LOS ANGELES (Circa) — Once a month, Iranian parents of Iranian-American LGBT teens and adults in Beverly Hills, California, come together to get a little closer to "acceptance," says Shahriar Tavakoli, who has a 23-year-old son who's gay.
They're part of "We Do Care: Iranian-American Parents of LGBTQ," a support, advocacy and leadership group for parents who are struggling to come to terms with their child's sexuality. For some, it's the only place where they can talk about it.
If you say you're gay, they will kill you, so people don't say that.
"It’s very difficult to come out as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender in the Iranian community because the Iranian community is a very collectivist culture," said Mastaneh Moghadam, LCSW and executive director of Cross Cultural Expressions, Community Counseling Center, the organizing force behind the group. "Meaning that it’s not really about the individual. The culture really sees the family unit and the society as part of one big machine that works together. And if any part of that machine is not moving forward in the same way, then it’s drawing attention to itself. And in a collectivist culture, drawing attention to yourself is often perceived as a negative thing to do.”
"We couldn't believe it," said Sima and Albert Toubia of the day their son came out to them. "We said, 'Is this really happening to us?'"
A lot of the parents are immigrants, leaving behind family and customs in Iran. One custom, or law, I should say: Under sharia law, homosexual intercourse between men can be punished by death, and men can be flogged for kissing.
"If you say you're gay, they will kill you, so people don't say that," says Saeed Termechi of his home country, Iran.
The group of about 45 parents meets once a month at the Beverly Hills Public Library. Moghadam started the group in 2015 when Sima Toubia came to her asking her to start a support group of sorts. This was years after her son had come out. Four people showed up to that first meeting.
"At that moment, I thought, I need something for parents because [the kids] are out. We need to come out," said Toubia.
It makes sense that the group has grown so much so fast. Some call Los Angeles "Tehrangeles" because it has the largest concentration of Iranians in the world outside of Iran, according to a 2012 BBC report.
As a parent to another parent who has an LGBTQ [child], when the kids come out, open your arms and just hug them.
I visited part of the group on a Wednesday night in Encino, California. For privacy reasons, I couldn't attend one of the "We Do Care" meetings. Moghadam says a lot of the parents there aren't "out" about their child's sexuality yet. Still, what I saw from the parents I spoke to was a sense of family. They all greeted each other with open arms, cracked jokes and asked about each other's kids.
"We learn a lot from each other, like this one woman who has three gay children," said Termechi. Termechi says the group has educated him on a lot of things. "I realized my fear came from my [lack of] knowledge of homosexuality. I thought my son was going to be alone, not able to get married or have kids."
"It's funny [because] it just kind of becomes this kind of thing where now the child is helping the parent come out of the close, essentially, with their family and friends,” said Moghadam.
Kathy Tavakoli, Shahriar's wife, says she's learned a lot from the group.
"I think we learned that we need to make it a broader group than just the family and reach out and hopefully normalize it for more people out there and to be active in the community is a big deal," said Tavakoli. And she is doing just that. A few weeks before this meeting, I saw her speak at a panel in Irvine, California, titled "I-ran Out of the Closet." She shared her experiences as a mother of a gay recent college graduate.
And it's even helpful for the kids. Bobby, Saeed Termechi's son, who is 23 years old, says "joining the group and observing a large number of Iranian parents who had similar experiences really helped alleviate all [their] shock."
"The group has turned into a really big family," said Bobby. "Beyond getting together to discuss important LGBTQ+ related issues, the parents and LGBTQ+ kids routinely gather together for social events and genuinely enjoy each other's company. The sense of community, belonging and family is truly priceless."
All of the parents I spoke with say they are now very comfortable talking about their child's sexuality and are fully accepting of their kids. Some say they've been surprised with how accepting their own parents have been.
"They're having a very hard time to deal with this in this world that we are in. It makes it a lot harder if they also have to fight with their parents. As a parent to another parent who has an LGBTQ [child], when the kids come out, open your arms and just hug them."
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