20 July 2002

Being Real: Gay Iranians Struggle to be Themselves

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As a gay Iranian man in Los Angeles, I interact with many communities including: the gay male and lesbian community, the Iranian community, and the American society at large. Each is rigidly defined and strongly independent.

These communities expect me to conform to their manner of living and adapt to their ideas, which is like visiting three different worlds each time I interact with them. I have experienced discrimination within each of these communities, and being a minority within a minority makes one more vulnerable to discrimination.

The Gay Community

When I discovered the gay community in Los Angeles, I felt relieved that there were other gay people like me. As a result, I was so blinded by my need for a supportive community that I totally merged with the gay community and its popular assimilationist ideas.

As a gay activist, I focused more on external coming-out activities like marching in gay pride parades, and followed an extroverted approach of being gay. I did not know gay liberation should include the internal journey of taming the demon of internalized homophobia, and consciously experiencing my repressed feelings of hurt and rage for growing up in a violent homophobic world.

I set myself up by looking into the gay community to be the loving family I did not have when I was growing up. Today, I have a psychological approach toward gay liberation and equal rights, and focus on gay liberation in my inner world. I am interested in embracing what is unique about being gay and do not concern myself with getting approval from heterosexuals or losing status in the straight world.

Ancient homosexual wisdom and tradition going back before Plato and practiced by many Sufis has been about discovering what gayness offers through self-realization. This self-realization involves coming out inside, and ,after years of coming out to the world and marching in different gay parades, I realized I have not really come out.

I have been fighting homophobia in public, but not aware that I need to face it inside myself. I used to say I have no shame for being gay and wave my gay flag marching on the streets of Los Angeles. In reality, I had a lot of feelings of shame for being gay, but I never gave myself permission to feel my shame and partner the feeling. I was too ashamed to admit that I have shame, and I did not know I was entitled to experience all my feelings including my shame.

Growing up in a homophobic society and heterosexual family, I learned that feelings must be repressed. I compensated for my shame by participating in extroverted political gay marches. Many gay activists claim they have no shame for being gay. How can anyone grow up in this homophobic world and not have any shame for his or her gay identity? The greatest jihad takes place inside oneself. As Jung said, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”

Coming out inside has been about facing the demon of internalized homophobia and having regard for the painful experiences of my gay inner child. The more I am connected to my gay self, and have empathy for my struggle of coming out, the more compassionate I can be to myself and others. I can better recognize how I was made to feel ashamed for being gay and have empathy for the child I once was.

Iranian Community

Also, I am struggling not to merge with the Iranian community. Many gay Iranians who do not have a strong sense of self find it difficult to have an identity outside the Iranian community or the gay collective. Many gay Iranians deal with this complexity of interacting with different communities by creating different personas and merging with each community.

For example, I know many gay Iranians go to work every day and totally merge with the corporate system, then they visit their Iranian families and pretend they are heterosexuals and into dating women. Finally, on Friday nights, after dropping off their so-called girlfriends, they are off to some anonymous gay cruising place to experience their homoerotic feelings. Even worse, they continue with their lonely closeted lives.

There is a high price to pay for playing so many different roles and not being real. Hence, the fake identity and lying can eventually become one’s dominant character. It must be a painful awakening in one’s 40s or 50s to realize that one has gone through life with a fake identity and the closest he or she ever got to experience gay love was few anonymous sexual encounters. For many gay Iranians who live in Los Angeles or elsewhere, this closeted lifestyle was either chosen or forced on to them for many reasons.

When I was in the closet I used to come up with creative lies to hide my true identity because I was made to feel ashamed of myself and very scared of losing family support. Moreover, I grew up in a heterosexual Iranian family in which I was reared as if I too were heterosexual and was constantly told that heterosexuality was the only reality.

Any expression of my gay self would result in receiving violent treatments from kids in school and my family. This violent homophobic society was too scary for me to express my genuine self. In order to survive, I had to hide my true identity, and it makes me very angry to realize that I was robbed of the opportunity to experience a normal gay adolescence.

I have empathy for myself and other gay men and lesbians for spending many years of our lives hiding our true identities in order to please our heterosexual families.

Iranian family

It is very difficult to have an independent identity outside an Iranian family unit. The traditional Iranian family is patriarchal — the father is the undisputed head of the family. The mother tends to encourage her children to respect the father’s authority and seek family approval. No one dares to question the system, which sacrifices one’s needs in order to keep parental approval.

In the Iranian family system, there is no room to express one’s gay identity, and coming out to the Iranian family is viewed as bringing shame on the family. It is almost equal to committing a crime. For example, family members might blame their health problems on the coming out of their gay child.

It is not uncommon for Iranian parents to keep their gay children in the closet by using guilt factors such as accusing the gay child of being ungrateful for everything that has been done for him or her . My intention for coming out to my parents was to have a real relationship with them and stop pretending. Unfortunately, many Iranian parents are more concerned with how others might judge them.

If having a gay son or lesbian daughter might make them look less favorably, then families prefer that child to stay in the closet and lie about his or her identity. What people might say is more of a concern than how their child might benefit from coming out.

As a gay Iranian man, I do not deny the complexity involved in interacting with three very different communities and coming out to an Iranian family. But I believe staying in the closet and creating a false identity is not the answer to this complex issue. One has to face the truth and learn how to be real despite the demands from each community to merge with it.

There is a Sufi saying, “In the world but not of the world.” Just because I have to interact with different communities does not mean I should merge with them. No community can possibly provide all our needs, and the only place one can find love and acceptance is within. Having a connection to our inner world helps us to be less dependent on the outer world for approval and acceptance.


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