Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says they do not exist. And in Iran, merely trying to be themselves is a crime that brings shame on their families. But now, Iranian homosexuals are starting to speak out about what it means to be gay and about the lengths to which they have gone to escape persecution.
The day begins as normal for Arash and Nima. But for them, just walking out the door is a reminder they are no longer at home in Iran.
"“The LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered people) are a part of vulnerable class of the Iranian society," Arash explained.
Arash left Iran for Turkey nine months ago. He now works as a filmmaker and shot a video to help document his new life.
Iran’s conservative Islamic laws leave little room for homosexuality. United Nations experts and rights groups have criticized the Iranian government for criminalizing all homosexual acts, making certain acts punishable by death. Iran has also come under fire for subjecting those suspected of homosexuality to arbitrary arrest and torture.
The issue is one that Iranians are slowly being forced to confront - often through film. Such films, though, are not being made in Iran.
And at least at the highest levels, denial is the rule - as evidenced by comments Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made to students at New York’s Columbia University in 2007:
“In Iran we don't have homosexuals like in your country. In Iran we do not have this phenomenon, I don't know who has told you that we have it," Ahmadinejad declared.
Farid, another Iranian exile living in Turkey, said on YouTube the feeling of oppression permeates Iran's everyday life.
“When you walk down the street, you feel you are being assaulted from all sides," he said. "We [gay people] are being looked at like a third gender."
One place gay Iranians have found refuge is the United States, where despite controversy, some states and even Washington D.C., have been extending more rights to homosexuals, including the right to get married.
Mali Kisagari was born in Iran in 1958… and in 2004 she married her partner, Elizabeth Kristen, in California.
“In the U.S., people’s rights are respected," she noted. "When I entered the U.S., I found this is a place I can be myself.”
Such attitudes are a long way from being accepted in Iran. Still, from the Iranian diaspora, singers like Shohreh are pushing back - as in her music video.
“The reason why I used the homosexual flag in my video was to support these people,” she explained. “Families should know that their children should not be blamed for being homosexual. They have been homosexual since childhood."
For now, couples like Arash and Nima can only wonder what it would be like to live as themselves in their home country.
“I want to bring their face in front of [documentary] movie camera, so that the heterosexual class understands the gays better; so that a day may come that the two classes of people may coexist,” Arash said.
To many gay Iranians, that day still seems a long way off.