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I got very depressed, partly because of the intense culture shock — but also because I realized that I had a huge crush on the woman from California.

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Jefferson Starship, 1970's.

California Dreams

SEPTEMBER 22, 2002. Chris Lymbertos, a 44-year old San Francisco activist, talks about immigrating from Iran, coming out as a lesbian, and getting involved in social change.

My mother was born in Baku, Azerbaijan to Armenian parents who were Armenian Orthodox. My father was born in Syria. His mother was Syrian, and his father Greek Cypriot. My father is Greek Orthodox. Both my parents worked at an early age, and didn't have an education past grades 4 or 5. They immigrated to Iran when they were young, my father at 8 or 9, my mother at 11 or 12.

I was born and raised in Tehran, and finished high school there. My parents enrolled me at the Tehran American School with mostly U.S. born students to make sure that I received an education that would easily transfer to a Western school. My mother was a great predictor of the state of the world, and somehow she knew the Shah was going to come tumbling down — this was in the late 60's and early 70's.

I loved my school mainly because I was a very active teenager and they had lots of sports. Also, because I had some great women teachers that were role models and the first women to really encourage me. One female teacher/coach in particular talked a lot about a conflict with another teacher/coach who was making more money than she was simply because he was male, though he had the same amount of experience and credentials. She fought with the administration constantly, and I learned a lot about equality and justice. It was the beginning of my feminist roots.

Heading West
At 17, I decided to attend college in Greece because my mentor (the teacher I mentioned earlier) recognized how deeply rooted I was in my family and culture, and thought a gradual move to the U.S. was better than a quick one.

I meant to study there for at least two years, then transfer to a college in the U.S. where I would get teaching credentials, and finally move back to Iran to teach. As it turned out, I was only in Greece for one year. My college roommate was a kind of hippie from California, and she created visions of California that were so dreamy that I packed up my bags and moved to the Bay Area.

After my first two weeks in the U.S. I got very depressed, partly because of the intense culture shock — Greece was more like Iran and the U.S. was unlike either — but also because I realized that I had a huge crush on the woman from California. I had had crushes on my teachers in high school, but this person was my own age, a peer. I didn't have a way to deal with this at the time, and felt more and more isolated in my sexual identity, as well as my ethnic identity.

When I left Iran, I left behind father, mother, sister, aunts, uncles, cousins. My father has a brother that lived in the Bay Area when I moved here, but I didn't know him very well. My mother had a sister that lived in New York. I moved to California alone. Two years later my mother and sister moved here too. That was a year and a half before the Iranian revolution. I got an apartment large enough for all of us to live in together.

The rest of my family (father, uncles, aunts, cousins) all stayed in Iran until many years later. After the revolution, and after some of my cousins lost their parents, they all tried to move out of Iran. Some went to Greece, and later immigrated to Canada. Others went to France, Germany, South America, Syria. I have no family or friends left in Iran. I haven't been back to Iran since I left because I have been politically active as a lesbian born in Iran and I am afraid of the consequences I would face there.

Coming Out
I came out first to my sister. This was about 20 years ago when I was 24 and she was 18. I was very nervous about telling her, and as I tried to explain that there was something difficult I needed to tell her, she stopped me and said, "I already know what you want to tell me. You love women, right?" I was shocked and asked her how she knew, and she responded, "I know because I do, too." So we kind of came out to each other at the same time.

Realizing I was a lesbian answered all my questions as to why I disliked being with men, why I didn't want to have sex with my first boyfriend in high school, why I felt alienated and isolated around other straight women and men. Coming out, I felt liberated from the bounds of society that were suffocating me. Being around other lesbians was what made it possible.

About three or four years after coming out to my sister, I decided to come out to my mother. I was very, very close to her, and I felt that keeping secrets from her to protect her and myself was very disconnecting.

I basically just told her that I wanted her to know that I would never marry a man because I didn't want to be with one. She knew what that meant. At the time, my mother had quit smoking for several months, which was a huge thing for her. The first thing she did was light a cigarette and say to me, "Why did you choose such a hard life?"

