Queer Iranian-American opens up about facing sexual racism in Ireland

Pradeep Mahadeshwar, founder of Queer Asian Pride Ireland, speaks to a queer American woman of Iranian decent about her experiences of living in Ireland.

This article is an interview with a queer person of Iranian decent. The image shows a close up of a banner with three horizontal bands of colour. At the top is green, the middle is white and the bottom is a reddy orange. In the middle of the white band is the word
Image: Bing Wen via Shutterstock

Through co-founding Queer Asian Pride Ireland (QAPI), Pradeep Mahadeshwar has had the opportunity to connect and share with many Queer Persons of Colour. Here he details the experiences of a queer woman of Iranian descent who has made a life in Ireland.

I co-founded QAPI formally in April 2022 following a long process; years of loneliness, the horrible effects on my mental health of sexual racism and a passive anti-immigrant outlook within the queer community in Ireland.

I met many people in the process and loved seeing QAPI grow. In these past ten months, many new connections have been made, many stories have been shared, and a sense of belonging developed.

Here I would love to share a conversation with my queer friend from an Iranian background who grew up in the US and is now studying in Dublin. She prefers to remain anonymous, but I will call her ‘Quisilla’ – ‘Lovely as Ever’.

Quisilla explained, “When I looked up the study program here in Ireland, I first researched the LGBTQ+ scene in Dublin. ‘What’s the LGBTQ+ scene like? What am I walking into?’ Because I was so excited to be in a city where I could be myself.

“Once I arrived here, I went to the famous gay bars often in search of a sense of inner peace, but soon, it made me feel more alone; it didn’t give me the peace I was looking for. 

“I saw how white queer people treat outsider people of colour…I soon realised that this was not what I sought. As a queer person of colour, I didn’t find myself fitting in.

“I live in Trinity halls, the student housing for Trinity College. There I came across many upper-class white lesbians and bisexual women getting drunk at house parties and kissing fellow white women. It was hard to relate to them as there wasn’t a sense of liberation or relief from my pain. 

“For me, my pain is synonymous with LGBTQ+; in my opinion, it gives you a struggle to search for self-realisation.” 

Quisilla echoed the sentiment of many other queer people of colour living in Ireland – there is a lack of scope to form friendships, connections and belongings.

Quisilla was the first ever queer person with Iranian heritage I met in Dublin, so I was curious about her ‘coming out’ story. 

She shared: “I grew up in a pretty progressive part of the US, so the self-realisation of my sexual identity was super accepting. 

“I lived where I knew I had many people and resources I could turn to for support, and the internet was helpful too. Many people in my culture believe that sexuality is a choice. 

“Like most immigrant people of this generation, my parents are pretty progressive; however, it was a cultural shock when I came out to them. It took a couple of years for them to understand me. It was a tough battle to fight for the fact that I was born this way, and there was nothing I could do about it.”

Queer people with immigrant parents have unique problems. It is not uncommon for first-generation immigrant parents to struggle to assimilate into unfamiliar cultures and simultaneously maintain their cultural and religious identity. 

Quisilla continued, “I’m very patriotic about Iran. I love my history and cultural roots. But since I came out, my cultural belonging has become strange – I feel it hates me for who I am. I would describe it as a complicated relationship – to love something that often doesn’t love me back. 

“I adore my Iranian heritage, but I am also aware of the toxic mixture of religion and governmental policies that influence rampant homophobia, sexism and gender-based violence that has polluted the ideology of many past generations and the current age. I have to deal with internalised homophobia and hate because of it.

The government’s bigoted policies promoted challenges and disharmony for minorities. The extreme censorship and corruption under the name of religion make Iranian expats globally ideologically awake and make them question government policies in their country of origin. 

“Against this backdrop, I enjoy the freedom of speech and living experiences in the US and Ireland. While balancing these two identities can be lonesome, I am trying to advocate for the rights of other Iranians from afar.”

Like most other parts of the world, Iran also has the ideological struggles of post-colonial nationalism. 

Quisilla added, “Before European imperialism, Iran’s ancient cultural history had a fascinating take on beauty, gender and sexual expression. Beauty was the centre of human appearance and expression. There were virtually no binary beauty standards about how people presented themselves; men and women could groom themselves to look the same. 

“British colonialism introduced a shame-based binary social structure: one man – one woman. After the British left, the government continued suppressing gender and sexual identities in the name of religion and cultural values. 

“Ancient Iranian culture never had any linguistic and literary reference for ‘queer’ or ‘same-sex relationships’ because it never felt necessary to call out the differences. Now we use a ‘foreign’ word like ‘gay’ because [previously] there was never a need to have a word or phrase for men loving men and women who like women.”

21st-century Iranian culture has a problematic answer for same-sex queer relationships; as Quisilla explained, “In the name of a ‘progressive approach’ and to preserve binary societal norms, Iran often suggests that gay couples could continue the relationship, but one of the partners must have transitioned into a woman. In this process of ‘fixing gender identity,’ many individuals go through severe mental health issues.”

In our lengthy conversation, we also talked about shame. “Shame is such a big part of my identity. I can’t even describe how much it’s affecting me daily. I would say that my shame and internalised homophobia are my biggest struggles. My parents migrated to the US with almost nothing.

“They were able to succeed and give me a fantastic childhood. I love to fall in love with women, but I hate how it makes me feel like I’m stealing the contentment my parents work tirelessly for. 

“I have grandparents; they always talk about my future husband and family. They have talked about how much they wanted me to have a husband and kids. Even if I came out to them, they won’t understand what I would do with a woman. 

“If I am married to a woman in the future, it might be difficult for them to attend my wedding. I feel challenged when I speak about how my family looks at me and expects me to be a good daughter or granddaughter.”

Change of country, culture, and unfamiliar social landscapes affect the mental health of immigrant QPOC. Many have also shared feeling frustrated with forming a friendship circle and support systems in a city like Dublin. 

From my personal experiences, I think the Irish LGBTQ+ community, its leaders and organisations could do much better. I often feel they get awkward and defensive talking about sexual racism and a passive ‘white only’ sentiment within the queer community.

While Quisilla found it challenging to form friendships within those barriers as a queer person of Iranian descent, she met a fellow QPOC with whom she connected instantly. “One night, as usual, I was at a queer bar hoping to make some connections. I met an Indian queer woman at one of the pubs. I remember she accompanied me all night, listening to my pain, and she ensured I would reach my home safely. 

“I was too drunk that night and sobbing, thinking about what was happening in Iran. I am lucky to have her friendship. In a lesbian scene where all white people surround you, having a buddy who understands you is a significant relief.”

Quisilla acknowledged how much QAPI has helped her to feel connected: “For me, one of the most significant signs of belonging in Ireland was the QAPI monthly dinner and meeting sessions. 

“It can be challenging to connect with people at bars and pubs. Meeting people from similar backgrounds in a safe and non-judgmental space and sharing food and thoughts was a warm feeling… We need more inclusive events to make QPOC less alone.”

This article originally appeared in Issue 376 of GCN Magazine.

© 2023 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

This article was published in the print edition Issue No. 376 (March 1, 2023). Click here to read it now.

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Holding History

Issue 376 March 1, 2023

In our 35th anniversary edition, Tonie Walsh is holding the very first issue of GCN, a piece of history carefully removed from the archives.
March 1, 2023

This article was originally published in GCN Issue 376 (March 1, 2023).

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