TEHRAN — Whispering like conspirators, the two cousins hook their thumbs in their belt loops, skim cocky eyes over the women and swivel, stiff-legged from their hips, like the men they have become. Across the room, and a few steps away on the gender spectrum, a man with shaggy hair wrinkles a pug nose in the mirror and struggles to drape a silky scarf over his head in the style of Islamic womanhood.
Almost everybody here, in this sterilized waiting room at a clinic in the clanging heart of Tehran, is in the midst of changing their sex. Waiting their turn to see the doctor, they strut about in self-conscious gender rehearsal. Someone has brought cookies, sweet with honey.
"I was married. I had a wife and children," says Maria Pakgohar, a curvaceous former truck driver wearing flower barrettes and fake furs. She claims she's in her 40s but flashes an identification card giving her age as 62. "The cleric came to my house and said to my wife: 'What do you want from him? He's a woman, not a man.' "
In the Islamic Republic of Iran, gay male sex still carries the death penalty and lesbians are lashed, but hundreds of people are having their gender changed legally, bolstered by the blessings of members of the ruling Shiite clergy.
"Approval of gender changes doesn't mean approval of homosexuality. We're against homosexuality," says Mohammed Mahdi Kariminia, a cleric in the holy city of Qom and one of Iran's foremost proponents of using hormones and surgery to change sex. "But we have said that if homosexuals want to change their gender, this way is open to them."
Not that it's easy in Iran. The Islamic Republic remains a fundamentally traditional, conservative society, laced by harsh judgments and strict mores. A blizzard of clerical decrees is unlikely to make a mother eager to see her son become a woman or enlighten leery co-workers who squirm at hearing their colleague's voice drop a few octaves. And the government's response is fractured, with some officials remaining opposed to sex change.
"The people our age, they all know and accept us," says Toumik Martin, a brusque 28-year-old businessman who was born a girl named Anita, leaning in close to be heard over the cacophony of ambiguous tenors bouncing off the waiting room walls. "Our problem is with the parents. They don't know how to differentiate between transsexuals, gays and lesbians."
Like their brethren around the world, these people have complicated, often sorrowful, stories. They have been cast out by their families and fired from their jobs. They have struggled to find love.
Martin, who became a man six years ago, proposed marriage to the woman he'd loved ever since they were classmates.
"She said, 'Yes, I love you, I understand you, but I don't know about my parents,' " says Martin, who has a prospering business importing vitamins from Russia.
When the couple approached the woman's parents, they were flatly rejected. "They think I'm a lesbian," Martin says. "They said, 'We won't give our daughter to a girl.' Especially her mother, she was very hard with me." His heart was broken, and the relationship faded.
When Dr. Bahrom Mir-Djalali first began performing sex-change operations 15 years ago, he endured death threats from scandalized parents. One father, he recalls, showed him a dagger and vowed to slash his throat. But slowly, he says, society has come around. He measures the shift in the fights with the families, which he says have become less drastic.
"This is an Islamic country, and very, very old-fashioned," says Mir-Djalali, a white-haired surgeon who studied sex-change procedures in Paris. "I try to tell people, 'They don't have horns, they are normal people.' But it's hard for society to accept. At least now we have a discussion about it."
Iran isn't the only Muslim society that appears to be growing more accepting of sex changes while still shunning homosexuality. A Kuwaiti court recently decreed that a 29-year-old man who had changed his gender could live legally as a woman. That decision was later overturned by a higher court, but it provoked a startling debate in a country where the subject of homosexuality remains taboo.
In Saudi Arabia, an Islamic judge backed an heir's right to keep the larger share of inheritance given to sons even though the heir had undergone surgery to become a woman. Even Al Azhar, the ancient seat of Sunni Muslim learning in Cairo, issued a fatwa, or religious edict, in the mid-1990s that approved gender changes in some cases.
But no Muslim society has tackled the question with the open-mindedness of Shiite Iran. That's probably because the father of the revolution himself, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, penned the groundbreaking fatwas that approved gender reassignment four decades ago.