Around the World: Iran and Bisexual Activism

Feb 1, 2017 | 2017 Winter - Bi+ Spaces, Around the World, Articles

Interview and translation by Aredvi S.

Soudeh Rad, 36, and Zeynab Peyghambarzadeh, 31, are Iranian feminist researchers and activists living in France and Sweden, respectively. They founded Dojensgara.org in March 2015. Dojensgara is the Farsi term for bisexual, and the website is the first and, so far, only resource about bisexuality in Farsi. Dojensgara.org not only fills the existing information gap on bisexuality, but also gives voice to bisexuals of all genders to challenge the biphobic culture which is, unfortunately, prevalent among Iranian LGBTQ activists.

Both immigrants, Soudeh and Zeynab are familiar with the problems of the Middle Eastern LGBTQ community, especially the violation of asylum seekers’ rights through bi-erasure by the international and local advocacy organizations, and biphobia at the UNHCR  (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) offices. The subject became more vital and urgent after several individuals from different countries contacted Dojensgara.org seeking help for their asylum process.

AS: Zeynab & Soudeh, you are two openly bisexual activists from Iran. Tell us more about what you do that directly and indirectly impacts the lives of Iranian bisexuals.

ZP: Two years ago, Soudeh and I started Dojensgara.org, the first educational website on bisexuality in Farsi. We also maintain an active presence on social media and run a radio program on Radio Ranginkaman, which was founded five years ago and is the first radio channel about LGBTQ issues in Iran and other Farsi-speaking countries broadcasted and accessible on short waves. Before we started our work with Radio Ranginkaman, every program revolved around homosexuality and some transsexuality, but mainly issues of gay men, which is typical of most LGBTQ outlets. Now, because of our involvement, Radio Ranginkaman has become much more inclusive of bisexual issues, especially since the bisexual audience is actively engaging in conversations.

We also work with bisexual activists from other countries by participating in European and international events and conferences. At the moment, we are particularly focused on the issues of bisexual asylum seekers. Many people in the Iranian LGBTQ community only come out after they arrive in a safe country. In this community are those who are thinking about applying for asylum, those who are asylum seekers and those who have already obtained asylum. During the asylum process, bisexuals are pressured to present themselves as homosexuals and remain silent about their bisexuality. This means their voices and presence will dwindle in our community. We think working on the asylum issue is a top priority in building a vibrant Iranian bisexual community.

SR: I would add that one of the most important parts of this work is the declaration that bisexuality, as a valid and established identity, exists. We are announcing that there is no shame in being a bisexual person and that we are proud of who we are. In Farsi-speaking spaces, there used be very little conversation on fluidity of sexuality and gender identity, but now our website is leading the discussion and making it significant for individuals, LGBTQ media and activists.

Since we use Robyn Ochs’ definition of bisexuality, we are concerned with all complex sexual identities under the bi+ umbrella. For example, no other Farsi-speaking group had previously worked on asexuality and its intersections with bisexuality. We also talk about sexual fluidity, monogamy vs. non-monogamy (especially polyamory), and offer an inclusive sexual health and pleasure education program. In typical sex-ed programs, bisexuals must often deal with stigma, biphobia and bi-erasure, so we decided to launch our own sex ed podcasts in Farsi that are fully inclusive of all gender and sexual identities.

Lastly, our work has gained a lot of popularity among the trans community of Iran. Many people in the trans community have already shown their support, even though bisexuality can be a silent issue. We work hard to make our content and work relevant to everyone, especially already marginalized groups such as women and trans people. We are first, and foremost, feminists who believe in equality, especially our own equality as bisexuals within the LGBTQ community and the population at large.

AS: We recently celebrated National Coming Out Day in the United States. Would you feel comfortable and inclined to share your coming out story?

SR: The process of coming out to myself was painful. The first time I fell in love was with a woman my own age. I believed, due to misinformation, that I was in love with a girl because boys didn’t like me. Years later, after having had relationships with men, I found myself interested in women again. I was very afraid and concerned and even would cry and say that I didn’t want to be a homosexual and live a difficult and secretive life. One day, I realized that bisexuals are also part of the LGBTQ community and that “bi” is not an insult, so I allowed myself to identify as a bisexual. There was a lot of stigma, but I knew that nothing would change until I, myself, would identify as bisexual.

ZP: I always knew that I liked people regardless of their gender. When I was 18, I learned what this orientation was called, and I accepted it. I spoke with some friends and family and they seemed supportive, perhaps because they didn’t take a young bisexual woman who hung out with many men too seriously. A few weeks before I left Iran, I met a German bisexual activist, Sonja Schneider, who was a tourist and a family friend. We met up again in Germany, and she introduced me to bisexual groups and gave me lots of texts to read. Sonja was instrumental in my coming out here in Sweden, since I was experiencing a lot of biphobia from both Iranian and European lesbians. Reading queer and feminist theory solidified my bisexual identity as a political identity around which I could organize. That’s when I first thought of starting Dojensgara.org.

