Yesterday, I took a taxi to take me from one point of the city I was in to another. (I was not in Tehran, but in Karaj, a city close to Tehran). The driver engaged me in conversation along the way, and he asked me why I was not married. I told him that I didn’t have any opportunity to do so. He then asked me if I had ever fallen in love, and I said yes.
So far it was quite a typical encounter – a talkative and nosy taxi driver asking way too personal questions and me dodging them by giving short and generalized responses. But then the conversation took a weird turn. He suddenly brought up a topic that is usually avoided – same-sex relationships.
“I had a client a few days ago, and he was about 40 years old.” The driver told me. “He said he was only attracted to men.” And then this driver went on a homophobic tirade, using the most hateful words possible toward the gay man.
I noticed something in his words. The words were hateful, but the tone was not. In Iran it’s not unusual to hear homophobic words, but people’s intonation matters a lot. When people are saying over-the-top bigoted things inspired by religion, if they don’t seem too invested, I make a risk and engage them, seeing if they’re open to changing their minds or listening to dissenting viewpoints.
I began making the usual arguments in favor of the gay people, and the driver engaged me in discussion. He asked me: “But why do they have to be attracted to men?” I asked him: “Why do you have to be attracted to women?” This made him pause. I pressed on. “Imagine how horrible the world would be to you, if everyone hated you for having feelings toward women.” I said.
“But that’s just how I am.” He said. “I didn’t choose to be that way. Is being gay natural?” Now, I have some misgivings about “born this way” arguments and appeals to nature, but I chose to sacrifice intellectual nuance for the sake of proselytizing at that moment. “Yes, it is. We have gay animals. Many people are born gay.”
“So are you saying we should just accept them?”
“But what about God’s words?”
“I’m sure God wouldn’t create some people to be gay and then call it a sin, when it’s a natural thing they were born with. Homosexuality is not mentioned in the Qur’an.” (Not prioritizing intellectual honesty, again).
“Yes. You’re right. We shouldn’t judge them for something natural”. He said. He paused. “The Unites States did the right thing legalizing their marriage. They deserve to be married.” Now his tone was passionate and emphatic. It was a remarkable moment, I saw in his eyes the moment his mind changed, the epiphany, and how he had become – suddenly – an advocate for gay rights. “We kill gay people in this country! That’s horrible! We’re horrible!” I agreed.
When we reached the destination, he thanked me warmly for changing his mind. No one thanked me so warmly before in my life.
But I know it wasn’t really me who changed his mind. His mind had already undergone tectonic shifts and he wasn’t conscious of them because he hadn’t really bothered to think his position on gay people through. But nevertheless what I saw was remarkable – someone going from a raging homophobe to agreeing with gay marriage in less than ten minutes.
And this encounter, to me, encapsulates the way I envision the Iranian society. We are a society with many problems, with many bigoted, superstitious, and backward beliefs, but I feel – I see it, living here, interacting with people day in and day out – that we are ready, on the verge of a change, ready not for a political revolution, but for a cultural one. And that’s why, overall, I’m very hopeful about the future of Iran.
Image credit: Wikipedia