This is a version of a talk given at the First Conference on Homosexuality in Iran, which was organized by Homan and took place at UCLA on November 8th, 2003. I was asked by a member of the audience to submit this short paper to iranian.com, which I am in the hopes that it will not be taken as a grounds for further homophobic bashings of groups such as Homan. While I may be critical of certain forms of gay/lesbian politics, I think Homan has been an important resource for many Iranian queers in the U.S. and deserves credit for posing a challenge to heteronormative imaginations of Iranian-ness.
Parts of this piece are taken from a section in a thesis I had previously written, on the discursive production of Iranian queer subjects in diaspora. As this version was presented in a non-academic conference, citations have been omitted. However, my ideas in this piece are informed by theories of sexuality, in particular those formulated by Michel Foucault and Judith Butler.
October 4, 1995; the asylum office in San Francisco. In a room adorned by several statues of liberty, I am assured by an asylum officer that they know about the violation of gay and lesbian human rights in the undemocratic Iran. After putting aside the evidence of “truth” about my claim to lesbianism (two thick folders that took months of research and recalling personal memories), he engages me in a patronizing conversation about veiling and the oppression of women in Iran. I cannot argue, or I will lose the asylum case. This is how I, the foreign student with a F1 visa, who had risked too much by participating in queer politics, and was “outed” to her family unwillingly, became the Iranian lesbian asylee with an I-94 card.
October 15, 1995, two days after my asylum is issued, a San Francisco radio station reporter calls for an interview and wants me to talk about the “horrific situation” in Iran. When I refuse to conduct the interview, he tells me, “We gave you asylum, honey. You may as well talk about it.”
Occupying a queer diasporic space has constantly demanded the proof of authenticity of roots, culture, origin, and nation, while obliging visibility and “outness.”
My experience of displacement has involved reterritorializations based on my relationships to various nations, not just geographically imagined, but also marked by gender, race, sexuality, and class. Moreover, my histories of claiming lesbian-ness, immigrant/asylee status, and Iranian-ness, have not escaped politics that have simultaneously been complicit and oppositional with hegemonic forms of knowledge. Nor have I always evaded the homogenizing impulses of Iranian-ness and queer-ness in diasporic locations.
I haven't just “thought” about queer subjectivity, but struggled with it in my fourteen-year history of displacement in the U.S., as well as my years of growing up in Iran. I have been performing queerness through being “out” and “closeted,” and for a long period of my life in spaces between the two, when I was interpellated as neither, and therefore not obliged to confess the “truth” of my sexuality.
I have become (though at times insisted on being) queer (or not) in familiar and unfamiliar spaces of family, Iranian diaspora, academia, feminist work, immigrant advocacy work, and the immigration office where I occupied the position of asylum applicant, and not that of the advocate. Like many people, I negotiated and struggled for and with my multiple subjectivities. At times my contestation to a white queerness hinged upon my participation in particular forms of cultural nationalism and diasporic notions of the nation, which also Othered my queer body.
It was also in 1995, and before I received my asylum, that I was invited to write a report on Iran for a book called Unspoken Rules, a collection of articles about abuses of women's human rights based on sexual orientation. In this book, I wrote (1995: 89), “Under the current Iranian regime, widespread legal and social persecution of sexual minorities makes it impossible for lesbians to form organizations or to live openly in any aspect of their lives.” This concern over being “out” and visible was so significant to me that I overlooked my privilege of being located in the U.S., and undermined the multiplicity of experiences of those whom I marked as “lesbians.”
It was not until I was “outed” in the U.S. to my family in Iran that I realized, by the force of devastation, why outness was not my foremost concern before. I had lived a queer life without a name in Iran, where I did not find disclosing my sexuality necessary. However, in Unspoken Rules, my forgetful memory had re-membered a community of lesbians in Iran for whom invisibility was the most important ordeal. Was it the “Iranian lesbian community” that I represented, or was it my desire to believe that there was a community of lesbians in Iran that forged such a community in my writing?
I have since thought about my lovers in Iran, the married and unmarried women whom I had met in Tehran's high schools and sports teams, Tabriz University's dormitories, and on the Iran-Payma bus on my way to Turkey on a quest to get a U.S. student visa. Did these women ever consider themselves to be lesbians, or did I want them to be lesbians after becoming an “advocate” for lesbian rights in the U.S.?
Undoubtedly, there are women in Iran who “self-identify” (do we ever, “self” identify?) as lesbians, as well as those who struggle to “live openly.” But there are also those who despite their relationships with other women, may not consider lesbian-identification, or being “out' as the struggle in their lives. And then, there are those who “re-member” memories in new places…
Becoming a Lesbian in Diaspora
I am often asked by those curious souls, who are surprised to see a queer Iranian woman, whether I “realized” that I was a lesbian after I came to the U.S. I often say no, to simplify the answer and to escape an unnerving conversation. However, I believe that my “lesbian-ness” was real-ized in diaspora. Undeniably, I had relationships with women in Iran, but never did I have to assert an identity and adopt a name to highlight my sexuality. I do not mean to idealize Iran as a place where people “endow themselves with an ars erotica” (Foucault, 1978, 1990: 57). I find this idealization of pleasure in the “Arabo-Moslem societies” an Orientalist perception.