AS: How has your work and activism have been received by Iranian and non-Iranian activists?

ZP: Starting Dojensgara.org has had many positive and negative consequences. When the website first launched, as expected, many people came forward and spoke with us about their bisexual and queer experiences. Obviously, a heavy weight had been lifted from their shoulders, and I was very happy to see this happen. I’ve always known other Iranian activists who either identify as bisexual or engage in bisexual behavior, but speaking about it is still taboo.

At the same time, suddenly I was no longer welcome in certain spaces, especially Iranian feminist groups in which we used to be active. We were accused of having given up our feminist work and having selected a new luxurious and Western cause that would get us attention and grants.

SR: On March 8, 2015, when we first announced the launch of Dojensgara.org, a similar thing happened to me. I used to think our feminist community was a safe space where everyone, regardless of differences in approach – whether we were Islamic feminists or atheist feminists, etc. –, would be concerned with the common goal of dismantling genderbased oppression. We saw our work as closely related to and an offspring of the feminist movement. But after we publicly “came out,” suddenly the number of interviews and invitations I was getting drastically dropped. When we were included, we were targeted for our work around bisexuality. One of the most hurtful comments I once got was, “Well, I guess you’re done working on more important issues; your feminist career is now over and you’ve turned your focus to your fancy new cause of bisexuality, pansexuality and whatever-sexuality.” It felt like we were being kicked out of feminism and had to instead join the LGBTQ camp and stay there. Ironically, some of these same activists privately came out to Zeynab and me and thanked us for our work.

AS: How about other non-feminist media outlets and groups? Have you identified any significant positive reactions?

SR: After our launch, much of the media we interacted with would specifically ask us to focus on feminist issues and refrain from talking about bisexuality. The main issue with this – more than biphobia, bi-erasure, or bi-negativity – is the compartmentalization of activism. As activists, we are expected to be single-issue-focused and never speak about anything else. Many activists are averse to intersectionality, and this is hurting us. We are the first and only Farsi group talking about bisexuality, and we’ve already lost our connection with much of the feminist movement as well as other LGBTQ groups.

As for positive reception, it has been refreshing to see bisexuality talked about in a much more serious and formal fashion. Our radio programs, especially our sex-ed podcasts, have established us as a known and active group. We now have the authority to call out biphobia and bi-erasure in different spaces. For example, we have been constantly correcting the media’s language around same-sex marriage. You can see when we have these discussions a lightbulb goes on. We still have a long way to go, of course. We have put together a Bisexual Resource Library that includes major resources on bisexuality studies from around the world and legitimizes our work as an effort that is based on years of literature and activism. We must constantly remind people what the “B” in LGBTQ stands for and how bisexual people have been instrumental in LGBTQ activism from the beginning. It is good to see this kind of awareness rapidly growing.

ZP: As Soudeh mentioned, we have a lot of single-issue activists who show little interest in learning about other issues. Bisexuality is now looked at as irrelevant to feminism. The line of thinking goes, “Sexual orientation is irrelevant to the well-being of the uneducated poor rural woman.” But then when it comes to issues facing LGBTQ asylum seekers, there is more interest because it is viewed as a human rights issue. There is also the reality that the Iranian government has drawn a thick red line around LGBTQ activism and because of this, many Iranian activists, especially those who live in Iran, try to distance themselves from it. So the discussion remains limited to Iranians outside of Iran, but then we have to deal with the pressure put on bisexual asylum seekers to identify as homosexuals.

We also run an online community for Farsi-speaking bisexuals. It is heartwarming to see how our members have come to accept themselves and receive support from each other and how our work has paved the path for them to do so. This kind of empowerment has been positive for all of us. Our work has also impacted the way English literature about LGBTQ issues is now being translated into Farsi. Now, translators are acknowledging and including the word bisexual, dojensgara, together with homosexual and trans. As we know, bi-erasure is one of the strongest forms of biphobia. I also want to give a shout out to European and other bisexual activists who have affirmed us and provided us with positive feedback.

AS: You were recently at EuroBiCon and presented a workshop about bisexuals seeking asylum. Can you tell us more about the conference and your workshop?

SR: We were pleasantly surprised to see how well our workshop was received at EuroBiCon. A lot of prominent activists such as Robyn Ochs, Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli and Sabine Jansen attended our workshop. The audience was shocked to hear about the difficulties bisexual asylum seekers face; in fact, many people are completely unaware of these issues. Our goal is to create a network for bisexual asylees so that they can connect with and get support from each other. There are simple things people can do such as helping an asylum seeker get a subway card or go grocery shopping. But more importantly, there are bi-specific issues such as providing a safe space free of biphobia for bisexual asylum seekers and asylees. Currently, the situation is so bad that even a small step makes a huge difference.

