Pictures at an Execution

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from The Guide magazine, October 2005

Iran's hanging of two teenagers for sodomy sparked gay outrage and a yawn from the mainstream. Do Iran & America actually see eye-to-eye?

by Bill Andriette

Sometimes photos pack such a punch that they're not just pictures of something, but also give off X-rays. Such photos yield secondary images – the shadows cast as the X-rays pass through the body-politic, revealing perhaps fractures, tumors, and clots otherwise unseen.

The bootleg snapshots from Abu Ghraib beamed such X-rays widely. The photos, you remember, depicted US soldiers tormenting Iraqis held at Baghdad's infamous prison – piling them up naked, siccing dogs on them, mocking their corpses. But the corresponding X-ray image revealed as well a hidden abscess of brutality at US prisons – day jobs at which a number of the reservist ring-leaders had just departed to fight in Iraq. In passing through the angry Muslim street, the X-rays revealed an intestinal blockage in Arab politics – for many Middle East rulers, sometimes not at the behest of American sponsors, had committed far more deadly atrocities against their people without thereby losing legitimacy. The X-rays as well showed a strange disconnect between the hemispheres in the Bush brain, which had ordered careful juridical defenses of torture on one hand, and yet expressed shock – shock! – that American soldiers might force conquered Iraqis to simulate cocksucking.

The photos taken July 19 of Iranian teenagers Mahmoud Asgari, 16, and Ayaz Marhoni, 18, about to be hanged for sodomy, also radiated X-rays. The images made only a brief appearance in the mainstream media. But for gay people, even a glance was liable to catch the eye, as if on a hook. The two youths were executed in Mashad, a city in northeast Iran, and had each been in custody 14 months. They confessed also to drinking, disturbing the peace, and theft. The youths had been tortured, at least by the 228 lashes they received before they were killed.

The photos produced various reactions – from calls to smash Iranian "Islamo-Fascism," to denunciations of executions of underage lawbreakers, to demands for an official US investigation.

Yet the X-ray cast by the photos from Mashad also reveal contradictions in the Western gay body-politic and the human-rights groups that, by default, often serve as its foreign ministry.

What happened?

The fate of Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni is clear, but what led up to their hangings isn't. There are two versions – that their crimes consisted mainly of consensual sex, either together, or with another teenager, 13; or that the two assaulted the younger boy.

The photos accompanied a report in Farsi from Iranian Student News Agency on July 19. Outrage, a British gay group, noticed ISNA's dispatch on the web, and says it had the article translated by a native speaker. Outrage says the ISNA account said the youths were executed for sodomy, claims repeated in English on two other Iranian web sites, one tied to an armed insurgent group fighting the Iranian state. On July 21, Outrage issued a release: "Iran executes gay teenagers." Citing ISNA's interview with the youths as they were taken to the gallows, Outrage noted that "They admitted (probably under torture) to having gay sex but claimed in their defense that most young boys had sex with each other and that they were not aware that homosexuality was punishable by death."

Outrage's report – and the shock of the photos – surged through the internet, and caught the notice of US gay groups that normally don't look much beyond American shores. Log Cabin Republicans and blogger Andrew Sullivan joined in expressing horror at the execution of the "gay teenagers." On Sullivan's blog, an unidentified soldier wrote that "Your post on the Islamo-fascist hanging/murder of the two gay men confirmed for me that my recent decision to join the US military was correct. I have to stuff myself back in the closet... but our war on terror trumps my personal comfort at this point. Whenever my friends and family criticize – I'll show 'em that link." The Human Rights Campaign, along with some congressmen – Tom Lantos and openly-gay Barney Frank among them – called on the US to investigate.

Outrage contends that only subsequent news reports made other claims – that the two executed teenagers (when they were presumably aged 15 and 17) forced the other boy into sex. These allegations are not reliable, the group argues, but were likely concocted as a cover to blunt Western criticism. "It could be that the 13-year-old was a willing participant but that Iranian law (like the laws of many Western nations) deems that no person aged 13 is capable of sexual consent," says Outrage's Brett Lock, "and that therefore even consensual sexual contact is automatically deemed in law to be statutory rape."

Human Rights Watch (HRW) disputes key parts of Outrage's account. The original ISNA report uses an archaic term that suggests forced sodomy, says HRW's Scott Long, director of the group's GLBT rights project. And details about an assault appeared in a Mashad newspaper on the morning of the execution, before any Western protests. That report quotes the father of the alleged victim at length describing how his son was, he says, led from a shopping area in Mashad to a deserted alley where five other boys were waiting (they also face execution, but apparently have not been caught), and forced him to have sex at knife-point. Passersby, also quoted, say that when they tried to intervene, they and their cars were attacked.

By the time the pictures hit the mainstream Western media, the story was about executions for rape – and official interest dampened. The Human Rights Campaign briefly removed mention of the case from its website, and spokesman Steven Fisher told The Nation, "We would be relieved to learn that the charges of homosexual sex were wrong, and that this turned out to be a case of assault." The US State Department issued a statement criticizing the Iranian judiciary for its mingling of prosecutorial and judicial functions, among other alleged shortcomings, mentioning nothing about its oppression of homosexuals.

Mainline human-rights groups, including Amnesty International and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), agreed with the US line that the Mashad executions were not gay-related. But they should be condemned, these groups said, on the grounds that the youths were minors when put to death or when they committed the crimes for which they were convicted.

Paula Ettelbrick, IGLHRC's director, cites a litany of cases – including Iran's execution of a 16-year-old girl, Atefeh Rajabi, last August for "acts incompatible with chastity" – as showing that Iran is capable of hanging and stoning people simply for consensual sex, so recourse to made-up tales of coercion wasn't necessary.

However, Ettelbrick also expressed concern at what she felt was "language having the potential to be racially/religiously charged" that Outrage spokespeople and others were using to characterize Iran.

"Skepticism about official accounts in any country with a record of rights violations – be it Iran or the US – is merited," writes HRW's Long, "and no one under these circumstances would claim total certainty that consensual sex was not involved. But the basis for believing that the boys were convicted of consensual sex is essentially a web of speculation."

"Rights aren't for saints, and if we only defend them for people onto whom we can project our own qualities, our own identities, we aren't activists but narcissists with attitude," Long goes on. "If these kids aren't 'gay,' or 'innocent,' but are 'straight' or 'guilty,' does it make their fear less horrible, their suffering less real? Does it make them less dead?"

Outrage still insists the hangings were, whatever else, also anti-gay, and emanations of what it regards as a hateful regime. Threat of severe punishment hung over all the boys involved – including the one characterized as the victim. Reports from witnesses and the teenager's father about assault at knife-point could stem as much as anything from a desire to save his son's life or reputation. Sex among young Iranian males is, on many accounts, commonplace – sometimes through trickery or bullying that falls along a spectrum from the gameful to the cruel. Authorities might have concocted an account of coercion not because they needed it to prosecute or execute, but because otherwise, the scenario of boys having sex together would have seemed too ordinary. The statement by the doomed youths on the way to their execution that they didn't know what they did could lead to execution makes less sense if they were involved in a gang rape at knife-point, and more plausible if it was mere homosex, or some kind of sex-tinged hazing.

In addition, the executed youths were ethnic Arabs from Khuzestan, one of Iran's ethnic minorities in longstanding conflict with Iran's Persian Shiite majority. Khuzestan abuts the Iraqi border, and many Arabs had been forced to migrate during the Iran-Iraq war, the families of the executed teenagers among them. Iranian authorities – as elsewhere – have smeared members of ethnic minorities who they've targeted with sexual innuendo. In a report on the killing by security forces July 9 of a Kurdish activist, Shivan Qaderi, HRW's website notes that authorities accused him of "moral and financial violations."

Certainly in another recent case, the commingling of sodomy and rape charges has the ring of implausibility. In Arak, 150 miles south of Tehran, at the end of August, two men – Farad Mostar and Ahmed Choka, both 27 – were reportedly set to be executed for what was alleged as the sequestering and rape of another man, 22.

Back in Mashad, Asgari and Marhoni may indeed have coerced another teenager into sex – HRW says they are "90 percent" sure. But there were also plenty of hooks by which highly interested parties might have transformed a fairly innocent act into a seemingly more monstrous one.

If Western media interest in the youths' case faltered once it was characterized as assault, the images of the hangings could not be erased from the gay imagination. The Dutch gay group COC collected almost 30,000 signatures on an on-line petition, and protests were held, among other places, in London, Moscow, Paris, and Vancouver.

America = Iran?

So in the aftermath of the hangings, everything went about as well as could be expected, right? Newspapers reported, bloggers blogged, protests broke out, and politicians queried. Militant gay activists ventured further out on their thicker limbs with bold speculation, while human-rights groups stuck cautiously, as they should, to the main trunk of proof and principle. Even the potshots each sometimes took at the other were just signs of healthy debate.

Yet a closer look shows abounding contradictions and blind-spots. Everyone who responded arguably got key points seriously wrong, so that the cumulative effect wasn't to erase the errors but amplify them.

Asgari and Marhoni were terribly unlucky to have done what they did in Iran, but even on the most benign reading of their actions, they would have fared only a little better in America. Under the toxic bloom of antisex laws in the last generation – but especially the last decade, intimately connected to the mainstreaming of vanilla LGBT – the youths would have faced years in prison, and in some ways effectively guaranteed life sentences. They would have fallen into a separate-and-unequal legal netherworld that has developed around sex law that bears comparison to that created to control African-Americans in the post-Civil-War South.

Authorities have not yet figured out a way to dye sex-offenders' skin permanently scarlet – but Asgari and Marhoni, as residents of Memphis instead of Mashad – would have been labeled as "predators" for the rest of their lives – and depending on the precise jurisdiction (though all are now racing to the bottom) their pictures and addresses of home and workplace (assuming they had either) would be forever posted on the internet, shown regularly on TV, and plastered on posters around their neighborhoods. The electronic tags they'd be forced to wear – or on scenarios now being worked out, the chips that would be implanted in their bodies – would track their location constantly – so that police could always find them. Or outraged citizens – as happened August 27, when a man posing as an FBI agent came to the home where three registered sex-offenders lived in Bellingham, Washington, and shot two of them dead, one of them a gay man, 49-year-old Hank Eisses, convicted in 1997 of sex with a teenage boy. Eisses did not exactly become the next Matthew Shepard: the murders were barely noticed by the media.

But more and more, the impulse is to keep people convicted of illegal sex in the West forever in prison. In 1997, five years before Guantanamo Bay, the US Supreme Court established that persons, convicted or not, can be imprisoned indefinitely for illegal sex they might have in the future – a provision that was only later applied to those labeled terrorists. If sex-offenders do get out of prison, they take the ball and chain with them. Lifetime parole – which gradually most US states are adopting, as a natural extension of the registries – gives probation officers a level of complete personal control over their charges not seen since serfdom. Authorities can send their charges back to prison for failing a lie-detector test, possessing a copy of The Best Gay Short Stories of 1995 (a case in York City), having too much candy in the cupboard (one in California), or passing too close to a school (Baltimore, Maryland).

You don't have to be a sociopathic rapist to feel the brunt of the repression. Gay men whose erotic profile bears resemblance to Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, André Gide, or Alan Turing are in danger. Anyone who has a 1960s physique magazine with teenage models in posing straps, or who gropes a bearded 17-year-old who's cruising at a rest-stop is at risk. Indeed, the range of people affected is even bigger, because sex-offenders in the West have become guinea pigs for technologies of biometric and electronic surveillance-and-tracking that increasingly, under the guise of fighting terror, are rolled out for everyone.

A child leads them?

Rather than confronting these realities – which in any case they've completely ignored – human rights groups responding to the Iranian hangings in a sense gave-in to them. Killing Asgari and Marhoni was wrong, Human Rights Watch and IGLHRC said, because they were executions of "children," or, in Marhon's case, someone who offended when he was a "child." In other words, the executions were wrong for the same reason the two criminals were, in the eyes of most Westerners today, deserving of utmost punishment. Thus was indulged one of the West's great current conceits – the child as the central category of moral discourse and a primary justification of repression. The concept of the "child" absurdly lumps two-year-olds, eight- year-olds, and 17-year-olds – and increasingly twentysomethings – into the same essential category of subperson. This is a conceit to which Iran – which grants the vote to 15-year-olds even as it allows their execution – is far less in thrall.

