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June 20, 2019

On Being Iranian-American & Pride Month

Pride. For countless Iranian-Americans, a hyphenated identity can be a great source of pride, an appreciation of the opportunities afforded to them in the land they live in while simultaneously a reminder of the deep cultural heritage of the land from which they came. However, that pride becomes complicated when we bring in another kind of pride — that of sexual identity.

Fifty years have passed since the Stonewall Riots, which sparked the gay rights movement in the United States. While the resistance efforts of the LBGTQ community have claimed victories and losses, we have seen enormous progress both legally and socially. Pride month is a time to reflect on this history and as its name aptly indicates, proudly express one’s identity. Unfortunately, this evolution has not been universal and some nations, like Iran, continue to criminalize homosexuality and threaten the lives of their LGBTQ citizens.

Starkly different trajectories illustrate some of the complications for queer Iranian-Americans. Much of the writing concerning this group is highly politicized and often grounds the narrative based on the queer experience in Iran. The reprehensible persecution of the queer community in Iran must be condemned. However, the stories reflecting the everyday struggles and experiences of the Iranian-American queer community warrants their own telling.

Some may experience multi-faceted marginalization and have both parts of their identities — being Iranian-American and queer — caricatured. What is lost is the nuance of their character and the variety of ways these identities are manifested. For many Iranian-Americans, their queer identity has not been defined by the political context of Iran or the riots at Stonewall. In order to understand the range and complexity of their experiences, we must listen to their own unique stories.

The following vignettes by queer Iranian-Americans offer a lens through which to see this community — a view that is divorced from the tumultuous politicking that marks the relationship between the U.S. and Iran. This community is not a monolith but is as varied and complicated as their own stories:

Vignette 1:

Identity is a truly fascinating thing, it is both entirely made up and profoundly real. How can such a paradox exist? Growing up in the U.S. to Iranian immigrant parents, I watched as they protected what they saw as their most important legacy and life lesson, pride in my family’s heritage. I was inundated with stories of Iran’s history, anecdotes about my family back “home”, and Iranian music and art. We spoke only Persian in the house to ensure fluency in my mother tongue and celebrated traditional holidays from Iran. Sometimes as a child these things felt like an imposition, especially car rides listening to my father’s tapes of Shajarian, but as grew older I came to adore all the parts of that identity. Somehow never quite feeling “American” enough, my Iranian identity and growing up with Iranian-American friends gave me a sense of belonging when the idea of home felt obscure. For me, home became this small world that we had carved out for ourselves.

It seems odd now, that it was this sense of belonging that made coming out such an anxiety inducing prospect. It wasn’t that I was ashamed or that I felt I would be shunned for loving who I loved, my true fear was the loss of the identity that had protected me all my life. Could I be Iranian and queer? Nowhere in my upbringing, in all of my lessons, were these ideas presented together. I wasn’t frightened for my safety and I knew my family would love me without condition — which they have proven to be true — I was afraid of losing my concept of self.

As I write this, I must confess, it’s an issue that remains unresolved. Have I relinquished one identity, or one community, for another? Is there a way to really belong to both? So, while I can reasonably comprehend that identities are dynamic and constantly evolving, the child that grew to love the voice of Shajarian still tugs at my heart strings.

Vignette 2:

It was a cool winter night in Santa Monica, California. We were just a couple of hours into the New Year, covered with streamers and confetti, when you pulled me aside to reveal your truth.

I can’t imagine the amount of courage it took for you to come out to me as a bisexual man. Your revelation was, regrettably, met with confusion and questions. In that moment, I was both shocked — because there was no evidence that would have led me to believe that you were bisexual — and scared because I knew that this would be a long and difficult journey for you.

I also imparted some bitter advice to you, which was that you shouldn’t reveal this fact about yourself to others — particularly our family members and the greater Iranian-American community — until you were absolutely sure about your sexuality. My advice was rooted in the fact that the Iranian-American community would not be open to your sexual identity. However, I was guilty of spreading the same message that we in the community have been programmed to respond with in such situations: keep your personal details close to the vest and don’t embarrass the family. In my defense, I didn’t want you to be hurt by your own community. I didn’t want you to be judged or gossiped about based on your sexual preference. I wanted you to be accepted for your accomplishments, your good nature and your contributions to both our family and community. In hindsight, I should have communicated these messages more tactfully. If I had the opportunity to do it all over, I would have embraced you and conveyed my love and support for you — and then asked how I could best help you on your journey of self discovery and appreciation.

A few days after this all unfolded, I began to reflect on our childhood. I tried to scour my mind for any vivid memories that could illustrate your newly revealed sexual identity. As I was reflecting, it dawned on me that I couldn’t see the signs because I was blinded by a fierce unconditional love for my sibling. The truth about unconditional love is that it allows you to see the whole person and appreciate them for who they are, which leads to acceptance for what they want or do. The truth about acceptance is that it makes for a stronger and more inclusive community.

