Is Iran having an identity crisis? Notorious for its hard-line stance on gays and lesbians, the Islamic Republic doles out lashes, hangings, and stonings for homosexual acts. Yet at the same time, the government gives its official blessing to transsexuals, including marital unions. Why? Because a sex change cures gay people of their "illness," the government believes.

In fact, Iranian officials are actively encouraging gay women and men to have sex-change operations, offering government subsidies to cover expenses. The demand for such surgical procedures is so great that Iran's doctors are now performing more of the surgeries than anywhere else in the world, apart from Thailand.

"It's all about 'normalizing' gay people before they shame Iranian society," says Arsham Parsi, executive director of the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees, a human-rights group. "It is very convenient for the government to say, 'If you are a woman and you love other women, you are ill. You must be a man trapped in a woman's body. You have to go for the operation.'" Never mind that gay people might not want a sex change.

Still, Parsi finds hope in a recent transsexual wedding that made headlines around the world. The two lesbians, one of whom had undergone a sex change to become a man, had initially been refused the necessary legal blessing by the bride's father. But he eventually relented. "The important fact here is that the woman's father changed his mind," says Parsi. "That's a clear sign of cultural change, however small."

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