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50 Iranian-Americans you Should Know: Arya Marvazy

March 7, 2017
Natasha Schmidt
8 min read
50 Iranian-Americans you Should Know: Arya Marvazy
Marvazy (seated, far left) took part in JQ’s “Out of Iran & Out of the Closet” event, which took place on February 21
Marvazy (seated, far left) took part in JQ’s “Out of Iran & Out of the Closet” event, which took place on February 21
Arya Marvazy, second from left, and his family
Arya Marvazy, second from left, and his family


“I’ve built a life out of community organizing. It’s always been my passion and I’m fortunate enough to pursue it as a career. I'm eager to take every avenue and outlet I possibly can to speak about who I am and what I stand for,” says Arya Marvazy, the Iranian-American Assistant Director of JQ International, a Jewish non-profit organization that works to support people from lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer and ally (LGBTQ) communities in Los Angeles and across the United States.

But it was not always easy for him. Growing up in Los Angeles’ close-knit Persian community made it difficult for him to come out as a gay man — and he constantly worried what impact revealing his sexual identity might have on his parents and relationships.

Because while the community he grew up in was tight and nurturing, it could also be “insular, xenophobic, homophobic, and classist” — a phenomenon not at all unique to Iranian culture, he says, but which certainly made homosexuality and LGBTQ matters taboo. "If I had one human being, just a single role model to bind my future to, I would have felt even the remotest comfort,” Marvazy says of his life as a teenager. “The most tragic element of it all was the fact that there was not one out gay Persian — Jewish or otherwise — that I could look to and say, "this man is not only out and gay, but he's well-adjusted and still embedded in family and community."

After Marvazy studied psychology at the University of California at San Diego, he went to Israel to do a Master’s degree in organizational behavior with New York University, a program designed in collaboration with the Israel School of Management in Rishon Lezion. It was in Israel, where he first lived openly as a gay man, that he came to see how important it was for him to find a way to come out at home.

He told his parents about his sexuality soon after his return to LA in March 2015.

“I had actually planned what I’d say two and a half years before, during Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, and the day of repentance,” Marvazy said. “I left temple and sat in a museum lobby in Washington DC and wrote down things that I wanted to say to my parents, things I wanted them to hear, before I ever said the word ‘gay.’ Things like: the son who’s sitting in front of you now is the same son who will be sitting in front of you at the end of this conversation. I won’t be changing, though your perception of me surely will. So I began to go through that list.”

Marvazy says he had always made decisions with his parents in mind, and although it was vital that he let them know how important this was to him, he also knew that at some point there would have to be a shift. “I had to be able to put myself first and do what I know is part of my mission in life, part of the reason why I feel I've been put on this planet — to be able to help others who are struggling in this same way. They understood that; they just asked for some time before I really went headfirst into the activist role.”

Six months later, Marvazy recorded a video and came out on Facebook. “In my micro-community of Iranians across the US, it did go somewhat viral,” he said. The video had more than 30,000 views, and was widely shared with Facebook groups linked to the Iranian community.


Supporting the Persian LGBTQ Community

Marvazy has a background in human resources, working in consulting and then in talent recruitment and professional development for Hillel International, the Jewish student campus network that helps cultivate Jewish identity and connection, build leadership skills, and offers a variety of events, opportunities, and resources for students. After 10 years working outside Los Angeles, in 2015, he returned and eventually met Asher Gellis, the founder and executive director of JQ International, which was set up in 2004. As soon as he found out about the organization, Marvazy says, he “knew he belonged there,” and after six months working on a volunteer and consultancy basis with a particular focus on their work within the Persian community, he was appointed as Assistant Director. Most recently, he spoke on one of JQ’s regular panel discussions, “Out of Iran & Out of the Closet”, which took place on February 21, illuminating the LGBTQ Iranian experience through personal stories.  

