The San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival is one of my favorite events of the year. It offers such an incredible array of spectacular films that largely would not otherwise be seen in a theater. This year, there were a number of standouts, but what seems to have the most lasting impact in my thought processes are two films, including Be Like Others and A Jihad for Love. The two films have a common theme of homosexuality and Islam.
'Be Like Others' is a film set in Iran, where homosexuality is punishable by death (hanging) under Islamic law. The film focuses on the alternative offered to gay men, which is a legal sex-change operation. The Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa (religious edict) over 20 years ago making sex changes permissible. The result is that Iran has the highest rate of male-to-female sex change operations on Earth. The option is clear - sex change or die - resulting in gender reassignment as a means of avoiding persecution. One doctor in Tehran does more gender reassignment surgeries in one year than are done in 10 years in all of France.
This does not mean that the men undergoing the sex changes have a genuine desire to be female. The film is an incredibly disturbing portrayal of men choosing the option to live, then realizing that being female was not at all what they wanted, while still being socially ostracized, harassed and beaten by the morality police (for real), and often disregarded/distained by the people charged with assisting in the process. It is hard to imagine the psychological impact of gender reassignment as a 'treatment' or 'normalization' or even 'punishment' for homosexual behavior. It can be a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't proposition. In the midst of all of this are a subset of people who genuinely are transsexual, but who are equally subject to strong social disapproval and official harassment resulting from gender reassignment.
The film offers a grim view of gay life under a fundamentalist religious regime.
Most Muslims believe that homosexuality is forbidden by the Qu'ran. In some nations, Qur'anic prohibitions against male homosexuality (lesbianism is apparently absent from the Qu'ran, although socially stigmatized) are enforced by religious, tribal, or military authorities to imprison, torture, and even execute gay men.
However, the challenge is that Islam can be as much a part of the lives of gay men and lesbians as anyone else. 'A Jihad for Love' looks at how gay men, in particular, reconcile their faith with the reality of their being. Ultimately, it is about the root of faith - love - and a group of people willing to talk about how their being Muslim and gay strengthens the faith. The film challenges notions about a monolithic Islamic faith - that there is a discourse about Islam that breaks from the fundamentalist versions we see on television and read about in the news.
It feels vitally important to keep putting the sense of loving one another as we are out there... this film and projects like it have a way of ultimately making sense of a world that too often seems incredibly unsettled and unbalanced.
Love is the common element that we all share, and which has the ultimate power to transcend differences.