“The Internet has been a gift for us,” Arsham Parsi, a leading Iranian gay activist told Global Voices Online four years ago. A newly published study by Small Media, a London-based non-profit organization, called “LGBT Republic of Iran: An Online reality?” shows how Iranian LGBT communities use Internet in their daily lives.
Homosexuality, which is banned in Iran, is punishable by prison or death. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad once said “there is no gays in Iran.”
Global Voices conducted an interview with Dr Bronwen Robertson, Small Media's Director of Operations, who led the team of researchers and translators on this project.
Global Voices (GV): How did you prepare and develop your research?
Bronwen Robertson (BR): We did all of our research online. Logistically, it's impossible to do research about LGBT issues on the ground in Iran because it's such a taboo subject and there are so many risks involved. We started a secret Facebook group and we used the snowballing technique, which is where you start with a group of people and ask them to reach out to others through their networks. It was really difficult to find people to speak openly with us, because, very understandably, they find it very difficult to trust people. Once we gained their trust, by ensuring they felt safe knowing that we wouldn't compromise their identities with our research, we gained some incredible insight into their lives, and their case studies are what really brought the report to life.
GV: What were the main challenges to accomplish this report?
BR: The biggest challenge for us was developing trust with LGBT Iranians, but we also came across a number of other challenges, and one of these was a linguistic one. Because sexuality is such a taboo topic in Iran, it's really complicated to find the right words in Persian to talk about it and to search about it! For example, ‘hamjensbaz’ (homo) is a derogatory term and ‘hamjensgara’ (homosexual) is politically correct. But due to the fact that sexuality is such a taboo subject, many gay and lesbian Iranians refer to themselves as ‘hamjensbaz', because this is all they hear in the public sphere. A lot of the homophobia we came across online (and there was a lot of it) was due to misinformation and a lack of awareness rather than hatred. Another example is the word ‘degarbash', which is an all-encompassing term meaning LGBT or ‘queer'. It is very controversial and although it is accepted by some, its use is condemned by others who argue the word ‘others’ LGBTs and ostracises them from society further. It's for this reason that we supported the establishment of an online glossary of LGBT terms, to which users can add their own words. It's like an ‘urban dictionary', and we hope it encourages discussion and debate in the public sphere, which is what is desperately needed when it comes to LGBT issues in Iran.
GV: Do you think online LGBT activities in Iran can have any real impact on their real life? Can you provide examples?
BR: We know from our research that online activities can have a real impact on the lives of LGBTs in Iran. They all told us how important the internet was in their lives. A 26-year-old gay man from Bandar Anzali told us, “Words can’t describe how important the internet is for me. My life was totally different before I had access to the internet … I didn’t have a single homosexual friend … Because I live in a really small city, where the homosexual
community (if there even is one in our city!) is very very secretive … the only way for me is the internet.”
GV: How were the reactions to your report?
BR: We've had a lot of amazing feedback. There was a great article in the Guardian, Huffington Post mentioned us, our report has been read online nearly 800 times in a week and people are e-mailing us and contacting us via social media and asking how they can help out. The most important thing for us is that the report starts a discussion amongst policy makers and people who care and we rally together and get stuck into projects that can really make a difference on the lives of LGBT Iranians. We're going to support a shortwave radio station for LGBTs in Iran and are currently discussing how to set up a secure online platform for them to network over and be informed via.