Feature image via Los Angeles Times
Last time on Queer Crip Love Fest, we sat at the threshold of Donald Trump’s presidency and fortified ourselves with a radical love story (and a GIF for the ages). Now we’ve got executive orders, judicial stays, and confirmation that boy oh boy, is Trump delivering on those campaign promises. It makes my head spin to think that by the time this article goes live, we’ll have a whole new deluge of Bannon Brand All-American BigotryTM to sort through. There hasn’t been a single day’s reprieve, and make no mistake — that barrage is strategic and absolutely intentional.
So maybe you protested at the airport over the weekend. Maybe you leveraged your voice, your time, your money, or your law degree to fight back. But especially with So Much Bad coming down the pike, it can feel too easy to either insulate yourself or give in to the overwhelm. Here’s a reminder of why to do neither.
Emily* is a Syrian-American college student who had this to say about love:
“I love my family so much. They have been there for me my entire life, through sickness and health (mostly sickness, but who’s counting). I come from a huge Syrian-American family, and we do everything together. I’m mostly talking about my cousins who are some of the best friends I will ever have. We grew up together, supported each other, and caused chaos together from the day we were born.”
Read on for more family history, finding community with an invisible disability, and what Trump really means by “terror countries.”
What does love mean to you?
I think love really means compassion: the ability to listen and accept people at face value. It’s very malleable, and it’s also a support system. When you’re at your worst and when you’re at your best, somebody who can be there through all of those times. And it can be multiple people! Platonic, romantic, whatever. But I think having people to be by your side, and you be by theirs — that’s the biggest show of love.
I never really connected with romance movies or novels and all that. Because it never felt like that was gonna be me. So I think understanding that romance and love can look different for everybody is really nice. It’s comforting having people you know support you no matter what and who will push your buttons, but also be able to sit and cry with you or laugh with you, or make food together. I think it’s someone who can be there for both the boring stuff and the fun, adventurous, showy things.
Thank you for pointing out that it’s not just about romance or sex. Because especially when we’re talking about disabled folks, getting an able person to want you is seen as your punch card to real adulthood. And there’s so much more to love than that!
I’m not a caricature in your little storybook to check off, you know? I think being able to redefine things in my own way and finding new people to understand that is really helpful.
I love my family so much. They have been there for me my entire life, through sickness and health (mostly sickness, but who’s counting). I come from a huge Syrian-American family, and we do everything together. I’m mostly talking about my cousins who are some of the best friends I will ever have. We grew up together, supported each other, and caused chaos together from the day we were born.
That sounds amazing. Tell me about them!
So I grew up in a Midwestern suburb, about 15 minutes outside the city. I saw my cousins three or four times a week, maybe more. We hung out after school, my aunts would take care of us sometimes, my mom would take care of a bunch of us. We all kind of shared that whole child-raising thing, which was really handy, and also super different from anybody I knew. And we would always do dinner together and make these big Arabic meals, all just crammed into one house using the top floor, the basement, the garage, the patio — any open space. It was a really fun way to grow up, because I was never alone.
“I never really connected with romance movies or novels and all that. Because it never felt like that was gonna be me. So I think understanding that romance and love can look different for everybody is really nice.”
I grew up with my cousins being my best friends, my support system. We’re all very close in age so we reached all the milestones together. And now we’re at colleges across the country, and it’s super weird. But we’re still always talking and very connected — which I didn’t know would happen when we went to college. I’ve always just grown up in a very tight-knit community.
Was there an Arab community where you grew up, outside of your family?
Yeah. My family’s from Syria, and we came to this country in around the 1940s. I’m second-generation, and my Gidu, my grandpa, came here when he was about thirteen. So I kind of have a third-generation experience because he basically grew up in this country. He spoke very good English because for a while, before there started being more militarized groups in Syria and before the war now, a lot of schools did have English classes. Plus he was raised by an uncle, so he never really had to be alone in the country.
