, there are few opportunities open for women, or men, who do not pretend to be religious. People in government there are mostly not really religious, but opportunistic. Religion is just a tool to motivate and to manipulate the people."
"The year after the revolution, I had my second son, Nooshin. By the time he was three, he was already playing with girls' toys, and putting on my makeup and my underwear. He wanted to play hopscotch with the girls and refused to play soccer with the boys. He hated boy games. Worried, I took him to a psychiatrist who said that Nooshin just needed more exposure to his father. That would take care of everything, the psychiatrist said.
"However, by the time Nooshin was 15 or 16, the depth of his difference was more obvious, even if we didn't yet know what it meant. It was the way he walked, his demeanor, how he moved in a feminine kind of way. He was suspected of being a homosexual. In Iran, that is a crime punishable by death.
"The morals police drive around in these big vans, arresting women who are not wearing their head scarves right or boys who wear tight clothes. The police keep going until they fill their vans. Nooshin was arrested a couple of times. The first time they let him go after a while. The second time, my husband had to go get him. He had fainted in the holding cell."
"There were also problems at school. Nooshin was attending a religious school because in Iran the more religious the school the better it is—more funding, better resources. There was a certain level of constant harassment from other students. Once, classmates assaulted him. The school administration also gave him a hard time. Nooshin began to refuse to go to school and to stay at home. Finally, he ended up in night school, finishing high school there with adults. Islam is a religion of compassion. In Iran we don't torture people with cerebral palsy. So, I do not understand why there is no compassion for people like Nooshin, who are different through no fault of their own. I also do not understand why people there are willfully kept ignorant, therefore intolerant. The blame is on the government. Before the revolution there was at least some discussion of these issues.
"Religious fundamentalism is bad for everyone. Regardless of the religion, it is a shameful phenomenon. How can you believe people are going to hell if they're not Muslims? I was born a Muslim just by chance. Had I been born in England or America, I would probably be a Christian. Would I then be going to hell? It doesn't make sense.
"If being a religious person means keeping all the rules in the Koran, then I am not a religious person. However, I do try to help other people. I try to be a good person, and not lie, cheat, steal, and so on. I think that should be enough. I am religious in my own way."
"After the problems with the police and the school, Nooshin was in turmoil, and started seeing a psychiatrist. Several months later, the psychiatrist called my husband and me and told us that Nooshin was a transsexual. At first we did not even understand what it meant. We thought the solution would be psychological, that the mind would be changed to fit the body. Instead, the solution was to change the body to fit the mind.
"The word 'devastated' is not strong enough to describe my state. I thought the world was coming to an end. I am not exaggerating. I even thought about killing myself. I agonized about Nooshin's future. I worried that people might want to hurt or even kill her. And I worried about how to tell the rest of the family.
"It took my husband and I three or four months to come to terms with the fact that Nooshin was a transsexual. In the meantime, Nooshin was so frustrated that we weren't doing anything to help her that she tried to commit suicide.
"Finally, it was me who decided to leave the country with Nooshin. It wasn't easy. Remember, I did not leave 20 years ago when so many did, even though I lost my job, because the fundamentalists were looking for excuses to get rid of women, and my husband lost his job, too. We both stayed and tried to persevere, because we wanted to do something for our country.
"I know that Iran has other problems and needs, like electricity, jobs, development. But when I saw that my country did not try to help my child, I left. I couldn't wait around for all the other problems to be solved before I took care of my child. She was getting arrested and I did not know what they might have done next. Who would be accountable if my child was executed?"
"Before all of this happened, I was a very reserved, very private person. I never criticized the government or any of my colleagues. I am not, in any way, a radical. But when it became a matter of life or death for my child, I had to change.
"Now I want to do something for others, to get people talking about gender issues. We are not all fish swimming in the same direction. I want to continue working so that maybe one day parents won't have to be stranded all over the world, separated, just to save their children. We don't have to be ashamed."
Mahin teaches English as a Second Language and is active in PFLAG's (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) Transgender Network, and other groups. Nooshin, a bubbly, bright 20-year old, is finishing her last year of college while completing her transition from male to female. Mother and daughter live together and get along just fine. Mahin is currently trying to get permanent U.S. residency so she can help her husband join them from Iran where he still lives.