Gay Iranians struggle to be themselves
By Dr. Payam
October 29, 2001
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
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.
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
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
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.