Is 'Coming Out' a Western Construct?

A couple weeks ago, I contacted my cousin in Iran to ask him a few questions relating to my research paper on gender and sexual politics in Iran. As an Iranian-American who is pretty passionate about LGBT issues, I was beyond excited to hear my cousin's perspective. I wanted to be sure that I went into the conversation with an unassuming and open-minded attitude. This, I came to find, was much easier said than done.

I started by asking him if he knew of any people who are "out of the closet," what I preemptively presumed to be a rather simple question. My cousin took a quick pause and responded by asking me what "out of the closet" meant. Assuming an English to Farsi translation issue was causing my cousin's confusion, I tried to reframe my question by asking him if he knew of any people who are publicly gay, people who have announced their homosexuality to their friends and family. He responded by asking me why anyone would do that.

I immediately assumed my cousin's lack of knowledge about "coming out" signified that homosexuals in Iran endure adversity. The fact that my 20-or-so year-old, relatively liberal cousin did not know of any "out" homosexuals proved to me that homosexuality is completely taboo in Iranian society. I found the answer I was subconsciously thirsty for right off the bat -- homosexuals are oppressed in Iran.

I moved onto my next question. I asked my cousin if he broadly had any knowledge of same-sex practice in Iran. He told me that, in his experience, many Iranians experiment with homosexuality. He said that this most often occurs in the younger generations at parties and social gatherings, though he did mention that some older married men secretly have male lovers. I was shocked; how could such seemingly fluid sexuality exist in a society that, according my cousin, did not have "out" homosexuals?

I did some research. Mahdavi Paris' "Passionate Uprisings: Young People, Sexuality and Politics in Post-Revolutionary Iran" clarified a lot of my confusion. In this article, Mahdavi explains that many young Iranian people, as part of the greater underground "sexual revolution," experiment with homosexuality. They see it as a way to resist conservative, seemingly outdated societal norms the Iranian government imposes. Same-sex experimentation, for many, is an extension of youthfulness, nonconformity, and fun -- not necessarily any indicator of identity.

Why is Western society -- myself included -- so obsessed with pulling people into certain categories? In an era when sexuality is increasingly understood to be a fluid spectrum, why must we assume that any non-oppressive society must have its fair share of "out-of-the-closet" homosexuals?

All too often, I hear people obsessing over whether someone is "gay" or "straight." This inherently makes it difficult for a heterosexual-leaning person to experiment with the same sex without receiving judgment. Identity is built by the experiences, places, people, thoughts, creeds, and so on in our lives. It is practically impossible to monolithically group identities together on the grounds of perceived commonalities. We may be forcing non-heteronormative people to flee towards "gay" or "straight" as safe-havens, even if they might not necessarily fit the associated paradigms. In the growingly "progressive" West, the gay-straight binary ironically fosters prejudice against those who might fall in between and those who might not see their sexuality as indicative of their identity.

We need to be aware of our own cultural constructs in our discourse on gender and sexuality in other parts of the world. While there may be some Iranians who fit into the Western homosexual paradigm, there seems to be a significant Iranian population that does not see experimentation as a part of their identity and thus does not feel the need to "come out." Trying to understand foreign phenomena through the lens of our own is extremely dangerous and can engender a Western-superiority complex. It may impose the need for other places to play "cultural catch-up," blinding us from our own shortfalls in the process.

More than anything, my conversation with my cousin allowed me to better understand some of the weaknesses of the Western-supported model of sexuality. Maybe, instead of solely criticizing sexual politics in Iran and elsewhere, Western society should also be open towards learning from these different experiences and modes of living. Doing so may help us move past the Western superiority complex and enter a phase of cross-cultural collaboration, improvement, and learning.