5 min

Growing up gay in the Middle East

Muslim women are supposed to marry men and make babies

I was brought up in a world that taught me that I was a Muslim woman born to get married to a man and someday make babies.

It was clear from an early age that not one part of that label was negotiable.

If you are born in the Middle East you learn quickly that the old-fashioned gender roles you see all around you are the only acceptable options. I knew I was no exception.

My parents constantly told stories of all the wonderful things I could expect from a life where I fulfilled my destiny and married a man. As I grew up all of the girls dreamt of the day when they would one day be married and have the honour of cooking and child-rearing, being the queen of their own castles, while the men took care of all of the unpleasantries such as work.

There wasn’t anyone disputing these “facts.”

There were no gay couples walking around hand in hand. There was no one coming out. How would you even know there was another option?

Then I moved to the United States and things gradually began to change. Very gradually.

Although I was still adamant about being straight, my eyes would linger in the presence of women with such beautiful bodies that my attention could not be torn away. But my denial was so deep and so powerful that it would not let me accept the possibility that I might be a lesbian.

I was already a teenager in America living in clear defiance of everything my family wanted for me. I liked to boast about that but deep inside I wished a thousand times over that I could be the person they wanted me to be.

My “straightness” was the one thing we could all agree on and I wasn’t prepared to lose their acceptance completely.

So in an attempt to make everyone happy I kept being untrue to myself.

We moved back to Egypt and I dated more and more boys but noticed more and more girls. Then one day a startling discovery: One of my best friends, the girl who made it the most difficult to deny the truth, came out as bisexual.

This shocker rocked my whole world. She’d been straight as long as I’d known her, or so I’d thought. If it could happen to her it could happen to me!

This was the girl I had been in love with for the last nine years; although I wouldn’t figure that out for another few months.

She didn’t realize it but her breaking the silence had opened my floodgates.

After a very intimate discussion, I realized that I had always had feelings for her. Her coming out and my finding myself so clearly attracted to her on so many levels meant I could no longer deny my sexuality even to myself.

My first time with a girl was completely spontaneous and I believe truly engrained my love for women in my head. It is one thing to have feelings for women, another to experience that profound and deep connection that you can only have with another woman.

I wasn’t caught in the moment but I was found out as soon as I went online to tell my best friend of my intoxicating discovery. My father walked in, forced me to vacate the premises and read every word.

I was told what a disgrace I was and asked how I could do something so filthy.

I was grounded in every sense of the word for almost a year until I almost escaped. I was no longer allowed or able to communicate with my friends, no longer allowed to leave the house unsupervised and no longer allowed a bedroom door.

Under such bleak circumstances, thoughts of exploration were completely gone and my every waking moment became about my future escape.

Although my father maintained that it was only a phase %mdash: because the possibility that I might actually be gay was too horrific to imagine %mdash: it was an unacceptable phase.

Sadly, what happened to me is a typical reaction to finding out that your child is gay in the Middle East — either complete lockdown or murder are usually how it is handled. And I was considered lucky.

When Middle Eastern women are found out (which happens very rarely as most just prefer to stay in the closet fearing for their lives) it is usually seen as a phase or a onetime thing.

Though everyone has different reactions, most women are stripped of their freedom for some time while being put through an extreme regime of religious teachings and all the things a woman should be doing.

Some people prefer to try to ignore it and pretend nothing happened (although this is very rare) and in extreme cases some women are killed.

Men face a much more cruel fate. They are either killed or sent to “man camps” where they go through months/years of training to toughen them up. And these are the lucky ones.

If you are found out by the police — caught in the moment — you end up in jail arrested for some obscure charge like public indecency (even though the act would never be performed in public).

The length of jail time would depend on how you were found out, the arresting officer and when/if your family would bail you out.

In jail, gay men are subjected to a plethora of torture methods, everything from sleep/food deprivation to extreme beatings both by fists and weapons, as well as constant rape. All this while tied down in your cell so you are defenseless and while dealing with the constant visits from officers telling you of how sick and filthy you are.

It’s a harsh reality but sadly one documented all over the country.

Why does it happen? The punishment comes from outraged family members who feel disgraced, or individuals who are just disgusted.

Men and women are meant to get married and honour their families; that is what is expected. Family honour comes before anything else. Being gay is not an acceptable way to live and it only serves to tarnish the family name.

If you tarnish the family name and disgrace them you have to “straightened out” quite literally and, of course, punished for your sins in the process.

Faced with such atrocious potential punishment, most make the decision to stay in the closet. The brave few who admit it to themselves rarely admit it to anyone else.

My extended family still does not know about me, and my close family doesn’t accept it.

My father is too deep in denial himself, choosing to believe it was just a onetime thing; my mother simply refuses to accept my sexual orientation.

When your own friends, born and raised in the Middle East, share the mentality that gays are immoral and a disgrace, you aren’t exactly encouraged to speak out. So I simply never told anyone there.

It was hard keeping something so big to myself, first the discovery of my own sexuality and later the relationship that changed my life.

Gone were the days of sharing every intimate detail of new love. My new love was invariably a girl and as such I could only share details that wouldn’t reveal her gender. Every time I spoke I worried that my words would betray me, my signals would get crossed, I’d blurt out “she” instead of “he” and I would become the newest pariah. Sharing became a thing of the past.

Time passed and I grew accustomed to leading a dual life. To Egyptians I was straight but not interested in dating anymore and to my friends back home in the US I was me.

But I eventually got sick of lying my way through life and decided it was time to be me full time before I lost my true identity in the lies.

I decided to move out for good.

I am still not speaking to my family as they cannot accept me, a woman, living on my own in another country. But I made a decision to start my life whatever the price.

I have been living in Vancouver for the past six months and am just starting to branch out and meet lesbians in the area. So far the lesbian community has been friendly and welcoming; something I am still getting used to.

Someday I hope this formerly confused girl from the Middle East can find a way to unify past and present for a more hopeful future.