A Tale of Identity Across Borders679 views
A decade and a half ago, I was a teenage, out, first generation Arab-Armenian dyke in the United States. Life was not easy as a triple minority, per se, but I managed to find my voice and remain outspoken, releasing anger and addressing socioeconomic inequality via spoken word and slam poetry at open mic events around Las Vegas, NV.
I remember begging my mom for a flat top since age 7. Each plea was shot down with a “Hell no”, figuratively speaking, and the herendously outdated ‘bob cut’ was forced upon me – year, after year, after year. Can I get a witness?! I dealt with these repeated denials, however, creatively: by pulling the neighborhood boys into my bathroom against their wills to give them flat tops and style their hair – with scissors and gel in hand, to their dismay.
Even as a child, there are photos of me dressed in what look like my older brother’s hand-me-downs, except I don’t have any siblings. This leads me to believe (and it has been confirmed) that I put up a fierce fight when it came time to dress me. To my chagrin, I recall a one-year period from ages 15-16, a “phase” shall we say, during which I wore make-up and tight clothing in attempts to conform to my socially constructed gender role.
The year was 1997. I remember having to closet myself (at least vocally) upon crossing the borders into Lebanon & Syria to visit extended family. At that age, it wasn’t such a big deal; I wasn’t that irked about having to lie about my non-existent interest in boys due to the precedence that school and sports took in my life. In reality, I was crazy about girls, and in fact, in love with one (and lusting for many). Nonetheless, I was aware of my female masculinity and its subversiveness in most societies, and I knew I had to tone it down. The baggy jeans, white t-shirts, and Harley Davidson boots already drew too much negative attention in the U.S.; and the people who loved me certainly sent cautionary signals for my own comfort and safety. As I would learn in adulthood, it was my gender, more than my sexuality, that was the real threat to everyday people.
That was my last memory of being around family in Beirut and Aleppo – being told to keep quiet about my sexuality; that there was no need to be proud or tell anyone; that I could be authentically me and keep it to myself; and that I certainly didn’t need to broadcast it to the world via a masculine appearance. Visiting with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, I constantly fielded the “Do you have a boyfriend?” question and simply, and consistently, answered “No.”
When I turned 18, I bolted out of my parents house with the quickness, moved to a different state for college, and cut off all my hair. LIBERATION!!! I felt like the stars had finally aligned for me, like I finally got to make my first personal, authentic decision. And boy, did I pay…
For the next thirteen years, I suffered from self-inflicted Middle East-phobia, denying myself the right to step foot into my ancestral lands, the lands of the people who conceived and birthed me. Why, might you ask? Because each conversation about making the trek home involved disparage of my masculine dress and degradation of my short hair. My closest family members instilled and invoked in me a fear I did not understand or unravel until my return home this year. Only now am I able reflect on how my bi-culturalness, and its implications on my gender and sexual identity, affected my psyche and relationships with family.
My parents were the only ones to immigrate to the United States. Years later, towards the end of the Lebanese Civil War, my aunt and cousins immigrated to Canada. But even still, we saw one another once every several years. I found myself removed from my culture and ancestry, and left to navigate a nation alien to my parents, alone. I had to shape my being and identity outside of the Arab/Muslim world, no matter how much I wanted to be intertwined with it. My parents, on the other hand, having lived their entire lives in the Levant, were culturally Arab. Accordingly, they had a set of cultural expectations different from what was shaping me in our new nation. As you can imagine, the outspoken teenage butch dyke spoken word artist that I was, presented quite a challenge to my modest immigrant parents. To say the least, I am forever indebted to those people for their undying love and support.
We laughed through the tough times and cried between the happy ones – perhaps out of necessity, but definitely as a testament to what we had overcome. I heard things like, “We don’t have gay people in the Middle East (much like Iran’s clever President Ahmadinejad). People may experiment when they are young, but that is just a phase. Many of us have been through that.” Maybe what those people were trying to convey was that we just don’t talk about those things in certain parts of the world, even if the acts themselves are occurring. Or better yet, that homosexual acts are tolerated in childhood and puberty, but once adulthood hits, it’s time to follow suit and live a married, heteronormative life and create that nuclear family for which we all aspire. The wonder of it all is that because I found my identity and simultaneous voice at such a young age and in an individualistic society, as an adult I struggle immensely to conform to a collective silence, despite the reason, custom, or tradition. I had always advocated on behalf of other people suffering from inequality, whether it be racism, sexism, classism, or able-ism. Why should I not have the courage and defiance to advocate for myself? I am of the school of thought that just because an issue is not traditionally or historically addressed by a society does not mean it should not be addressed at some later date. If that was the case, perhaps we would never address the racism present in Lebanon against Sri Lankans, Ethiopians, and Africans in general. I hope for something greater.
I share this story today to convey one Lebanese-Armenian-American’s experience. Surely, this approach is not right for everybody; however, it is assuredly right for me. Life has taught me that one thing is for sure: the truth will set you free. It is best to live and die with a clear conscience. It is up to each person to decide how to achieve that end for themselves, whether one lives in collective or individual societies. Ultimately, we are born alone and we will die alone. All I wish for each of you is that you find your inner peace and continue evolving. In the words of Rabih Alameddine and Octavia Butler, “The only certainty is death” and “God is Change”.
Contributed, in love and solidarity, by Tru Bloo
Leave a Reply