According to my brother, my nephew (from my brother) told my niece (from my sister) that when he grows up he wants to be like me. She replied incredulously, “You want to be gay?”
When I first heard the story, it broke my heart in so many ways, not least of which is why my niece sees me that way and what it says about how others will perceive and interact with me.
My nephew doesn’t know that I’m gay, and from everything he’s been taught, being gay is a terrible thing. So he got angry on my behalf and asked her why she’d say something like that about her (and his) uncle. That’s another reason my heart broke ― that my nephew will see me differently because of this.
As my brother relayed the conversation to me, he noted that he had to figure out how to spin the conversation to his son so that his son would come away thinking that my niece wasn’t being literal. It was yet another reminder of the shame that my family insists upon projecting onto me. In my adulthood, I’ve always tried to be loving to my brother and supportive in tangible ways.
Why is my same-sex attraction so much more important than all the ways I’ve tried to be a good?
Why is my same-sex attraction so much more important to him than all the ways I’ve tried to be a good brother to him? Why isn’t he proud of my goodness rather than ashamed of what others might say or think? It hurts that he takes me for granted, and it hurts that he is so judgmental. It also hurts to know that his son, who I’ve observed is loving and gentle and kind, will be raised to be less compassionate than he might naturally be inclined to be.
I feel honored that my nephew wants to be like me. It feels like an affirmation from God, because though I’ve tried to be a positive influence in his life, I have no idea what impact I’m making on him. To hear that he looks up to me is an honor. I hope it’s because I’m worthy. I hope it’s because I show him love and affection. I hope it’s because I make his life better. I hope it’s because I try to support him in his dreams and show him that he can be so much more than even he might imagine and definitely more than I am now.
I grew up without aunts and uncles. I grew up without any extended family. Because of religious and racial bigotry, I grew up with no friends. Because I also happened to be attracted to people of the same gender, I felt like there was no one like me.
I know what it’s like to not be part of a tribe, and I want so much more for my nieces and nephews. I want them to know love and support and acceptance. I want them to know self-confidence. I want them to know courage and persistence and possibility. I want them to know that their uncle loves them, and I know it is my job to forge that relationship with them and show them that I care.
Since my brother doesn’t want his kids to know about me, I’ve never told them. My brother is firmly opposed to my self-acceptance as a man who happens to be gay. He thinks it is wrong for me to want to live the exact same type of life he is living, because I don’t share his orientation. He thinks it is okay to disrespect my marriage even as he expects respect for his. He wants to make sure that his children feel the same way he does about people who are same-sex attracted. I imagine he doesn’t want his kids to know that their uncle ― who they see as a practicing Muslim who is kind and loving ― happens to be gay, because it would give lie to the bigotries he is trying to instill in them. Knowing that my brother will severely limit my relationship with his children is another reason my heart breaks.
His perspective is frustrating, though it doesn’t significantly undermine my view of myself, because the beliefs seem rooted in the very things the Qur’an tells us to reject: believing in things that run counter to reason, clinging to ideas that are incoherent and inconsistent, blindly following tradition, closing our eyes to evidence and elevating men to the status of gods by giving their opinions the same weight as the word of God.
My sister and her husband are accepting of me, though I can’t say it gives me comfort, because it isn’t rooted in a shared view of what is authoritative. In my estimation, their acceptance stems from a generalized and simplistic view of morality that lacks the searching deliberation that I believe the Qur’an requires of us. Still, I absolutely appreciate the intentions behind the acceptance.
I’ve also never talked to my sister’s children about my orientation, so I don’t know why her daughter feels like she can talk about my orientation to others. Ultimately, given her parents’ attitudes, I imagined it was something she’s totally okay with. For her to speak of my being gay in the pejorative came as an unwelcome and disheartening surprise.
I am viewed and judged for being gay, a trait that I didn’t choose and that I don’t want to be defined by.
I wonder why she’s come to view it that way. I also wonder why ― of all the things I am ― she singled that trait out. I don’t know how to feel when someone that I’ve tried to be loving to and supportive of sees me as gay before she sees me as an uncle or a friend or a playmate or a thoughtful and moral person. When her cousin said he wants to be like me, why didn’t she ask him if he meant that he wants to be funny or adventurous or an engineer or a writer or a traveler? It’s so demoralizing that the thing that came to her mind above all else was that I’m gay. Not because there’s something wrong with being gay, but because it reinforces that I am viewed and judged for a trait that I didn’t choose and that I don’t want to be defined by.
I don’t present gayness as my defining trait. It may be obvious to others that I am, but it certainly isn’t who I am and it’s not how I want others to judge me. I want to be judged for how I choose to be, not how I am made. I would like to believe that my nephew’s view of me is who I am. He made a judgement based on what he’s seen of my actions, and it was positive. I am so grateful for that, though in the end, my niece’s words remind me of how frequently a trait that I didn’t choose eclipses all the other parts of me, and that breaks my heart.
I choose to be a Muslim. I choose to be compassionate. I choose to take chances. I choose to care about others. I choose to travel, photograph, write, read, go on bike rides, engage in acts of kindness, deliberate and strive for God-consciousness. I choose not to drink alcohol. I choose to try to respect others and to live as best I know how. I fail often and fall short of the ideal, but goodness is something I actively choose to strive for. Gayness is not.
The conversation between my nephew and niece highlights one of the major struggles facing men and women who happen to be attracted to persons of the same gender. No matter how we define ourselves, we all too often get defined by others against our will. My same-sex attraction is one of the last characteristics I choose to disclose to others given how much discrimination, stigma and baggage are associated with it, even among those who are fully accepting.
Being a practicing Muslim who also happens to be self-accepting of his same-sex attraction makes me an island unto myself.
Being a practicing Muslim who also happens to be self-accepting of his same-sex attraction makes me an island unto myself. If I announce myself as gay to other practicing Muslims, they will usually assume that I am lapsed and will have nothing to do with me. Being gay trumps everything else that I am. No matter how bright the light shines within me, all that many people see as they turn away in revulsion is the shadow they cast, and though the darkness is from them, they attribute it to me.
If I come out as gay to someone who is very accepting of same-sex attraction, gayness still manages to overshadow all my chosen characteristics. It’s human nature to have psychological schemas and the schema many people associate with homosexual men is of a secular, sexual libertine. I am a Muslim who is probably more conservative in my ideas and behaviors than many heteronormative Muslims, so I end up having to quickly deconstruct the default schema before it comes to possibly define me in their eyes.
Am I proud to be attracted to people of the same gender? No, because I didn’t choose it. Why would I feel proud of something I can’t take credit for? I’m also not ashamed of it for the exact same reason.
The more my family and others force same-sex attraction to be the defining and - very sadly - limiting factor in our relationship, the more they encourage me to be an activist, and to be more brave and open. The irony will most likely be lost on them that they are the catalyst behind my advocacy for a world where Muslims who happen to be attracted to the same gender will find greater acceptance and at least one kindred spirit.