On another level, Western activists can make a difference by urging their policy makers to make conditions more friendly for asylum seekers, especially by expanding benefits to bisexual asylum seekers. Zeynab just returned from ILGA (International Gay and Lesbian Association) Europe, and we will be presenting at the upcoming ILGA World Conference as well.

ZP: Both Soudeh and I – Soudeh in France and I in Sweden – have been working on LGBTQ asylum issues for a couple of years now. I first recognized how big of a problem this was when I met a group of bisexual asylum seekers who had declared their identities as homosexual so that they could be granted asylum. Since then, we have collaborated with other activists to focus on bisexual asylum issues for all asylum seekers. This work is still very new, and we need to continue working to effectively influence national as well as United Nations policies.

AS: Going back to life inside Iran, what do you think are some of the unique challenges that bisexual women in Iran face?

SR: Unfortunately, bisexuality is so invisible that it has made any analysis of its impacts and intersections nearly impossible. We can only observe and draw vague conclusions as it is hard to provide empirical data. For example, we know that in the U.S., bisexual women suffer from a higher rate of partner domestic violence. According to the 2016 Global Gender Gap Index, published by the World Economic Forum, Iran has one of the largest gender gaps. We can only assume that in Iran the issue of domestic violence is compounded by gender discrimination and biphobia. Sadly, there are currently no reliable measures on domestic violence or bisexuality in Iran. Legal repercussions of homosexuality are much harsher for men than women, so in that sense bisexual women get a little break. We must remember that in Iran talking about sexuality of any kind, even heterosexuality, let alone bisexuality, is still largely taboo.

ZP: Thankfully, in recent years we haven’t seen the Iranian government enforcing the death penalty laws very much, but there is still much social and cultural pressure from friends, family, employers, etc. I agree with Soudeh that because of censorship and misinformation any conversation around sexuality is stifled. Also, from a cultural perspective, people are less likely to think in terms of “sexual orientation,” so when there is a conversation, it is heavily influenced by what’s happening in the West. I have personally experienced much biphobia from Iranian lesbians who mimic the same biphobic rhetoric seen among Western lesbians: that bisexual women are promiscuous and cheaters, etc.

AS: What do you think non-Iranians and especially Western activists could do to help further your work and bisexual activism for Farsi-speaking people?

SR: One thing that I noticed a lot at EuroBiCon this year was a Eurocentric approach among social sciences and humanities disciplinarians. For instance, at one workshop we were told to abandon the term transsexual. The presenter was completely ignoring the realities in places like Iran, where being transgender is illegal but being a transsexual is legal and even supported by the government. This reality, unfortunately, reinforces the traditional notion that one must change one’s body to be accepted and even stay alive. In Iran, the term transsexual is the preferred term among the trans community, but it does not neatly fit into the Eurocentric perspective. I think everyone can work harder to issue statements that are either truly inclusive of all cultures or acknowledge their positionality. It is important that as activists we recognize the limitations of our work with regard to countries, cultures, religions, etc. The current literature on bisexuality can be so alien for non-Westerners that after reading them, sometimes they even doubt if they get to identify themselves as bisexual. At times, the fluid and expansive definitions that are prevalent in the West are produced in a context that lacks any common grounds with experiences and framework of non-Western people.

ZP: I think the way sexuality is discussed among Western activists and academics directly influences our work. Take the example of Iranian lesbians parroting biphobic behavior of Western lesbians. Even here in Sweden, bisexual activism has only recently become serious, and biphobia is culturally and legally well and alive. This perspective and reality directly impacts the way the Swedish government is treating bisexual asylum seekers, so biphobia gets reinforced and reproduced once again. If Iranian bisexuals continue to be unable to speak about their experiences inside and outside of Iran, their voices will never be heard, and LGBTQ issues will remain limited to those of gay, lesbian and trans people. This is why it is so important to be vigilant about how we speak about gender and sexuality and to eliminate binary language. When you are speaking and producing your work in a Western language, you are reaching a much larger audience and have a much larger impact that will eventually influence the lives of non-Western LGBTQ people.

Aredvi S. is a bisexual, queer and genderqueer immigrant to the U.S. from Iran. Aredvi S. is curious about cross-cultural experiences of gender and sexuality, especially as they relate to trauma, oppression and healing of people of Middle Eastern origin.

Featured image: Zaynab (left) and Soudeh presenting their workshop at EuroBiCon. (Photo by Robyn Ochs)

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