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A Space That Wasn’t Made for Me

Opinion | February 21, 2017

 

I am solely speaking about my experience as a queer, Persian man. I do not claim to understand or hope to speak for anybody else but myself. My experiences have been socialized by the immediate environment in which I was raised, and I fully realize how I have historically been complicit and involved in some of the systems and organizations that I criticize in this piece. My effort to improve as a person and to hold myself accountable for my actions is one that is not devoid of mistakes.

During recess one day in middle school, one of the coolest kids in my class, an attractive White male, asked me who some of my favorite singers were. Anxious to make a good impression, I thought of the Whitest shit I could come up with to please him: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Kurt Cobain, and Dave Matthews Band. I think I threw in Lil Wayne as well, because I have found that many White boys love reaffirming their “hipness” by admiring and “identifying” with Black rappers.

 

I grew up in a predominantly White, affluent neighborhood and attended a “prestigious” prep school in the greater Boston area. I quickly learned to value White activities like theater and tennis, both of which I really enjoyed, but all the while felt excluded from socially. I began to consider White, muscular men with rigid jawlines and blue eyes to be the epitome of attraction and beauty, shaping the way I began to look at myself in the mirror, and later contributing to the ways that I would begin to modify my body.

 

At the same time, my experiences assimilating to various aspects of White culture seemed to juxtapose with my identity as an Iranian-American. My parents emigrated from Iran to France and finally settled in Brookline, MA. I grew up in a house with Persian art, poetry, and music. I ate home-cooked Persian food every night, spoke Farsi with my family, and celebrated being Iranian by attempting to recognize the social implications that I thought being Iranian would mean.

 

Growing up, I always imagined that I would experience a universal bond with other Persians. I believed that the experiences we seemed to face as a community would transcend our often divisive, intersectional identities; however, I didn’t recognize how difficult it would be to navigate my Persian-ness as a queer man. I didn’t want to acknowledge the deeply rooted masculinity and patriarchal structure embedded within Persian culture that doesn’t give space to those with divergent and non-normative identities—specifically, queerness.

 

Identifying as gay, then eventually developing my sexuality to fit my own definition of queer, became an aspect of my identity that began to deteriorate the bond that I had tried to sustain between the Iranian community and myself. Once I began to realize how difficult it would be to find any space where my queerness and race could interact, I began to feel a deep sense of resentment towards myself. Never feeling quite Persian enough became a recurring sentiment at events, vacations, and dinners with my extended family. I found that my queerness seemed to dissuade my desire to “feel” Iranian by participating in the hyper-masculine activities and homophobic discourse that is rampant within many Persian social contexts that I have experienced.

 

As I sought to develop my identity further in college, something about associating myself as brown and not specifically as Persian began to muddle my identity and prevent me from characterizing my experiences as separate or unique. I don’t know what it feels like to be Latino. I do not identify as South Asian, nor do I consider myself an Arab—and so to experience struggle through the lens of an identity that cannot be located has made me feel that my brownness will not, and cannot, find a space to exist freely. Whether it is being misidentified or having my racial identity questioned, I have developed an uncomfortable relationship with claiming, accepting, and embracing being Iranian.

 

Whenever people used to ask about my ethnicity, I always responded by saying, “I’m Iranian.” Recently, however, I have begun to use the ethnic origin of my identity as a signifier of the unique culture that I ascribe myself with. Identifying and introducing myself as Persian marks an important and unique ethnic exclamation that has reaffirmed my desire to separate myself from other Middle Eastern and Arab cultures. (Contrary to popular belief, Persians are not ethnically Arab.)

 

Growing up and hearing Iran described as a threatening or evil country also made me uncomfortable publically identifying as Iranian. The inability for people in this country to disassociate Iran’s government from its people created this self-destructive pattern for me to constantly prove myself as a good Iranian, or disassociate from my racial background altogether. Today, I still find it terribly difficult navigating being Iranian given the current immigration ban that Trump’s administration has brought forth. Beyond the fallacy that the nations listed in the ban have contributed to acts of terror in the US (not a single one has), I also find it disheartening to hear Iran constantly being referred to under a false pretense of danger, terror, and otherness.

