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Don’t we have it hard enough? – the privilege of ‘coming out’

07 Sep 2018

Image by Parys Gardener

My mother had just stepped out of the shower when I asked her if she was a lesbian. I asked her with a cold voice if she was in a relationship with that woman. That woman who spent all her time at her apartment.

She was holding her hands protectively around her towel. My mother is a very proud and controlled woman. I’ve never seen her cry. Even in the moments when blood ran down her mouth from my father’s fists, she still exuded strength. Someone might physically dominate her, but never spiritually. She wouldn’t break even when she broke. But this moment was different. It felt so vulnerable.

I was 20 at the time; young and swallowing my anger, only to choke on it from time to time. Sometimes I held anger in my stomach till I threw it up all across the room. Smearing it on walls only to frantically and remorsefully scrub it clean. The strength of my emotions frightens people. It has taken me a while to learn how to navigate that power.

Before she answered, she took a breath. Her eyes watered and she did the thing she always does when she is afraid. She prepared her voice so she could answer with a stern and confident tone. Never have I understood myself better than I did in that moment, watching her. She finally answered: “yes, yes, I am”.

The next second she started to cry. She was scared of my reaction. She was scared to lose me after everything and everybody she had already lost after she divorced my father. I wanted to cry. I was so angry and did not know where that anger came from.

Instead, I did what I always do when I sense that she is afraid. I told her with a strong and secure voice that there was nothing to be ashamed of. That I loved her and I would always be by her side because caring sometimes means holding back your own emotions. It does not matter who is the child and who is the parent.

Once I was alone I broke down crying. Don’t we have it hard enough? Selfish thoughts crossed my mind. What will people say? A lesbian Afghan woman. We are immigrants, working class. And what if my father kills her? I know nobody would demand justice for us. It was her own fault, they might say. I am so tired.

Years later, I am ashamed of how I asked the question. I am ashamed about how I felt after. I am ashamed for feeling anger about my mother coming out. At the same time, it also indicated something very real and complex in how homophobia, white supremacy and silence interact.

Today, when I tell my close friends from law school that my mother is a queer Afghan woman the reactions are uniform. My circles in London, New York and Berlin all respond along the lines of “aw wow, that’s cool!”

“The observation that acceptance is easier in certain spaces, has been cleverly weaponised against communities of colour”

If you are working class and educate yourself into certain spaces, you gain access to like-minded people, and your LGBTQI+ identities are more readily accepted. I have friends who understand my political language. I don’t have to explain concepts such as intersectionality and queer politics. Although coming from a disadvantaged background, the pursuit of higher education means we become part of a certain class. Hence, the spaces we get to inhabit, the people we surround ourselves with, becomes a safe space.

Yet, this very observation – that acceptance is easier in certain spaces, has been cleverly weaponised against communities of colour, especially Muslim communities, in many ways; we are often painted as the primary perpetrators of homophobia. The problem child of sexism is the problem child of homophobia too. Another political tool to paint certain people as not fully human for not recognising the humanity of other humans.  

A nation suffering from a legacy and guilt of the Holocaust can now proudly say: “it isn’t us, it’s them”. Accordingly, “integration” courses in Germany include lessons for refugees on same-sex marriage or anti-Semitism to educate them on what a tolerant society this is, and reaffirming their “discriminatory” nature will not be tolerated in Germany – a pseudo-fix to the problem and the cause.

Newspaper headlines in Germany are simplistic like old Disney movies: Dark signifies danger, evil. Antagonists who should not be empathised with. It seems like Germany needs our bodies, needed us to construct an imaginary national identity – one that stands in opposition to everything our bodies represent. A scapegoat and a convenient way to say “We Germans respect women and the LGBTQI+ community. Unlike those people.”

2018 has been a year of increased police brutality against refugees, especially Afghans. This is a side effect of successfully dehumanising people. Barely any media coverage or outcry exists about an Afghan teenager being shot for doing what teenagers do. The Minister of Interior joked joyfully about the 69 deportations on his 69th birthday; one of those young deported Afghans committed suicide as a result.

It appears, to some, some deaths are comical, some lives are worthless. Amidst all of this, I turn off the TV, the phone, the news. My mouth still full of anger. My own, my people, my mother’s. I swallow it.

Now, 10 years after I asked my mother the question in the bathroom, I see her healing. She is on her way to recovery. There is still anger directed towards white supremacy for not ever letting us speak about our community without fear of racist backlash. It means I am still overlooking the problematic failings of my community. It also means going back to swallowing my anger.

So, marginalised people in a marginalised community become even more isolated. This makes the act of “coming-out” one that implies fears beyond homophobia. It has other consequences that are connected to a political reality that cannot be easily overcome.

We need a link between our personal survival and the survival of our community. We need an understanding that survival and transformation is part of healing as a community. We need spaces in which we can openly discuss the role community plays in healing our wounds, as healing is harder in the absence of our community.