DENIZLI, Turkey — Sorena sought out the mullah after committing a sin she feared could not be forgiven.
It was the winter of 2014, and Sorena was just 17 years old. She lived with her family in Shiraz, a city of 1.5 million people in southwest Iran. Sorena had been to consult the mullahs before as they dispensed advice from tables in the city park, mostly about how to reconcile the beliefs of her mother — who belonged to Iran’s minority Sunni sect — with the teachings of Shia Islam, the faith of her father, and Iran’s official religion.
But never had she come to discuss something so personal — or so potentially dangerous.
“My desires are not matched with my body,” she told the mullah. “I think because I’ve fallen in love with someone who’s the same sex as me that I’m committing a sin.”
Sorena’s family had raised her as their youngest son, but she saw herself as a woman when she dreamed. She’d also recently had sex with a man for the first time, and the fear that she had sinned beyond redemption drove her into a panic that lasted weeks.
Sorena didn’t tell the mullah about having had sex; she just told him about her desires. But her revelation didn’t shock the mullah, even though homosexuality is punishable by flogging and execution in Iran. He did not denounce her as a sinner or a pervert.
Instead, he told her, “Don’t feel sinful … this is completely acceptable to us.”
In the Islamic Republic of Iran — unlike any other country in the Persian Gulf region — sex reassignment is not only allowed, but also subsidised by the government.
“You are transsexual, and you have to go for the surgery,” he pronounced. “It is accepted in our religion.”
Almost 30 years before Sorena went to see the mullah, a trans woman named Maryam Khatoon Molkara marched up to the armed compound of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, to seek his blessing.
Molkara, who was then 33 years old, was dressed in full compliance with the laws regulating how men should dress, including a full beard. Her breasts, which had been developed through hormone therapy, were tightly bound beneath her shirt. She’d been trying to get Khomeini’s permission for sex reassignment surgery for years; in 1978 she had unsuccessfully sought an audience with him in Paris, Khomeini’s headquarters during the last months that Iran was under the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the country’s last monarch.
The following year, a revolution toppled the shah and established the country as an Islamic republic. Khomeini returned from exile and was installed as the country’s supreme leader, head of a council of clerics that had veto power over any legislation deemed “un-Islamic.” Khomeini positioned the country to be a leader of Muslim nations in a battle against the United States — which he dubbed the Great Satan — and other Western nations considered imperialist enemies of Islam.
The new republic’s laws included rules for how men and women should dress and the death penalty for homosexuality. This meant trouble for Molkara, according to interviews she gave before her death in 2012. She lost her job at a TV station, was locked in a psychiatric institution, and was injected with male hormones against her will.
Still, Molkara believed that Khomeini would side with her if she only could speak to him directly. So in 1986, she went to his house in northern Tehran to try again. She carried a Qur'an and hung a pair of shoes around her neck, a Shiite symbol meant to convey that she was seeking shelter.
But Khomeini’s guards beat her when she insisted on speaking with the ayatollah. She was saved only because Khomeini’s brother, Hassan Pasandideh, happened to pass by. He called off the guards and invited her inside.
There she unraveled, Molkara told The Guardian in 2005. She began screaming, “I’m a woman!” She opened her shirt to reveal her breasts, and women in the room ran to cover her with a chador. Molkara was first given the chance to tell her story to Khomeini’s son, Ahmad, who she said was moved to tears. Then she was allowed to make her case to the ayatollah himself.
“The atmosphere, the moment, and the person were paradise for me,” Molkara said of the encounter. “I had the feeling that from then on there would be a sort of light.”
Molkara left the meeting with a hand-written fatwa — a ruling on religious law — giving her permission for sex reassignment. “God willing, sex reassignment, if advised by a reliable doctor, is permissible,” Ayatollah Khomeini wrote.
Hundreds have undergone sex reassignment surgery in Iran since Molkara’s meeting with Khomeini. Almost 1,400 people applied for permission for the process between 2006 and 2014, according to government figures published in Iranian media, and the country’s State Welfare Organization even provides some funding to help cover the cost of surgery. Iran has also become a destination for transgender people seeking surgery from other Muslim countries; most countries in the region persecute homosexuals and transgender people alike.
A major reason Iran’s rules on gender identity are so different from its neighbors’ is that Iran is Shiite, while most countries in the region are Sunni. That’s according to Iran’s most visible authority on the theology of sex reassignment, Hujjat al-Islam Kariminia, a cleric and legal scholar at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International University.
Sunni teaching holds that someone’s “true gender” cannot be altered, Kariminia told BuzzFeed News, but Ayatollah Khomeini’s understanding of Shiite teaching is that surgery reveals their “true gender” that may be hidden within.