At the same time that my Gidu came over, there were a bunch of Syrian and Lebanese people who came too. Everybody settled in this one neighborhood, in the same three or four blocks. It was just Arabs all over the place. And they transferred that little community when everybody spread out into their own areas. It was still like, you went over and you mowed the lawn for your aunt, or you raked the leaves for this person. You still did everything for everybody even though you had to drive a little bit to do it. There has always been a really big Arab population and community.
“I had never met another queer Arab person until last year. I went to a conference and was desperate to meet somebody else who was like me, so I would go around saying random Arabic phrases seeing if somebody would recognize it.”
Also, the church that I went to growing up was basically Episcopalian — but the thing is, when everybody came to the U.S., somebody from the church taught them English, helped people get jobs and find houses, taught them how to use sewing machines, all these things. So everybody went to that church. And now it’s dominated by Syrians, so it’s not the Episcopal, progressive narrative we hear all the time. It’s still very conservative and morally strict. So we all went to the same church, went to the same doctors, lived in the same neighborhoods. It’s just a community, together, all the time.
That sounds awesome on one hand, but something that insular…
It can be suffocating.
Right. And when you first reached out to me about this interview, you mentioned that you’re only out to your cousins. Is that because of the strict moral value system, or…?
Yes. I had never met another queer Arab person until last year. I went to a conference and was desperate to meet somebody else who was like me, so I would go around saying random Arabic phrases seeing if somebody would recognize it.
Did that work?
It was ridiculous, but yeah! There was nobody who was out, because there’s not a space to be out in the Arab community — at least in mine. Because we’re a little more conservative than others. I didn’t know being out was an option. So yes, I’m only out to my cousins. Because it’s not like my parents will disown me and then I can go stay with a cousin. It’s the whole community: you’re out. So you lose the connections, you lose the support. And it’s really nice to have that support — like if someone is struggling financially, everybody else comes and helps. If somebody’s struggling medically, everybody comes to help. Losing all of that is losing all the ties that I’ve grown up with and ever had, so that’s not an option for me.
Do you think it’s not an option right now, or not an option ever, or both?
I think right now. This is gonna sound really bad, but I’ve thought about it. I love my Situ, my grandma, so much — she means the world to me and helped raise me. She’s a strong woman, even though she had to be quiet all the time when she was married. I think she’s kind of the biggest person who’s stopping me. And it’s not anything against her, but she’s kind of the last person that I’m most afraid of letting down. When she passes away, I’ve thought about writing her a letter and coming out to her, but I don’t know.
That could open up possibilities for me and my cousin, who’s also queer. We have this pact: he’s gonna marry his lesbian best friend and I’m gonna marry my gay best friend. So we’re both marrying the “right people” — we can have the family wedding, and we can do our family “right” — but then we can be in our own relationships. So when she passes away maybe we can, like, tell some aunts. Maybe. But that’s the only possibility. I would never be able to be out to my older aunts and uncles. The older community is just not here for it at all.
“It’s not like my parents will disown me and then I can go stay with a cousin. It’s the whole community: you’re out. So you lose the connections, you lose the support. Losing all of that is losing all the ties that I’ve grown up with and ever had, so that’s not an option for me.”
I think people forget that. Everybody thinks things are a lot easier for queer folks of our generation, which in some ways they totally are. But it’s one of those things that white cis people in particular tend to romanticize — like “Oh, you’re fine! Everybody loves gay people now!” I’ve screwed that up way too recently.
Right! Like, I help run the LGBT group on campus here. And a lot of times, all the queer narratives that we hear are white. And that does not apply to me at all. I can’t relate to any of it. So I’m part of this group that, yes, I have an identity in common, but my experiences have been so different, it’s almost like I don’t even belong. I have to find niche communities that I can understand.
If we could paint the “typical” queer person, they’d be white, cis, thin but built, able-bodied, and super hot. And we really blow that image up into “This is queer life!” And so being queer and disabled and of a different culture, you’re in a smaller and smaller niche. It’s nice to be in a niche where other people get it — but why does that niche have to be, like, one person? Why do we only get one tent at Pride when there are thousands of white cis gay guys in a hundred different tents?
