Iran’s a funny one. For many first-generationers, including myself, our families stand out as immigrants from one of the most stringent Islamic republics in the world, as being curiously liberal in their day-to-day lives. Most of us are Islamic by culture, rather than practice, and we maintain our connection via token gestures like avoiding pork, observing Ramadan etc. while plenty are secular. I’ve noticed a strong desire to assimilate in Iranians, which I believe in part to be down to a long history of contact and trade between the Persians and a myriad of Ancient peoples’ over centuries. How curious then, that homosexuality should still be one of the greatest taboos within our community.
Famously, Ahmadinejad dismissed the idea when he was questioned in the aftermath of numerous executions in Iran of several men found guilty of the charge of sodomy. He insisted this ‘ugly behaviour’ does not exist in his country, and that the West could not expect such a thing to be legitimized in other countries.
In my mid-teens I became an avid reader. I got sick of the focus on English literature, so I began to explore Middle Eastern poetry, seeking out Persian literature at the city library. I was struck by the abundance of homoeroticism in pre-Islamic poetry, which was the primary artistic medium the time, a contrast especially stark when held against the treatment of homosexuals in recent times under Islamic rule. So there was a time when gay love was accepted…even celebrated?
My own beliefs that you do not choose your sexuality were cemented by the close relationships I developed with several gay friends in school, as well news of continuing persecution of LGBT people all around the world. Why would one choose to be a certain way if it meant a lifetime of difficulty and persecution? It’s 2017 now, and being LGBT in our community is something we badly need to talk about. So I set about trying to meet the gays of Tehrangeles, a task I hadn’t expected to be so difficult. The stigma apparently endures so strongly that most people I made contact with backed out of meeting face to face, so I realized I’d have to speak to someone who was out and proud.
A cursory Google search for ‘Gay and Iranian’ takes me to the Facebook profile of Arya Marvazy, HR consultant, community organizer, Assistant Director of JQ International and member of L.A.’s thriving Jewish community. I make contact and a week later we are sat at a cafe in Melrose, sharing the tin of custom candy I bought as a gift and he tells me his story.
Like many, from the first flush of romantic feelings in early adolescence, he knew something was different. Accepting himself was a long journey that began with a fraternity brother, a fellow Persian Jew, coming out to him while they were still in college. Watching a mirror of himself blossom as an openly gay man was hugely inspiring, but it was during a move to Washington D.C., followed by Israel to study where he first felt brave enough to come out to friends and siblings, who were incredibly supportive, all the while avoiding the subject with his parents. In some ways, he says, the tiny, insular nature of LA’s Persian Jewish community means they are uniformly more conservative, making the stigma of homosexuality even greater.
Over seven years of playing a hide-and-seek game of selective ‘outness’, Arya mustered up the courage and communal support to come out to his parents during Passover of 2015.
While they took the expected time to process together, his parents were soon acting in a role of support. Like so many middle-eastern cultures, there is an emphasis on family respect and reputation. One must assume there are plenty of LGBTQ Iranians, but the shame associated with it so often stifles their stories that knowing how to navigate the reality is basically impossible. While his parents came to terms with his news, Arya was embracing his newfound openness, and a deep-seated desire to help others inspired him to create a coming out video, which he posted to Facebook. Naturally his parents were the first to know, as he wanted their approval and support. His mother who was on her way to accepting her son in his entirety, was hesitant for how it would be received. She even sat with him as he posted, watching the comments come in in real time as it became viral. As the positive comments and likes flew in she was astounded, excitedly reading them aloud. Pride and love for her son overcame her fear, and now, incredibly, Arya actually refers parents of friends in similar situations to his mother and father for guidance.
Naturally, he received his fair share of bigotry, but those negative comments were the minority. He’s regularly approached online for help on platforms like Facebook and Instagram, and amazingly, apps like OkCupid and Grindr too. He mentions his bisexual Persian friend who works alongside him at JQ, who has an abundance of closeted female friends too scared of repercussions, to come out. Later when I finally find some, I talk to Iranian women online who say they have to be incredibly careful with their lesbian dating profiles, and will absolutely never tell their parents about their identity. The fear, they say, isn’t a physically harmful backlash, it’s the knowledge they will be ostracized, of seeing the look of pain on their parents’ faces as they realize their child is (apparently) bound for hell for all eternity. It’s the fear of embarrassing the family.
I ask if he feels any conflict between his identities as a gay, Jewish and Persian man. Again, with conviction he states no. Human dignity and a commitment to family is at the core of his Judaism, and he feels God would want him to make the very best of his life as his authentic self. Moreover, he identifies with what he considers Judaism’s incredible capacity to evolve with time – to evolve in the modern world.
Finally, I ask what his goals for the future are and he talks about improving culture-specific resources for LGBTQ youth, as people from our community face unique challenges left unaddressed by a lot of mainstream services. His organization works with Jewish and secular institutions to improve Queer visibility and inclusion. Long-term, his vision is having a Sephardic synagogue openly accept the notion of homosexuality, which is an enormous step.
Persian (and Jewish) culture is heavily geared towards family, and when I ask if he intends to have one of his own he emphatically states ‘absolutely’. Family, love, tradition are at the core of who we are, even as integrated, first generation Iranians. We agree that we both want to marry the wonderful aspects of our culture to make ourselves the very best as modern Persians. Customs, like unrivalled generosity with strangers and ta’arof. He asks if I know what it is and when I laugh yes he presses me to take another sweet from the jar I gave him. We chew companionably and I smile. Some things don’t ever change.