Losing My Identity: Only Gay When I'm Not Iranian

Published: October 23, 2011

I came out to my parents nine years ago, when I was twenty-two. Before I told them about my sexuality, I managed to create a scenario in my mind where they would respond negatively, which is why I came out to them last. I was dead wrong about their initial reaction.

A few days after I told them (via e-mail, of course), my father sent me a email that read, “As you can imagine, this is difficult news for your Iranian parents. Nevertheless, you are our son and we love and respect you.”

I was shocked. Could this be easier than I expected? While that email was something out of a dream for me, I soon learned about the conditions attached to their respect.
The morning after my father sent his letter, my mother called and told me that under no circumstances could I ever reveal my sexual orientation to any Iranian friends living in the U.S. or any of our relatives in Iran. Her tone wasn’t one of concern, she was angry—as if revealing my sexuality to our Iranian family and community would lead to some catastrophic event.

Initially, her demand didn’t bother me much. I was just happy to have my immediate family and friends know about my sexuality. But soon, I began to feel as if the walls were closing in around me. Because of the restrictions imposed by my parents, I slowly began to lose my identity.

A year and a half later, at my sister’s wedding, my relatives and Iranian friends bombarded me with questions about my dating life. Did I have girlfriend? Would I be getting married soon? “No,” I said, “I’m too busy, I haven’t met anyone I like.”

My scripted response became progressively more defensive throughout the night as I felt myself slipping away.

At the wedding, I saw my cousin (who was the first person I came out to). Her presence reminded me of how we used to imagine our own wedding celebrations. We both fantasized about having two ceremonies, one in America and one in Iran. The bond I shared with my cousin about Iranian weddings, the tradition, the pomp—pieces that felt distinctly part of my identity—was something I had to pretend never existed. My parents had succeeded in getting me to deny my sexuality, and thus, my identity, to the very people who had helped to shape it.

A few years after my sister’s wedding, I let my guard down at a dinner party in Los Angeles and corrected an Iranian family friend who asked if I had a girlfriend. I told her that I didn’t and that I was gay. The next morning, I received an angry phone call from my parents, who demanded to know why I told this friend the truth. My mother said, “Heterosexuals don’t advertise their sexuality, why do you have to?”
I have gay friends who live two separate lives, one with their friends, who eventually become a surrogate family and one with their biological family. With friends, they are openly gay and proud. With their biological family, they create a shadow life that borders on asexuality. I always thought I was different from these friends, at least my family knew, at least I could go home without having to pretend to be someone I wasn’t. But I realized that I was living a double life of my own, a life of selective isolation thrust upon me by my mother and father.

Many of my friends face the same fate. While not Iranian, they are from families that are socially conservative. Their immediate families know about their sexual orientation, but their parents have also restricted them from sharing that part of their identity with other family members and people in their communities. I have countless friends, even from very liberal families, who have been told, “Don’t say anything to Grandma, she’s too old to handle it.”

My mother always behaved as if this imposed denial of my sexuality from our circle of family and friends was for my own protection. She claimed that she didn’t want me to be hurt and didn’t want my disclosure to prevent me from visiting my relatives in Iran. I realize now that she wasn’t protecting me, she and my father were only protecting themselves from the shame they felt.

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