Month: February 2019

Being Gay (Part 3 of “Being Me”)

When you learn about coming out as gay, it seems like telling other people is the hardest. It’s hard, but it’s not the hardest. The hardest is coming out to yourself, and it was something I couldn’t bring myself to do.

I always felt different from most girls. Why didn’t I have a boyfriend? Why didn’t I want one? I barely knew the word gay before I was a teenager. As far as I knew, “gay” didn’t exist. And when I learned it, it was always used in a derogatory way, and I didn’t have any gay friends. A tiny voice deep inside my heart started to whisper that could be the missing piece. It poked at me when I saw a beautiful girl, and cleared it’s throat when I saw two girls kiss on TV. Before I could even acknowledge that voice, my internalized homophobia saw that I had a new “plant” (see my first piece here if you’re wondering what I mean). I didn’t have any space for a new plant, or piece of identity, especially a plant that was vehemently rejected by the Ismaili part of me. Before the plant could begin to grow (and wither away), I threw it in the trash.

I was so concerned about the parts of me that were already dying, that it just made sense to kill this one right off the bat and put it out of its misery. But it refused to die. I did everything I could to kill it. I couldn’t even bring myself to say the word “gay” in my head, let alone out loud. I already knew that if I neglected something enough it would eventually become so small that I could ignore it. I stuffed the gay in me so far down until I convinced myself it didn’t matter. Yet again, I was telling myself I didn’t need love to be happy, and I could get through life without it. There was a deep shame that came with being gay, and it was a shame I was too worn down to carry. The thing with shame though is the longer you try to ignore it, the heavier it gets. 
I came out to my uncle first. He was gay, and made me feel like I wasn’t so alone. After denying it for so long, finally saying it out loud was harder than anything I’ve said before. And even after I said it out loud, there was a part of me that still didn’t accept it. Perhaps I could accept that I liked girls, but I couldn’t accept that the future I had built for myself, the future my parents had prayed I would have, wouldn’t be able to come true. I didn’t want to accept that with accepting my sexuality, I would also accept the baggage that came with it. I didn’t realize I was already carrying that baggage whether I wanted to or not. As I came out more and more, I realized that the reason it was so hard to come out wasn’t always because I was afraid of people’s reactions, but also because I was ashamed of it. I would never judge someone of see them differently if they came out to me, but I couldn’t make myself be okay with being gay even though I know there is absolutely nothing wrong with it and nothing to be ashamed of.

Members of the LGBTQ+ community are disproportionally impacted by mental illness or mental health issues, not because they just happen to be more genetically prone to them, but because they are often the victims of ignorance and discrimination in society. There is also an added layer of shame and guilt just for being LGBTQ+, and that can deteriorate a person’s mental health faster than anything else. From a young age, many of us are taught that LGBTQ+ people are weird or bad (see the original definition of the now-reclaimed word, “Queer”).

If we’re not openly taught to discriminate, we aren’t taught about LGBTQ+ people at all. Sex ed in school was heteronormative, and the movies, TV shows, books, and other forms of media I consumed when I was younger avoided LGBTQ+ storylines. As a result, I grew up without the language to explain and describe who I was. Without that language, I didn’t know I wasn’t alone, and I didn’t know that I wasn’t abnormal. Beyond that, if there is LGBTQ+ content in books or on TV, it’s reserved for an adult audience, as if exposing children to same-sex relationships is the same as exposing them to things that are far too sexual for their level of understanding. My heart knew I was gay long before I could watch content that was PG13 or 14A, so why couldn’t I have been taught that there were words for it, and people like me from a younger age?

Looking more into reality, why is it that I always knew which cousins or aunts or uncles were in heteronormative relationships, and met their significant others, but the significant others of LGBTQ+ family members were only referred to as “friends”? When I have a partner someday, will I have to hide them from the younger members of my family? Will I have to be this dark family secret that gets whispered about behind closed doors? Will I have to hold that shame in order to avoid showing that love can be good and pure, no matter who it’s with?

Due to years of constantly receiving messages (mostly unintentional, but impactful nonetheless) that being gay was a topic to avoid, or to only be discussed in hushed tones behind closed doors, I started to believe it was something to be ashamed of. Although I know better now, and every person in my life loves and accepts me no matter what my sexual orientation is, it’s hard to shed some of those old feelings. I remember thinking that my sexuality was a disappointment, not only to me, but to everyone around me. Luckily, that couldn’t be further than the truth, but the fact that I believed that for so long was enough to contribute to a more negative view of myself.

