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Jumping Over Fire

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GAY IRANIAN AMERICANS
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Q: How does a gay Iranian American write about his life and protect his family at the same time?

A: He doesn't.

I've never been to Iran, but it looks really beautiful in all the photos I've seen. Even in the portraits of war and political upheaval, there is an underlying loveliness in the backdrop that makes the horror poignant. The pictures of crumbling monuments and big family gatherings in living rooms decorated with coral and teal and marble never look real, but each time my father returns from Iran, he has what seems like thousands of such photos. He leaves them, wrapped up in a stack in front of me, as if to say that I should look at them only when I have a good amount of time and thought to devote to understanding what they are. They're pictures of my family, most of whom I've never met, and my country. It's a place I've never been, and it's a place where people like me are deemed criminals. Well.

My dad was born in Iran in 1961, and thanks to some family military connections, he came to America in a giant Boeing 747 cargo plane outfitted with some shoddy seats for its passengers. They landed in a military base in Newark, N.J., and then it was off to rural Milo, Ore., where he attended a Seventh Day Adventist high school. My father did not have a religious upbringing (something that most of my friends find hard to believe; it proves very difficult for a lot of well-meaning Americans to separate Iran's religious government from its people), and I've always thought it funny that of all the religions that could have been imposed on him during his adolescence and teenhood, the most harshly imposed was probably that of the Seventh Day Adventists. Nothing much happened there, though. It was a boarding school. He witnessed a few vinyl record burnings and dated a pretty disco queen with strawberry blonde hair. I can remember a photo of the happy couple that looked like it could have been taken straight out of Saturday Night Fever, if Travolta were replaced by Pacino.

Most of the time, that's why my mother says she married him: because he looked like Al Pacino. My dad says he married her because she wouldn't stop inviting herself over, writing letters asking him to be hers (she yelled at him when he didn't ask for her number after their first date). He was a 24-year-old Iranian graduate student pursuing a degree in engineering at a university near St. Louis, and she was a 32-year-old telephone company employee with, seriously, the best sense of humor. Not that I was around when she was courting him or anything. But I've seen exactly where I was conceived, exactly where I spent most of my time as a Persian-American babe, and exactly where I was coddled by jovial, middle-aged women in daycare and preschool. Regardless of the time and place, my parents divorced when I was 3 years old.

It was perfect. I didn't have to deal with a crazy divorce, because I was too young to remember it, and my parents joined forces for family meals and holiday gatherings quite a lot, actually. They still laughed at each other, and they still drove each other crazy, and from a very early age I understood that they just weren't supposed to be married. They did something that they weren't meant to do, and when they realized it, they ended it. Even as a child, I respected them for that. They were intelligent, and lovely, and fierce protectors of doing what they felt in their heart, and not what the rest of the unhappy families of the American Midwest might've done.

Bleak moments came and went in my childhood, too. I saw my father far less than my mother, and some evenings I couldn't fight the urge to call him and check up on him and tell him I missed him and that I had a good feeling that he must be very lonely. It wasn't until very recently that he remarried, so I'd picture him alone, eating dinner in front of a soccer game. Bleak, too, were the losses of my pet hamsters, the losses of my mother's jobs, and the deaths of my mother's gay friends, Larry and Joey. I was too young to know what "gay" was, let alone AIDS. One Christmas they gave me a giant teddy bear with green satin on the bottoms of its feet. It smelled like their cologne.

In Kindergarten (or before?) my parents happily bought me postcards with Luke Perry of 90210 on them. My room was filled with Elvis Presely memorabilia, conveniently one of my mother's favorite musicians and my biggest and most intense crush. Never mind being called gay by my classmates as I entered an unrivaled school system in the Midwest, I believe one of the first introductions to this word "gay" was by my mother, when a handsome man stopped us at the mall and asked us if we'd like to make a donation to his, most likely, AIDS charity. My mother said to me a few moments later that she'd love to have a gay friend to go shopping with.

