As the managing director of JQ International, 32-year-old Arya Marvazy is helping the organization lead the seismic shift toward LGBTQ acceptance in the Jewish community and beyond.
Growing up in a Persian-Jewish community in Los Angeles, Marvazy didn’t think he could ever come out to his conservative Iranian family, let alone become a public activist in the LGBTQ movement. However, in 2015, after attending UC San Diego, moving to Israel for a year and working at Hillel International in Washington, D.C., Marvazy returned to LA to do both of those things.
Last October, Marvazy launched the first Persian Pride Fellowship program at JQ International — a nine-month activist and leadership training program for young adult Iranians who identify as LGBTQ or as allies. The 12 interfaith Iranians who made up the first cohort completed several “impact projects” in the last year, including a panel with the city of West Hollywood and a two-minute public service announcement that received 16,000 views on Facebook.
Marvazy met with the Journal to share his journey of coming out, living at the intersection of conflicting identities and working to bridge the gaps between those identities.
Jewish Journal: What was your experience growing up gay in a Persian-Jewish community?
Arya Marvazy: At around age 12, I recognized I was different. I would look around me and think, ‘I’m screwed because I don’t see myself reflected anywhere within the community.’ What I heard was negative comments like, ‘Oh, that person is crazy,’ or ‘how disgusting.’
JJ: Did you feel accepted by the Jewish community?
AM: I don’t mark a difference between my Iranian experience and my Jewish experience because I grew up in such a rich Persian-Jewish community. For my family, Shabbat was our Torah. The way that we maintained our Judaism was through how valuable and consistent Shabbat was for us. Celebrating Shabbat with Persian Jews, celebrating High Holidays with Persian Jews, having Persian-Jewish friends, Persian-Jewish supermarkets — there wasn’t a separation between what it meant to be Iranian and what it meant to be Jewish because I was always at the intersection of those two identities.
JJ: What do you feel is the best way for someone to become an ally of the LGBTQ community?
AM: An American friend, who heard my story and heard how deeply in the closet I was, simplified their recommendation to me. They would say, ‘Trust me, your parents are going to love you. It’s going to be totally OK,’ and here I was thinking, ‘You have no idea what I am up against, what my community thinks about this, what my parents think about this.’
We can never prescribe to another person, period, but in particular a person of a different culture or background or history. Because each person’s life and journey is unique, it’s detrimental to that person’s experience for us to propose how they might go about the next steps. Listening in more closely and offering a safe space for them to express what they feel are the best avenues by which to be good allies.
JJ: As a first-generation American, what do you feel is the source of the generation gap between you and your parents’ generation?
AM: They, understandably, desire not to assimilate and not become like the people they are now living among. Instead, they want to preserve the culture and identity they would have had if they had stayed in Iran. I understand the meaningfulness behind that pursuit. However, there is this reality, in particular with LGBTQ identity, that this is a part of people’s lives that has existed since the dawn of time. It is a very normal part of the human condition. It’s time for us, as young adults, to patiently and with intention, educate our parents and the generation before them about what our realities are as LGBTQ people.
JJ: How did you decide you were ready to come out?
AM: When I was 22, and at UC San Diego, a Persian fraternity brother came out to me. Because of him, my guard came down. I began my process of coming out with him. Then, I came out to some but [not] others. There was a constant editing of my experience, given who knew and who didn’t — what I said, how I expressed myself, who I was. That went on for about five years.
“It’s time for us, as young adults, to patiently and with intention, educate our parents and the generation before them about what our realities are as LGBTQ people.”
JJ: How did you decide you wanted to focus your life’s work on activism for LGBTQ rights?
AM: My life’s mission is to help other people and to ensure [they] don’t suffer the way I did. At that point I had been a community organizer within the Jewish community for 10 years. I was going to post a video on Facebook and come out of the closet and offer my help to others. And I did that the day after National Coming Out Day in 2015.
JJ: What do you hope to achieve with the JQ Persian Pride programming?
AM: Normalizing LGBTQ identity within the Iranian community is well on its way. We want to see that really become a solid part of the fabric of our community here in Los Angeles. When a community is able to say that they stand strongly as allies, the rest of the world looks at that as an example upon which to build. I want to continue expanding the programming that we are doing. I want to ensure that our youth are not suffering the consequences of parents who are unsupportive or communities that make them feel ‘less than.’
On a more individual level, I want every LGBTQ Iranian to know, if you need support, that support is here for you.
Evita Thadhani is a high school junior at Milton Academy in Massachusetts, and a Jewish Journal summer intern.