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I. The Idyll
For access to which you have to pretend.
This comes to me, jarringly, on a weekend trip home. My parents have just returned from a cousin’s wedding in Pakistan, and we’re spending a lazy Saturday afternoon splayed out in the living room looking at photos from their trip. We, as in the extended family, who have strategically draped themselves around the TV: my uncle next to the laptop in case of technical difficulties, the cousin who is a notorious grazer next to the rapidly depleting channa chur, my brother at an awkward angle on the floor that’ll allow him to see the screen while being as horizontal as possible.
The photos are beautiful. Everyone in their wedding finery with the colors and the soft lighting designed to play off makeup, hide blemishes, accentuate the bling. We ooh and aah appropriately, tell my mother she looks like she’s in her thirties, tease my cousin every time an eligible bachelor comes on the screen, giggle at the one person who’s always out of synch in the elaborately choreographed dances.
When it strikes me, suddenly, how similar everyone looks. The faces are different, the clothes are different, but there’s a certain conformity, an ease of being that if you squint your eyes till shapes blur, everyone seems happy, suitably attired, suitably gendered. All my friends from childhood summers in the motherland are now appropriately coupled and children-ed, with lives proceeding according to plan.
This illusion lasts, of course, only until the gossip starts flowing: who’s being advised to stay in the marriage for the kids; who hasn’t been able to hold down a job in years; who is developing a drinking problem.
And yet, we pretend.
Later that night, me and my older sister volunteer to put the younger ones to bed. We dress them in their pajamas, read them a story, and then, as we lie in the darkened room waiting for them to fall asleep, my older sister begins the lecture that I know is coming. Call the parents more, visit more often, and then, in a quieter voice, tells me that she’s worried that I’m beginning to bhatak. Deviate.
I breathe in and wonder if this is code for queerness — has she heard anything, are there rumors? I ask her to elaborate in the coolest tone I can muster through my rising panic.
Turns out, it’s my short hair that I cut despite my parents’ entreaties, that no one sees under my hijab anyway. The fact that I live so far away.
I exhale and wonder how long it’ll be possible to pretend.
For which you have to assimilate into whiteness.
I realize this, jarringly, on a weekend trip back from a soccer tournament. I’m in a car navigating, while one of my best friends drives and my teammates sleep in the back.
We’ve known each other for a while. She’s one of the first people I talked to about queerness, in abstract terms first and then her queerness and my queerness. She hasn’t had an easy time of it: her parents are wealthy, conservative, and expect that her life will play out in certain ways. They’ve handled her coming out poorly, finding themselves ill-prepared for their blonde, blue-eyed little girl to grow into a snapback-wearing, hair worn short, CrossFit-obsessed lesbian.
So it comes out of nowhere, her obnoxious comment. We’re talking about her parents, how they’re finally beginning to come around, how it’s the little things — like her mother asking her if she’s dating anyone on a recent phone call — that show that they are finally beginning to come around.
“Lamya, you know. You should come out to your family too.”
I sigh. I’ve heard this in so many forms, from so many people that I’ve stopped engaging.
“I’m serious. It’ll be hard at first, but it’ll work out in the end. And if it doesn’t, if they don’t accept you for who you are, they don’t deserve your love.”
They don’t deserve my love. These people who have sacrificed so much for me — they don’t deserve my love. These people for whom, in this foreign country where they are markedly different. Family is everything, community is everything. They don’t deserve my love. I should be me, I should make some loud and proud pronouncement that could cut me off from all that my parents know, all of the futures they think are available to me, and expect them to come around. I should be free.
I’m seething at this point. I’m gritting my teeth to stop anything that I’ll regret saying from slipping out when a voice pipes up from the backseat.
“Hey Lamya, are you even allowed to be gay in your religion?”
We turn to each other, me and my friend, and roll our eyes so hard it’s almost audible.
“Ooooh, this is my favorite song. Can you turn it up?”
She doesn’t bring it up again.
III. The Stalemate
For which you do, well, nothing. For which you wait it out.
I’m precocious enough at 16 to realize that any photos in which I’m smiling and dressed in shalwar kameez can potentially be used for arranged marriage set-ups. The kind in which aunties exchange biographical details, photographs and the color of your skin to set you up with a suitable boy who you’ll talk to for a couple of months before the two of you decide if you’re compatible.
I’m not opposed to arranged marriages in principle: my parents had one and I’ve seen cousins end up in happy situations. A few nasty broken engagements in my family have resulted in a strict no-pressure policy. But it won’t work for me, this arranged marriage business, and I can’t figure out how to break it to my parents.
Instead, I’ve been careful with photographs since I was 16. A decade of steely frowns and uncroppable positioning of friends means that my family has zero rishta pictures, giving me some semblance of control over the process.
My parents try one year, on Eid. I’m dressed up and they ask to take a photograph with me.
“Just one photo where you’re smiling, Lamya. Come sit between us.”
I tell them I know what they’re up to. They concede with nervous giggles.
The next year, they bring it up more directly. I’m in grad school at this point, lucky enough to deploy the one thing they’ve always emphasized more than anything else — education. This works for a while.
And then, a year ago, I find an innocuous looking file on our family computer titled “Lamya’s profile.” I can’t help but click it — hoping, praying, fingers and toes crossed, that it’s not what I think it is. Of course it is exactly what I think it is: a marriage profile. My education background, hobbies, a concise history of the migration of my family westward and my passport photo.
I decide not to confront my parents. After all, their efforts don’t seem to be working, and maybe silence is more compassionate. This way at least they can feel that they’re doing their duty by me.
The next time marriage talk comes up, I claim education again and they surrender again. I figure the subsequent career stages will serve me well in terms of deflection, until I reach some arbitrary age of expiry.
A fragile dance. I wonder how sustainable it is, this endless cycle of doing nothing.
Which I know exist. They must.
I’ve met people living them, in fact. Friends who hide lovers in plain sight as roommates. Queer men and women who cobble together multi-spoke families to make babies, families that double as hetero mirages. Others who’ve spent years and years and impressive amounts of emotional energy loving, forgiving, and building adult relationships with their parents before bringing up gayness.
Why are these not (also) the stories we tell each other, these stories of alternative futures, these stories of resistance? Why do we only collect coming out stories, it-gets-better stories, these stories that are set in the past, that tell of a particular set of experiences that not everyone can relate to? Stories that treat the future as if it doesn’t come with a problems of its own.
Because what are stories if not for finding ourselves in the narratives of others? They’re reminders that we’re not alone, that there are lives available to us outside what we’re constantly being told are the only ways to live. Where can we find inspiration and ideas for expanding our imaginations about the radical future except from each other?
So queer brown people, people with no futures, all of you all: this is a call. Let’s tell our stories.