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January 24, 2005

The Iranian switcheroo

Don't look now, but the L.A. Times notes that a surprising number of Iranians are undergoing sex-change operations, with the approval of the Shiite clergy.

In the Islamic Republic of Iran, gay male sex still carries the death penalty and lesbians are lashed, but hundreds of people are having their gender changed legally, bolstered by the blessings of members of the ruling Shiite clergy.
Perhaps the driving force behind the switcheroo was You-know-who.
But no Muslim society has tackled the transgender question with the open-mindedness of Shiite Iran. That's probably because the father of the revolution himself, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, penned the groundbreaking fatwas that approved gender reassignment four decades ago.

Khomeini reasoned that if men or women wished so intensely to change sex that they believed they were trapped inside the wrong body, then they should be permitted to transform that body and relieve their misery. His opinion had more to do with what isn't in the Koran than what is. Sex changes are not mentioned in the Koran, Khomeini's thinking went, and so there are no grounds to consider them banned.
Homosexuality is still, uh, disapproved, but not sex changes.
The psychiatric team tries to sort out homosexuality from gender disorder by asking a series of telltale questions. A man hoping to become a woman, for example, is asked whether he has dreamed of removing his penis. Gay men recoil at the idea, the doctor says — but transgender men are eager at the suggestion.

"They say, 'Yes, yes, yes, I've always dreamed of it,' " Mir-Djalali says.

But the screening is the only restriction in Iran's relatively lax system. In most countries where sex-change operations are performed, doctors urge their patients to live for some time in the guise of their preferred sex before taking any drastic measures.

But in Iran, there's no waiting period. After passing the psychological screening, the patients are hustled into treatment. After all, in the interim they are considered gay, and therefore outlaws.
Perhaps all of this is the reason Iran is racing to acquire nuclear arms -- before the army, uh, melts away.