Sex changes are legal in Iran, but the transgendered struggle for cultural acceptance

What a difference a moment can make.

Peyman Khosravi was living a comfortable life, surrounded by friends and family, and working in a good job. That changed with one phone call when he found out his apartment in Tehran had been ransacked and the documentary film he was making taken by Iranian police. They had turned his home upside down, combing through everything, even the bottom of the bathroom garbage can.

Khosravi, now living in North Vancouver, told the North Shore News they were looking for the research he’s been gathering on transgendered people living in the Islamic nation. After that, Khosravi saw no future in the country.

The year was 2005. Staunchly conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had succeeded the more liberal Mohammad Kahtamai. Some say it was that change that led to the curtailing of the loosened social and political freedom that was previously enjoyed.

It was around this time that Suzanne Torge also left Iran, fleeing to Turkey as a refugee. It was either that or risk her life by staying in Tehran. As a transgendered individual she says she was living in a “war zone,” scared of the known brutality of authorities and with nowhere to turn to for help.

Torge, a petit woman with a warm, trusting smile and shy demeanour, says she was born as a male, which “was a mistake on God’s part.” Like Khosravi, she spoke to the News with the help of a translator; in her case, her friend Fahimeh Sadeghi.

From the time she could remember she says she has always felt different, eventually realizing that she wanted to be a woman. At 22, she flew to Thailand to truly become one by having sex change surgeries. She won’t reveal how many, but it doesn’t matter, she says, because she was finally realizing her dream.

Like Khosravi, Torge also had a moment that would alter her life forever. Living as a transgendered person in the Islamic republic, even after the surgery, was hard but she pressed on. Then one day, when she was 26, she was arrested. The guard, knowing she used to be a man, grabbed her left breast so hard that it damaged the implant she had. Her breast became so swollen afterwards that she had to have the implant taken out. She felt stripped of her new identity. That event, she says, coupled with the death of four of her friends at the hands of the government, convinced her to flee.

Now she works and goes to school in North Vancouver, spending almost her entire day on the North Shore. But at night she goes home to Vancouver, where she doesn’t run as much risk of getting unwanted attention. She fears getting made fun of, not just from the general public but from the North Shore’s large Iranian community as well, many of whom do not understand her, she says.

Canada has offered her safety and freedom to pursue goals, but it can’t protect her from everything.

Sex changes in Iran have been legal since Ayatollah Khomeini authorized such operations following the 1979 revolution. According to reports by both the BBC and the Guardian newspaper, Iran now carries out more sex change operations than any other nation in the world except for Thailand.

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