Dena Rod’s longstanding dream to visit Iran, their parents’ homeland, feels incredibly far away. Heightened tensions with the United States aside, they’re married to a woman and writes about both their queer identity and the government’s persecution of people like them, in the country.
At the same time, the Bay Area writer has grappled with what it means to have their parents feel like they had to tolerate their sexuality due to being in a different country, as if it were a Western influence. Rod was encouraged to not tell their extended family before they were married, who already knew through what they called “the Persian phone tree.”
But these are the kinds of experiences and conversations Iranian Americans are increasingly able to have as the community deepens its roots in the country. On June 20, it will be front-and-center as Rod and three other writers conduct LGBTQIA-centric readings and storytellings for a Pride event-turned-online dubbed “Out in the Diaspora.”
“There’s no singular space for us unlike other groups who have entrenched histories in the area,” said Rod. “We’re creating the representation that we didn’t have growing up. That’s creating a space for the generation behind.”
Rod and fellow local writer Daniel Rafinejad both contributed to “My Shadow is My Skin: Voices from the Iranian Diaspora,” an anthology released earlier this year. They’ll be joined by Nina Mir, a trans writer and San Francisco State University student, and Mokhtar Paki, a visual artist, and writer who will do a traditional Iranian oral storytelling form called naghali.
The reading hosted by San Francisco State University’s Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies and Diaspora Arts Connection will be followed by a dance-focused component on June 25. The Center’s chair, Persis Karim, will moderate a conversation with designer Hushidar Mortezaie and choreographer Shireen Rahimi before a joint performance.
Echoing the same phrasing as the event, Iranian-born Supervisor Ahsha Safaí issued a proclamation on Monday that designated June 2020 as “Out in the Iranian Diaspora” month in San Francisco.
“[The event] signals that we don’t really have to spend all that energy pretending it doesn’t exist,” Karim said. “Maybe that’s the case in Iran, but it’s not the case here. For some people, it’s more a secondary part of their community because they’re immigrants first, Iranians first. There’s now a more critical mass of people who claim they’re LGBTQIA.”
It took especially long for Iranian-raised Mir and Paki to feel comfortable doing so even in the Bay Area. Mir, who first moved to New Orleans about 14 years ago and gained asylum, described being in the closet in Iran more like being in a bunker, which was especially painful while they were in a relationship.
While Mir experienced an “absolute breakdown” in communication with their parents after coming out a couple of years ago, an upper-middle-class friend in Tehran was able to be open enough with her parents to hold parties with queer friends.
“Reactions of most Iranians of anything trans or anything gay is similar to how religious Americans have been reacting to these matters,” Mir said. “The difference is in the United States, you talk about the rights of gay people as human beings, you don’t get put in jail and tortured and be labeled as a spy for Israel. There is a lot of work to do.”
In the Bay Area, that’s meant Mir has been denied tutoring gigs after someone realizes on the phone that they have a feminine name without a voice to match, and had security guards swarm when going to the women’s bathroom at a Greyhound station in Oakland. They also have not yet connected with family in the East Bay since moving to San Francisco, unsure if it’s due to transphobia.
Participating in an Iranian diaspora gathering marks a departure from Mir avoiding Iranians for more than a decade. It also means being part of a community in the Bay Area, where they’ve had a harder time making friends, in general.
“It is very lonely,” Mir said. “This is the first time I’m actually opening myself up to anything Iranian in the United States.”
Reconvening with Iranians comes as some in the diaspora are working to weave in American multiculturalism, rather than exist in a silo.
Mortezaie considers his and Rahimi’s upcoming performance as an extension of one presented at the Center’s 2019 International Conference on Iranian Diaspora Studies, which reflected Iranian obsession with the pre-1979 Iranian Revolution using old Persian script, newspaper clippings and cigarette packs fashioned into outfits.
But it came with a modern, inclusive twist: black, brown, nonbinary, trans and queer dancers in those outfits, vogeuing to club music. (Vogueing is a competitive dance form that came out of black and Latino LGBTQ communities in 1960s Harlem.)
“It’s sort of the canceling of identity and paving a future that has not been there,” Mortezaie said. “It’s taking things out of context and giving them a new life. This is the moment for this cause.”
“Out in the Diaspora: Readings and Storytelling” will take place on Saturday, June 20 at 3 p.m., over Zoom and requires emailing email@example.com to receive the link. The dance event will be streamed live on the Center for Diaspora Studies’ Facebook page on Thursday, June 25 at 5 p.m.