Human-rights groups understandably played the child-card in service to their principled opposition to the death penalty. Iran is a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which commits it not to execute juvenile offenders, so this was a chance to make an argument that might have practical effect. But even here, the approach was something of a cop-out. While the execution of young lawbreakers may be a wedge into the main point – against states executing anybody – it is also a distraction from it. In the same way, a campaign to spare the lives of puppies at the dog-pound may serve as entree to increasing people's concern about the web of bacteria, insects, plants, and animals that sustains an ecosystem. Or it may just impart the lesson that only adorable lifeforms have reason to exist.

Doing good, doing well

Which raises the question of how much human-rights groups focus on "what's sexy" rather than what's principled. In their principles, in their equal regard for all persons, the human rights movement enjoys enormous global prestige – akin the status of Catholicism in medieval Europe, or socialism before the taint of Stalin and Mao. Human rights is the successor to the best of what, in their heyday, these universalist projects stood for. In the post-60s West, perhaps the only more-successful movements are those centered around various identities – such as race, sex, and sexuality. The two tendencies are different – sometimes diametrically – and each is tempted to draw on the unique strengths of the other. Hence, perhaps, Human Rights Watch's elevation, as shown on its website, of same-sex marriage to a basic human-right – while ignoring, say, any right to polygamy, or other matrimonial arrangements to which people might freely contract.

Certainly mainline gay groups fail to protest civil-commitment laws, or kiddie-porn statutes the likes of Canada's just-passed Bill C-2 – a law that, in removing the "artistic merit" provision, makes possessing a book of, say, 16th-century Persian Safavid boy-love poems punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Human Rights Watch, in a nod to the identity movements whose success it must envy, joins in the silence.

To be sure, groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch do vital work, and mostly hew to their principles, avoiding the short-termist excitability that goes with the territory of identity-politics. The prestige of these groups is largely deserved. However it's just this prestige the US aims to cash-in on when it claims that its smart-bombs and bunker-busters are the greatest force ever assembled for promotion of, as is continually intoned, "democracy and human rights." But as well, the human-rights cause risks death-by-a-thousand-cuts when special interests wrap themselves in its mantle.

A classic instance is America's Human Rights Campaign, which puts the magic phrase into its name (even if only to avoid saying "gay"), but "doesn't have a position" on what is one of human-rights most basic planks – against execution. Being a pure-play lesbigay organization has helped make HRC the biggest and richest in America. The really fat donors don't want tearoom cruisers and drag queens (let alone the class of folk stuck last month in the Superdome) spoiling their high-Episcopal gay weddings.

Ettelbrick expresses surprise that HRC would issue public statements about the Iranian hangings without consulting the human-rights groups that have some depth in that part of the world. But that misses the successful political arbitrage HRC pulled off – selling the photo from Mashad long when it had huge political value as depicting "Brutal Islamic Execution of Gay Teens" and buying it short when the caption was "Pedo Rapists Get Just Desserts."

It was the same trick played by Rep. Tom Lantos, who demanded a US investigation into the hangings and lambasted Iran's treatment of gays, but voted for the 2003 PROTECT Act, under which an American Asgari or Marhoni could face years in federal prison – not for raping a teenager, not for having consensual sex with him, but merely calling him on a cell phone (think "interstate commerce") with the intention of arranging to "hook up." (Barney Frank, to his credit, voted nay.)

But if identity-politics often conflicts with the demands of human rights, it was the militant identistas of UK's Outrage who demonstrated the best grasp of the human dynamics of the case. Yet Outrage's portrayal of Asgari and Marhoni as "gay teenagers" is off-the-mark. They evidently, like many young Iranian males, enjoyed same-sex activity, but "Did the hanged kids claim 'gay' identity?" asks journalist Doug Ireland. "Most probably not – since the concept is virtually unknown among the uneducated classes in Iran."

Yet Ireland is wrong, as well, to make gayness an ID every same-sexer would embrace if only he had cash and a diploma. Most Islamic societies allow ample space for unspoken and private homoeroticism. Amnesty International and IGLHRC have waged campaigns protesting crackdowns on gay Egyptian hookup sites – which serve only the tiny and westernized elite who have net access. But one effect is to increase scrutiny on the unmarked homosexual spaces on which most Egyptians with same-sex desires depend.

