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I’m a Muslim Iranian-American With a Sept. 11 Birthday. Here’s How I’ve Come to Terms With My Identity

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My ninth birthday fell on a school day, a bright and clear-skied Tuesday in September. I expected my mom to bring cupcakes to school during lunch, a tradition I loved because for one day each year, I knew I wouldn’t have to feel like the weird bookworm, the Iranian American, the outsider who couldn’t kick a soccer ball to save his life. I would be celebrated. But that year, no cupcakes. I went home to a dark house, disappointed.

I was too young to know what it meant that my birthday fell on 9/11.

People are always surprised when I tell them my birthday is Sept. 11. They’ll raise their eyebrows, or just flat-out say, “Ouch.” Given that I’m also visibly Middle Eastern, I get it. 9/11 was a day that changed America forever. It changed my life forever, too.

During recess, boys would ask me why “my people” had attacked the Twin Towers. I was taunted and called names, like so many other Muslim and Middle Eastern people at that time. I was already used to feeling like an outsider. Now I was also a “terrorist.”

And there was something else: I’m gay. Growing up in suburban Virginia, I didn’t think I would ever come out. To be Iranian in post-9/11 America was one thing, but to be gay, too? One oppressed identity was enough to make me feel isolated. These two together felt impossible. After all, I had never met a gay Iranian before. The only time I would ever hear those two words together, gay and Iranian, were in articles stating that homosexuality was still punishable by death in Iran. My identity felt like a contradiction. The kind of equation you punch into the identity calculator and get an error message.

When I did finally come out in college, I kept those two parts of my life separate. It wasn’t hard. I just left out certain details about my weekends and my friends in phone calls back home, and I distanced myself from parts of my heritage. I had, in effect, put up a wall between the me who existed at college in New York, who went on dates with boys and danced to Robyn at gay bars, and the me who went home and was a good Iranian son.

But that wall didn’t always protect me. On June 12, 2016, I opened Twitter and read that a Muslim man had killed 49 people at the gay club Pulse in Orlando. I felt instantly sick. It was the manifestation of my deepest shame—the two parts of my identity that I had struggled with so much, suddenly set at odds with one another on a violent and public stage. And I couldn’t even turn to my family for support.

That insidious error message returned again soon after. On Donald Trump’s Inauguration Day, I was watching the New York Times live stream of the Gays for Trump DeploraBall Gala (oh, the irony). The reporter asked one attendee what he thought Trump would do for the LGBTQ community. His response? “Protect us from radical Islam.”

Muslim Americans are far from the only group that’s been villainized in the U.S. Our country was founded on racist ideals. And every day in Trump’s America, it seems like a different identity is under attack. When our leaders complain about “radical Islam,” when they tell American congresswomen to “go back” to the “crime infested places from which they came,” when they stoke the flames of systemic racism and when they discriminate against LGBTQ folks, what they’re saying is: You don’t belong here. And it’s impossible not to internalize that.

But I learned something: if you’re lucky, you’ll find people in the world whose mere existence will start to chip away at all the prejudice you’ve collected inside of yourself. Two years ago, I traveled to Rome for a summer. There, I met a poet and bartender named Jahan, who was also Iranian. Jahan wore pearls and nail polish, and yet he looked like he could be my cousin. He hosted literary readings at his crowded, sweaty bar in Trastevere, read Rumi quatrains and told long, animated stories.

Jahan was Iranian, and he was also queer. He was both of those in the same breath, and he accepted himself proudly.

Only people who have experienced a certain level of discrimination and exclusion, who know what that error message feels like, can understand how powerful it is to encounter someone so like you, and so at peace with himself. Meeting Jahan, watching the way he carried himself, I began to question all the narratives I had absorbed about what it means to be Muslim, Iranian and gay—and realize how artificial they all were. It struck me that not only were both parts of my identity acceptable, but they could also coexist and complement each other. My Iranian culture might not have to detract from my queer side and vice versa. Maybe, I started to think, I didn’t have to carry these feelings of shame and contradiction.

