05 January 2017

Impressions and Images of Iran: On LGBT Travel (or When I Found Myself in a Cruising Area)

When I was in Isfahan, I once was strolling at the park alongside the river, as I wanted to check out the Safavid era bridges that crossed it. I took out my camera and started taking photos, when somehow I got the idea that there was something else going on in the park. See, I was alone. And somehow, there were other men, all alone, walking weird. You know, the weird glance, the quick eye contact, a brief smile. Soon enough, I realized that I somehow accidentally stumbled upon Isfahan's cruising site. These were single gay men looking for sex.

There was one guy who actually tried following me. I suppose I also encouraged it a little, by not fully ignoring him. Anyway, I walked away and crossed the river. And soon enough, from afar there was another guy, definitely looking at me, while clutching his crotch and shaking it a little to the left and a little to the right. Okay, time to move on.

But in any case, nothing happened. I was wise enough to not do anything, given Iran's laws against homosexuality. Anyway, what I witnessed somehow reminded me of back when I was still in university, when smart phones were not yet in fashion, and so there weren't dating apps yet. This was the time when bathroom stalls were full of anonymous phone numbers, and when gay men wanting to look for sex did it the old-fashioned way, not via the Internet, but by actually trolling locations where like-minded people gathered.

It was slightly bizarre, being pulled back to that era. Then I remembered that Iran has plenty of censorship laws in place. So when you get your computer or smartphone and try accessing websites like Grindr or PlanetRomeo, then you will be blocked by this firewall. In order to circumvent this, you need to use a VPN or something similar, so that Iranian Big Brother doesn't see you.

This aspect was one of the most frustrating things I encountered. Not that I wanted to go find guys to hook up with, but heck, even websites of the BBC get blocked. And even my Google-operated work email was inaccessible to me while I was in Iran.

I suppose this topic begs the question: is it safe for a LGBT traveler to visit Iran? There are many aspects to consider in order to answer this question, so let me just provide the aspects that were relevant to me.

I traveled alone, not as part of a couple. Hence, the experience differs, and yes, for a solo male traveler, who doesn't wear one's sexuality on one's sleeve, Iran is safe. But if I were to travel to Iran with my husband, then I would definitely take some precautions, and lower the amount of PDA for example to almost nothing. Iran is a conservative society, and PDA is pretty much non-existent even for heterosexual couples. That said, there aren't any active and visible signs of anti-gay behavior, but then again, I probably just don't know how to read Farsi and therefore I haven't seen it.

Bottom line: if you can be in public without broadcasting your sexuality to the world, then you can travel in Iran.

Other people might then ask, whether it is ethical to visit Iran given they have anti-gay policies. I know of LGBT people who refuse to visit places like Russia and Uganda because they do not feel like giving these countries their tourist money given the policies they have against gay people. I've wrestled with this question, but in the end, I realized that my curiosity is a stronger drive, and I refuse to be defined by my sexuality. Being gay is just one aspect of me, there are plenty of other characters I have which define me, and I do not need to make everything I do gay-friendly. I know that there would be people who would disagree with me, and yes, I also see the benefits and advantages of gay tours and gay activities, mostly because these are opportunities for LGBT people to be themselves, when they cannot otherwise express themselves fully in their regular environment. But let's face it, Iran is not Berlin. If a LGBT traveler wants to travel to party and have sex, then Iran is not the place to go.

On the other hand, if you have a great interest in history and culture, irrespective of your sexuality, then Iran is a great place to visit.

I guess I just never let my sexuality define me in every aspect of life: while my sexuality is one aspect of me, there are plenty of other aspects and characters I have, and sometimes, there are things to do and places to visit where one's sexuality is simply irrelevant. I don't need to seek out every gay-friendly restaurant, gay-friendly hotel, gay-friendly cafe, or gay-friendly bus just because I am gay. For most of the things one does, being gay should be irrelevant.

So yes, at the end of the day, it is a personal decision. If you think that your sexuality is very high in the importance scale such that you would restrict your travel destinations to Berlin, Sitges, and Fire Island, then you're missing a lot. But yes, it's your choice.

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