Transsexuals face tough times from their families, discrimination in medical circles, are branded homosexual.

[checklist]By Aresu Eqbali – TEHRAN

Javad says he never felt quite right in his body, and for the past two years he has risked having his “arms and legs broken” by a family that refuses to accept his efforts to sort the problem out.

“I’d rather die than stay like this,” said Javad, a fresh-faced young man who would rather be called “Hasti”, a feminine name meaning “existence”.

The idea of a man wanting to become a woman, or vice-versa, is something of a taboo the world over. And Islamic Iran – with its conservative values and male-dominated make-up – is no exception.

Transsexuals face rejection and mockery in whatever state of gender they are in, and more often than not are simply branded homosexual – a criminal offence in Iran where the law allows for persistent offenders to be punished with death.But perhaps surprisingly in Iran, there now exists an accepted and religiously approved procedure for those wanting to change their sex – illustrated by the ticket to femininity Javad now proudly brandishes.

“A sex change operation for Javad D., aged 27, due to a disorder of gender identity, is authorised,” states the permit from a doctor in the state medical office.

And once several years of painful operations and hormone treatments are completed, Javad will also be able to start his new life as a “she” with an officially changed birth certificate and national identity card.

The state health organisation may also subsidise his operations. Hessam A. Khatir, a 76-year-old Tehran-based plastic surgeon, said a complete female to male operation costs up to 7,500 dollars (6,000 euros) and a male to female op up to 3,700 dollars (3,000 euros).

According to campaigners for the rights of transsexuals in the Islamic republic, the first Iranian Shiite cleric to give the green light for such operations was none other than Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, before he became the father of the Islamic regime.

Shiite Muslim clerics pride themselves on their willingness and ability to tackle a range of problems, and one such theologian from Iran’s religious nerve centre of Qom is even writing a thesis on transsexuality and how it fits in with the Sharia, or Islamic law.

“Teachers, colleagues and officials from the judiciary have been very encouraging towards my thesis on the legal-Sharia issues related to sex changes,” Mohammad Mahdi Kariminia said.

“We have to differentiate between sex changes and homosexuality. If we say patients can change their sex, it should not be understood that we are authorising homosexuality,” Kariminia stressed.

Instead, Kariminia’s thesis is dealing with issues such as whether the permission of a spouse is needed for an operation, what financial arrangements apply to divorce cases where one member of the couple changes sex, and do inheritance rights change along with the sex.

But while clearly sympathetic to those suffering from gender disorders, Kariminia acknowledges that he is under pressure from what is still a deeply conservative society – even where nose jobs and other forms of cosmetic surgery are something of a craze among the wealthy.

“A very religious mother was in tears when she told me her 28-year-old son had become ‘something between a man and woman’,” the cleric recounted.

“She was trying to persuade me to question in my thesis why there should be so much freedom allowing young people to get a sex-change permit.”

Patients have also faced discrimination in medical circles.

“There was an anaesthetist, who had even lived in Massachusetts, who was reluctant to touch these patients,” recounted Bahram Mir-Jalali, a 65-year-old doctor who over the past 20 years has performed some 210 sex change operations.

“Authorities of one hospital stopped me visiting my patients there because of the hospital’s image. My assistants were also harassed,” he added, explaining that some would-be women are so frustrated with some doctors that they finish up cutting off their own organs and turning up as emergency cases.

But some of those who have gone through a change from being a woman to a man have found a much easier time gaining acceptance – as opposed to many male-to-female transsexuals who have cut off all contact with their past life.

One man, who until six years ago was a woman, and who asked to be identified only as A., said his parents eventually accepted his gender difficulties and that he is now engaged to be married to a girl from his neighbourhood.

“It’s a male-dominated society, and becoming a man is not very difficult: you change your ID, while speaking in a husky voice, having a burly appearance and growing a moustache and beard come with the hormones,” explained the 37-year-old, who has gained some wispy facial hair but still has a petite figure.

“The parents of my fianc√© were shocked when I proposed to their daughter. They had already seen me dressed and covered up as a woman,” A. added, but shrugged off any stigma.

“If cancer is not a shameful disease, why should transsexuality be?”

[/checklist]