Historically, Iranians are prideful; we’re not known for being silent. We are tolerant—Cyrus the Great famously ordered the first bill of human rights. And we are storytellers. Maybe I could embrace those things. Maybe other people could too—or maybe their opinions never really mattered.

As I turn another year older on this historically tragic day, I’m feeling surprisingly hopeful, in spite of everything. Every day, more and more Americans are standing up against this idea that there are people among us who don’t belong. Because we do. We belong wherever we are in all of our messy, seemingly incompatible truths—no matter race, color, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, ability, socioeconomic status or any combination therein. Perhaps I’m being overly optimistic—and sometimes I still feel overwhelmed by doubt and recede back into myself. But what other choice do I have? I’m tired of giving into the headlines, the stereotypes, the hate; that noise will never be fully silenced, but I can fight to shout proudly over it. I can choose to see my two identities as powerful and perfectly compatible—no error message.

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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Kourtney Kardashian Claps Back At Criticism Of Her Friendship With 19-Year-Old Addison Rae!

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Kourtney Kardashian wants you all to mind your business when it comes to her friendship with Addison Rae!

The 41-year-old KUWTK star and 19-year-old TikTok sensation have become really close in recent months, but unfortunately for them, a lot of people are bothered by the two hanging out together — and it has everything to do with the 22-year age gap between them!

Related: Kourtney Kardashian & Kendall Jenner Insist They’re Good After Shady Parenting Comments!

But the momma of three isn’t going to just sit back and let people talk smack! Kourt clapped back at a critic who left a nasty comment on her latest set of pics with Miz Rae, which were uploaded to Instagram on Saturday afternoon. In the shots, the dynamic duo showed off their sexy string bikins while lounging in a giant pool.

She captioned her post:

“Two more days of summer.”

Gosh, time flies when you’re having fun with your hot, younger BFF! See the steamy pics that caused a stir (below):

Dayum, ladies! Way to bring the heat for these last few dog days of summer!

As we mentioned, users flocked to the post to share their collective confusion and discomfort from seeing the two women half-naked together. See a few reactions here:

“This friendship still weirds me tf out”

“i cant imagine what their conversations are made up of”

“this frienship is so confusing”

“is this friendship not weird with the age difference”

One commenter appeared to stand out from the rest when they wrote:

“Shes 41 and she’s hanging around with 19 year olds in swimming pools.”

But then momma of three immediately clapped back in defense of her hangouts with Addison:

“Do you suggest a better place. I’m looking for ideas …”

Oop! Way to shut that one down, gurl.

We’ll admit, this unexpected pairing did throw us off at first. Although Rae has openly referred to Kardashian as a mentor who teaches her a lot about handling the spotlight, it’s obviously giving fans pause to see them hanging out like this so often. Some have even called it opportunistic of Kourtney to latch on to one of the internet’s biggest rising stars — though we’d argue she doesn’t need any help in the fame department after being part of the biggest reality TV empire to date. But… are they only having thirst trap photo sessions, or what? Because that’s mostly what fans have been treated to these days!

In case you missed it, Addison revealed that she got acquainted with Scott Disick‘s baby momma through YouTuber David Dobrik. Speaking on The Tom Ward Show in July, she explained:

“I met Kourtney through a friend, through David. We surprised Mason [Disick] because Mason liked my videos on TikTok. I kind of just stuck around and we got really close. We started working out together. We did a video on her YouTube of us doing a butt workout and stuff, so that was fun.”

She added:

“At the end of the day, I think friendships are just what you make them. What you have, like the time you spend with them, the things you enjoy doing. And if you have things in common, it just makes sense. I don’t think that’s anything to really judge people on. I feel like friendships can range from any age and I feel like everyone can relate to people in different ways.”

Perezcious readers, does this budding friendship make U feel uncomfortable? Or, are people making a big deal out of nothing? What do U think they even have in common, besides fame? Weigh in on this debate (below) in the comments!

[Image via Kourtney Kardashian/Instagram]

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‘MLK/FBI’ Review: An Incendiary Documentary About the FBI’s Surveillance of the Secret Life of Martin Luther King Jr.

