Photos of a Clandestine Gay Rights Rally in Tehran

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A half dozen or so activists showed their pride in a country that would put them to death for it.

It's not easy to be gay in the Islamic Republic of Iran. A recent United Nations report decried "harassment, persecution, cruel punishment and even the death penalty." Because Islamic law requires four adult male witnesses to prosecute sodomy, Iranian police typically seek confessions, often through torture. Women, easier to convict, are given 100 lashes for each case. Outside of the legal system, LGBT Iranians face widespread and socially accepted discrimination, bullying, and an elevated risk of suicide, according to a UK-based study. "Loneliness is killing me," a 27-year-old man from Qazvin told researchers.

So it was an act of special significance when a small group of young people gathered in a hilly park overlooking Tehran to show, for a few brief but public moments, their support for Iranian gay rights. It was far from the biggest LGBT rights rally on May 17, the International Day Against Homophobia commemorating the World Health Organization's 1990 decision to remove homosexuality from its catalog of mental diseases, but it carried its own significance.

Though the gathering appears to have been small and brief, the young activists photographed the subversive displays, posting the photos to public social media site Joopea, which has a number of Farsi pages. The photos are reproduced above, showing the rainbow flag waving over Tehran, activists holding a sign reading "no to homophobia" on the metro, and rainbow-colored balloons floating through the skyline.

"Note that the individuals were sure to hide their faces to avoid being identified and harassed," points out Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Golnaz Esfandiari, who surfaced the photos, which she calls "rare, if not unprecedented." She adds, "Many Iranians may not know that the rainbow flag is the symbol of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights movement."

For all of the Islamic Republic's discrimination against gays and sympathetic activists like the young men and women in these photos, the country's harsh laws are not as necessarily Islamic as the ayatollah-run regime might like to believe.

"Over the past few years, there have been a number of progressive Shiite clergymen, both in Iran and in places such as Lebanon, who have written revolutionary fatwas regarding gender equality, human rights, rights to privacy, and sexual offenses," Hossein Alizadeh, a program coordinator at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, told PBS's Tehran Bureau. "These fatwas have been used in courts by lawyers with various degrees of success. Although the ruling establishment remains untouched by those progressive views, they can't simply dismiss them as Western and have to take them into consideration as part of the court hearing process."

It's hard to see much momentum for changing social attitudes toward gay rights in Iran, and even harder to imagine official policy relaxing anytime soon. Maybe that's what makes these half-dozen or so young activists so brave, to take pride in something their society insists is shameful, and to stand up for themselves, even if it means risking everything.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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