TEHRAN, Iran -- When Reza, a 29-year-old Iranian, heard that his president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had denied in New York that homosexuals were in Iran, he was shocked but not surprised.
Reza knows the truth: He is gay.
Leaning back in his black leather desk chair at home in Tehran, he said there were, in fact, plenty of gay men and women in Iran. The difference between their lives and those of gays in Europe and North America is one of recognition and legitimacy.
"You can have a secret gay life as long you don't become an activist and start demanding rights," he said, speaking on the condition that his family name not be used for fear of retribution.
Reza, who shaves his head and often wears an earring, has lived in Europe extensively. Gay life in Iran, he said, "is just complicated in the same way that it is for other groups, like workers and feminists, who don't have many rights."
Since Ahmadinejad uttered his words at Columbia University last Monday, discussion of homosexuality has been stifled here. Sociologists and other analysts normally willing to discuss such issues on the record with a reporter suddenly were not.
But, speaking anonymously, several said that the president had clearly been caught off guard by the question because no one at an Iranian university would have dared to ask him such a thing. They also argued that it was probably better for Iranian gays that Ahmadinejad denied their existence since that made it likelier that they would be ignored and left alone.
For a country that is said to have no homosexuality, Iran goes to great lengths to ban it. Gays are punished by lashing or death if it is proved that they have had homosexual relations. Two gay teenagers were executed in 2005 in Mashad, a northeastern city.
Fear of persecution is so strong that some gay men and lesbians have sought and received asylum in Western countries.
The Iranian Student News Agency reported in 2005 that a lesbian had been killed in prison by other inmates whom, it was alleged, she had forced to have sex with her. Tehran's chief prosecutor, Saeed Mortazavi, said in May in an interview on state-run television that the police were looking for men who dressed and looked like homosexuals.
But Iran has also taken the unusual step of encouraging sex change operations for those with homosexual tendencies. While religious authorities here view homosexuality a clear sin, transsexuals are considered ill and in need of the help that such an operation can provide.
Muhammad Mehdi Kariminia, a midranking cleric and university professor at Mam Khomeini University in Qum, who wrote his doctoral thesis on transsexuals in Iran, said Muslim clerics could not show leniency or forgiveness for homosexuals because the Quran explicitly labels sodomy sinful.
"There is a thick wall between homosexuals and transsexuals," Kariminia said. "Transsexuals are sick because they are not happy with their sexuality, and so they should be treated. But homosexuality is considered a deviant act."
But the gays interviewed said that they did not believe the wall was that thick.
Reza said he knew of gay men who had changed their sex so that they could be recognized by the government as transsexual and mingle with men more easily.
Gays say the key to living in Iran without government interference, even as couples, is keeping a low profile. Some have been arrested for looking "too feminine" but are generally fined and released.
But most gays are driven underground also for fear of being shunned or rejected by relatives.
Shahin, 27, a chemist, has kept his gay life secret from his parents. "I don't want to upset them," he said. "Maybe they will consider me sick and feel sorry for me."