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At a moment when the personal lives of artists and celebrities are being placed under the spotlight as almost never before, the secret life of Martin Luther King Jr. now seems like more than the disquieting semi-submerged footnote it once did. It’s long been public knowledge that King, during most of the time of his leadership (which began in 1955, with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and ended with his death, on April 4, 1968), had many adulterous affairs, and that the FBI, starting in 1963, put him under surveillance, surreptitiously recording hours and hours of King with his mistresses and other women in hotel rooms. How does this reality affect our perception of King’s greatness as a leader?

I expected that might be the subject of “MLK/FBI,” a tensely absorbing documentary about how the Federal Bureau of Investigation, under J. Edgar Hoover, came to see itself as part of an establishment war against King, one that wound up being waged with the cooperation of American leaders, notably Attorney General Robert. F. Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson. (The Kennedys were allies of King and the Civil Rights movement, but it was Bobby Kennedy who first approved the use of FBI wiretaps on King.)

It’s no accident that the FBI recorded King in these sordid situations. By exposing the hidden side of King, the organization hoped to humiliate him and weaken his authority as a leader. Yet early on in the documentary, the historian Beverly Gage acknowledges that “when you construct a man as a great man, there’s nothing almost more satisfying than also seeing him represented as the opposite.” Gage is staunchly on King’s side, but what she’s evoking is a certain side of human nature — the part of us that wants to see that a saint isn’t really a saint, that even the greatest among us are as flawed as we are. Her comment expresses, with a fair degree of honesty, the voyeuristic element that’s embedded in the story of Martin Luther King Jr. and the FBI. Watching “MLK/FBI,” what we want is to know more — of what happened, and of what King’s life was about.

In many ways, however, the movie presents us with a limited version of more. You won’t hear a moment of what’s on those tapes; in 1977, a federal court order placed them in a vault in the National Archives, where they’ll remain under seal until February 2027. And the film, which is based on the book “The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From ‘Solo’ to Memphis,” offers little in the way of speculation as to how the knowledge of what’s on those tapes changes our perception of King as a leader and as a human being. (The only comments about that come during the closing credits.) That subject could use a full-on discussion — and, it fact, demands one. The documentary that looks at Martin Luther King Jr. in his warts-and-all complexity has yet to be made.

Yet “MLK/FBI” does something of incendiary fascination and value. It gives us an interior look at how the FBI operated — not just what the organization did but why, and how it was rooted in the G-man mythology. And in a crucial way, the film does bring us closer to King. Using an enthralling array of candid photographs and film footage, it captures what he was going through, and how the surveillance turned up the heat on what was already his pressure cooker of an existence. It’s astounding that he didn’t crack.

It’s also astounding that the news of his indiscretions never broke. The FBI sought to make public knowledge of King’s secret life, and to do so the Bureau distributed copies of the King tapes to church leaders and media outlets. In the media culture of today (the one we began to shift into around the time of the Gary Hart adultery scandal, in 1988), it’s unthinkable that a story like this one could ever have been kept under wraps. But back then it was considered off limits, and the media powers that be had an interest in protecting King. They were on his side, and weren’t about to blow a hole in the Civil Rights movement by printing the FBI’s dirt.

Sam Pollard, the director of “MLK/FBI,” is a veteran producer and filmmaker who co-directed two episodes of “Eyes on the Prize,” and he sets this saga within a close-up, flowing portrait of King in history. King had risen, almost overnight, to the status of American rebel-hero, and by the time of the March on Washington, which was built around King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the establishment had come to fear his power. The March took place on Aug. 28, 1963, and two days later, in a memo dated Aug. 30, William C. Sullivan, the head of FBI domestic intelligence, wrote, “We must mark him now as the most dangerous Negro in the future of this nation.”

One of King’s close advisors was Stanley Levison, a white Jewish lawyer and CPA who had a history of association with Communist groups. The FBI, still embroiled in the war against Communism, saw the presence of Levison as a red flag, a sign that the Communist menace was embedded in the struggle for Civil Rights. We see a fascinating clip of King, in a television interview with Dan Rather, saying that he thinks it’s one of the miracles of the 20th century that so few African-Americans have turned to Communism, given their history of desperation and oppression. But King, invited to the White House, was personally told by JFK that he needed to distance himself from Levison. Instead, King maintained the association and lied about it. This incensed the administration, and it’s why RFK, in 1963, approved the FBI use of wiretaps against King.