In fact, Khomeini had ruled that sex reassignment was allowed by religious law two decades before Molkara showed up on his doorstep. He wrote about the issue in 1965, just after he was sent into exile by the shah for challenging an agreement allowing US troops to be stationed on Iranian soil.
“If they get the surgery, the gender will not change but [their] real gender that has [long] been hidden will become visible,” Khomeini wrote in a collection of judgments on religious law. Surgery is allowed if “a man finds in himself tendencies similar to a woman’s, or a woman finds tendencies [like that] of men,” he explained, but added that until the whole reassignment process is complete, “they [must] not act as the opposite sex does and has to, since this is haram [forbidden].”
The path to changing legal gender in Iran
But the legal and medical process can take years, and many Iranians — including government officials — often don’t see much difference between transgender and gay Iranians. Legally transitioning requires passing through 10 separate steps as well as obtaining approval from multiple government agencies, according to a new report from the New York–based LGBT rights group OutRight Action International. The surgery is expensive — especially if you want one of the few surgeons who know how to perform the surgery properly — and the government program to subsidize the procedure is chronically underfunded.
Until the process is completed, transgender people are constantly at risk of violence or arrest on accusations of being gay or for violating laws requiring gender-appropriate clothing. And despite the country’s official position allowing sex reassignment, transgender people often encounter roadblocks from authorities even though they’re following the country’s laws.
That’s what happened to Saman Arastou, an actor who became famous playing women in Iran’s state-funded film industry before transitioning in 2006. For seven years after his transition no director would hire him, he said, and he spent a year and a half battling government censors before getting permission to put on a play about his transition that ran in Tehran earlier this year.
“We are in a country where we have to be either women or men and nothing else,” Arastou told BuzzFeed News.
The authorities claim, “‘We give authorizations [for sex reassignment] and are proud,” Arastou said. “But it is not true — there is no support.”
Despite the mullah’s blessing, Sorena didn’t feel that her problems were solved by their meeting in the park back in 2014.
One of the biggest of those was figuring out whether she was trans, or if she was actually a gay boy. It didn’t make it easier that the stakes were so high: One path required major surgery she wasn’t sure she wanted; the other meant risking arrest or worse. (Sorena asked to be identified only by the name she used in her "gay life" out of concern for her security.)
Sorena began entreating God for help answering this question when she was 16. “God, please let me ... try to know myself,” she recalled praying.
She believes God answered by leading her to Facebook. Her family had just gotten the internet at home, where she could go online without worrying about someone peeking over her shoulder in an internet cafe. She used the new privacy to create a Facebook profile with the name “Sorena Gay Boy,” and within a month she went on her first date with a man. He was 30, and opened the whole world of Shiraz’s “gay life” to her.
“See, you’re not the only one like this,” he told her while showing her around Manjam, the gay dating site popular throughout the Middle East. Sorena remembered seeing thousands of profiles — many where users had posted pictures of their faces— and was “jumping inside” with the realization that “all of them are like me [and live] in my city!”
But her joy turned to panic after they first had sex, and she ran out of the house in the middle of the night. Her boyfriend ultimately took her to a psychiatrist known as an advocate for gay men. The psychiatrist told her being gay was “natural” but encouraged her to leave the country because “your identity here is a crime.”
Leaving home was unthinkable for Sorena. She couldn’t sleep at night if she didn’t say goodnight to her mother, and was so close to her twin sister they were like “one person,” while her four older brothers “behaved like [her] fathers.” They even found her femininity endearing for most of her life. One of her earliest memories is being caught praying while wearing her mother’s hijab when she was 7 — her brother laughed when he saw her, “What is all this silliness?”
But her family grew less tolerant as she approached the end of high school. “This is not how a boy behaves,” her father would scold her. They would interrogate her about plucking her eyebrows or shaving her body hair. She tried to convince them it was just teenage fashion, but the stress was becoming so unbearable that she dropped out of school.
When she couldn’t take it any more, she went to see the mullah. And then she decided to tell her mother what was going on even though she still wasn’t entirely sure herself.
“At that time, I wasn’t sure if I was gay or trans,” Sorena said. “I told her what that mullah had told me: that trans is accepted by Islam, so I told her I’m trans.”
The mullah’s words didn’t save her. Her mother suggested she go to another psychiatrist to be fixed; then her twin sister threatened to kill herself if Sorena transitioned. Her brother beat her when he discovered her makeup kit, and later her father — who’d never raised his hand to her before — smacked her across the face and kicked her out of the house in the middle of the night.
So as soon as she could, she left Iran. She felt like she would never be able to figure out who she was between risking arrest while living as a gay man or going through with sex reassignment over her family’s objections. In October 2015 — when she was just 19 years old — she left the only home she’d ever known to seek asylum in Turkey.
