Living happily in Los Angeles with his husband and three children, it could certainly be said that he leads a charmed life. However, the road that led him to personal and professional milestones was often dark and anything but direct, with a great deal of challenges and adversity. He has learned lessons along the way he shares in his new memoir, Getting Back Up: A Story of Resilience, Self-Acceptance & Success.
A project he originally conceived as a handful of stories he could preserve for his children, it unexpectedly blossomed into a full book thanks to the encouragement of friends and colleagues.
Hartouni was born in Los Angeles, but his Armenian family moved to Iran when he was a mere month old. Growing up in the Middle East—as far from sleek, sparkling Beverly Hills as one could imagine—presented challenges for a boy beginning to realize his same-sex attraction in a culture where the very concept of gayness is hidden in the shadows.
“As a Christian Armenian growing up in Iran, I was already one minority before being gay,” he said. “I didn’t know I was gay because growing up in Iran, ‘gay’ doesn’t exist. There are just guys considered effeminate, and all the macho, bully types will call them—sorry for my French—faggot. Everyone else, they may sleep with other men, but they’re not considered to be gay.
That’s how I grew up. You can’t be gay. So, when you hear people from outside Iran say “they hang them” [it happens partly] because the idea is that [being gay] is so uncommon. [The culture is such that] you sleep with men, but no one knows, and you don’t talk about it, so gay doesn’t exist. Relationships, dates—there’s nothing like that.”
Trying as best he could to thrive in this environment as a youngster, Hartouni figured his fate was sealed and tried to fall in line with the norms of Iranian culture.
“In Iran, if you’re naturally feminine, and you can’t hide it—that’s gay.”
“I never thought it was possible I could openly like men, even though all my life I had these deep-down feelings of attraction to men,” he said. “I just thought ‘I will marry a woman, and just sleep with guys on the side,’ like a lot of men do in Iran. I never worried ‘they’re gonna hang me’ because it was never in my mind to come out and I didn’t even think I was gay. I would be in high school, and I would look at a guy, and he would look at me, but how would I know if this guy wants to kiss me? That’s just how it was. In Iran, if you’re naturally feminine, and you can’t hide it—that’s [their definition of] gay.”
Hartouni appreciates that it’s bizarre by American standards that, for such a homophobic culture, Iran is the second-highest country in the world for sex-change operations. He said it all comes down to a collective unwillingness to bend to anything that deviates from traditional gender norms.
“[The government] will pay for your housing and help you with the surgery,” he said. “They will create an income that you get monthly. As long as you decide to change your sex and just shut the hell up, they will support you. Imagine the power of that. They want you to do that—you just can’t be gay.”
The hypersensitivity to how he was perceived in order to maintain a sense of safety was of deep concern—Hartouni was abused not only by trusted authority figures but also at home by his father. Such experiences, which he shares extensively in the book, have made him especially sensitive to the undue adversity far too many LGBTQ youth continue to face today.
“I remember being careful and calculated in every room I walked in,” he said. “I would think, ‘Is a bully going to be there? Is my teacher going to say or do something to [humiliate] me? Is my dad going to make fun of me in front of his friends?’ I was so alert—my husband and I always talk about it, that growing up gay, we learn to read a room so fast. I’m glad that the younger generation [of LGBTQ youth] here don’t seem to go through it at quite so high a level, and they seem more comfortable [with themselves].”
Hartouni stresses, however, that the fervor and puritanism of Middle Eastern religion—with misogynist as well as homophobic beliefs—not only creates undue legacies of shame, but facilitates a sexually unhealthy climate for all concerned.
“What do you think happens in a country when men cannot meet women, where there is no such thing [as dating], where men and women can’t go to the same schools?” he said. “You can’t have [premarital] sex in Iran because if you’re a woman and you have sex before you get married, no one will marry you—that’s the culture. What do you think when you get a lot of unhappy marriages, such as arranged marriages? That’s why a lot of men sleep with men in Iran, and it doesn’t mean they’re gay, although, of course, some of them are.”
“You live to please others in Iranian culture”
When Hartouni came out to his family, he made the choice to do so, knowing that Iranian cultural norms consider any act of self-advocacy as selfish, even rebellious. Previously willing to toe the line and accede to all their expectations, he marked a key shift in reinventing his life.