I knew that what she meant was that she had worked very hard to prevent her children from having to struggle with the kinds of things my parents did — poverty, hunger, lack of education, etc. She also knew that I already had to struggle with a lot of other things, like being the primary breadwinner for her and my sister. Mom was worried that being a lesbian was going to make my life even harder.

Home Making
It has been a little difficult for me to feel assimilated into the straight Middle-Eastern communities. Everyone in our culture is very marriage oriented. It's hard to keep having to explain why I'm not married. Some people have stopped asking. That's when I know they've figured me out.

It's easier coming out to straight Iranian friends of my family because they know me first for who I am as a person, and as an extension of my mother whom they love very much. They find out that I have a very sweet woman in my life and we live together. Sometimes we cook and invite them over, and it's very comfortable. I think sometimes they even forget we're lesbians.

We've lived together now for seven and a half years, and everyone in our lives know that we're lesbians, though we don't get into anyone's face about it. My partner's family is Mexican — her father is Mexican and her mother is an American of Dutch descent, but she was raised by her father's parents — and we have the same understanding of respect of elders, and respect of people's different capabilities of absorbing who we are into their lives.

Basically, I don't wear my identity on my sleeve. I am not just a lesbian in the world, I am a woman from another country in the East, who loves many things and is annoyed by many other things. At the same time, my resume has information on it about work that I've done in the lgbt community. I never change my resume for different jobs.

I got involved in activism in my early twenties. As a woman, an immigrant, a lesbian, and someone that is first and foremost dedicated to justice, it's hard for me not to be. My values revolve around honor, integrity, ethics and the right for every human being to fulfill their basic human needs. My role models are people like Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, and the many other lesbians and gays of color who contributed to social change work in their communities and around the world.

In 1992 I was one of the co-founders of an Iranian lesbian and gay organization in the Bay Area that grew into a national network. I have also been part of Arab lesbian groups, a South West Asian North African (SWANA) queer group, Armenian lesbian, and Greek lesbian and gay groups. Most of them are social, but some of us within those groups are political and we take on projects that help our communities — like getting the San Francisco HIV prevention planning council to do a needs assessment in the SWANA community.

Some of us are also working on creating newsletters to help reach out to, and educate, our families and community members. Homophobia and the resulting violence against lgbt people, often by their own family members, is one of our biggest issues. It's also important to make sure that no one in the lgbt community feels alone or unloved, and to hear about and learn from each others' experiences. That's how other communities have done it and it has worked. Now we need to do the same.

We should also see ourselves connected to other civil rights struggles like those for housing, education, and health care. I believe one oppression is not greater than another. Throughout history hate-based violence has continued to exist from the genocide of Native Americans and slavery, to the present genocide in Palestine, as well as Matthew Shepard's death in Wyoming.

We still have a lot of work ahead of us. But if we can make a difference in one person, our efforts may get passed on exponentially.

Homophobia in Context
The lgbt community also needs to remember that homophobia exists on a continuum, and most modern industrial age societies are homophobic. I think that some Westerners only see homophobia in the East as being extreme.

In the U.S., it can be severe in states such as Texas, Montana, or Wyoming where Matthew Shepard was murdered. Each society has forms of persecution. Sometimes it appears in a legal form, as is the case in Iran, where homosexuality is punishable by torture or the death penalty. But laws condemning sodomy or male prostitution also exist in some U.S. states and other countries; they are really just an attempt to curb homosexual practices.

I have personally experienced homophobia in the United States, and don't feel safe outside of the environment that I can call home. I'm lucky to live in the Bay Area where there is a large lgbt community which has had a positive impact in our area, and the region around us.

All societies need to understand that lgbt people are no different than any other human beings. We have been oppressed for too long and they need to get over their issues about us. I especially hope that our families can start to understand that we still need their love and support.

We are essentially no different now than the children they knew many years ago. We have grown to be our authentic selves and there is nothing wrong with who we are. If they could only open their hearts and minds with compassion to learn about our deepest selves, and to use love in their understanding of us, there is no way they would be able to reject us.

Related links:

For Khanaye Doost, a site for Iranian lesbian, bisexual and transgendered women.

For Human Rights Watch World Report 2001: Iran: Human Rights Developments.

For the lgbt Iranian group Homan.

For IGLHRC (International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission).

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