A Real-Life Hero’s Journey: Iranian Lesbian Activist Shadi Amin

Shadi Amin 

Shadi Amin, the founder of 6Rang, Iran’s Largest LGBTQ+ organization, tells her tale of becoming one of the most prominent lesbian Iranian activists.

At the tender age of 19, with a fake passport in her pocket, Shadi Amin set off on the most arduous and most important journey of her life. Traveling out of Iran, she trudged through Pakistan and Turkey, continuing through Europe until she reached Germany, where her future as an award-winning LGBTQ+ activist awaited her. 

Today, Amin is a founding member of 6Rang, The Iranian Lesbian and Transgender Network – the largest LGBTQ+ organization in Iran.  Back in Iran, Amin was “a very political student,” she tells GO over the phone. “As a kid I experienced the revolution in Iran, I was against the government, all the time I was against the compulsory hijab.”

Amin’s more masculine presentation meant she could go unnoticed on the streets at night, taking part in demonstrations against Ayatollah Khomeini (the ‘First Supreme Leader of Iran,’ who led his vehemently anti-Western government from 1979 until his death in 1989). “To the last day I lived in Iran, I refused to wear a hijab, and I looked just like the other boys on the street.” 

Though Amin was always full-force with her political activism in Iran, she wasn’t yet directly involved with LGBTQ+ activism. As an Iranian teen, Amin didn’t have any representation of ‘lesbianism’ to help her understand herself. Similarly, her family didn’t suspect her of being a queer woman because they didn’t have examples or experiences of queerness in their culture. Amin’s mother would joke: “Shadi is like a man,’ and ‘I think you will have a wife someday.’” Everything was a joke for them, for me, it was serious. For me, it was something I cried about at night in my bed. I knew I could not live my life as I wished there,” Amin tells GO.  Because of this confusion and shame, Amin’s relationship with her then-girlfriend, Mana, had to remain a secret. “She was so beautiful,” Amin recalls. But Amin likely wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be the activist she is now had she been outed in Iran before her escape.

And so her lesbian invisibility acted as a shield, enabling one of the (soon to be) most prominent lesbian Iranian activists to leave her country without being outed as LGBTQ+. Amin decided to remain in the closet when she arrived in Germany. From all those miles away, she felt pressure to make her family proud. “My parents had suffered because of my political activities and I didn’t want them to suffer because of my sickness too,” she says. And so, she married a man who she jovially describes as “the least sexual man in the world.” Her husband became more of a colleague, a brother with whom she’d have fun and play football. “And for those five years of marriage, I didn’t think about my past life, about my girlfriend, everything was deleted from my mind,” Amin says.

Until one afternoon in 1995, when Amin was living her nonsexual married life in Frankfurt, when the phone rang. It was Mana, calling from Turkey. She’d made it out of Iran, and had got Amin’s contact from her cousin. “As soon as I heard her voice, it was like opening the door again to my past, to all of my feelings and I realized how much I miss my real existence… who I really am.”

Amin ran to the women’s library at the local university and started reading everything and anything she could on gender and sexual orientation. “I started to deal with that,” she says matter-of-factly. At some point during our interview, Amin apologizes for her English, to which I reassure her that she’s speaking from the heart, which translates in any language. 

Later that year, Amin took herself to the 4th World Conference on Women, in Beijing, where lesbians from all over the world gathered – in what has been branded the biggest lesbian visibility campaign in history – to demonstrate and demand full sexual rights for all women. This was a real key-in-lock moment for Amin; “that’s what I am,” she thought as she witnessed her people standing up and claiming their space. “That’s my life.” 

Before long, Amin’s divorce from “one of the best Iranian men I ever met,” was finalized. Back to dating women and soon living with her partner, Amin officially came out in 1997 (two weeks before Ellen Degeneres, she notes).

Amin shifted into the public eye by giving the first lecture on same-sex relations from an Iranian perspective in Berlin in 1997. She also translated the first and only Persian text on lesbian existence, Ghodrat va Lezzat (Power and Joy), a book of essays by Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde. “I was really known in all of the Iranian community as a lesbian, I had nothing to hide anymore,” she said. And Amin took, and still takes, every opportunity handed to her. “When a news channel calls me to ask if I can come to the studio for an interview, I go, it doesn’t matter what I’m doing. I don’t want to miss any opportunity to talk to millions of people in Iran. It’s so important that the country sees a lesbian talking and analyzing the political situation, that we are not only talking about our sexuality but wider issues too, we are part of the change.” Amin also co-founded Justice for Iran, a ground-breaking organization that documents and publishes the atrocities of the Islamic Republic.

However, with the public eye, came the backlash – a venomous article was written about Amin on an Iranian news site. “It was really lesbophobic and really painful for me,” she says. “It was one of the first direct attacks with my name, in cyberspace, and it made me so sad, I cried everyday asking why they would do that, why they would write about [me] when they don’t know me.” 

Looking to her activist community for solace, most of whom were straight feminists, Amin was told that the press writes negative things all the time about everyone, and that she should ignore it. This response made her aware of the distinct intersections of discrimination faced by lesbians. “It made me realize they cannot understand me, nobody understands me in these situations, as a lesbian. Only the people who have suffered because of the discrimination based on their gender identity or sexual orientation, they can understand me.” In true Shadi Amin style, she called 20 queer Iranians from various EU countries (France, Germany, Denmark, Austria, Belgium), Turkey and Iran too. They all came to Frankfurt for a three-day gathering in which they discussed the need for a network that can resist this kind of attack. From this meeting, 6Rang, the Iranian Lesbian and Transgender Network (the largest Iranian LGBTQ+ organization in the world) was born.

With a range of activities, spanning from petitioning the government, writing reports, being very active on social media, and working with young people, the organization is a lifeline for queer people in Iran, the diaspora, and the region at large. They have over 2500 people in their WhatsApp community, most of them between 13-25 years of age. “Young people come to us for legal advice and psychological support, and we offer daily support, eight hours a day, we host sessions with psychologists and legal advisers.”  

From the beginning, the organization was clear that they didn’t just want to work online or strictly with getting queer people out of the country. What 6Rang aspires to create is “a culture change in Iran,” says Amin. “We want to change the family’s minds about LGBTI+ issues.” 

That’s why Amin can often be found on VOA Farsi, MBC Persia, and at the UN, with her insights streaming into living rooms across the country and the diaspora. Everything 6Rang releases is published in Kurdish, Turkish, Arabic and Farsi. “Families really need to hear all of these explanations in their own language to be more familiar with them, to feel more close to the issues,” says Amin.  

6Rang works around the clock for and with Iran’s LGBTQ+ community, and always advocates for the rights and lives of lesbian and transgender people in particular. Throughout this immensely tumultuous time in Iran, 6Rang continues to keep their focus on two Iranian lesbian activists sentenced to death. They have mobilized enormous international attention to the plight of the women who sit in Orumiyeh Central Prison as we speak.

For four months 6Rang had no updates from Iran “due to the internet lockdown,” Amin told GO. Then on January 16th, the organization reported that the appeal of the two LGBTQ+ activists had been accepted. 6rang credited the international outpouring of support and outrage, as well as campaigns, in successfully creating pressure on the Iranian authorities to drop the death sentences.‘We are delighted to see the success of our campaigns and the acceptance of the appeal,’ Amin writes, but we need to work even harder to ensure […] Sareh and Elham are freed,” says Amin. The true words of an activist who continues to give her life to making her country, and this world, a fairer and freer place for us all.

Follow Shadi Amin & 6Rang on Instagram, read more on Sareh & Elham here. 

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