“A lot of times, all the queer narratives that we hear are white. And that does not apply to me at all. I can’t relate to any of it. So I’m part of this group that, yes, I have an identity in common, but my experiences have been so different, it’s almost like I don’t even belong.”
Being on the outside of a community is weird, because you get to see everything going on, but you can’t always participate because it doesn’t always apply to you. Like, in high school, there was this LGBT resource center in the city. I would always tell my mom that I was going to a friend’s house, and then I would go there for a meeting or whatever. And it was far enough away that nobody would ever see it, plus it was in the gayborhood, which my family would never go to. So I was good. That was the little refuge that I had. But even there, there was only ever one other disabled person, and it’d just be us in the corner talking.
Have you been out as disabled your whole life?
I haven’t. In my community and family, you don’t talk about things that are “wrong” with you — you don’t say, like, “Oh, I’m sad about this at work, or stressed about this at school.” You just support everybody else and don’t focus on yourself. So I think I’ve always deflected any attention that I get. There are certain circles where I can be like “Yeah, I feel like shit today,” but not everybody. I try to hide a lot of how crappy I feel for the comfort of everybody else. But that’s what everybody does, you know what I mean?
I think that’s really common, especially among disabled people. “No, it’s cool, I’m fine!” Because you’re taught that repressing and handling your shit is sort of a must. And the minute you let it “control you,” that’s when people start to get uncomfortable.
I only really started to talk about being queer and disabled when I got to college. Because there are more spaces. I can be out in college, I can be myself in college, because it’s far and disconnected from my family. My name never goes anywhere near the LGBT community, except for running the group — but then I can just say “Oh, I’m an ally!” But I can be me here, which is nice. Having more space to talk about it is a relief, because you’re holding a lot of stuff in. It’s hard going through life not being able to do the same things that your friends can do. But it’s nice to have a space to discuss that.
“I’m privileged enough that I can hide my disability for a while… until I can’t. But that is a big privilege. A lot of the time disabled folks will come into a room and that’s the first thing you see. And you don’t necessarily want that, because then you get tokenized.”
So have you always identified as disabled, or is that something you came to later?
I didn’t know that was a thing that even applied to me until college. Which sounds really stupid to say, but I never knew there was an out disabled community online that was talking about more than, like, mobility issues. Because the common narrative we see with disability is “Oh, you’re in a wheelchair,” or blind, or deaf. It really ignores invisible disabilities, and chronic illnesses, all of these things. When I finally found that community, it was really nice to feel understood. I didn’t know that I had a part in it before.
Especially with invisible stuff and chronic illness, like you were saying — but I have cerebral palsy that’s been very visible for my entire life, and there’s still this impulse to distance yourself, if you can, from the community and the label. As if it’s a bad thing that you shouldn’t want around you. It took me until after college to figure it out.
Right. When I found disabled community, it was largely online, through YouTube. My whole life was on YouTube. Closeted queer kid! I would just follow every single queer person I could find. And Annie Segarra was my first “in” into the disabled community online. She made the videos so accessible and easy to understand. So I think that really helped me get that other people are experiencing similar things. For me, I’m privileged enough that I can hide my disability for a while… until I can’t. But that is a big privilege. A lot of the time disabled folks will come into a room and that’s the first thing you see. And you don’t necessarily want that, because then you get tokenized.
“The fact that they’re totally fine with [my disability] and it’s automatic is really nice. I’m not pressured or left out of things; we can be together without doing things that I have to stay on the sidelines for.”
How have your cousins shown their support for you?
