This story is about a young gay schizophrenic man from Iran. I don’t tell you his name to keep things anonymous, but let’s call him “D”. I met D on Reddit after he made a post about his family using his psychosis as a way to explain his homosexuality.
As someone who is also gay and has struggled with psychosis, I thought I must know more! This story must be told. With my ignorance in tow, I sent D a message asking if I could interview him for an article I would like to write about his situation. To my surprise, he quickly replied and gave me his email address so we could have a longer conversation.
Going in I didn’t know much about Iran. I knew that you could be killed for being gay but I never thought about the country from a mental health perspective, let alone dealing with both together.
In my first email, I ask D about the state of the mental health system in Iran. He tells me that while there are many psychiatrists and mental hospitals, the services are not that great or at least not up to the standard and advancement of most western countries. “Many psychiatrists practise conversion therapy” D tells me. “The mainstream believes gays are sick and should go to therapy and psychoanalysis to be cured.”
While conversion therapy is still practised among religious communities in most countries it is no longer part of the mainstream consciousness in the western world. In the US, homosexuality has not been attempted to be cured by mainstream medicine since 1973 when the American Psychiatric Association removed it from their list of mental disorders.
D first came into contact with the mental health system after a suicide attempt. He tells me he had struggled with anxiety and psychotic symptoms for some time but after an unfilled promise from his mother to move him to Germany he attempted suicide. The attempt led to him being involuntarily hospitalized by his family.
After getting out D was diagnosed with schizophrenia and put on antipsychotic medication. He tells me that his family uses his schizophrenia as a way to explain his sexuality. “If I ever say I want to grow my hair long my family immediately calls an ambulance to escort me to mental hospital” D explains. He said that in an act of free expression he once painted his nails to see how his mother would react. “She ignored me and acted as if I had done something very insane.”. Because of his schizophrenia diagnosis, any attempt D has in expressing his sexuality is met with a mental health intervention and forced therapy.
But D knew he was different from the other boys from a young age. Well before any mental health challenges arose.
He was never interested in playing football like the other boys and at 13 started looking up pictures of shirtless men online. He describes having an “obsession with male anatomy” but thought everyone felt this way. It wasn’t until he was 20 that he realised that his peers were not enamoured with the male physique like he was and that he was gay.
When he came out, his family forced mental health treatment and conversion therapy on him. His grandmother began praying loudly around him and continues to try and convert him back to Islam. He says that no matter how many antipsychotics he takes his stance on being gay will never change.
After that our conversation shifts to what it is like living day to day as a gay man in Iran. Iran is an extremely dangerous place to be gay. D tells me “It’s estimated since the Islamic revolution of 1979 approximately 4000 gays have been executed”.
While I couldn’t find the exact numbers, a quick Google search showed an article after article of gay men being executed in Iran. And when I say executed what that means is publicly hanged. Not that there is a nice way to execute someone but a public hanging feels particularly barbaric.
I ask D how he feels about having the death penalty over his head for expressing his sexuality. “I’m ambivalent” he says “[I’m] more afraid of the social consequences”. Being gay in Iran oftentimes means being ostracized by families and society. “The friends I’ve told this stuff stopped talking to me, blocked me and also said I’m delusional and my mother kicked me out 3 months ago”.
But being ostracized is not the worst of it. Many gay people are subject to violence, even from their own families. After being kicked out by his mother and forced to live with his father and grandmother D tells me that his father has threatened to kill him if he doesn’t change. He has put up with constant beatings in an attempt to, in his father’s mind, make a man out of him and on one particular occasion he was beaten by his father for “standing like girls” while at the pool.
D tells me that the violence, stigma and social pressure of being gay causes an interesting phenomenon in Iran. “A lot of gay people change their sex every year”. Homophobia is so rampant in Iran that gay and lesbian people are pressured into changing their sex even when they are not transgender.
Gender reassignment surgery is not only legal in Iran but it is also subsidized by the government. It is a kind of loophole that the gay community is pressured into to avoid legal and social persecution. The logic is that if, for example, a gay man transitions into a woman before having sex with a man then technically it is no longer a gay relationship. And if it is now between a man and a woman then it is no longer illegal or against God.
People who went through with the surgery generally report it only causes more problems for them and they are rarely accepted by society before or after the transition. It becomes a lose-lose situation.
With all this D is desperate to get out of Iran. “Now I’m living in hell” he tells me. His family wants him to change or be silent about his sexuality. From speaking with him it is evident that he knows there is nothing wrong with being gay but he tells me that from all the stigma and violence he has put up with he has internalised homophobia.
He walks such a tightrope between keeping himself safe and being able to express who he is. He knows any inkling of self-expression could lead him to another psychiatric hospitalization or, let’s face it, much worse.
Unfortunately, D’s story is not rare or unique to Iran. Being both mentally ill and gay is still extremely stigmatized and even dangerous in many places around the world.
Talking to D I felt immense gratitude to live in a place where I am not persecuted for being gay or mentally ill. But also extremely angry that D and people like him have to live in fear for the exact same things, just because they are born in a different country.
I wish there was more I could do but for now, I wanted to share D’s story to raise awareness for the issue.
Thank you to D for having the bravery to be who he is and let me share his story.
Originally published on Medium