Even though I consider myself “out”, there are situations I’m not out in, Sometimes in a professional setting, I choose to not disclose my sexual identity because I worry that it could be a disadvantage. I worry I’ll be seen differently, or seen as less than, because these are still sad realities in our society. Going through life having to constantly wonder if being your authentic self will have negative consequences can get exhausting, and though I’m working hard to be proud of who I am, society doesn’t make it easier. My parents grew up in East Africa, where being gay is a criminal offence. In fact, in Uganda homosexuality is punishable by death. Though I never lived there, it’s still part of my cultural upbringing, and it’s difficult to embrace my culture when I know that part of it fundamentally rejects and punishes who I am. Despite being in Canada where being gay is totally okay, I’m still impacted by the thought that had things been slightly different, I easily could have been born in Tanzania.

Being gay has also made me more stressed or worried in situations that really shouldn’t be stressful or worrisome at all (a common phenomenon for miorities, referred to as part of “minority stress”). For many people, being in a relationship can make them feel more comfortable and safe. I’m sure that’s true for a number of LGBTQ+ couples as well, but for me it’s often been the opposite. When dating, I’ve always been worried about showing any public displays of affection, from holding hands to kissing goodbye, because I’m afraid that people would discriminate against me or be made uncomfortable. When I was in college, I came out to a bunch of friends in my first year not because I was ready, but because I was afraid they wouldn’t want to live with me if they found out I was gay and wanted to know their reaction before it was too late. I’m also constantly aware of how much affection and connection I show my femaie friends, so that I avoid the possibility of them thinking I like them. It started as a mechanism for protection, not wanting anyone to suspect I could be gay if I hugged them or got close to them. Once I came out, to my own surprise, I kept my distance even more to avoid the possible misconception that I might be romantically interested in a friend and that would make them uncomfortable.

Even now, I’ll pull away from a hug sooner rather than later, and sit further away on the couch than I need to. I even refuse to share a bed with my friends when they visit – I’ll opt for the couch or floor instead. You can see how all these thoughts and worries can get pretty exhausting. Physical touch with someone in your support system, even when platonic, can actually be quite healing and important when you struggle with your mental health. There’s a reason why being hugged or held when you’re upset is a common occurance – because it actually helps you feel better. Depriving myself of this when I need it the most has made it harder and more isolating when my mental health isn’t in an optimal state. I realize it’s silly to be so cautious and anxious about these things, and it’s something I’m working on. It might be taking longer than I’d like, but slow progress is still progress.

I’m still working on confronting my own internalized homophobia about being gay, and I’m very grateful that I’ve had a wonderful support system along the way. I couldn’t imagine dealing with all this, plus flagrant discrimination and hate. I think it’s going to be a lifelong process – to unlearn the harmful views I always held about sexual orientation, and to accept that a gay life is not a lesser life. It also means I’ll get to live a life full of acceptance and tolerance, but most of all, I’ll get to live a life full of love. What could be better than bursting with love, no matter who it is?

Keep Surviving by Living.

Being Muslim (Part 2 of “Being Me”)

I’ve grown up in a Post-9/11 world. I was 7 years old when the Twin Towers were attacked in New York, and too young to understand what it meant. What I do remember, is how that day changed my life forever. When the towers came down, so did our tolerance and acceptance as we stood with our brothers to the south. It suddenly mattered that I had brown skin and didn’t go to church on Sundays. My friends gave me funny looks when I told them I couldn’t go to their birthday party on a Saturday because I had religious education classes. “But Sunday school is on Sundays.” I eventually started to say “I have Saturday school. It’s like Sunday school but on a Saturday because we’re weird.”

For the most part, I really liked being a Muslim growing up. More specifically, I loved being an Ismaili Muslim. I would play with kids who looked like me at our Khane (a mosque), and their parents would use familiar words that my parents would use.

I was raised in a very Ismaili home, with Ismaili values and teachings, and for the most part, I think I was proud of it. After 9/11, my pride slowly started to dwindle as it was replaced with more shame based on the anti-islamic rhetoric from the media. The News captions on TV might as well have flashed “MUSLIM IS NOT, AND NEVER WILL BE, WESTERN” 
Over time, I couldn’t find that pride anymore – by the time I was a teenager, I was outright denying that I was a Muslim to my friends and peers.

I wasn’t raised to be a terrorist. I wasn’t raised to hate Western civilization. I wasn’t raised to be closed-minded. I was raised to be curious, and to pursue knowledge. I was raised to help others, and put my community first. These were the Ismaili values I was taught.