The way that they’ve expanded their language, for one thing. It’s not like “Oh, your future husband.” Because we talk a lot about marriage, since it’s really pushed on us, especially at my age. In the Arab community, weddings are like Christian Mingle in real life. Your grandmothers and aunts will be like “Look, here’s a good Arab boy for you!” and pin us off to other people. So we always joke at those functions and stuff, like, “Oh, are you going to marry Jacob? But you’re probably more into Fatima over there.” It’s funny for them to be able to acknowledge that I’m not going to be marrying some “good Arab boy” and nice that they can expand their language that way. It sounds little, but that’s actually a really big thing.
They’ll also show me that they support Pride events — like, we go to Pride two hours away so we can say “Oh, we’re going to this concert.” But we all crammed into this van and went to Pride instead. They’re willing to go out there just to show me that they accept me and are totally cool with it, which is really, really nice to feel.
How have they been with disability stuff? Do you talk to them about that?
We’ve grown up with it. My energy levels are very low sometimes. It’s been getting worse as I’ve gotten older. As a kid I could do most things, but now going up the stairs some days is really hard. Or I can’t just go off and run six miles with them. So getting used to the fact that sometimes, hanging out with me means sitting and chilling instead of doing some crazy adventure. The fact that they’re totally fine with that and it’s automatic is really nice. I’m not pressured or left out of things; we can be together without doing things that I have to stay on the sidelines for. And when I’m sick they’ll come hang out and bring me snacks and be fun.
I get that! When you’re in the hospital and have friends who come see you, it’s like “Well, this is the low point of my life, and you’re still here.” It can really speak volumes.
Right. And they don’t make my disability feel like it’s everything. We don’t talk about it a ton; it’s just “Oh, these are her limitations, and we’re good.” It’s not something I always have to think or talk about, which makes it easier to deal with.
“‘Terror countries’ just means any brown country in the Middle East, but also Mexico and anywhere else that you’re brown. It is so bad right now… Remember that immigrants are people, refugees are people. When one bad thing happens, we can’t just target an entire group.”
With all this in mind, is there anything you want our community to know about the war in Syria, the election, or the U.S. political climate in general?
Trump is not our biggest friend, at all — so Arab Americans and Muslim Americans as a whole are pretty scared. Even with Obama, it was rough. Post-9/11, there was a very significant line drawn. Life changed a ton. It’s not like there was no discrimination or hate crimes before, but as soon as 9/11 happened — even I remember how much it changed, and I was really young. Everything got a lot more dangerous for the community. There’ve been fire bombings at mosques and liquor stores, people spray painting “terrorist” on my uncle’s garage. And we worked so hard to be in this country. My Gidu, my grandpa, was so happy to be an American; every time he would say something about America, he would basically shout it. But for me, being a second-generation American and seeing him so happy in a country that doesn’t want him is so hard to swallow. He loved it because it was so much better than his life back home. But I wanted this country to be better for him.
I’m working to bring Syrian students who are displaced by the war to colleges in the U.S. They want to continue their education here after their schools have been destroyed. But I feel so bad that I’m bringing them here, to this country, at this time, with people all over the country saying we’re all terrorists or evil people, or thieves, or whatever horrible thing. It just feels so crappy that this is the better option, and I want this option to be so, so much better.
“There’ve been fire bombings at mosques and liquor stores, people spray painting ‘terrorist’ on my uncle’s garage. And we worked so hard to be in this country. My grandpa was so happy to be an American… but for me, being second-generation and seeing him so happy in a country that doesn’t want him is so hard to swallow. He loved it because it was so much better than his life back home. But I wanted this country to be better for him.”
“Terror countries” just means any brown country in the Middle East, but also Mexico and anywhere else that you’re brown. It is so bad right now. And I think I just want people to understand that immigrants and refugees — this country was built on the backs of people of color who did not have the privilege of growing up here all their life, being able to take and take and take. Remember that immigrants are people, refugees are people. When one bad thing happens, we can’t just target an entire group.
“People deserve to be safe in this country. We’re not.”
After any terrorist attack, we’re all sitting on the imaginary couch together being like “Please don’t be brown, please don’t be brown, please don’t be brown.” And it’s not even a joke. The hate crimes go up so much after each attack; every time something happens, it makes it so much worse for us. But this is not representative. School shooters don’t represent white guys — but when you think of Syrian people or Arab people, you think of terrorism. I wish we could reroute that whole narrative. Because people deserve to be safe in this country. We’re not.
