Filmmaker Tanaz Eshaghian has long been fascinated by gender issues, so when she read a New York Times story about how the Iranian government was dealing with homosexuality, she was completely transfixed.
Eshaghian's film reveals a culture so steeped in hatred of gays and lesbians that it deems a sex change preferable to simply accepting differences in sexual orientation.
Iranian-born herself, the New York-based filmmaker learned that in Iran, homosexuality is a crime punishable by death. But the government has provided a way out for the nation’s gays and lesbians: a sex-change operation. Fully paid for by the state, the procedure would allow these people to conform to Iran’s theocratic standards of sexuality.
Eshaghian decided she had to interview some of those involved in this gender-reassignment program. The result is a devastating documentary called Be Like Others. Shot in verité style, the film captures the pain and brutality of a regime that is pushing sex-change operations as the path to a final solution to homosexuality.
What was nearly as surprising as the revelations in the film is the fact that Eshaghian didn’t have to go undercover to get her story.
"It’s a very public phenomenon," she says. "These sex changes are legal and are endorsed by the leading clerics. It’s embraced. I asked for a press permit before I went. After a month, I was given the OK. Officially, I was allowed to do what I needed to do. It’s not like I was doing a film on nuclear strategy — they don’t see it as an openly political issue. The rest was what you have to do with any documentary: spend a lot of time gaining trust."
What her film reveals is a culture so steeped in hatred of gays and lesbians that it deems a sex change preferable to simply accepting differences in sexual orientation. The shift in policy came more than two decades ago, when Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini issued a fatwa (religious decree) declaring sex changes permissible for "diagnosed transsexuals." Be Like Others introduces us to a number of the people who have been given this label. Some have accepted their fate, and feel the sex change to be a way to avoid further persecution; others are clearly uncomfortable with the idea, but have agreed to it simply because of intense outside pressure. One young woman laments that her boyfriend seems uninterested in her now that she’s no longer a man.
"Here are individuals who are living in a very traditional culture, and they are on the margins," Eshaghian says. "Those people tend to show you how everyone else thinks. I thought it would be a way to look at gender overall, through people who are not fitting in."
The stories that emerge are heartbreaking. One young man who becomes a woman is disowned by his family after the operation. "[The family] lived outside of the city, and for them, they simply couldn’t even imagine the idea of someone having this done. They told him the day he had the operation he was dead to them. It was heartbreaking to see this person do this, and then be on his own, in an environment where the family is really the rock of your existence. It’s not like the West, where you’re supposed to step out on your own and make something of yourself."
Eshaghian says she was also struck by the issue of class. Richer Iranians, she suspects, wouldn’t feel the need to have this operation, but the poor are disproportionately affected, and feel they need to stick to the rules enforced by society. "If you’re poor, this is when the conformity is really expected of you."
At one point during Eshaghian’s 45-day stay in Iran, a reporter from the government-controlled media arrived to talk to the soon-to-be transsexuals. But she didn’t interview them so much as cajole and criticize the young people facing the knife, insisting that they had brought this upon themselves.
"That was an incredible moment," Eshaghian says. "She has an identity that really could only have been created in the past 30 years, since the revolution. There are no questions in her mind, there are no grey areas — everything is in black and white. I envy her clarity. She was very happy — any time you get rid of ambiguity altogether, there’s an element of joy.
"Her point was that there are rules and rules are there to help you. If you start cross-dressing before your operation, you bring the problems with the police upon yourself. Islamic Iran and the Christian Right have so much in common —it’s just surprising that they’re not better friends."
Despite the persecution, none of the participants speak of escaping to the West — although there is fleeting mention of countries where gays can actually marry. "That’s something that upper- and middle-class people might think of, but for the poor, and those who live in rural areas, it’s not even in their consciousness. It’s not like they have relatives in Switzerland or France they could stay with or anything," Eshaghian says.
"But like one asks at one point, why should they have to leave? It’s their country and their culture and they want to remain part of it."
Be Like Others screens as part of Montreal’s World Film Festival, which runs until Sept. 1.
Matthew Hays is a writer based in Montreal. He is the author of The View from Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers.