"Be Like Others" is an award-winning film by Jewish Iranian/American director Tanaz Eshaghian. It is nominated for this year's GLAAD Media Award and has been acclaimed for showing an unusual part of Iranian life—how transsexual SRS is actually normalized in that country, and even partially subsidized. What the film also purports to show is how gay men are forced into identifying as trans women and bullied into getting SRS in an attempt to live hetero-normative lives. As the website for the film states:
Highly feminine and attracted to members of the same sex, yet forced to live in secret for fear of retribution, a generation of young Iranian men are adopting an identity legally allowed to them—transsexual. In pursuit of what one man calls simply, "a decent life," they flock to the country's best-established gender reassignment surgeon.
The truism this film purports to tell has also been repeated by many Queer-identified activists as a sign how being gay, lesbian or Queer is less accepted than living as a "straight" trans person (despite the fact that straight-identified transwomen of color have the highest murder rate in the US). It came up again when the controversy over Catherine Crouch's film "The Gendercator" erupted when it was cut from the Frameline film festival after many trans people complained about its characterization of transmasculine people in the future being "forced" into transition by a society which wanted to cure their queerness. 'Be Like Others' was frequently mentioned by bloggers and supporters of the film how this was actually already happening in Iran. Some parts of the lesbian community have long been upset young butches were somehow leaving womynhood and transitioning FTM to gain hetero-normativity and privilege. Gay leaders from the 70s-90s like Jim Fouratt often repeated the theory that trans women are really gay men who are ashamed and afraid of their gayness. All of these highly flawed conclusions are repeated in "Be Like Others."
When 'Be Like Others' came out, many Queer media outlets as well as a large number of newspapers and mainstream magazines like Marie Claire (in their recent January issue) featured the film and the bizarre conundrum it presented. Yes, Iran tolerates SRS, but it's being used as a form of "queer cleansing" to eradicate the gay population. It's a powerful and frightening message. Unfortunately, it's also a gross exaggeration and misrepresentation of the truth.
Director Tanaz Eshaghian
A film created out of ignorance
To put the film in context, Eshaghian admits she had zero experience with the gay or trans communities when she made the film. She continues to call all MTF transitioners "men", whether they fall into the category of gay-male identified or not. She has little understanding of how trans people identify in different cultures. How, in fact, in many cultures, the term "gay" is used to refer to trans women. In Thailand, the term "kathoey" actually means "a feminine man" as opposed to "sao praphet song" which translates as "second type woman"... with a totally female identity. Yet kathoey and even 'ladyboy' are regularly used in media and by outsiders to refer to trans women in that country. Many people in African-American culture refer to trans people as "gay" even though there is an understanding a gay man is not the same as an assigned-male-bodied person who lives as a woman. Eshaghian shows no sign she actually explored any complex issues of identity before making her film.
Nor does she show any signs of really studying the extremely diverse transgender and gender variant communities to understand how identities can often get confused by outsiders. Moreover, she clearly didn't examine how the term "transsexual" is often applied in many cultures to people who are drag performers, female impersonators and people who live socially as women but have no interest in medical transition. This is a film which was created by someone who really knew little about the specific community she was documenting (which would be an instant D- in Documentary Film 101). She admits she mostly relied on a queer rights organization in Iran called "The Iranian Free Railroad or Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees" (formerly known as "Rainbow"). It was from the director of this organization, Arsham Parsi, Eshaghian was told about gay men being forced to be turned into straight women. In fact, Parsi has had much to do with spreading this version of the story throughout world media. Does he have statistics and first person narratives to back up his claims... well, no, not really.
Supported by Islam and the government? Really?
Supported by Islam and the government? Really?
Eshaghian suggests, but doesn't say explicitly, the main Muslim clerics in Iran are in favor of giving SRS to gay men. In point of fact, while Ayatollah Khomeini wrote as early as 1963 (when he was still in exile) that there is nothing in Islam against transsexual or Intersex-related surgeries, it was through the brave lobbying efforts of Maryam Hatoon Molkara, an Iranian trans woman, that the full fatwa in favor of SRS was given in the late 1970s. At no point did Khomeini suggest it was a way of pressuring gay men towards hetero-normativity. At no point has the Iranian government ever supported, suggested nor demanded gay men receive SRS, and Ali Hoseyni Khāmenei (the current Iranian supreme religious leader) has never been in favor of doing that. It's only been a number of lesser clerics who have suggested this as a way of dealing with gay men and not governmental or Shia Islamic policy. Not so very different from hearing something Focus on the Family says, and interpreting that as US governmental policy. While this misinterpretation isn't totally the fault of the film, it is regularly repeated in article after article about the film without clarification.
In Eshaghian's rush to film 'Be Like Others' she never bothered to compile any clear statistics from the SRS doctors she films which might confirm how often these 'forced-SRSs' occur. Basically, the film presents one person who is facing getting SRS who clearly identifies as A gay male and one other person who got SRS pretty much in an attempt to keep her boyfriend. While they felt personal pressures to get SRS, there was no proof in the film they were coerced into doing so. They were clearly very confused and not receiving a lot of informed counseling. This is the extent of how she proves her thesis.
Transitioning Outside of Iran
What she doesn't explore is that, in fact, there are transitioners in the west who are highly confused about their gender identity yet seek SRS. Understanding one's gender identity (and what steps to take once you do) is a complex, often painful process fraught with gatekeeping therapists, family preassures, financial and safety concerns and shame. Many of the best known cases of MTF people who later detransitioned (including Joseph Kirchner and Alan Finch--the man who sued the Charing Cross Hospital Gender Unit and is Julie Bindel's poster child) were those who passed well as women, yet were mostly transitioning to attract men. Even well-known trans surgeons like Michael Brownstein have acknowledged how many procedures like FTM top surgery are being done on some people who haven't totally processed what's going on in their transitions. But does that mean they're being pressured into surgery and being rushed through, or they're just confused and, perhaps, needed to explore their options more thoroughly? At no point in the film does Eshaghian admit there might be a myriad of reasons why these two people felt pressured into getting SRS nor does she makes no attempt to prove that her cases are somehow representative.
Transsexual realities in Iran
In point of fact, transsexuals, pre and post-op, are still highly marginalized in Iran. They still face considerable discrimination in terms of jobs and education. They are unable to even obtain SRS unless they can come up with at least $3500 (a huge amount in a country where the per capita income is $6,000 and likely far less for young transitioners). It's a country which has extremes of income and class, with much of the country living at a level far below that amount, especially outside of Tehran. Moreover, one can only obtain SRS with their parents' signed approval. It is repeatedly said Iran has more SRS surgeries than any country except Thailand, but has anyone ever presented actual statistics to support that claim? The main, pioneering SRS surgeon in the film, Dr. Bahram Mir-Jalali says he's performed 450 SRSs in the past 12 years—less than 40 a year. By contrast, Dr. Pierre Brassard in Montreal has performed more than 200 SRSs a year for the past 10-12 years, Marci Bowers in Trinidad, CO has performed a similar number for the past 5-6 years, as has Dr. Meltzer in Scottsdale, AZ for nearly 20 years. Yet Iran's mythical huge number of SRSs has been repeated ad infinitum in a wide range of mainstream media as though it's a fact.
Queer Oppression is real
Queer Oppression is real
In no way do I wish to minimize the violence, oppression and marginalization Queer people in Iran encounter. This oppression is a documented fact and Iran joins other countries like Uganda as some of the worst places in which to be gay or lesbian. But "Be Like Others", while it offers some extremely moving personal histories of specific people, does little to clarify either the position of trans people in Iranian society nor how the government is actually punishing gay men. What it does do is project manhood onto all the people Eshaghian saw and make assumptions about their identities. She then proceeds to project these few cases into a national crisis of which there is currently no proof. Moreover, I feel the film has become a 'cause célèbre' because many in cisgender straight and queer-cisgender communities refuse to really explore the complexity of trans experiences and, instead, project their own agendas onto people's need for transition. What could have been a touching exploration into how trans people live in Iran, Be Like Others instead presented a flawed case of a mythical tactic of gay oppression and, in the process, dismissed the identities of many of the trans people they claimed they were there to document. How GLAAD has nominated this highly inaccurate film for an award is a slap in the face of trans people. That this film, with its lack of documentation and comprehension of the community it attempts to cover, is continually used as evidence to somehow suggest being a straight trans person is socially preferable and safer to being a non-transitioning queer one, is just plain absurd.