Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-sex desire in Contemporary Iran

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By: Afsaneh Najmabadi

Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014. 418p. $77.18. ISBN: 978-08222355571. Pbk: 432p. $21.80. ISBN: 978-0822355571. Ebk: 4880 KB. 433p. $15.37. ISBN: 0822355574.

Volume: 2 Issue: 12

December 2014

Review by:

Nancy E. Gallagher, PhD

University of California

Santa Barbara

In November, 2-14, [2014] BBC World News aired a documentary entitled “Iran’s Sex Change Solution,” in which several Iranians who had sought refuge in Turkey to escape forced sex change operations, were interviewed. In Iran, government officials deny the existence of homosexuality and offer subsidized gender reassignment surgery to bring those perceived as deviant in line with accepted norms. Often, however, those forced to transition are actually gay or lesbian and not transgender. According to those interviewed in the documentary, surgery is often followed by depression or even suicide. A 2008 BBC documentary, “Be Like Others,” also called “Transsexual in Iran,” followed the stories of patients at a gender reassignment clinic in Tehran. The patients insisted that they were not homosexual — which is illegal and perceived as immoral — and hoped that the surgery would enable them to live lives free of harassment. The results were positive in some cases, though families were ostracized in others. Female-to-male transsexuals were generally more successful in their new lives than male-to-female transsexuals, perhaps reflecting the prevailing gender hierarchy. The journalistic accounts were widely viewed in Europe and North America, but lacked historical context and scholarly analysis.

Afsaneh Najmabadi has answered this lack by writing a fascinating book that begins by challenging the Western media’s depiction of transsexuality and sex reassignment surgery as coercive while ignoring the vibrant reform movement and history of progressive activism in Iran. She interrogates medicine, religion, psychology, criminology, trans activism, and everyday life with the tools of oral history, archival research, and ethnographic fieldwork. Chapter 1 shows how medical specialists attempt to determine if an applicant is indeed a candidate for transition and not homosexual or suffers from a classified psychological disorder. This process has opened new social spaces for “deviant” categories with applicants creatively using the system to answer their needs.

Chapter 2 surveys the history of sex-change surgery and how it became part of the discourse of scientific modernity and medical progress in Iran. The health of the nation, modern family norms, and progressive education led to the conviction that deviant sexuality was responsible for violent crimes. Chapter 3 addresses female homosexuality through a high profile case in 1973 that involved a lesbian “crime of passion.” The alleged perpetrator had expressed a desire for sex reassignment surgery and the media projected this as a missed opportunity that, along with better parenting and education, could have prevented the crime. She then explains why male-to-female transitions differ from female-to-male transitions in the Iranian context.

Chapter 4 shows how males presenting as women were relatively accepted in certain walks of life before the 1979 revolution. After the revolution, however, they were stigmatized as homosexuals and as violators of new regulations against gender dressing. Ayatollah Khomeini had long held the view that sex change was permissible under Islamic law.

Chapter 5 shows how, in the decades that followed the revolution, Iranian legal, biomedical, psychiatric, and clerical authorities worked out procedures and financial and social support for the diagnosis and treatment of trans persons. Not only the state supported this initiative.

Chapter 6 explains that trans activists themselves had challenged social and cultural norms and had contributed to changing state policies. The author emphasizes that the Iranian state is not static and monolithic; it is continually changing and reformulating itself like any other state formation. Chapter 7 builds on case studies of clients at a clinic in Tehran. The author is aware that her research questions reflected the legal and dominant understandings of sexuality in Iran. They were not however the dominant understandings of the persons she interviewed. Her case studies enable the reader to understand how trans lives are lived in difficult circumstances.

Sometimes, the struggle to decide if one is homosexual or trans results in a zone of undecidedness that makes a satisfactory life impossible. Chapter 8 concludes the book by asking if it is really necessary to ask if a person identifies as trans or lesbian, or gay or straight or something else. Identities could shift depending on circumstances, according to where one lived or worked, or according to the needs of families, spouses, and partners. Self-knowledge is a complex topic in contemporary Iran with roots in Islamic philosophical thought, Sufism, and modern psychology.

Conduct is more important than identity and a girl who acts like a boy may be nicknamed with a boy’s name. The opposite does not happen, the author suggests, because non-normative sex is received far more badly for adolescent males than it is for adolescent females. The author concludes this well researched and important book by arguing for an alternative space where loving lives can be successfully lived. Identities would not have to be self-defined as trans or homo. Why not an ambiguous identity without categories imposed by modern science, medicine, religion, state, and society?

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