It’s 2007 and I am 16 years old.
It’s almost midnight and I’m chatting secretly on MSN Messenger to the guy I’m kind of dating, because no-one in my family knows I’m gay.
He tells me he is seeing someone else and I’m devastated. I drop to the floor and break down in tears. There is no- one I can share my pain with because no-one in my family knows I’m gay.
My family hears the commotion and comes to my rescue. I pretend it is nothing.
It was the next morning my dad asks: “Please tell me what’s going on. I’ll help you. Is it drugs?”
I finally decide to share those heavy words; “Dad, I’m gay”. He goes silent, face pale and walks away.
Coming out to your parents is one of the biggest moments of your life, with no real sense of how it will go. For me there was a sense of relief, but for my parents, who had a very different background, they only saw a son who had made a choice to reject their culture, values, religion and hopes for the future.
My parents migrated to Sydney from Lebanon back in the ‘70s, running away from a country torn by civil war, in hope for a better life. I was born and raised in western Sydney with five older sisters in a mildly religious Muslim environment. My dad juggled multiple jobs to provide for our family.
That conflict in values led to years of pain. Eventually I was kicked out of my parents’ home with only a few days warning in my early twenties, with only a couple hundred dollars to my name. The pain of being rejected by my family was so overwhelming I tried to take my own life. But something deep inside me was protecting me, telling me you’re going to get through this. Telling me to hold on.
I was forced to grow up fast and to find ways to survive. I started creating my own family. My best friend at the time was a young gay Lebanese Christian man who I met on Twitter just a few years before I was kicked out of home. He helped me day in and day out, providing support and practically playing a brotherly role. I turned to social media and dating apps to build new, meaningful friendships. One by one, I started to build a small community of people to call family – both in person and online. My new network of gay friends helped day in and out. Some bought me goods to furnish my tiny flat, others made me food, took me out for dinner and another friend even went on regular outdoor runs with me.
I also found myself searching for self-help videos on YouTube. I spent hours on end watching videos from Iyanla Vanzant and Oprah. One video changed my life. In it Oprah said: “You are responsible for your own life. If you’re sitting around waiting for someone to help you or fix you, you are wasting your life because only you have the ability to move your life forward”.
The words stuck with me. They shifted me out of a downward spiral and on to a more positive path.
Now, at 29, I have realised there’s so much power and strength that comes from being part of a triple minority group (gay, Muslim and Arab).
My whole life I have had to defend and protect myself on all three minority layers – not just one. You’re not only judged or discriminated from people outside of these minority groups, but from people within.
I have come to understand that one of my callings in life is to give back to the LGBTQ+ community. To help people like my 16-year-old self, navigate through that triple struggle.
Over the years I’ve also learned how to deal with my family. I’ve learned that I’m not responsible for their ignorance or closed mindedness.
Just under a year ago my father was diagnosed with cancer. I spent as much time as I could with him at the hospital, pre and post-surgery. But on the day after his surgery a bunch of cousins had come to visit my father in hospital. I hugged and kissed them hello and then went to shake hands with my cousin’s partner. However, he turned away and ignored me. I was confused for a good 30 seconds, but then realised that he didn’t want to touch my hand because he was concerned he might 'catch the gay'. These situations do still happen to me, but although it brings up so much anger, I’ve learned to pick my battles.
Today, I’m a full time marketer and I have found myself in a new loving family. I live in Sydney’s inner west with an incredible man who I met online four years ago and two gorgeous Hungarian Vizslas who are practically my children. As a 16 year-old I could never imagine the life I am leading now.
I’m so grateful for all that I have and all that I’ve come to be. It’s given my compassion, empathy and deep sense of justice. If you’re reading this and you’re going through similar circumstances, please know you’re not alone. For young queer Muslims struggling to find the light – it will get better. Know that there are people who can help you, people that will support you and love you for who you are.
Focus your energy on your studies, your passions or your career. Remove yourself from toxic people or environments. Reach out to people who you relate to or people just like you.
Hussein Hawli is a non-executive board director at two LGBT+ organisations - Twenty10 and Equality Australia. You can follow him on Twitter or Instagram @AllThingsHussy.
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