“You live to please others in Iranian culture,” he said. “It’s embedded in your blood. Being gay, it’s like, ‘You can’t come out! What about your sister? She’s getting married soon! Dad had a heart attack recently…’ It’s never about you and not about how you feel.”
Although prioritizing his happiness created dissension within his family, Hartouni pressed onward. It turned out to be an apt metaphor for his return to Los Angeles as a young adult, starting over again with a clean slate and a series of new beginnings. The culture shock, though a bit disconcerting, was welcome.
“I moved here, and the pressure was so [great] to come out or decide who I am,” he said. “Once you move here, to America, it is so open, and so great the opportunities that we have, and yet we are so focused on labels… [the pressure is on] to decide and accept who you are. I felt ‘Oh my God, if I don’t come out, I won’t survive with my immediate family here, but if I do, they won’t talk to me,’ which they didn’t, so it [would have been] an ongoing challenge whether I was here, or back in Iran.”
Although starting over meant great sacrifice—he was broke, with a family who needed his support to get them through the move—Hartouni buckled down and began his ascent in the world of real estate. Career success followed the full embrace of his authentic self.
“I was determined to [succeed in] the US because I knew what I had over in Iran was gone,” he said. “I was not willing to start [that] again, so I wanted to move here and start something brand new from scratch and build something new by myself and start a new journey.”
Hartouni started assisting a real estate agent and sold 21 homes in his first year. By his third year in the business, he became the manager of a Keller Williams franchise. Within a few years, he owned a roster of locations, with a team that consistently netted remarkable sales success. In 2019 alone, his practice exceeded a billion dollars in volume, but he stresses that this good fortune is the result of considerable investment, long-term thinking and hard work.
“Most of my agents have been with me over 10 years, so [this kind of success] is not overnight,” he said. “You work at it gradually, gradually, gradually until suddenly you have numbers to show.”
“The accident helped me to be born again as a new man”
This is not the only hard work he had to do, however. Symbolic of the heady life transitions he was forging, Hartouni was in a serious car accident with potentially devastating consequences. He survived but nearly lost his legs and had to fight his way back.
“The accident basically helped me to be born again as a new man and bury everything [negative] in my life,” he said. “I was a dancer. I did gymnastics when I was in college, and [upon the accident] I realized both legs broke. Recovery included eleven months lying in bed with a wheelchair, walker and lots of physical therapy. The most difficult part wasn’t the pain of my legs—it was horrendous, and I don’t wish it on anyone—but it’s hard to be positive when you think you’re not going to walk again. I had to find a way.”
Eventually, Hartouni’s physical strength rallied along with his willpower, and he was able to resume his love of long walks, hiking and dancing. Even though such difficult trials are filled with hard-won lessons, he understands the gold they hold and hopes readers—particularly young people—will benefit from them.
“I really wanted this book to take everything bad I experienced and [relate it] to who I am today,” he said. “I didn’t run away from it, but I definitely buried it, learned from it and moved on.”
The love and support of his husband helped him to grow as a person, and once they became fathers, Hartouni said he achieved a level of personal satisfaction and peace with his past he hadn’t known was possible. He had a lightbulb one day while quietly observing his son, pondering what kind of father he wants to be.
“The second chapter of your life is not written yet”
“I think when you have kids, another level of love appears,” he said. “I have friends who don’t have kids, and they love my kids and other kids, too, but I don’t think you can understand it until you have your own. I got so detached from [the mindset of] ‘Is my Dad going to be proud of me? Is he even gonna understand what I have? Am I good enough at what I have done? I need someone to tell me I have [done well].’ That changed to ‘I’m gonna go do this because I deserve it. Now has nothing to do with that chapter.”
Although he knows firsthand how difficult it is for LGBTQ youth growing up with little to no family support, Hartouni wants to reassure them—as well as all who are struggling with growing pains—that a better day will come.
“The second chapter of your life is not written yet,” he said. “When something bad happens, sure, cry over it, but then move on—you can’t cry over the same thing for years. It’s not good for your soul or your body. Don’t trust everyone, but try to find someone that you do trust. This time will pass. Deal with it, don’t bury it and become a victim of it. If you don’t read your past chapter and accept it, you will not be able to write a better one. The second chapter of your life is not written yet. Where you are today, whatever age you are, you have another one to come.”