Iranian Diaspora Spotlight: Building A Bay Area Iranian-American Queer Community One Person-at-a-Time

By Ariana Damavandi, Center Spring Communications Intern

For Mahsa Hakimi, founder of Hakimi Law in San Francisco, community— especially queer community—  is everything. It operates at the center of not only her social life, but is the lifeblood of her politics, career, and personal life, as well.

In the wake of the Iran-Iraq War, a teenaged Hakimi made her way to Newport Beach, CA to finally reunite with her father after a several-year visa-related separation. In the years prior to his departure from Iran, her father had faced complications with his consulting firm, stemming from the aftermath of the 1979 Revolution and subsequent war with Iraq. While on a business trip to London, Hakimi’s father was granted a ten-year visa to the United States reasoning that “he wasn’t going to leave [his daughter] in a country where they don’t respect women, especially after the Revolution.” Worried that she “wouldn’t have access to education if they stayed back home,” he picked their new residence based on research about good public schools.

Attending high school in Orange County, Hakimi struggled to feel a sense of safety or belonging. As an Iranian immigrant and as a teenager coming to terms with her attraction to women, she felt isolated, unable to see herself accurately reflected in either Iranian or American cultures. “We didn’t exist,” she says, and these feelings grew more intense as time went on, particularly after a confrontation between her and her father about her possible identity as a lesbian. From that point on, despite knowing that she was gay, Hakimi lived as “a straight girl from Southern California, with a ponytail and all that,” for much of this period of her life. That is until she made her way to the Bay Area.

Hakimi found a recently-immigrated roommate who would dramatically change the course of Hakimi’s adult life. Sima was a boyish, out, Iranian woman, beloved by those around her for her intellect and open demeanor. Sima embodied personhood that Hakimi could only, at the time, experience from a distance. Throughout their relationship as roommates, Sima goaded Hakimi— insisting she confronts and accepts her sexuality, to which Hakimi could only respond with defensive retorts. After a year and half of living together, the best friends parted, each transferring to a different university, Hakimi to UC Santa Cruz and Sima to San Francisco State.

Before moving south to Santa Cruz to study Political Science, Hakimi took a trip back to Iran for nearly two months, wherein, she finally “came out to [herself],” noting that “having Sima around, her living who she was, encouraged me to acknowledge that this was something I’d struggled with for most of my life.”

Hakimi graduated from UCSC and moved to San Francisco, and became  an active member of HASHA, a Bay Area organization, and a newsletter written by and about LGBT+ Iranians. Through this coalition of people, she built relationships with other Iranian lesbian and gay folks. At one point, Hakimi assumed responsibility for vetting many of the anonymous letters sent to the group’s private P.O. box from all over the world, including Iran, and organized “to meet up, to interview, to make sure these were legitimate human beings and not some made-up person sent to investigate us. It was scary, actually. It was not safe, [but] the Castro was safe.”

For most of her twenties and what she describes as her “coming out experience,” Hakimi says, “[her] safe place was the Castro.” To her, this neighborhood served as an access point to diversity and to a community that extended far beyond national or cultural affinity. She was able to grow, connect, and learn from others who were both profoundly similar and distinct from herself, including those who understood that although “their families were not safe, we had each other, we could be true and honest when we got together.” In her own words, “something about the queer identity that doesn’t have any color, creed, religion, sex— you can be anyone in this world and be part of this community. I think it’s the most diverse, the most unrestricted community.” She continues, “I think one of the privileges the city of San Francisco gave me was that, in coming out in The City, I had access to a pool of people that you would not normally have, which is the most diverse group of people I’ve ever met. It gave me the opportunity to learn about other cultures, other people. That is what makes San Francisco, and the Castro, and the queer community a special place.”

As she began to fully embed herself in this larger community, Hakimi says it helped reshape her. “I came out into my safety zone of being queer Iranian— a lesbian Iranian, [and with] that group I felt safe to come out. But after I came out, there was a whole new family, a whole new world. [My] world just completely changed.” Once she started stepping outside her own boundaries, she built relationships with her peers and assisted them when institutions would not. “Because we were an under-represented community in a society that was not really accepting, we took really good care [of each other]. We were the ones who helped each other find jobs and housing; we got each other into school, [and] supported each other.” Frankly stated, “we had to, because the world wasn’t taking care of us.”

This ethos for caring for others influenced her choices about her career, and at the age of 27, she enrolled at Golden Gate University with the intention of studying international and immigration law. While in law school, she studied abroad in Thailand, at which point she took note of the counterfeit designer goods market. She discerned that this was likely happening on another scale to local artists back home and this prompted her to concentrate on intellectual property law. After earning her J.D., she was mentored by Brooke Oliver, an activist lawyer who taught Hakimi how to practice law through a social justice lens, specifically in terms of protecting artists. In 2003, Hakimi founded her own law firm, Hakimi Law, with a similar mission in mind. Her firm is progressive and cost-conscious, focusing on defending the intellectual property of artists and largely women entrepreneurs. She explains that this work “made being a lawyer more bearable because it can be a hard job sometimes. Art, intellectual property, trademark stuff is what makes me happy. I feel like I’m giving back to the world.” Hakimi sees her work “as giving back to these communities, especially because we need role models that are Iranian women, who are queer Iranian women.” She explains, “there are so many of us and we don’t get acknowledgment or recognition. You can only do so by persisting to exist and [being] ‘in your face.’ You have to sit at the table or else they have you for lunch.”

Though this 49-square-mile city is a treasure to Hakimi, she is cognizant of how it has dramatically changed since she moved here, particularly socioeconomically, and most recently as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As interim co-chair of the Castro LGBTQ+ Cultural District, she was able to offset some of the virus’s economic impacts on the region by co-facilitating a mural project aimed at preserving the artistic legacy and vibrancy of the area. Along with a collective of other organizations, she helped repurpose the omnipresent wooden panels covering nearly every building as canvases for artists, resulting in a much-needed boost to the local economy. Additionally, as the summer’s Black Lives protests caught fire, the Castro’s “ghost in the closet” problem with “inequity of race and gender,” came to a head. Understanding that “art changes communities, art changes society, [and] art changes policies,” she used her influence as co-chair to further the mural project, expressly addressing calls to diversify its narratives. Per her suggestion, the work of Haitian-American artist, Serge Gay Jr., is now prominently displayed on the side of the neighborhood bar, Moby Dick. Entitled “Gear Up,” the work “represents the entire community,” not just “Harvey Milk or the gay flag, it’s everything that represents the gay community.”

Ultimately, Mahsa Hakimi hopes to highlight the fact that she “is not here because [she] did this work alone.” She notes resolutely that “I am where I am in my life because people carried me when I needed to be guided or carried,” reminding us that our communities are so often the structures that keep us grounded, alive, and inspired.     

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