Most people who experience same-sex attraction would not immediately think to undergo sex reassignment surgery. But in Iran, the options between a homosexual existence and a transsexual existence offer little real choice. Homosexuality, under certain circumstances, is punishable by death. Transsexuality, on the other hand, is considered a legitimate health problem by the dominant legal, religious, and medical communities, for which the sanctioned cure is hormonal treatment and sex reassignment surgery. So encouraging is the Iranian government of such surgery that it currently subsidizes procedures for qualified applicants. In 2012, the Iranian newspaper Hamshahri quoted an official from the State Welfare Organization, saying that 350 million tomans ($122,000) were allocated for assisting each patient with “gender identity disorder,” a formal diagnosis of transsexuality, including some assistance for surgical treatment.
Despite the risks, Amin decided to forgo surgery and risk pursuing her same-sex attraction as a woman in Iran. In the 1980s, she fled Iran to Germany, after several arrests for her political activism and more than a year living underground. In exile, Amin founded “6Rang”—a network for lesbian and transgender Iranians. But she remained disturbed by the increasing rates of sex change surgery in Iran. “We saw this incredibly high rate of sex change surgery, and we asked, why?” Amin explains.
Indeed, all evidence suggests that sex change operations in Iran have increased both in frequency as well as in public visibility over the last decade. Iran now performs more sex change operations than any other country besides Thailand. Not only are more people petitioning for sex change operations, but coverage of transsexuality in both the Iranian and international press has intensified since 2003—all with a certain celebratory tone about the recognition of transsexuality and the legality of sex change operations in Iran. Many Westerners were shocked that such a progressive stance could be taken by a staunchly conservative Muslim country.
Iran is unusual in the Muslim world given its paradoxical stances on sex change operations and homosexuality. While some Muslim-majority countries, such as Egypt and Malaysia, allow sex change operations, they also tend to be more lenient with regards to homosexual behavior. Iran is the only nation that at once criminalizes homosexual behavior as a capital offence while sanctioning—even encouraging—sex change operations. “We saw Western media talking about Iran as if it was a paradise for transsexuals,” says Amin, for whom the wave of Western media coverage on Iranian transsexuality inspired deeper investigation. Even though Amin is not transsexual, the subject had deep personal value: “This was my history, too,” she emphasized.