 

Despite the many “diverse” spaces at Tufts that foster important discussions for people of color, queer and trans folk, and women of color, I have found that, in order to join or feel welcomed into these dialogues or spaces, I have had to compromise aspects of my Persian-ness or succumb to adopting a generalized Middle Eastern identity in order to engage in discussions. I think that the socially conscious and active community at Tufts, which claims to create an inclusive space for marginalized individuals, tends to fall short in understanding or acknowledging the nuances of certain intersectional identities that exist on this campus, mine being one of many.

 

I grew up speaking Farsi, and the food that I have always eaten at home is so specific to Iran that I’m disheartened when our culture is generalized and placed within the socio-cultural landscape of others within the Middle Eastern region. Obviously, I am not angry or even shocked that people don’t know much about Iranian culture. It is rather the disregard or almost a sense of entitlement that many people on this campus feel when trying to locate my identity that puts me off. Surprisingly, people who major in American Studies, Sociology, and Anthropology have been among those who have asked me things like how spicy I like my food or if I know how to make homemade hummus. Iranian food is not spicy at all, and we don’t make or eat hummus unless we go out to restaurants.

 

Many times when White social justice activists on this campus ask me how to create more inclusive spaces for POC, I find that I want to respond by saying, “Stop trying to speak on behalf of identities that you don’t understand. Stop trying to locate us to fit into your social justice narrative or use us as a token to investigate intersectionality when you’re blindly unaware of the fundamental differences among our cultures.” For example, not identifying as a Middle Eastern gay man but rather as a Persian queer man is often read as commendable or “interesting” by socially active folks at Tufts, but rarely incorporated into important discussions or dialogues about queer POC on campus.

 

The socially unaware, uninvolved, and generally conservative White population at Tufts is truly, however, the largest demographic of individuals who have contributed to my anxieties, anger, and frustration. Whether it’s the toxic White gays at previous Rainbow House parties who have commented on and fetishized my “exotic” appearance, or White girls who love to tokenize my foreign queerness, you have all failed to recognize your internalized racism and homophobia. From the one frat brother who spat on me and my friend outside of a frat house window next to Moe’s my freshman year, to the multiple athletes who have physically pushed and verbally assaulted me at campus events, you have reminded me that regardless of how hard I try to make myself palatable to you, I am still a Persian faggot.

 

Despite all of this, however, I am constantly reminded of how privileged and lucky I truly am. My parents worked hard to put me through private school and then a liberal arts education, and I am forever grateful to them for the sacrifices they have made for me. My family has given me the space to explore my identities and embrace me for wanting to hold onto or discard certain aspects of both. Many queer Persians, however, do not experience the same socio-economic security, access to education, and support that I have, and I recognize how fortunate I am to even be able to speak up and feel safe to talk about this on a platform where my thoughts can hopefully be validated.

 

Luckily, I have been able to surround myself by some incredible Persian individuals on this campus who strive to include the intersections of my queerness and Iranian identity into a dialogue, giving me a platform to exist comfortably. Given the current socio-political climate of this country, I have found an immense amount of strength and desire to make our identities as Persian known. My unequivocal love for Persians is the strongest it has ever been. No ban on earth could prevent us from succeeding wherever we go, and I hope that people at Tufts and those within my close circle of friends will seek to learn more about Iran’s immensely influential history, culture, and society before calling themselves allies.

 

For me to not speak up after three and a half years of having people speak for me would further detract from the importance of celebrating my overlapping, yet individually valid, identities. Tufts, especially in its attempts to create or foster a space for inclusiveness, does not incorporate the nuances of socio-cultural and ethnic identities into a space that unidentifiable individuals can claim.

 

To the handful of professors and sociology majors that see my identities as unique and different, I’m appreciative of you. To the greater socially “active” and “progressive” White activists, women, and queer folk on campus, practice what you preach. Don’t think that individuals like me are not constantly trying to make ourselves palatable to you either. And finally, to the ex-lovers, friends, and professors who have pushed me into a space where self-hatred and discomfort have permeated the past 15 years of my life, I look back on my experiences with you not as moments when I wasn’t strong enough to speak up against you, but rather as a time when I just didn’t know where to locate that strength.