While homosexuality is punished by death in Iran, the Iranian government accepts the transgender community. Because of this, many people say they feel pressure, some even forced, to undergo surgery.
Donya, an Iranian that grew up wearing her hair short and wore hats instead of headscarves, felt pressure to change her gender.
“If police officers asked for her ID and noticed she was a girl, she says, they would reproach her: ‘Why are you like this? Go and change your gender,’” a BBC report said.
Donya took hormone pills for seven years. Her voice changed and she grew facial hair, but as the surgery approached, she became fearful.
“I didn’t have easy access to the internet – lots of websites are blocked. I started to research with the help of some friends who were in Sweden and Norway,” she said.
Donya knew a lot of people who had problems that went through the surgery.
“I got to know myself better…I accepted that I was a lesbian and I was happy with that,” she said.
However, Donya had to flee to Turkey with her son from a brief marriage because being openly gay in Iran is impossible. They now live in Canada where they were granted asylum.
Soheil, a 21-year-old gay Iranian, also fled to Turkey once he accepted he had no inclination to become a woman just because he liked men. His family, however, felt differently.
“You need to either have your gender changed or we will kill you and will not let you live in this family,” they told him.
Gender reassignment is not an official government policy, therefore, much of the pressure comes from families.
The BBC interviewed a psychologist that said many people in the country don’t understand the difference between “identity and sexuality,” so doctors often tell their gay patients they are “sick” and need treatment.
“They show how easy it can be,” Shabnam, not her real name, said. “They promise to give you legal documents and, even before the surgery, permission to walk in the street wearing whatever you like. They promise to give you a loan to pay for the surgery.”
Marie, 37, grew up as a confused boy. She was told by her doctor she was 98 percent female.
“The doctor told me that with the surgery he could change the 2 percent male features in me to female features, but he could not change the 98 percent female features to be male,” she said.
After hormone therapy, Marie started to grow breasts and her hair thinned.
“I felt beautiful,” she said. “I felt more attractive to the kinds of partners I used to have.”
Her happiness didn’t last long.
Before surgery, people said Marie was “girly” and “feminine.”
“After the operation whenever I wanted to feel like a woman, or behave like a woman, everybody would say, ‘She looks like a man, she’s manly.’ It did not reduce my problems. On the contrary, it increased my problems.”
During the interview, Marie started to cry.
“I am tired,” she said. “I am tired of my whole life. Tired of everything.”
Because of the country’s acceptance of the transgender community, many groups, at first glance, find the country to be progressive toward sexuality.
In 2005, the progressive journal, Salon, had a column calling Iran a “global leader for sex changes.”
“What makes me sad is that organizations that are supposed to have a humanitarian and therapeutic purpose can take the side of the government, instead of taking care of people,” Shabnam said.