4 min

Why must we refer to each other as ‘sisters’ and ‘mothers’?

Xtra’s correspondent in the Arab world weighs gay family models in Syria

Ahmed Danny Ramadan, Xtra’s correspondent based in Lebanon, writes a regular column called Arabian Knights. Credit: Courtesy of Ahmed Danny Ramadan

I’m sitting in a circle of gay people, glitter on my clothes and a cup of coffee in my hand. I feel disoriented. It’s five o’clock in the morning, and we’re gathered in the garden of a small villa that I rented for my birthday.

It’s May 2012, and the sounds of armed clashes between unknown entities near Damascus fill the air, but we ignore them.

The sun is shy at this hour, still hiding behind the bloody red horizon, and my body welcomes the hot coffee that’s helping it stay awake after a night of dancing, loud music and alcohol.

My hand is resting calmly in the hands of Aamer, my boyfriend. Back then, we didn’t use that term yet to describe our relationship; we were dating and had met less than a month earlier.

“We are taking things slow,” I tell myself. “It’s too early to think of the future of this relationship.”

My eyes gaze at the small swimming pool in the middle of the villa, the wind surfing its water. Calm, small waves of sparkling drops of water are moving left and right, hypnotizing me, when Aamer’s hands suddenly tighten around mine.

“How do you feel about your relationship with Danny?”

Khaled, a 40-year-old man sitting across the circle from us, is grilling Aamer. “What exactly do you want from him? How do you see your future with him? Are you in for the long run?”

Poor Aamer is being hammered by questions as Khaled assumes the lead role in the integration of my new boyfriend.

“Would you stop asking him questions?” I say, directing my gaze at Khaled. “Leave the guy alone.”

Khaled smiles, holding his cigarette with the tips of his fingers, and tells me that as my “mother” he is merely looking after me.

I sigh. My gay-mother is talking, and I will listen to him/her until the end, for the family-tree system in Syria requires me to respect my “elders.”

Whether I like it or not, Khaled is my “mother” in the gay community in Syria.

As Khaled continues to ask questions, and Aamer continues to graciously avoid them with a smile, I reflect on the basic structure of the gay community in Syria.

A group of gay male friends with no sexual attraction to one another is considered a family here. The members of the group call each other sisters and are known in the gay community by their female nicknames.

Those “sisters” are usually adopted by an older group of gay men who consider themselves “mothers” to the younger group. They, too, call each other — sarcastically most of the time and seriously in more emotional moments — by endearing mother-daughter nicknames.

This system extends endlessly: even older men are considered grandmothers in this family tree.

When I returned to Syria after 10 years abroad, I found myself almost forcefully adopted by Khaled, who insisted on considering me his “daughter” and wanted me to consider him my “mother.” The “sister” of Khaled is my “aunt,” their gay-mother is my “grandmother,” and so on.

At the time, I didn’t want to be adopted by anyone. I wasn’t very happy to be called a “sister” by other gay guys, most of whom I had never met before. And I was utterly unhappy that a feminine man in his 40s that I never met before had suddenly become my “mother” in the gay community.

I hated this structure; it was very different than what I had imagined a gay society should be like. But when I asked myself what kind of a gay society I would like to see in Syria, I came back empty-handed.

I found myself extremely agitated by the gender-confused nicknames and the vulgar, disrespectful attitude of the gay people who believe in this system: they assume that screaming in high-pitched voices makes them more womanly, which seems to be their idea of being a gay man.

This conflicted with my own idea of being a gay man, which basically is about sexual attraction, not gender inversion.

I wondered if their idea of gender came from a heterosexual understanding of sexual attraction? In that understanding, women are supposed to be attracted to men; thus, if you’re attracted to men, you must see yourself in a female role, leading to this whole structure of a female-oriented family system.

I found the gay society in Syria backward, uncivilized, and I hated it. But then I noticed that this family system of sorts can be very helpful to the younger generations, who might feel the need to have a family structure around them, where they feel accepted and loved. Deprived of the opportunity to come out to their own families because of the social, traditional and religious aspects of Syrian life, young gay men may find themselves drawn to this system that basically fills the void in their souls for acceptance and belonging.

But what morals and standards are the “elders” of Syrian gay society passing down to the younger generations of gay men?

Are the older men qualified to lead the younger? Or are they just teaching them what they know: to hide, to fear, to exploit and pressure each other, to hold back their powerful existence and deny themselves the chance to aspire for more from gay life than casual interaction?

Still, the family structure has a purpose: giving family to those without a family, to those who feel like they don’t belong anywhere. On that level, the structure of the Syrian gay society has succeeded in creating a circle of support for those who need it most.

A burst of high-pitched laughter from Khaled pulls my attention back to the men gathered in my rented garden.

Aamer’s witty banter has impressed my “mother,” but I decide to spare him more interrogation, announcing instead that it’s time for bed.

Khaled grabs my arm as I head inside the villa.

Aamer “is a decent guy,” he says, urging me to allow him into my heart, because “mothers know best.”

I smile and wave goodnight to him.

In bed, the voices of the people sitting outside fade away. Sleepy, Aamer moves closer to me, rests his head on my shoulder and says, for the very first time, “I love you.”