Vignette 3:

I am bisexual. I first came out in 2016 to my then-boyfriend, but I had probably known since high school, seven years prior, that I was attracted to both men and women. There’s a heavy stigma around being bisexual — that we’re just confused, “easy” and promiscuous, or even bandwagoners. On top of all of that, being Iranian-American, I grew up hearing the judgement of Iranians towards the queer community. Things like, “How could they live their lives like that?” “That’s disgusting,” “They should be ashamed for doing that in public” were sentiments I often heard directed towards a same-sex couple or a trans person. For a long time I felt that I should stick to dating men because it would be easier than telling my family the truth about my sexual identity. But I couldn’t keep living a lie. So in 2019, I finally came out to my parents. I was surprised to find that the look on their faces was not the one of disgust that I had feared, but instead a look of anxiety. I heard the usual remarks — that I’m just confused, or I’m just sympathizing with the LGBTQIA+ community. But the thing that stuck with me most was when they said: “We don’t want your life to be hard. Wouldn’t it be easier for you to just keep dating men?” That’s when I knew that their reaction came from a genuine concern for my well being. Though their reaction hurt and was far from perfect, I knew it came from a place of love and not rejection. I’m not sure how much they’ve truly accepted it, but I know that I’m lucky to still have my parents’ love. I was told not to tell my family or really talk openly about it — this is my first time doing so. But I’m queer, I’m here, and I’m proud of who I am.

Vignette 4:

My mother is Finnish and my father is Iranian. It was a struggle sometimes to be raised in such different cultures. One thing they agreed on was that being gay is not normal or what God intended. This is what I was raised to believe, but everything changed when my best friend told me she fell in love with a girl. Being close to someone who was bisexual was an eye opening experience that gave me the chance to confront my own feelings. I never thought about my identity or who I was back then more deeply, but I realized I had feelings for someone close to me that went beyond friendship. Though I had these feelings for a long time, it wasn’t until we were both in our 30s and more comfortable with who we were that we finally chose to be together. We knew that coming out to our parents would be hard and that we would not necessarily be accepted, but in the end we decided not to let fear dictate our choices.

To my surprise, my mom has struggled the most with this revelation. I expected my Iranian father to have a harder time, thinking that he would be embarrassed of me and not see me the same. Fortunately, I was wrong, though he doesn’t understand my life he still loves me as his daughter. While I may have their love, to this day, I do not have the support of my mom and dad. I hope that one day they will come around, and be a part of my life in the same way they would if I was with a man. Even as an adult, having your parent’s approval is important, without it I fear that some part of me will always be missing. I have been fortunate enough to be accepted by my partner’s parents, who are also Iranian. I am amazed at their ability to transform their mindset and embrace me as part of the family. Their kindness gives me hope that someday my parents will do the same, because they are also missing a part of their lives, whether or not they know it.

Vignette 5:

The morning I decided to come out to my parents, I vividly recall looking at two things:

  1. A check-list of items I had to be prepared for without the financial or moral support of my parents.
  2. A family photo to remember the things I had to be willing to give up in order to finally be who I am.

Family and my parents are the most important thing in my life. So even though I finally came to terms with being gay when I was in college, it took me six years to come out to my parents. It took me six years to persuade myself that I would rather give up the things that are most important to me, than to change who I am. The only other gay Iranians I knew had lost all contact with their families. While this experience is not exclusive to the Iranian-American community, it was the only blueprint of consequence I was familiar with.

With my finances in check, I drove home to surprise my parents for breakfast. I told them I needed to talk to them about something important. In my “best-case” scenario, I had envisioned that my mom would be understanding, even comforting, and I would have bet everything that my dad would cause a scene and ask me to leave. I was shocked to find that my dad was as understanding as I have ever remembered. I clearly recall him saying: “You have to excuse us. We don’t know much about this. We need some time to learn.” My mom on the other hand, reacted, as I’ve come to understand is a standard “mom-like” reaction, by blaming herself and not talking to me for weeks.

Looking back, I know it could have gone much worse. But I still wanted them to be as happy as I was and embrace that part of me. Maybe even host a BBQ with kabob and all the traditional foods we serve. But what I did not consider, is what my parents, specifically my mom, would be thinking about the moment she heard the words: I am gay. All she could see in that moment was the possibility of my dreams slipping away.

Fortunately, both my mom and dad have witnessed that their son’s sexuality does not build walls or barriers keeping him from his dreams, but rather puts him on a path to live his most authentic life. So if there is some piece of advice that I can give to others: try to find a perspective, one that is different, uncomfortable perhaps. Really explore that view and all the lenses that come with it. I am not naive and recognize that this may not yield a “kumbaya” moment. But hopefully it will stop young women and men from having to choose between losing their families or being their authentic selves.

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