As I got older, I didn’t understand why people hated my people so much, and why they were so afraid. We were just like other people, except that we had prayers on Friday Evenings instead of Sunday Mornings, and Saturday School instead of Sunday School.

I got tired of constantly having to explain things (because more often than not, I was defending my religion, rather than explaining it), so I started using words that were “easier” for others to understand. I described The Aga Khan as “sort of like the Pope, but different”, and referred to going to Khane as going to “church” but it would be in the evenings. On Dec 13th, I would describe our Khushiali (our spiritual leader’s birthday) as “Brown Christmas”. I chipped away at parts of my identity to make it less confusing for others, so that I wouldn’t get so many questions.

After 9/11, Saturday School shifted from learning about our rich history filled with stories of benevolence and tolerance, to practicing how to be ambassadors of our faith. Every year, we would spend at least 1 class talking about how to talk to other kids about our religion. How to show them that we are good people. How to respond to bullies. How to respond to islamaphobia. How to explain our ideological differences, but more importantly, our similarities with our western friends. How at 7 we were learning on a micro scale to rise above the hate that was seeping in on a macro level. We learned to respond to violence with peace, hatred with kindness, fear with acceptance. We as the “moderate Muslim community” had to be the extenders of this olive branch, because no one else would. At every given moment, we were representing our community because if a crime was committed by one of us, we had seen how the punishment and responsibility fell on every single one of us, not just the perpetrator. It confused me – if we were the good people, why did I have to learn to defend myself? Why did I have to be extra careful to not get angry or upset when faced with hatred? Why did I have to be the peaceful, bigger, more mature person?

I learned to cope by making fun of myself, and my religion, to take away the opportunity from others. If someone would ask if I was Muslim, I would answer with “Yes, but don’t worry – not the kind that blows you up” because there had been too many times when someone followed up my yes with a joke about terrorism. I laughed along when anyone would mock Muslim prayers and quietly accepted the “compliment” that I’m “not like other Muslims”. I let comments about how I probably have no rights as a woman, and claims about how lucky I am to not be living in the Middle East under Sharia slide right off me. For the record – I was born and raised in Canada, I’ve never been to the Middle East, and my parents are from Africa.

I experienced ignorance from every corner. But I distinctly remember a time when I was faced with outward ignorance and discrimination from another Muslim. A Muslim from a different sect. I was 10 at that point, and started to cry as he yelled about how I was not a “real Muslim” because I was Ismaili. I could say nothing as he shouted things part of me believed, that we didn’t cover our heads or pray the way other Muslims did. Two of my friends ran to our teacher to tell her about the boy that was making me cry. She took us outside the class to talk about what happened. She asked me what happened and I explained that the boy told me I wasn’t a real Muslim, while he responded with “well she’s not, she breaks rules from the Quran!” The teacher was clearly overwhelmed, because addressing Muslim tensions were certainly not covered at any teachers college in Alberta. Probably not even in the whole country. She came up with an acceptable solution – the boy and I agree that this topic was not to be discussed again. She also explained that school wasn’t the place for these conversations, and that we were all classmates that needed to get along with one another. The boy did not mean any harm, and it wasn’t the first time that someone had questioned a part of my identity, but he represented something far more sinister. He represented the splintering within the greater Islamic community, which had caused wars for many generations before. He reaffirmed that my Muslim identity was on the fringe, just barely acceptable.

And so I learned that honoring one part of me would more often than not mean denying another. If I wanted to be more Muslim I would inevitably pull away from the more western ideals, and if I wanted t be more “western”, I’d pull away from bits of my Muslim identity. What I love about Ismailism is the ideal that western and eastern tradition can coexist – that we can cultivate this pluralistic mosaic where all the parts have a place. It’s hard to build that vision when most people in your life, on both sides, don’t fully see it that way. I started to wonder if maybe the media was right, and maybe we weren’t good people. Maybe I was bad. And as that sank in, I distanced myself from my religion more and more, focusing more on its faults rather than its good parts, until my religious identity was virtually non-existent. When college came around, I abruptly gave up what little commitment I had to my ismaili identity. I couldn’t wait to start “fresh” and be free of being connected to that part of me. I thought by denying it altogether, it would get rid of all the identity issues I had. But the years of denying who I was had already taken its toll, and now that I was free to accept who I was, I didn’t know how to do it, and I didn’t know who I was. How could I accept the person I had never bothered to get to know? 