Today, Marvazy oversees human resource management and donor and grant development at JQ International, and helps build the organization’s programs, including its Helpline, Teen JQSA (Jewish Queer Straight Alliance), and its work with young adults and the Persian community. In autumn 2016, he started a young adults division at his synagogue, Eretz Cultural Center, in the San Fernando Valley where he was raised. The young adult division recently organized a panel discussion on how Iranian-American women’s career paths and pursuits have changed in recent decades toward pursuing passion, and away from cultural pressure to do otherwise. Marvazy says the discussion, which included a tech specialist, a lawyer who is also a cantorial soloist, a woman who leads a start-up that feeds the hungry and homeless, and one of LA’s most famous female surgeons also looked at what these new approaches to working life meant for them as Iranian women “given that our community and culture has certain standards and expectations we set for women that are vastly different than for men.”

Marvazy’s time outside of LA helped foster a new strand of work at JQ International focused on the Persian LGBTQ experience. “And we actually work to maintain a religious neutrality in this work,” he says. “On our first panel, we hosted a panel of six Iranians across the entire LGBTQ spectrum, including a trans Iranian girl who sought asylum in the US. Three of us were Jewish, and three of us weren't, and we purposefully embraced this diversity as a position of power for our work. Regardless of religious affiliations, the entire Iranian community serves to grow in their understanding of LGBTQ identity, and movement toward full equality."

Marvazy was recently recognized in Los Angeles Jewish Journal's "30 Under 30" List, which highlights the work and ambitions of young Jewish people working to make a difference in Los Angeles.


A Changing Community

Marvazy was born in Los Angeles, the home of one of the largest populations of Iranian-Americans in the United States. His parents were born and raised in Tehran. His grandfather on his mother’s side was from a family of “furniture moguls.” His grandfather on his father’s side died young, so Marvazy’s father was charged with looking after both his grandmother and great grandmother. “They left in February 1982,” Marvazy says. “They were smuggled through the Pakistani border at the Taftan checkpoint. They left Pakistan from Karachi airport and went to Madrid, because Spain was one of the only countries that didn't need a visa from Iranians at that time. From Madrid, they acquired a visa to go to Switzerland, to Zurich, where they stayed for about a month. From Zurich, they got some help from my father's uncle and also from HIAS [the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society]. Then they visited my father's uncle in Manchester, and were able to make their way to America, to Staten Island. They arrived in May 1982.”

Eventually they settled in Los Angeles. It was a time when large numbers of Iranians were settling in California, and particularly in Western Los Angeles. Today, the city — dubbed Tehrangeles— is home to more than 300,000 people of Persian descent. Westwood Boulevard in West LA is lined with Persian businesses, restaurants and grocery stores.

“If you really wanted to, you could have come here 30 years ago and still get by not having learned English,” Marvazy says. “You could find your Persian doctor, Persian grocery store, Persian bank teller. In fact, my grandmother is a perfect example of that. Thirty years on, she's got a few sentences of English. She doesn't speak English because she just doesn't need to.”

He says the Iranian community’s contribution to the city is easy to see. “Our community boasts some of the most prominent doctors and lawyers, real estate agents and financial advisors, and others in traditionally lauded professions. Beyond that, today we’ve also cultivated some of the greatest artists, social entrepreneurs and activists too. We've really stepped out of the perverbial box, not staying in this expected life Persian identity traditionally comes with. Education is at the top of the list in terms of what a Persian parent elevates for their children as a priority, but the pursuit of passion is now more often seen as a path to true success as well.”

Marvazy says the Persian community in LA is changing fast, and he feels it’s part of his job to help support it, whether it’s LGBTQ people, young people, or people trying to carve out a new sense of what it means to be Iranian in America today. “People are really pursuing their diverse passions more whole-heartedly and with the support of family,” he says. “When we're supported to truly do so, I think we end up doing amazing things. I'm seeing a nice, powerful shift in the dynamic of the Persian community. There's a greater capacity for people to be their true selves than there was, say, 20 years ago, when people were still fresh out of the Iranian experience and raising their children differently. Thank goodness for that!”


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