Which leads Joseph Massad, historian at Columbia and author of the forthcoming Desiring Arabs, to wonder whether gay and human-rights groups really care about same-sex love and affection, in its diverse forms, around the world. Because with such campaigns, Massad declares, "the 'Gay International' is destroying social and sexual configurations of desire in the interest of reproducing a world in its own image, one wherein its sexual categories and desires are safe from being questioned."

Reforming Islam

If protesting anti-gay crackdowns from afar has perverse effects for Islamic homosociality, all the more so when Westerners actually invade. Which makes the pride Andrew Sullivan's gay soldier feels bitterly ironic. In post-Saddam Iraq, power lies with the majority Shiites, who have forged warm ties to Tehran. Iran's victory in Iraq was delivered by its arch-enemies America and Iraq's Sunni Arabs – the first by deposing the secularist Saddam, the second in resisting the Americans, bogging them down, and preventing Stage Two of the neo-con agenda: a march to Tehran.

But step back further and the irony of Western intervention is even more bitter, and hugely sadder. Time after time, Islamic modernizers were deposed by Western powers, starting with the British in India, and continuing in Iran with the CIA's overthrow of the democratically-elected Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953, with the subsequent imposition of the Shah Pahlevi. Islamic fundamentalism may seem today immensely potent, but – from Afghanistan to Gaza – it's usually been a politics of last resort.

In Iran, gayness can't avoid some odor of colonial occupation. "Not all the accusations leveled against the Pahlevi family and their wealthy supporters stemmed from political and economic grievances," notes Ireland, citing Iranian scholar Janet Afary. "A significant portion of the public anger was aimed at their 'immoral' lifestyle. There were rumors that a gay lifestyle was rampant at the court. The Shah himself was rumored to be bisexual. There were reports that a close male friend of the Shah from Switzerland, a man who knew him from their student days in that country, routinely visited him."

Post-revolutionary Iran, for all its bloody repression, had also shown signs of thaw – there was a reformist president and an emerging gay-activist underground. "The GLBT situation in Iran has changed over the past 26 years," says an unnamed activist interviewed on after the executions. "The regime does not systematically persecute gays anymore. There are still some gay websites, there are some parks and cinemas that everyone knows are meeting places for gays. Furthermore, it is legal in Iran that a transsexual applies for sex-change, and it is fully accepted by the government. Having said that, Islamic law, according to which gays face punishment by death, is still in force, but it is thought not much followed by the regime nowadays."

That may be changing, with a right-wing resurgence, egged on by US threats, and exemplified by the election this summer of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – whose authoritarian puritanism may be linked to the uptick in sodomy executions.

And Iran's nuclear ambitions, the rationale for the US saber-rattling, are relevant as well. Iran chose its nuclear course, argues Joost Hilterman, after what happened in its eight-year-long war with then-US-sponsored Iraq, when Iranian troops were bombarded with Saddam's chemical weapons. When Iran protested and invoked international agreements on their illegality, the US balked, and cooked up phony evidence showing Iran – not client-state Iraq – as the chemical-weapons perp. "The young and inexperienced Islamic Republic learned from its experience [that] when you are facing the world's superpower, multilateral treaties and conventions are worthless," notes Hilterman in Middle East Report. Only military self-sufficiency could guard its independence. And indeed, all that Iran has aimed at so far – mastery of the nuclear fuel-cycle – is within its rights under the UN's anti-proliferation treaty. But still the country faces a US attack – possibly a nuclear one – under rules that America has unilaterally changed mid-course.

So Iranians are alive to imperial self-interest and bigotry masked in the flowery language of universal principle. They also know that on sexual perversion – in the different ways each defines it – America and Iran see eye-to-eye.

Seeing the photograph of Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni in tears before they died on the scaffold gives many of us a terrible urge to do something. Yet that image yields another – cast by the X-rays it shines upon the organs and metabolic pathways of the Western body-politic. The X-ray offers an inner-view of the organizations, principles, and conceptual categories that we have at-hand to act on that urge to "do something." And that's where we find ourselves at a further loss, facing an organism that is artery-clogged, cataract-ridden, and palsied. Like a doddering old man trying to drink tea but spilling it everywhere, the gap between cup and lip seems for now insurmountable. **

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