I am well aware of the restrictive laws against homosexuality of men and women in Iran. However, my aim is to emphasize the different ways by which subjects are constructed at different times and locations by different discourses.
I think we need to think about how one's recognition as a queer subject in the U.S. is reliant on her/his sexualization and one's fixing to her/his essence of sexuality. We also need to think about how asylum laws (and I'm talking about asylum based on sexual orientation here) produce queer subjects and fix them into immutable sexualities, while claiming to protect and represent them, and how queers (both subjects and organizations that “represent” them) in fact shape not just queer asylum laws, but reiterate their norms through performativity. I also want to draw our attention to how the possibility of a queer subjecthood is dependent on “outness.” I want us to think about how once one enunciates her/his “outness,” one is fixed into sexualized categories that while destabilize norms, reiterate them.
Going back to my story… For me, becoming a queer subject in diaspora did not happen at a definitive point. (And when I say “becoming,” it does not mean that I am talking about a finished process. Obviously, my citation of the Iranian queer diaspora does not carry the same meaning in every temporal and spatial setting. Because of the continuous deferral of meaning, the term Iranian queer diaspora is not stable and may reiterate conventions or undermine them.) I have become and am still becoming a queer diasporic subject as I am interpellated by discourses that surround me and subject me to their rules of regulation (discourses that I contest and therefore shift in every becoming).
I “became” a lesbian when an asylum officer authorized my presence; I “became” an un-lesbian when I filled out the visa form in the American embassy in Turkey, where I had to answer “no” to the un-qualifying question of sexual deviancy; I became a lesbian when I married a woman and wore a tuxedo; I became an un-lesbian when I was scorned for forging a relationship with a “straight” woman; … and I am still becoming and unbecoming as I talk to you here at UCLA in this conference on homosexuality.
To be sure, in order to maintain my status as a subject, I have had (and continue to) to comply with hegemonic conventions, to the extent that I have embodied the realms of queer Iranian subjecthood. This does not take away my agency, as I am not just implicated by these conventions, but (as Judith Butler argues) participate/intervene in them in their reiterative course. (Asylum laws and advocacy, healthcare policies concerning “risk-prone” communities and advocacy for these communities are examples of this complying and shifting).
And so, you may ask, what is the point of emphasizing this becoming and being in my talk? Many times I hear people say that “we have to accept ourselves first and come out, form a community, and then when we are accepted, we can get to other things” (which I take means politics). My point in talking about becoming is to argue against this approach (for example see Dr. Payam's “Being real“). I don't think that one is born prior to discourse, or that s/he first becomes “complete” as a liberated gay/lesbian, and then engages in politics. One is not prior to politics, but always becoming through her/his dynamic relationship with multiple discourses and politics.
In addition, identities are never complete, but are always in flux and changing. So, I conceptualize self-hood and subjectivity not in teleological terms (assuming that one journeys through an evolutionary course to reach self-actualization, as for example, proposed in developmental frameworks of psychoanalysis), but in contingent and fragmented ways.
In other words, my terms are less certain and less celebratory of an “out” and liberated gay and lesbian-ness, even while I see the importance of affirmation of our existence. (And yes, “we exist!” as the title of the film in this conference asserts). This is how I come to talk about the Iranian queer diaspora, not as an abstract idea, but as embodied theory. I write from multiple positions that I occupy, not as fixed locations, but as historicized and contingent relationships between knowledge and experience.
At the end, am I suggesting that we do away with community-building efforts, if we are to critique fixed notions of identity? Certainly not! What I am suggesting is that we reevaluate our terms of activism and pay attention to exclusionary practices in territorializations of what is come to be imagined as a coherent Iranian gay and lesbian community. I believe that hegemonic discourses of Iranian-ness, American-ness, gay and lesbian-ness, along with discourses such as psychoanalysis, medicine/healthcare, and asylum, designate a particular space for queers, which is that of the abject; one outside the “norm.”
It is our performances of identity that reify these norms, even as we contest them. Contestation of power by Iranian queers and their negotiations for legitimate spaces in national imaginations and cultural narratives, such as history, transforms this notion of the “norm.” However, in this struggle for hegemony, particular identities, such as Iranian gay and lesbian, are coined as “real” through exclusion and complicity.
This critique is not to paralyze the possibility of politics, but to enable a different form of politics that is not solely celebratory and takes pride in taken-for-granted identities, but one that constantly and critically questions these identities. A form of politics that pays attention to resistances, as well as complicities; A form of politics that “steps back” and re-evaluates itself in its course of activism and does not just take part in activism for the sake of activism.