Film Explores Iran's Transsexuals

Transsexuals aren't a cultural marker typically associated with religiously inflexible dictatorships, but they are common in Iran—by some estimates, there are 150,000 Iranian transsexuals, and the country hosts more sex-change operations per year than any country outside Thailand. Iranian-American director Tanaz Eshaghian's new film, "Be Like Others," offers a fascinating look at how this subculture can exist.

Explaining the apparent paradox, one Muslim cleric says that while homosexuality is explicitly outlawed in the Qur'an, sex-change operations are not. They are no more an affront to God's will than, for example, turning wheat into flour and flour into bread. So while homosexuality is punishable by death, sex-change operations are presented as an acceptable alternative—as a way to live within a set of strict gender binaries, as a way to, well, live like others. The tragic aspect comes through in discussions with patients and their reluctant parents in the waiting room of Tehran's pre-eminent sex-change surgeon, Dr. Bahram Mir Jalali, where it becomes clear that some feel pressured, not free, to become transsexuals. Asked if he would be preparing for surgery were he living outside Iran, one young man says, "No. I wouldn't do it. I wouldn't touch God's work."