06/22/2012 05:32 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

You Can't Be Gay; You're Arab

A friend of mine accidentally came out to his parents on his birthday. I say "accidentally" because he wasn't planning on it -- not ever. He's Arab.

As if the birthday weren't already bad enough.

It was a birthday that only reminded him that he had just broken up with his boyfriend, that he was turning 31 on his parents' plastic-covered couch in Jersey, and that his parents could not console him just by being his parents, even though he still visits them each weekend. He is American, yes, but he is Arab first, and that's what makes that completely normal.

But his parents could not replace his boyfriend. And once they forgot to do all the things on a birthday that a boyfriend should do...

All he wanted to say was that he was just going through a tough break up. He never planned on telling them he was gay. Not because he was afraid to, not totally, but because he thought being gay was his fault. And there really was no one from his culture to tell him otherwise.

Gay men in the Middle East aren't exactly accepted, although you wouldn't think so if you ever went -- fitted pants, fitted shirts, the aroma of cologne that isn't greasy or skeevy. These men are so well-groomed -- just one facet of gay culture, I know, but it's the one that an average straight woman like me notices and envies right away. When I visited, I felt like a beggar compared with my male cousins, and I'm from New York.

But if you asked about homosexuality, you'd get a series of suggested solutions to what is clearly an ailment. And while I've heard stories of gay men practicing their sexuality in the most socially acceptable and completely surreptitious way (wearing abaya and sneaking off), there really is no culture for gay people comparable to that of the West. No, the U.S. isn't perfect, but at least we recognize the need to make it so.

But while my friend lives in the U.S.A. and not the K.S.A. (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), coming out for him wasn't any easier; hell, it wasn't even on purpose. It wasn't easy because in an Arab family, boys are born men, and the prevailing idea is that there is nothing manly about homosexuality. In fact, homosexuality is shameful, and somehow, being shameful feels worse than being wrong.

The lack of education and communication makes things difficult, even for the most progressive Arabs. My disinterested Iraqi, practically European father, who would prefer to have nothing to do with the Middle East, said of my friend's homosexuality, "Well, is there any way to fix it?" with so much care and sincerity. My mother politely informed him that no, homosexuality is not something you fix, and that he is a complete idiot.

But apparently gay Arab women have it a little bit easier, my mother says. (She's never really left Iraq, even though she moved to the U.S. 30 years ago.) Since she was a young girl, she's known of a big lesbian culture in Iraq. It seems that there are lots of lesbians in the south of Iraq. (Who knows why the south, but anyway...) They do their duty: They get married, and they have children. And then, on the side, they have a girlfriend. It's not a big deal.

I'd never heard of gay anything in Iraq, but my mother's reaction does not surprise me. In the Middle East getting married is like getting a job. As long as you have one, you are completely socially acceptable. The rest, just keep quiet.

And maybe for some people in the Middle East, keeping it quiet is enough. And maybe that's because they don't know any other way.

So, when I think about my friend and his parents, who won't speak to him, who are probably ashamed (because what are they going to tell their Arab friends and families here?), I can't help but think of my parents. What if it were me? Would they be ashamed if I were a lesbian.

"Of course not," my mother says. "At least you found someone."


But I know it's more than that. We live in America -- away from the Middle East. Away from all our family. Away from a culture where people aren't alone long enough to ever feel lonely. Ever. And I mean ever. Where family is most important. Where you can't make a decision without the input of even your neighbors. Where you live at home until you are married (if you are a wild child, that is, because even when you do get married, you are expected to live right above your parents, which is why my father is happy we moved to the States). Where retirement centers are an insult ("Where is your family?"). Where you always belong somewhere, to someone, because everyone has a family, or at least people who treat you like family, because really, there is no other way to treat you.

Not like America. "Is it really worth getting married if this is the end?" my mother says, referring to my sisters and me moving out of the house and apparently forgetting our parents exist.

Because as you get older, finding love isn't something you just find, like a sample sale. Finding someone you love, who loves you, who actually gets you, is hard enough without the added pressure of being a sexual minority. But for parents, their children finding love is something different entirely. "All we want to know is that we when go, our children aren't alone in the world," my parents always say. "Honestly, this world is lonely enough."

In a strange way, I do hope that's what all parents think, not just mine.