Memoir: I came out to my Muslim family after a decade of silence—and the fallout was brutal
Coming out is like cliff jumping. The longer you wait to take the plunge, the more time you have to envision your guts rising to your throat, the burn of a belly flop, your head smacking a rock.
I realized I was gay when I was 18, though the signs were there long before. As a kid, I opted for softball instead of ballet and felt like a drag queen when I wore a dress. In middle school, I baked a cake in the shape of Jennifer Love Hewitt’s face, sent a poem to her PO box and clipped her pictures out of Teen People like it was my job. I was either a lesbian or a murderer.
The summer after high school, I got a gig at the Just for Laughs comedy festival in Montreal, where I developed a crush on one of the female staffers; it turned out she liked me, too. For the next year, I led a double life. Every week, I’d leave class at Ryerson, skip along Dundas to the Greyhound station and, eight hours later, I’d be in the Montreal gay village with my girlfriend, speaking French at dépanneurs and wearing rainbow bracelets to lesbian dance parties.
At home, I was in the closet. My dad grew up in a village in Pakistan, my mom in a Swiss farm town. There were mosques and churches and cultural norms. In both cases, any liberal views on sexuality were obscured by mountains.
The day I decided to tell my parents, I was trembling. I walked into the kitchen, where my mom was chopping onions, and blurted it out: the girl “friend” I’d been visiting in Montreal was actually my girlfriend. I told my dad soon after. “I’m in love with a girl,” I admitted. There was a beat of silence. “Well, we love you and we’ll have to deal with this,” he finally replied. Still, it was hard for my parents; they thought the future they’d envisioned for me was lost. They had no reference point for a gay white picket fence.
In 2009, I met Shauna at a bar in San Francisco. I looked up from my drink and saw a gorgeous woman with a million tattoos, dancing by herself. It took me two hours to work up the courage to introduce myself. First impressions matter when you’re meeting your future wife.
Four years later, after we were married in Vermont, I decided it was time to come out to my extended family. We were a tight-knit group; my cousins and I lived together when they first emigrated from Pakistan. When we were kids, I was like their big sister. I hoarded loonies and quarters to buy them a Toys “R” Us basketball net and taught them routines to Dance Mix ’95. I was so proud of these kids that I brought one of them in for show and tell in Grade 2. I was tired of lying to them.
My dad spent weeks trying to talk me out of it. To most of my relatives, marrying outside the faith is taboo—never mind marrying inside the gender. But I was married now. What was I going to do—show up to family events introducing Shauna as my “white best friend who loves Ramadan”?
I decided to do it via email. It didn’t take long to write—I’d been drafting it for a decade. I cc’d my uncles, aunts and cousins, who are dispersed throughout Canada and the U.S., and explained that I was gay, married and happy. I told them I understood it would be hard to accept and that I was available to talk. The email made a big, gay explosion in 28 inboxes, followed by a silence so loud it hurt. No one wrote back.
One of my aunts referred to my email as “the bombshell” and cancelled a family get-together at my parents’ house—presumably for fear that their tap water was also gay. Some of my favourite cousins defriended me on Facebook. Defriended. It sounds silly, but it made me bawl. I was too gay for their newsfeeds.
According to one cousin, some relatives were upset that I was being “loud” about our family troubles. While I understood their perspective, I refused to suppress mine. I responded to their silence by producing my first solo stand-up comedy tour, Brownlisted, where I riffed on my sexuality, ethnicity and family. As a gay Canadian comedian with supportive parents, I was in a unique position to be vocal about something most people had no choice but to hide.
My announcement created a rift between my parents and the rest of our relatives. My father was devastated that his family was falling apart, but he and my mom insisted we were a package deal: if the family wanted a relationship with my parents, they’d have to accept me, their gay side order. My brother sent out an impassioned letter in my defence: “Saying that you can’t accept someone for pursuing happiness given their God-given definition of that pursuit is nearsighted, closed-minded and just plain bad conduct as a human being,” he wrote. “If you’re ever having trouble accepting others’ harmless pursuits of happiness, think back to the opportunities your parents afforded you by moving to this part of the world.”
Some of my family members are gone for good. But others are starting to come around; I’ve heard from relatives I thought would never speak to me again. In October, I got a phone call from the show and tell cousin, the one whose reaction had hurt the most. He was devastated, he felt horrible, he was sorry; by the end of the conversation we were both crying. He kept promising that he’d do whatever it took to make things right. He already had.
Sabrina Jalees (@SabrinaJalees) is a comedian and writer in Toronto.
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