*Emily is her chosen pseudonym.
This is an incredible article. Thank you for sharing so much and being so open.
Oh wow, this was such an amazing article. I particularly found the concept of family and community really interesting to read about. Thank you so much for sharing with us.
I loved this article, I love this series. Thank you!
oooh ! i just saw this ! this is great ! @emily*, cheers from a european-syrian queer to an american-syrian queer. yes! there are queer arabs! they exist! send me a message! sorry going all crazy on the ! ! ! but you probaly understand how excited I am. oh and in beirut there are quite a few syrian-syrian and syrian-whatnot and lebanese queers running around and living their lives, yes! and if you have a chance, this is a collection of queer voices in lebanon: https://lb.boell.org/en/2009/06/10/bareed-mista3jil
Emily*, thank you for sharing all this. I think you articulated the pros and cons of being in a tight-knit, insular family and community really well – my paternal family is Greek and did a similar thing to what you described, emigrating at a similar time as a number of other Greeks, settling in the same areas, etc. It’s awesome to have a massive group of people constantly cooking and throwing parties and descending upon you whenever something good or bad happens and yelling even though they’re not mad, but at the same time, it can be so smothering.
I also definitely feel you on how coming out to the older generation is just not an option. The first-gen immigrants in my family are in their 70s and 80s now, and the then-kids who emigrated with them or were born shortly thereafter are in like their 40s to 60s today. The children of those then-kids, now mostly in their teens and 20s, are the first generation that’s more open-minded and accepting, and they’re the only ones I’m out to. There are ~rumors~ and ~speculation~ about me among the older contingent, but it’s mostly Not Talked About, and certainly not to my face. I think my dad knows (he MUST know), but we’ve never discussed it. One time my aunt asked my brother if I was gay and he said “Ask her yourself,” but of course, she never did.
Fun fact: In Greek, the euphemism for “gay” translates to “other,” so what my aunt actually asked was “Is she one of the others?” …S/o to the Greeks for A LITERAL EXAMPLE OF OTHERING.
Thank you for sharing this.
What you’ve written also helps me understand my mom a bit better? Because she grew up as a first/second gen American (I’m not sure if my grandfather was the first of his siblings born in the US or the last of them born in the Ukraine) and had all the support system in place with the Polish and Ukrainians in the family and the greater community. And the way she talks about family as this obvious thing like “of course I talk to my sister multiple times a week and my brothers at least once a month and then also my cousins and their children like they’re FAMILY that’s WHAT FAMILY DOES” and has a very close relationship with everyone she’s related to (all of whom probably most of my extended family on that side of the family know the details of my health problems better than my docs at this point because what is privacy) kind of seem similar to some of the sentiments about tight-knit community that you’ve shared.
And my dad’s family is all “lol everyone despises each other but we pretend we don’t most of the time and just communicate through passive aggressive emails that only exist out of obligation to [my grandmother] that will definitely stop once she dies and her house gets sold”. And because we live closer to my dad’s family, the distant passive-aggressive style of communication is the one I’m more familiar with, much to my mother’s chagrin. This wasn’t always the case–especially while my maternal grandmother was still alive the Polish-Ukrainian everyone-in-everyone’s-business-all-the-time, tight-knit community was around (any gatherings that were had had to happen in my grandparents’ basement because no other space in their house could fit all those people and even the basement was crowded). It’s a dynamic I don’t quite understand. But then I kayak off of waterfalls for fun and as a consequence all of the people I trust the most are not related to me, so I’m in no place to judge group dynamics because the tight-knit community I am a part of is pretty dang weird itself.
I can really relate to this, thank you for sharing it!
Thank you for this interview. The Queer Crip series is so important.
Thanks for this article.
This interview was so good! Thank you Emily* and Carrie!