Sepi Shyne made history in November as the first out LGBTQ+ Iranian-American elected to public office in the U.S. Now, as a member of the West Hollywood City Council, where she’s also the first queer woman of color to serve, she’s fighting for social justice and inclusivity as well as changing the narrative around Iranians and Iranian-Americans.
Shyne, sworn in as a council member in December, has already spurred the council to create a social justice task force to address social and racial inequalities. She also plans to advocate for people of color and transgender people, address climate change, and assure the creation of more affordable housing in the heavily LGBTQ+ city adjacent to Los Angeles.
Shyne is a lawyer, owner of a holistic healing practice, and a longtime civil rights activist, but it took her a while to consider running for political office. She was appointed to WeHo’s Gay and Lesbian Advisory Board in 2018, and some colleagues encouraged her to get into electoral politics; what finally convinced her was the experience of organizing phone banks for the Human Rights Campaign to mobilize voters in the “blue wave” election that year.
“I, for the first time, thought, well, I could,” she says. She received the most votes of any council candidate in November’s election, and now she and another newcomer, gay man John Erickson, have joined the council, having bested long-serving incumbents John Heilman and John Duran. The election also means WeHo has its first female-majority council.
Shyne was born in Iran in 1977, and her childhood there was marked by upheaval, with the Islamic fundamentalist revolution of 1979, after which women lost rights, and the war with Iraq that started a year later. Her father was jailed for speaking against the Iranian regime. She and her parents soon fled to the U.S., settling in Northern California. She moved to Los Angeles in 2006 and has lived in West Hollywood for 12 years. She and her wife, actress-filmmaker-producer Ashlei Shyne, have been married six years and together for nearly 10.
Alongside fighting for equality for all, she wants to shift perceptions of the Iranian community. Outsiders, she says, think either of the repressive fundamentalists who’ve created a twisted image of Islam or the privileged types featured on Shahs of Sunset. “I’m not happy with either of those narratives, frankly,” she says.
Before the revolution, she notes, Iran “was quite a melting pot,” with a variety of religions and ethnicities. She also points out that an Iranian diplomat helped create the United Nations’ first human rights declaration. She’s working to raise awareness of Iranian values and celebrations, while fighting homophobia within the community and without.
She grew up in a moderate Muslim family; she no longer practices the faith but describes herself as very spiritual. She came out as a lesbian in high school, and her mother was initially upset, “but she stood by me through the years and has become one of my greatest advocates,” Shyne says. Her father died of leukemia before she could come out to him.
Shyne will serve a four-year term on the council, and she’s deepening her political involvement by becoming a delegate to the California Democratic Party. Delegates help set priorities for the party and choose candidates to endorse. She won a delegate slot by mail-in vote in January.
Shyne, who ran as part of a progressive slate, hopes to advocate for causes such as universal health care coverage through a “Medicare for all” plan. Given Democratic victories at the national level, with control of the presidency and Congress, “there’s no better time than now to move this forward,” she says.