By Persis Karim
For Sepi Shyne, advocacy for social justice doesn’t just begin with her current campaign for West Hollywood City Council. Representing means showing up, being visible, and being her authentic self. If Shyne wins this election in November, she will be the first Iranian American, the first woman of color, and only the second lesbian ever elected to West Hollywood City Council. Shyne says her campaign is about “ bringing power back to the people and residents of West Hollywood and making our community more inclusive for everyone.” Shyne is eager to add her own hopeful first to this majority Democratic city that includes being the first city in the US “to be pro-choice, to have the first majority gay city council, to have the first openly lesbian mayor in the world and the first city to ban the sale of handguns,” she says. She proudly adds that as a city, “we were created to protect renters, seniors and the LGBTQ community.”
Shyne was born in Mashhad, Iran. Her family fled Iran in 1982, when she was five years old. She grew up in the Santa Clara Valley, attended De Anza College and later transferred to San Jose State University where she received her BS in Business with a double concentration in Accounting and Management Information Systems and a minor in Theatre. “After being thrown out of a coffee shop by a police officer for being gay, I decided to go to law school, learn the law and stop that from happening to other LGBTQ people,” she says of her evolution as a social justice advocate. She went to law school at Golden Gate University in San Francisco and received her Juris Doctorate, passed the California Bar and began practicing civil litigation. Eventually, she moved to Los Angeles and has lived in West Hollywood the past 11 years. She currently has her own law practice in Business and Trademark Law. But her legal standing extends to the LGBTQ community where she has also been a civil rights advocate for more than 20 years. She serves as an appointed Business License Commissioner in West Hollywood and also serves on the LA County Assessor’s Advisory Council.
Shyne is familiar with the impact and effects of homophobia, but also with the ways other forms of discrimination and hatred are leveled against immigrants and women. “Last year, when I first ran for office, several threats were made against me, including by a man who, online, threatened to mace me if I knocked on his door to canvass because he said he did not want a Muslim terrorist running City Hall,” she says. Shyne explains that she’s also encountered plenty of sexism, usually in the form of “mansplaining,” or, in one case, a man outright telling her “there aren’t enough qualified women to be appointed to commissions.” Shyne says this kind of sexism results in men with lesser qualifications getting appointed to city commissions or endorsements of male candidates over female candidates, or in her case, the withholding of endorsements until the last minute because they are waiting to see what others say about her candidacy. One of the mischaracterizations of her candidacy has been her being labeled as “Muslim” (in all the negative ways that gets spun). “Although I was born into a Muslim family, I am not practicing, but I do consider myself spiritual. I don’t use the word “Persian” to identify myself, but rather Iranian,” she adds.
Coming out as a lesbian was part of Shyne’s own journey to find her voice and to advocate for others—including her complex intersectional identity. “The messages I received about being gay growing up were negative and certainly homophobic,” says Shyne. “They ranged from blatant homophobic comments or hearing gossip about a family member who was gay,” she says. Shyne came out to “herself” and friends at school at the age of 17. “The younger boys started harassing me and followed me around school calling me a ‘dyke’,” she recalls. When Shyne was 19, she came out to her mother. “I had given her two books to read months before: Dear Ellen by Betty Degeneres and Prayer for Bobby about a young gay teenager who killed himself as a result of his mother’s extreme homophobia.” When she told her mother, she reacted calmly, but told Shyne not to tell anyone else in the family and thought Shyne was going through a phase. “Over the course of the next two weeks, my mother started grieving and expressing anger toward me. Soon after, I started telling my younger family members, because it was important for me to be authentic with people.” Shyne’s courage and perseverance has paid off. Despite having to endure some measure of intolerance, homophobia, and ignorance, her family has come to accept her and some have even become advocates for the LGBTQIA community and are true allies. “It has been a long journey to get to where we are, but it has absolutely been worth it to be my true, authentic self,” she adds.
Shyne is eager to amplify her advocacy in the capacity of city council member for her city by becoming the first Iranian-American lesbian for such a position. “I hope to inspire so many others, and I believe that by paving the way, I can create a story of resilience and justice for others like me.” Shyne sees the need to recognize immigrants and their struggles as key, as she was herself, an undocumented immigrant for the first 16 years of her life in the US.
When I asked her what advice she might have for younger Iranian Americans struggling with their sexual preferences or identities, she offers this: “Just come out. It is a painful journey, at first, but there is nothing more painful than living your entire life closeted. The years will pass so quickly and there is nothing like the freedom of living your years in absolute joy. Everyone will be okay. Just love yourself and you will be an inspiration for others.”
Shyne’s advocacy for social justice in this moment, when racism and systemic racism within our institutions is being made more visible, reflects another aspect of her personal life. “Not only am I a proud Iranian-American lesbian, but I am also married to a proud bisexual Black woman. Our family is literally representative of the diversity that this world needs to move toward,” she says. “I want all city officials and staff to get training on the dismantling of systemic racism, specifically to learn more about the incredible work of Dr. Robin D’Angelo and then institute policies and reforms from this awakened lens. I want to create a Multi-Cultural Advisory Board to advise the City Council on social equity issues in our city. I also want to appoint more women and people of color to positions of power in West Hollywood to have more gender and racial parity.” Shyne has run for office once before, so she’s bringing her experience and her vision to this campaign again with yet more enthusiasm and hope. If you want to learn more about her, go to her website: sepishyne.com. We are grateful for the opportunity to speak with Sepi Shyne during National Pride Month and we are proud of the work she is doing.
Photos: 1) Business License Commissioner Sepi Shyne and, 2) Sepi Shyne with wife, Ashlei Shyne.
Photos courtesy of Sepi Shyne.