When my mother found pages of shirtless soap hunks (and worse) on our computer's history and confronted me about it in tears one night after a friend and I returned from a Beatles impersonation concert, I told her it must have been a virus, and that I was very attracted to women. I was in seventh grade. After the storm had settled and my father went home, she wiped away her tears and motioned to a Music Man poster on my wall. We both gazed on at Matthew Broderick's face (it was the ABC television movie, not the original Broadway cast), and my mother said, "It's just that... most boys your age have pictures of Sports Illustrated models on their walls."

The years flew, and my mother and I fought, and there was more porn, and at some point in high school I gave in to my parents' accusations and said, sure, maybe I did like men. My father was furious and wouldn't speak to me for a day or two. I can remember being called home from a giant New Year's Eve party that my friend Monica and I were throwing junior year. I was living with my father at the time, but it was my mother who picked me up and said that he was very angry at what he'd found, and that we should talk, just her and I, before I went home. We had a milkshake, and I was very frank. And soon, it was just quietly accepted.

College came, and I talked openly with my mother about my first boyfriend. My father and I were very close by this time, and still, I probably talk to him at least twice a day, about little things like tomatoes, about big things like breakups. One year, though, I came home from school just in time for the Persian New Year in March, and my father bought a giant fire pit for us to jump over in our backyard, as is the Persian New Year tradition. You give the fire your yellowness and take from it its redness. It was a funny picture: a boy who, because of where he lived in the Midwest, had been ashamed of his heritage for years, taking part in an age-old Iranian tradition. Maybe my desire to partake came partially from knowing that my lifestyle was rejected in Iran. After a few leaps and bounds from the both of us, we sat down and talked about life. My sexuality weaseled its way into the conversation, and when he said that he thought I just might be confused, I screamed, before the fire on the Persian New Year, "I am gay!" And there's never been a question since.

And now, here I am. I am 23 years of age, and I want to be a writer. A playwright, really. And since I began writing plays at the age of 12, I've written campy melodramas and second-rate imitations of movies and musicals from the 1950s -- anything to avoid writing about myself. I've never been able to bring myself to face the facts of the bits and particles that make up the person I've become, but until now, it never dawned on me that, even if I could, I wouldn't be allowed.

Recently, I informed my parents that I'd been given the opportunity to write for a major gay magazine. My father's reaction was a happy one, but it came with some hesitancy. And, oh, yeah, he wanted me to change my name. As it turns out, the Iranian government keeps tabs on anyone and everyone who is the least bit Iranian. Iranian friends of mine here in the city have told me horror stories about girls being turned away at customs because of scantily clad Facebook photos that the government had found of them. So, of course, my father is afraid that if I use my name in connection with any publicly accessible gay content (that mentions the government, too), it may affect his ability to enter and leave the country, and would most definitely affect mine. I've never been. While my articles for the magazine bear my name (since they are, for the most part, impersonal), this blog I was asked to write anonymously.

Forget the government: my father is scared even to let my closest Iranian family members know. I understand keeping it from the elderly Persian grandparents, but my darling Persian aunt, who is so intelligent and strong-willed and beautiful and has come to raise a wonderful family and hold a wonderful career in Singapore? It hurts to have what can only be labeled girltalk with her on Skype and not break the news to her.

It's funny that this conundrum should happen at this particular point in my life. Since finding a home at the magazine's offices, I have truly come to embrace my homosexuality. Of course, I would never try to hide my sexuality, but it wasn't until recently that the once-burning desire to be straight disappeared from my mind completely. I'm happy with my girl friends who are boys, and with my boy friends who are lovers, and with showtunes and disco music and Charles Busch and Sandra Bernhard and drunk brunches and gay bars and my voice, just the way it is. But it's now that I'm forced to ask myself a difficult question: which is more important: the ability to find a home in who you really are, or to find a home in what is, for all intents and purposes, your homeland? It seems as though I may never be able to do both.