Yashar Ali sees himself as equal parts Iranian and gay. But when forced to compartmentalize his sexuality, Yashar found his whole identity falling apart.
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.
What has been so confusing about the conditions my parents set up about my sexuality is that growing up, my mother had one for rule for me: that I should always tell her the truth. Lying was the worst thing I could do. She and my dad never pretended to be anybody they weren’t. They were never interested in keeping up with the Joneses. But when it comes to a fundamental part of who I am as a person, I am suppose to lie and hide.
My mom’s distaste for lying is no exception to the lessons many of us learn growing up. Our parents always teach us, as kids, to tell the truth. They teach us to be ourselves. But as kids, we aren’t usually conscious of who we are—our identities haven’t fully formed. The problem arises when we begin to have a clear sense of ourselves and we start to apply the same lessons about telling the truth as adults, that we learned as kids. At this point, our desire to tell the truth becomes an inconvenience for our parents. Those lessons are expected to go right out the window and we are encouraged to be people we are not.
When I think about my identity, I see myself as equal parts Iranian and gay. I grew up in a time and place where I was asked to call myself “Josh” or some other easy-to-say American name when someone couldn’t pronounce my Iranian name. I always refused—I was proud of my name, proud of being Iranian. My parents were always so proud that I, their son, was proud of my ethnicity. Their shame about my sexuality stripped me of my identity in many ways.
When I told people about being gay and Iranian, I didn’t feel an attachment to either. I had forgotten who I was.
My parents aren’t monsters. I recognize that living with one mindset for over sixty years can lead to irrational behavior when presented with a direct alternative. I also understand that as immigrants, and like so many people of their generation, their decision-making is based on fear. They are consumed with sadness about my sexuality because they associate it with AIDS and a life of social hardship. This fear explains a lot of their questions and concerns. But their demand that I deny my sexuality around other Iranians is based on their shame and nothing else.
Growing up in Chicago, I faced a great deal of bullying from my elementary school classmates because of my ethnicity. They bullied me after hearing about the Iran-contra scandal and the Salman Rushdie fatwa, news that trickled down to them through their parents. I will never forget that my mom, knowing I would never admit to what I was going through, would pick me up for lunch almost everyday. She did it to give me a break. She did her best to protect me.
What has been most painful about my coming out experience is that my parents’ behavior towards my sexuality has reminded me of the pain I felt in elementary school: the shame, the isolation, the knot in my stomach as I walked to school, and me wanting nothing more than to run out and free myself.
Last January, I decided I had enough of living an inauthentic life—on more levels than one. I left my job in the Bay Area and moved back to Los Angeles. I didn’t know exactly what was wrong, but I just didn’t feel like myself. I felt more lost than ever.
It wasn’t until this past May, when I logged onto Facebook on a weekday morning, that I realized what my problem was. My friend Jamie had posted pictures from his sister’s wedding on his Facebook page. His photos reminded me of my own unhappiness at my sister’s wedding. Jamie’s photos showed him happy, smiling, enjoying the moment. He went to the wedding with his boyfriend. There was no shame—just a normal family.
The contrast saddened me. Why didn’t I have the same freedom with my family? The few times I looked at the photos from my sister’s wedding, I cringed. In those pictures, my smile is not my own, I was confused and sad. Jamie’s photographs of his sister’s wedding made it clear to me the pain brought on by this split identity and my parents’ shame about my sexuality had spread like a virus through my life. It has impacted me in ways both big and small.
I decided that it was no longer up to my mother and father to control whether I live authentically. At age thirty-one, I need to take responsibility for my own life, despite their attempts to place me in a box—one created to fit their needs of what they see as acceptable for their son.
I told them that I would be writing about my sexuality and other topics that they would probably deem as private. Their response, to say the least, was not pleasant. They said, “We just don’t want to be hurt.”
It was so frustrating for me to see those words across my computer screen. They didn’t want to be hurt? Even though it was unintentional, the pain caused by their demand was overwhelming. And they were concerned about being hurt? I had enough.
I made it clear to them that the option of denying my identity to protect their shame can no longer be the case—I will gladly not have them in my life if they refuse to support me. The idea that I should suffer because I share genetic material with someone was absurd to me.
A few days passed by and I received an email from my mother. She wrote, “Sometimes courage skips a generation.”
But I don’t see my decision to re-claim my identity as an act of courage. After all, I’m just doing what my mother always asked me to do: I’m telling the truth.
This post first appeared on The Current Conscience
photo: ElvertBarnes / flickr