It was an act that surprised many people. This past Valentine’s Day, Googoosh, the most prominent Iranian pop singer, dared to upload her new song “Behesht” (“Paradise”), the first Farsi-language pop song about lesbian love. Googoosh knows all too well that since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, members of the LGBT community, particular gay men, have become a persecuted minority. Not only do their families and society treat them badly, but they are also persecuted by the regime and given harsh punishments that sometimes include long prison sentences, exile and even the death penalty.
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Googoosh, who was born in Tehran in 1950 and is considered the queen of Iranian 1970s pop music, decided to give back to the LGBT community, which has always admired her. She released the song with a video clip portraying the difficulties that an Iranian lesbian couple encounters in family and society. Conservative elements in Iran and outside were not surprised by Googoosh’s choice to address such a sensitive subject in Iranian society. Some condemned her explicitly for having done so. Still, the Iranian LGBT community and its supporters expressed their renewed admiration to her in letters of gratitude and posts full of love on Facebook. Googoosh stands behind her act of support together with Navid Akhavan, who wrote the song and directed the video.
In present-day Iran, whose laws are based on sharia, or Islamic religious law, any kind of sexual relations that are not heterosexual or within marriage are absolutely prohibited. In 2005, two young gay men were hanged in the city of Mashhad. The Iranian media is prohibited from expressing any kind of support for LGBT rights, and media officials have occasionally even expressed hatred toward the LGBT community — this, despite the fact that homoerotic poetry was written in Farsi early in the Islamic period, and that during the rule of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, one could find news coverage of same-sex marriage. Although homosexuality was never accepted socially, during the 1970s there were places where members of the LGBT community could meet.
Googoosh moved to Los Angeles later in life and has been living there in exile, but not because of her sexual identity — rather, she left Iran because of the restrictions on music there. The history of popular music in Iran dates back to the 19th century, and blossomed with the rise of Iranian radio between the world wars. Iranian popular music was influenced by various styles such as the waltz, the tango, the rumba and, later on, the use of the electric guitar combined with more traditional Persian instruments. The golden age of Persian pop lasted between the 1950s and the 1970s with singers such as Leila Forouhar, Viguen, Moein, Mahasti, Nooshafarin, Dariush Eghbali, Ramesh, and of course Hayedeh, who was the greatest of all. But Googoosh has a special place because of her unique style, thanks to the films in which she acted in her youth, and mainly because of her colorful style of dressing — which could also explain how she became a gay icon and admired diva not only among members of the Iranian LGBT community, but also among the LGBT community all over the world and particularly in the Middle East.
The 1979 revolution put an end not only to public appearances by women singers, but also to the entire pop genre, which was seen as Western and anti-Islamic in essence. But unlike the rest of Iran’s pop singers, men and women alike, Googoosh refused to leave Iran to live in exile. She remained in Iran until 2000, stopped giving concerts, and was not even allowed to give interviews. Still, her many admirers continued listening to her music, and her many albums were smuggled into Iran from cities where large Iranian communities lived in exile, such as Los Angeles and Toronto. In the 1990s, Googoosh was interviewed for a documentary film, her first step toward making a comeback. After 21 years of silence, Googoosh traveled to give her first concert in Dubai in 2000. Thousands of Iranians attended the concert, and since then Googoosh has lived in Los Angeles, kept on releasing albums and appears all over the world.