“I’m also confused about myself,” Sorena said in an interview, one month after she arrived in Turkey. “I think the atmosphere in Iran ... and the fact that I still think about my family doesn’t allow me to understand what I actually am.”
Sorena is now staying in Denizli, an industrial city in southwest Turkey that has become a kind of purgatory for LGBT people fleeing Iran in the hope of being resettled as refugees in Europe or North America.
She seemed at ease with herself when she first spoke to BuzzFeed News in November 2015, though the pain of being rejected by her family quickly came to the surface. She was then anxiously helping her boyfriend make arrangements to leave Iran and join her, which he succeeded in doing later that month.
In a follow-up conversation a year later, she said that the distance from home had “helped me to find myself” and she could finally “see my soul as a woman.”
But knowing herself better has not made her future any more certain.
She had hoped to be resettled as a refugee in Canada, which has a long history of taking queer Iranian refugees; she also believes the government health care system will make sex reassignment easier. But the waiting list has grown so long that many are having their applications referred to the United States, which flies out more refugees from Turkey than all other Western nations combined. Now the election of Donald Trump — who promised to stop refugee resettlement and bar Muslims from entering the US — threatens to close that escape hatch, too.
Sorena first spoke to BuzzFeed News in the small apartment that was home to two other refugees who’d arrived a year earlier, who Sorena quickly began calling “Mom” and “Dad” after they met. “Dad” is a 35-year-old trans man named Danial from a city in northern Iran who spent years fighting to stay in the country. (Danial asked to be identified only by his first name to protect his security.)
Danial had tried to play by the rules: He got permission for sex reassignment, went through with multiple surgical procedures, and tried to change his gender on all his legal documents. But he met nearly impossible hurdles at every turn, which is why he eventually left Iran. His story seemed to confirm that Sorena had also made the right decision to flee.
When Danial went for breast reduction surgery in June 2013, he knew his doctor was a butcher. But he let him operate anyway, because he feared a delay could mean he’d be killed by his family. A mangled chest seemed a small price to pay for freedom.
Danial had run away from home three weeks before his chest surgery. He’d spent the previous four years jumping through the legal hoops required to get a permit for sex reassignment behind his family’s back. His family came down on him hard after they discovered years earlier that he would change into men’s clothes after he left the house. There was little he could do to resist his father’s authority as long as he was a woman on paper — a father is his daughter’s guardian as long as she is unmarried in Iran.
“They thought I was homosexual and they wouldn’t accept me changing my sex ... [telling me], ‘You have to be executed,’” Danial said. After his escape, he’d heard his father had ordered his brother, “Go find him and kill him and I will pay for it.”
Becoming legally male was his path to freedom, and he had to complete all the surgical procedures first — that technically meant removal of all female organs and the implantation of a genital prosthesis. And he didn’t have much money, so he couldn’t afford to go to a private hospital with a skilled surgeon. Instead, he went to a public hospital and took an appointment with the first available doctor. And he rushed into the chest surgery just 15 days after having a hysterectomy and was quite weak.
Other trans men warned him not to let the surgeon operate on his chest: They’d showed him how the doctor had left their chests like a pair of deflated balloons that got infected and caused constant pain. But Danial didn’t think he could wait.
“They didn’t realize I had no choice,” Danial said. “I was ready to die to do the surgery.”
His chest turned out as terrible as he’d been warned. The skin where his breasts were is now shrivelled and scarred, and he lost the tip of one nipple to an infection that went untreated because he couldn’t afford a doctor. His recovery was rocky because he had to take a job as a laborer just 15 days after the operation to pay for the hostel where he was staying during the recovery.
Things started looking up after he completed the paperwork to change his legal gender, and he was able to marry the woman he’d kept up a secret relationship with since high school. But, like with all trans people, his paperwork said he’d been excused from military service because he was “mentally disturbed,” which meant he couldn’t get a driver’s license. Employers would see that and turn him away from a job.
And he continued to live in so much fear of his family that he’d turn and run whenever he saw a car that resembled one driven by a relative.
Finally his wife said to him, “You can’t keep living like this in Iran — everywhere you go you have to tell everyone your story.”
So they left for Turkey in early 2015 and settled in Denizli. Danial has managed to find decent work, but health care is a struggle. He brought a stash of hormones from Iran, but he’s had to cut his dose in half to make it last and he worries about serious complications without having his therapy monitored by a doctor. The couple recently gave up on their hope to be resettled in Canada and they are now waiting to learn if the US will accept them for resettlement.
But even this limbo is better than being in Iran, he said.
“I used to love Iran, regardless of all the bad things … I didn’t think I could survive somewhere else,” Danial said. But it was only after leaving, he said, that “I felt like being free — and now I can be myself.”
Soheil Akbari and Soudeh Rad contributed to this story.