Wiretapping means infiltrating phone lines, but then something happened that was more or less a coincidence. The FBI, in its surveillance plot against King, had arranged to tap the phone of Clarence Jones, who was King’s close friend and speech writer. King was staying over at Jones’ house for a couple of days, and it was during that time that the FBI learned, through sheer happenstance, that King was not monogamous.

The Bureau, at that point, made the scurrilous decision to target King’s extramarital life, which they did by arranging, through their contacts, to bug his hotel rooms. (Pollard visualizes all of this with graphic spy-movie elegance, showing us, for instance, the image of a tiny microphone implanted at the top of a lamp.) King traveled constantly, and by the time he would show up at his room in the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., the room had been completely bugged. The FBI also used informants who were African-American. Ernest C. Withers, the noted Civil Rights photographer, spent 18 years as a double agent for the FBI. Jim Harrison, a paid informant, worked in the Atlanta office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, sitting just a few feet from King. (Clarence Jones suspected that Harrison was an agent, and told King about it, so it’s unclear why they didn’t fire him.)

In “MLK/FBI,” the treacherous dance of King and the FBI becomes a sinister soap opera of espionage. The FBI sends a recording of King’s hotel room to King’s home in Atlanta, along with a message demanding that he kill himself; King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, listens to the tape but can’t discern what’s on it. (But did she know what was happening? One suspects that she couldn’t not have.) J. Edgar Hoover denounces King by calling him “the most notorious liar” in the U.S. (a baffling statement unless you know what he’s referring to). But King fires back and, at one point, actually meets with Hoover in his office, trying to make peace. Hoover acts friendly and conciliatory, but of course that’s all a ruse. Through it all, King is living with the daily anxiety that he’ll be exposed. Yet in no way does it tamp down on his activism. The film captures how radical the stand King took in 1967 against the war in Vietnam really was. He was willing to make an enemy of his former ally LBJ, and even his liberal supporters in the press attacked him.

The movie also includes the darkest episode in this saga: that in March 1968, William Sullivan updated King’s FBI file, adding to it the allegation of accessory to rape. It was said, in the file, that King was in his hotel room as a woman was being raped by a Baltimore minister, and that King “looked on and laughed.” The film’s commentators say the charge is highly dubious. It was handwritten (onto an otherwise typed document), and given that the FBI was working with audiotapes, why would the report have stated that King “looked on”? Nevertheless, the mud was splattered, and that kind of mud tends to stick.

“MLK/FBI” won’t leave you feeling at all resolved about these issues. How could it? Half a century on, there is still much to explore about the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. — including the plausible possibility that his murder was the result of a government conspiracy. (Clarence Jones says in the film that he thinks King’s official killer, James Earl Ray, had nothing to do with the assassination.) “MLK/FBI” leaves you wanting more, but it provides a gripping chapter in the story of how the forces of American power set out to destroy one of America’s greatest leaders, even as his private behavior had the effect of handing them a weapon.

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Pregnant Coco Rocha Makes a Splash at Christian Siriano’s NYFW Show

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Coco Rocha always knows how to steal the show.

All eyes were on the pregnant model when she closed out Christian Siriano’s spring-summer 2021 runway show at his home in Westport, Conn.

Dressed in a red, over-the-top gown that flowed behind her, the 32-year-old expertly walked across Christian’s grassy backyard, before coming to a stop on a tiny bridge built across a pool. Like the models before her, Coco struck a pose at that point, but rather than strut away, the mommy to be decided to walk into the water wearing the dress, mask and hat that Siriano designed—Sarah Jessica Parker supplied the shoes.

In other words, the model made sure there was a grand finale the guests would never forget.

She eventually had to be assisted with getting out of the pool by someone else as she was weighed down by the soaked dress. 

All in all, Christian’s New York Fashion Week presentation was a success, even if one model fell while walking on the grass.

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