In commemoration of National Coming Out Day, I'm doing something I've never done before. I'm publicly telling the story of how I came out as a lesbian to my Muslim family.
There's this misconception that just because I seem to have it together, or have enjoyed a certain amount of success, that being loud and proud came easy. It did not.
My wish is that this story brings a bit of hope and courage to those who are desperate to come out and be their authentic selves amongst their families, no matter what the religion or culture.
I was 24 and still living at home in Oregon, we had moved there from the UAE right after the First Gulf War. Yes I was still living at home even though I had gotten my Computer Science degree and landed a sweet job at a prominent tech company.
In traditional Middle Eastern cultures, women stay in their family's home until they're married. I wasn't married.
I was a late bloomer in many senses. I came to the U.S in high school, and while my classmates were sneaking around with boys and dating football players, I was in band and math club. This was before being a nerd was cool, before people started wearing fake, thick-rimmed glasses to a club.
A lot of them joked that if I didn't get a boyfriend soon, I'd turn into a lesbian. Ironic, right? At the time, I hid behind my nerdism to justify my boylessness.
When I got home from school, it was a different story. I would be in my room, reading the Quran, praying the gay away. After a bout of prayer, I would slap myself in the face, trying to exorcise any feelings towards women that I had. This never worked. It was the hate from myself, not others, that destroyed me.
So here I was, 24, clumsily dating women. I didn't have any gay friends, and I had no clue where to meet women. I was lonely a lot. I remember the lesbian bar across town I had the courage to visit once, it was the only one around. It was seedy with moldy carpeting and poker machines lining the back wall. All the women in there looked like they had just come out of jail (and not the Orange Is The New Black kind). I just wanted a woman who smelled nice and had the majority of her teeth intact.
When I did have the fortune of meeting somebody, I was lying to my parents about where I was going, and who I was seeing. I felt like a guilty child most of the time, it was humiliating.
I eventually did come out to a handful of friends. Most were supportive. The one thing they couldn't understand was why an adult like myself wouldn't just "move the hell out and tell them like it is!"
I tried to explain that it was different for me, for my culture. Loyalty to the family was everything, and so was their reputation. More than hurting myself, I was afraid I would disgrace my family, that no one would invite them to weddings or gatherings, and that they would be shunned all because of my selfishness of wanting to be free.
My American friends would argue that there are laws in this country, that I could simply walk out the door with no repercussions, and they wouldn't be able to hurt me. I would tell them there was no law that could ever protect against them not loving me anymore.
One day I promised myself that if there ever came a time when they asked me, I would tell them the truth. Until then, I would try and get a job out of state, or even out of the country, and justify me moving out for career reasons. Surely they'd understand that. After all, they were proud parents, boasting to the family and community about my education and accomplishments, I couldn't have been a more perfect child in their eyes which would make the fall from grace even harder.
On July 4th, Independence Day 2004, it happened. I was doing dishes, and my mom walked in. She was complaining about this lesbian couple that had moved next door to my uncles, and how appalling the whole thing was. I told her not to worry about it, they weren't hurting anybody (all the while thinking what a dream it would be to actually live with a person you love). She took that as me defending "the gays", and after a few back-and-forths, she finally asked me.
"Are you...are you a lesbian?"
I looked at her as the water was running in the background. My ears started ringing. My hands heated up in the yellow gloves I was wearing.
The next word out of my mouth would change the course of my life forever.
What happened after that was a nightmare. One that I had seen over and over in my head. I had braced myself for the worst, but I couldn't have prepared myself for how much this was going to hurt.
I got called name after disgusting name by my mother. She poked and prodded me about every sexual experience I ever had. She immediately told my dad (though I had begged her to let me tell him on my own time), and they both completely ignored my existence, as if I was a ghost walking around the house. They would talk over my head when they would greet each other, I took my meals in my room and cried for days. I would go to work, and come back to a house completely void of any love, where I wasn't welcome, and where any validation of my existence had disappeared. I simply did not exist anymore.
Then, they tried a different approach. They sent me to a psychologist to cure my mental disorder. They would call me at work to check on the status of finding the best psychologist in the area to cure me, and when I was finally forced to make an appointment, they obviously wanted me to go there alone, get cured, and come back home. At they least they were talking to me, I thought.
When that didn't work, they wanted to commit me to a hospital and eradicate my hormone imbalance. At that point, I put my foot down. The humiliation was unbearable. That is when they kicked me out. They wanted me to go somewhere far, somewhere away from their friends and community, somewhere I couldn't embarrass them anymore and sully their reputation.
So that's when I moved to the Bay Area. I had been there once on a business trip for a few months, and our company had an office there, so it was the only place I could think to go. I packed my bags and left.
As a 24 year old woman, this was the first time I had ever lived alone in my life. I had no family, no friends, I was utterly and completely alone. I was so lonely and distraught for months that I became physically ill. The low point was when I had to go to the hospital, and I had no one to take me. I had to call a taxi. Where just a short while ago I had the full support and love of a big family and a loving community, I was now taking a Yellow Cab to the emergency room.
But, you know what? It's true what they say. "It gets better."
At some point you will stop surviving, and start thriving. Trust me, this is inevitable. The human spirit will always have the instinct to endure, with or without you. When you're ready, it will hold your hand, pull you up, dust you off, and push you over the highest cliff imaginable, just so you can soar.
I found a lovely group of friends, I started dating, I traveled, I found my own self. I met my parter of 9 years (and yes, she smells nice and has a great set of teeth)! We moved in and started a home together. After years and years of not talking to me, most of my family eventually came around, and those who didn't, well, I don't really think about them.
As for my mother, well. I always say she was braver than any other woman I had known. I couldn't imagine, coming from where she came from, where it was indoctrinated in her that a gay child was worse than death, where there was so much hate and mercilessness towards anyone different; to eventually push her heart open, stretch her mind, and force herself to let the love in. She did that. All on her own. And I am forever and eternally grateful. She passed away 3 years ago...but not before arranging to meet my partner first. I hope she knows how much I look up to her strength and love.
So here I am now. Living, loving, and happy. Do not be afraid. Even someone like me has a story. That beautiful scar will be a part of you forever, as a reminder of how far you have come. You will look at it, smile, and thank it for making you who you are.
I say, don't measure your happiness by what you do, or even who you are. Measure it by how deep you can breath without feeling pain. And I am thankful for every breath I take.