Years of therapy has taught me that anytime you try to hide a part of yourself, or compromise your authenticity, things get messy. With that mess comes anxiety and depression, and feelings of disconnection or loneliness. The world around me was constantly giving me messages to disconnect from the Muslim part of me and I did my best to deny it for as long as I could, but it’s part of who I am. It’s going to take a long time to learn what that part means, or think about how to embrace that part of me, but it’s a step towards accepting all of myself. And that step feels really good.

Keep Surviving by Living.

Being Me: A Series on Intersectionality (Part 1)

Since being diagnosed with multiple mental illnesses, I’ve done a ton of research about it. I learned all the science behind it, what parts of my brain weren’t doing their job properly, what medications would alter what neurotransmitters to make things better. I treated it like a science project, because it had to be 100% science since my life has been pretty good. But I’ve spent the better part of this past year learning that isn’t always the case, and I’ve learned that who I am and what I am impact my mental health. I started looking deep into parts of my identity I didn’t think of before, and started trying to understand their place, and I noticed that a lot of my identity feels fragmented, because they are so different, and they don’t always fit together.

People like fitting into boxes because it gives them a sense of community. More than that, people like putting others into boxes and assigning them labels. Girl. Canadian. Muslim. Gay. Brown. These are some of my labels. Some I’ve given myself, some have been assigned to me. Part of my mental health issues come from having a ton of labels, and not knowing how they can coexist because of what society has said about them. I don’t know how they can cleanly coexist, and it’s been a messy process, but I want to share some of this messiness with you. Maybe you have some messiness too.

These next few posts will focus on intersectionality, and the parts of my identity that have undoubtedly influenced my mental health along the way. They may force you to check your privilege, and think about the parts of your identity that may have been worn down or denied by society. Maybe you’ll relate to my experiences in your own way, or maybe they will be things you never thought of before. All I ask is that you follow along with an open mind and heart, and I’ll reciprocate with open and honest communication throughout.

There is a concept called “minority stress”, which in simple terms, means that people who are part of a minority group can be more prone to higher levels of continuous stress that come with being a part of that group. This stress can make marginalized folks more likely to experience serious mental health issues and mental illness. I’ll talk about this a little bit more in some of the other posts.

I believe identity is a constant struggle – at least, for me it always has been. I don’t see it as a bad thing, rather that the struggle can be a catalyst for change and adaptation as we learn and grow. But it is still a struggle. It is a struggle to learn how to acknowledge and honor the conflict in parts of your identity – it turns a whole person into fragmented pieces that can be at war and don’t know their place and value. Eventually though, you can learn to build bridges between them, and those bridges are everything.

It’s a matter of learning to be more than one thing at a time, and giving each of those parts enough space to grow and be nurtured.

Imagine a garden with a finite amount of water and sunlight. You know you don’t have enough for every single one of your plants, so how do you pick which thrives and which dies? How do you get to justify it by attributing greater value to one plant, the plant that lives, because it means the “lesser” has to die. If you give a little water to each one, no plant gets enough and they all die. It may be a slower death, but they still die. You can’t win unless you get more water. That is the identity struggle when you are so intersectional – the amount of water you get isn’t enough, and it’s somehow your fault or problem that you don’t have more. It’s enough water for other people, because maybe some of their plants can grow in the same flower pot and find ways to share what water they need. Maybe they have symbiotic relationships and actually help each other grow. My plants are solo organisms – if placed together, they will destroy each other. The beta fish of the plant world, if you will.

My next few posts will focus on different “plants” in my life – different parts of my identity that shape who I am today, and how they’ve impacted my mental health. How they’ve made me stronger, but also weakened me, and how being intersectional can be a confusing and rich experience all at the same time.

Looking back, I believe that my suicidal ideation was born from a tiredness of slowly killing little parts of me to appease another. Watch the plants wilt away, watch myself burn from the inside out. Bit by bit, parts were getting chipped away. I got tired of choosing what lived and what died, tired of watching helplessly, tired of the idea of not being enough being constantly reinforced, tired of the shame, tired of my slow, painful withering. So it made sense to put off the inevitable, and finish it all in one full swoop. I convinced myself I was choosing me, all of me, not one small part that I was told to. But really, I was deeply failing each part by not giving it the opportunity to grow. I’m starting to take the long, hard road, and learn how to get more water. I want to learn how to make my plants adapt so they can live together. I used to think I could make my plants need less water. But now I’m learning that I deserve all the water I need for all my little identity plants. Sometimes I need help with getting enough water or watering them, and it’s okay to ask for help. If you have any “gardening tips”, I’d love to hear them 🙂

Keep Surviving by Living.