Coming Out for Gay and Lesbian Iranians
Payam Ghassemlou MFT, Ph.D.
As a gay Iranian living in Los Angeles, I would like to do my part in bringing attention to the fear, shame and isolation that many gay Iranians (gay primarily refers to the entire LGBT community) experience living in Iran and overseas. Per my dialogue with other gay Iranians, who are still living in Iran or have recently escaped the country, and as noted in several news articles, countless number of gays have been tortured and persecuted by the Iranian government. It has been reported that undercover Iranian law enforcement has entrapment operations that arrest and execute suspected gay people in secret prisons. Despite extreme violence against gay people in Iran, many still risk their lives by trying to exercise their basic human needs to connect and build loving relationships. They are brave people for jeopardizing their lives this way.
The world knows that not only the gay population but Iran itself is a victim of oppression. With worldwide recognition, the 2009 uprising in Iran has gained respect internationally at the cost of many sacrificing their lives just to be differentiated from the regime of the current dictator, Khamenei. More international efforts are being called to help Iran.
Gay Iranians who live abroad are dealing with other sets of challenges, including the struggle to come out and live an authentic life. They may not deal with Iran’s oppressive government, but they still find themselves oppressed by both intrinsic and extrinsic homophobia. Growing up in a homophobic and heterosexist society contributes to the angst of shame and rejection that most gay Iranians experience. Heterosexism dictates only one kind of existence and it is being married to the opposite sex and raising children. Any deviation from such a traditional lifestyle is denounced by individuals and religious groups that patronize heterosexism. One can only imagine how it feels like for LGBT people to grow up in such societies.
Extrinsic homophobia that many gay people experience includes being bullied and called derogatory names, not having freedom to marry, getting fired from their job, being blamed for AIDS, and becoming victim of gay bashing. As long as gay people are subject to homophobic mistreatment, the fight to challenge homophobia needs to continue.
The remedy for the negative impact of homophobia and heterosexism is self acceptance. Learning to take pride in one’s gay identity is an important step toward healing. Pride and self-acceptance requires work and dedication which involves participation in gay-affirming counseling sessions, attending coming out groups, volunteering for gay pride events, reading self affirming books, and building friendships with other gay people.
Gay Iranians often deal with lack of family acceptance and support. Many Iranian families who migrated to the United States live in close knit communities. Most of which live in Southern California and are most commonly referred to as Persians. For the most part, the Persian community does not embrace gayness. Lack of acceptance by the community and by their family members make it very difficult for some gay Persians to come out. As an immigrant myself, I understand that having a strong relationship with one’s family and one’s community are vital in order to survive in a foreign country. Many gay Iranians live a double life as a way to avoid jeopardizing such vital support. Staying “in the closet” helps many gay Iranians avoid rejection from their family and their community, but it comes with a high price. Many closeted gay people resort to lying and hiding their true identity which later on can lead to negative feelings like dishonesty and disingenuous. Gay individuals need to obtain support in order to avoid remaining a victim of homophobia and live a double life.
Coming out involves a degree of differentiation and establishment of a personal identity outside one’s family. Another reason gay Iranians might have a harder time coming out is due to difficulty in having a different identity than what is expected from their own family. A traditional Iranian family is patriarchal, and the father is the undisputed head of the family. The mother tends to encourage her children to respect their father’s authority and seek his approval. For the most part, no one dares to question this system, sacrificing one’s needs to gain parental approval. In many Iranian family systems, there is no room to express one’s gay identity. In most Iranian families coming out is viewed as “bringing shame to their family.” It is not uncommon for Iranian parents suppress their gay children by using guilt factors like accusing them of being “namak nashnas” (Persian for ungrateful).
Even though Persians who migrated to the United States are very educated people, still many of them believe that being gay is a choice and one can always change. I disagree on the other hand. It has never been a matter of choice for me and my intention of coming out to my family during my early twenties is to have a real relationship with them and stop pretending.
Sadly, for some repercussions of “coming out” can entails family violence, homelessness or extreme financial burden. The decision to come “out of the closet” is a continuous process that requires support from other individuals who have relevant experiences. Each individual has to assess his or her personal safety before deciding to move forward and come out. No one should be pressured or forced to come out.
Iranian families, who are dealing with their children coming out, also go through a painful journey. Many parents raise their children hoping they would grow up “normal” as affirmed by the conservative society. They look forward to having grand children as a result of their children’s heterosexual union. “Coming out” can shatter such dreams for many parents. Support groups are encouraged to assist these parents who mourn the loss of their children’s perceived heterosexual identity. Parents would often blame themselves, and they find difficulty understanding that it is not merely a choice. We are born this way. The best thing Iranian families can do for their gay children is accepting and loving them with no judgment. There is no valid reason for families to fall apart.
Being gay is more about loving another human being and should never be judged as unnatural. PFLAG, Parents, Friends and Families of Lesbians and Gays, is a national non-profit organization that aims to provide families with moral support and counseling to address their issues.
Despite all the suffering that gay people worldwide, Iranians as well, have endured due to homophobia, many have overcome these challenges and live happy lives. “It does get better,” as the saying goes.
No one should be made to feel bad about his or her identity. Iranian people have a rich culture of poetry and mysticism that is filled with homoerotic stories and poems. We can look into our own rich literature for validation of gay love. We can stand together and help to liberate one another from the bondage of homophobia hoping someday none of us has to suffer for love.
© Dr. Payam Ghassemlou MFT, Ph.D. is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (Psychotherapist), in private practice in West Hollywood, California. www.DrPayam.com
He is the author of Fruit Basket: A Gay Man’s Journey. In his book, Dr. Payam Ghassemlou writes about the psycho-spiritual journey of a gay man named Javid, in which he struggles with homophobia and having a life purpose. Available on Amazon