“I am an Iranian lesbian.”
It seems an introduction designed to shock anyone who knows anything about official Iranian attitudes to such admissions.
After all, it was the country's own president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who in 2007 confidently stated during an address at New York's Columbia University that Iran did not have any gays.
But Kiana Firouz, a 27-year-old writer, actress and gay rights activists, is not only real — she's out, and proud, having adopted London as her hometown almost two years ago.
Until then, Kiana lived in the Marzdaran neighborhood west of Tehran. She went to school and studied cinema. It was during her time at school that she became a member of an underground network of lesbians who gathered frequently to talk about their problems. She says each of the women had their own tragic stories to tell. One of the girls told the group of her mother’s reaction when she told her she was a lesbian.
"She told me 'I would have been less devastated if you had told me you have cancer.'"
Life is far from easy for gays and lesbians in Iran. The issue is a taboo and the government is determined to brush it aside, or — following Ahmadinejad's lead — pretend that it doesn't exist. As a result of lack of awareness in the society, gays and lesbians are usually marginalized, and many suffer depression.
Kiana recalls the story of another well-educated lesbian living in Tehran who wanted to set up her own publishing company but needed permission from the Ministry of Culture and Guidance and was told she needed to be married. “There was no way she would enter a forced marriage,” Kiana said, “in the end she just decided to give up on her company.”
And while Iran might not officially have gay citizens, it does have 3,000 “patients with sexual orientation complications,” according to Hassan Mousavi Chalak, head of the Iranian Welfare Organization.
Men caught for a second time having gay sex face the death penalty according to the law in Iran, and women receive 100 lashes on the second conviction. Fourth-time offenders face the death penalty.
The Islamic Republic still follows a fatwa issued in 1978 by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the revolution’s leader that the government should financially help those in need of a sex-change operation. This was after Maryam Molkara (a transgender going by the male name of Ferydoon) visited the Ayatollah in person wearing a man’s suit and a carrying the Quran.
After a clash with guards, she managed to get to the Ayatollah telling him she was “a man trapped in a woman’s body.” He was moved by her story, and asked that government officially help those who have such problems.
Perhaps ironically, now the government provides “patients” who need sex-change operations with financial aid. Payments for operation could range from $1,000 to $4,000.
However, many gays and lesbians are still driven underground.
To help fellow lesbians, Kiana and a group of like-minded friends decided to promote increased awareness in society by producing an online magazine in Farsi.
“Iran is a country where any opposition is killed in its inception,” Kiana said in an interview with GlobalPost. “We couldn’t operate openly, so the only medium that we had was the internet. That’s why we created an online magazine.”
The magazine is called “My Sex, Iranian lesbian” and content ranges from poems and literature about lesbianism to how to have a better orgasm with a partner. Some features talk about dangers of AIDS and prevention methods. It was a daring act in a country where basic sex education is not officially offered to young people until right before their marriage.
So far they’ve published 10 issues. Kiana says she contributed to the magazine by writing poems and articles. She said she had been writing short stories and poems since age 18.
Kiana said she moved to the U.K. to continue her studies in cinema, but faces an uncertain future as her application for asylum has been rejected.
There, she was approached by film makers Ramin Goudarzinejad and Mahshad Torkan, who proposed a movie about her life. Kiana says she was hesitant about the project because of fear of complications if she returned to Iran, where she has family. She ultimately agreed in order to become “the voice of lesbians in Iran to be heard.”
The movie, called “Cul de Sac,” is based on her own life, though she admits it is dramatized. It follows her through the process of escaping pressures in Iran and stepping into a life that she — mistakenly — thought would be much better.
Kiana said that although she lived in a free, democratic country, she had not yet found peace. “I’m still faced with social stigma from fellow Iranians," she said. “I get hate messages all the time.”
Even life for the director of the movie hasn’t been easy. He has been receiving messages telling him he should stop tackling this topic. Goudarzi Nejad has previously made a movie about Iranian lesbians called “Have I ever Happened,” and says that after his movie came out, an Iranian woman got in touch, pleading with him to help increase awareness inside the country.
Kiana, meanwhile, is no longer shy about revealing sexuality. “I’m happy to be the first Iranian lesbian who dared kiss her girlfriend on screen,” she said proudly.
The scene has raised eyebrows in the Iranian community. Even less traditional and more secular Iranians living in Los Angeles are surprised by Kiana’s outspokenness.
“We’ve never seen such things before from Iranian women,” said Ali Reza Nourizadeh, the Iranian presenter of Channel One, a satellite channel, based in the U.S. and a fervent supporter of the Shah. “With this movie, Kiana has signed her own death warrant,” he added, indicating the level of danger she faces.
Kiana said she was not worried about her own life any more. “I feel like I’ve been told I have only a few days to live,” she said. “I’m completing all my unfinished projects. I just don’t know what will happen in the future.”
For her, the greatest achievement has been her movie, and the chance to get her message across.
“I just wanted to say to everyone, we are not sick or mentally ill. For one moment, let’s leave all religious, cultural and traditional beliefs behind us. Let’s all once again review love, the true love between two human beings.”