Two gay men, two lesbians, one transgender woman, one mother of a gay son. Six Iranians of varying backgrounds and religious affiliations speaking candidly about who they are and what their life’s journey has entailed. Going on record, being photographed and videotaped, telling stories of being thrown out of their house by their parents in the middle of the night, seeking help from psychiatrists who instead called them names and showed them the door, reading the same handwritten line —
“Mom, I’m gay” — a hundred times without being able to grasp the meaning. Stories about having to be patient, understanding, even forgiving of loved ones who turned their back on them, or realizing that it would take time and hard work to “educate” one’s parents about what being gay really is. About managing to mend what was broken, or accepting that acceptance would never come.
And all the time they’re speaking, I’m thinking of my cousin Ellie (not her real name), a nice Jewish girl with a promising future, circa 1970, who ran away from home to marry her math tutor. Ellie was 18. The math tutor was Muslim. Whatever else the two might have had going for or against them was entirely irrelevant. Forty years ago in Iran, marriage between a Jew and a Muslim was the social-suicide equivalent of coming out as LGBT within today’s Iranian community in L.A.
I used to see Ellie all the time until she eloped and broke everyone’s heart. She was 10 years older than me and headed for college (the math tutor was preparing her for the entrance exams) when I last saw her in Iran. As far as I know, she never got a chance to speak about her life as a heretic. She was a stoic, private person anyway, much better at listening than at talking. Even if she had wanted to speak, the damage that kind of openness would have done to her family, back then, would have been more than devastating. To this day, everything I know about that part of her life is what I overheard as a child or have since learned through hearsay.
But on the evening of March 9 in West Hollywood, this new bunch of apostates is talking as if there’s no tomorrow. And that’s not even the strangest part.
For one thing, the room is filled to capacity and there are people standing in the back and along the sides of the auditorium. Even the organizers hadn’t dared hope for such a turnout.
More importantly, the vast majority of the audience is Iranian. To say that this event marks a watershed moment in the (very long) history of the Iranian culture since Islam is no exaggeration.
And these were Iranians of all ages, even ones who looked as if they are in their 70s. And they are Jewish and Muslim, which is another thing — Muslim and Jewish Iranians united in a common cause — you don’t often see in this town. Many are parents or siblings of LGBTQ individuals, which means they are awfully brave to out themselves not only as related to, but also supportive of, their own or all LGBTQ people. Many others don’t have a personal stake in the conversation or its consequences; they’ve come out of curiosity, or a willingness to understand, or a desire to show support.
Not that a couple of hundred people coming together in West Hollywood to talk about what it’s like to be an LGBTQ Iranian is going to change thousand-year-old beliefs and attitudes within a worldwide population of 80-plus million. But the very fact that such a gathering is taking place, and that it’s free of judgment, disapproval or “let’s save our children from this modern-day plague,” is in itself groundbreaking.
The organizers say they created the event to “give voice to Iranians who do not believe anyone should be shamed based on their gender identity or sexual preferences,” to “shed light on what it means to be Iranian and LGBTQ.” The hope, they say, is that understanding will lead to tolerance and, in time, acceptance.
They must realize, I say to myself, that for many in this community, them is some serious fighting words. If this event is an auspicious beginning for some, for others it doubtless will be an equally forceful confirmation that their worst fears — as one Iranian goes, so go all Iranians — were well-placed. Back in the day, when I still had conversations with people at social gatherings about politics, religion and why there’s nothing wrong with having gay teachers at the Valley Beth Shalom day school, the prevalent doctrine among the anti-gay caucus was that the more accepted homosexuality becomes, the more heterosexuals will become gay. Religious people confessed that they would rather their children have a terminal disease than be gay; that they would forgive a gay child or sibling or friend, as long as he or she lived a heterosexual life.
To them, this notion of inviting straight people to understand and accept gayness, especially Iranian gayness, would be tantamount to proselytizing. Which would inevitably lead to conversion. Which, in turn, would lead to damnation.
I do want to emphasize here that this kind of opinion has never been universal among Iranians. We’re not all subscribers to the fire-and-brimstone school of thought, or self-appointed captains of the morality patrol. Some of us even welcome diversity and aren’t afraid to say so. Others are more heedful of the collective sentiment, reluctant to risk the judgment of those with the loudest voices.
They just don’t publicly advertise their live-and-let-live attitude, because it may be interpreted as indicating a lax moral fiber, or mean a lesser marriage for their children some day in the distant future. For them, this panel might serve as notification that times have changed, and, improbable as it once seemed, so has our community.
More fighting words, yes, and perhaps greater cause for alarm among the “traditionalists.” Change, they will tell you, is not always for the better. Some rules, they will say, are absolute and immutable.
If God said it, it must be true.
Then again, there’s my cousin Ellie.
Ellie’s father sat shiva for her and refused to see her until she had left her husband some 10 or 12 years later. Her mother held out for a good five years before giving in and seeing her, on the sly and without her husband’s knowledge, once in a long while for a few minutes. By the time Ellie came back, some years after the revolution, all three of their lives were broken beyond repair.
The math tutor turned out to be a disaster of a husband and, in time, a cruel and vengeful father to the only child he and Ellie had. She stayed with him for as long as she could bear to, and when she asked for a divorce, he took their child and disappeared. Maybe she would have left him early in the marriage, started over somewhere outside Iran, if she’d had a home or family to go back to. Maybe their child could have found safe harbor from her pitiless father with her grandparents. Maybe the marriage, or at least mother and child, would have fared better if surrounded by the proverbial village.
“Parents are the circle of trust and comfort for their kids, and if they can’t provide that, then who will?” one of the panelists says.
“This is about all of us being in it together … the more we learn to embrace and respect each other, the better our quality of life will be. This is about all of us,” another one says.
Ellie’s parents were not cruel people. To the day he died, her father was a hero among Tehran’s poor and underprivileged for giving of himself and his own to help others. Her mother was everyone’s best friend. Cutting off their only daughter caused not only her, but also them, everlasting pain. It’s not what they wanted; it’s what they thought they had to do.
Only they didn’t know, in 1970 Tehran, that breaking with convention was a viable choice; that what seems inconceivable today will be commonplace tomorrow. That times will change, society will adapt, and there are no absolutes.
Largely because of the revolution, our very old community quickly adapted to some very novel practices. Intermarriage with a Muslim, while still rare and frowned upon, is no longer a death sentence. Families have learned to accept and adapt, choose their children’s happiness over the community’s approval if they had to.
As for the morality patrol: There’s an expression in Farsi my mother was fond of when I was young: “Sooner or later, everyone will wake up to find this camel asleep at their door.” It’s the equivalent of “no one will escape unscathed.”
At least half a dozen people in the audience March 9 — I know for a fact — had spent years privately or publicly condemning gays and lesbians, warning of the consequences of indulging alternate lifestyles, carrying the banner of reputation and respectability within the Iranian community. Until one of their own came out.
To their everlasting credit, these and many other families who were not present at the event have been able to learn and accept, even embrace, their new reality. It can’t be easy, I imagine, no matter how open-minded and tolerant you are, to suddenly find yourself part of an often-maligned minority, to risk the disapproval, even condemnation, of some in the community in exchange for their loved ones’ well-being. The rest of us liberal armchair quarterbacks should be so lucky as to cope with any novel actuality as well as many of today’s families have.
Then again, perhaps the great achievement of the organizers of and participants on the panel March 9 was that it proved, to many who might not have noticed on their own, that at this time, in this place, we do have a choice.
Gina Nahai’s most recent novel is “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.”
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