September 30th, 2016
by Ari Agha
I came out as a lesbian when I was twenty-one years old, but this story is not about that time I came out, it’s about a different time. You see, I learned very quickly that you don’t just “come out of the closet” once. Living in a world where being heterosexual and cisgender are assumed, if you don’t fit this mold and you want people to know, you have to tell them. Sometimes people figure it out for themselves, sometimes they don’t make assumptions, but a lot of the time, it’s up to you to let them know. Over the years I’ve developed lots of ways of doing this, for instance: talking about my partner by name and with feminine pronouns, asking future employers whether their benefits cover same-sex domestic partners, or just flat out telling a doctor she was incorrect when she said “I assume you’re heterosexual.”
In this coming out experience, none of my typical approaches would work because the person I was coming out to didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Arabic, her native language. It was also different because we did not share many cultural references or experiences: she was over thirty years older than me, a devout Shia Muslim, and had lived in Iraq for almost her entire life. I am talking about my Aunt Miriam, my father’s sister.
My father emigrated to the United States from Iraq as a young man in 1964, while the rest of his family, his parents and grandparents, eight siblings, and many aunts, uncles, and cousins, remained there. The only time I met that part of my family was when I was eleven years old and we visited them in Baghdad. At the time I was a quiet, sweet kid. Traveling to Iraq and meeting literally dozens of family members for the first time was an amazing experience that I cherish, but I didn’t really have the chance to get close to any of them.
Fast forward twenty-five years. It’s 2013, I’m thirty-six years old, and my sister is getting married. My family has decided to fly Aunt Miriam and a few other relatives to Miami for the wedding. The family will all be staying at my parents’ house, as will my girlfriend, Kim and I. Aunt Miriam and the family are devout Shia Muslims, the women wear hijabs and everyone eats Halal. We wanted to be sure that they felt welcome and comfortable in our home. We decided to devote one side of the house to them. They had a bedroom, two bathrooms, and the living room, with a pull out couch. When they first arrived we took them to the grocery store to buy what they would need to cook for the duration of their time with us.
I had, of course, changed a lot from the last time I saw Aunt Miriam. In addition to the changes everyone goes through when they grow up, though, I had changed in a different way. When I was young I dressed in a way that I thought I was supposed to. That meant I wore skirts and dresses for “dressy” occasions, I wore jewelry, carried a purse, and wore make-up once I was old enough. I never enjoyed having to do this, but I didn’t object either. I was a very well-behaved kid, and if I was supposed to wear a cocktail dress to prom, then that was what I did. I also had very long hair for most of that time. Haircuts where one area where I did push back against expectations some, but even when my hair was shorter, I always ended up with a very feminine style. Coming out as a lesbian gave me the freedom to explore my gender expression. Within about a year of coming out I went from hair that reached past the middle of my back to a brush cut. I discovered that I felt far more comfortable in my own skin when I wore clothes sold in the men’s department. I’m not just talking about wearing a tux for formal occasions, but “men’s” button downs, polos, jeans, and shorts. (Finding clothes in the men’s department that actually fit is a story for another time…)
By the time I was in my mid-thirties I had fully embraced this part of myself, and wasn’t bothered on the occasions when I was taken to be a man. My family and friends all knew this was who I was and they no longer gave it a second thought. But Aunt Miriam and the rest of my Iraqi family was not around to witness this transition. Over the years we had kept in touch, mostly over the phone and almost exclusively through my dad. Every few months we’d get a call with a crackly connection from Baghdad and my dad and our family would catch up. These conversations were entirely in Arabic so I never knew exactly what was said, but from what my dad told us there were a lot of “we miss yous” and a lot of love, but not a whole lot of detail. They’d know how we were doing in school, how our health was, and eventually about our careers, but there were certainly no updates about me dating women or my shifting gender expression and identity. So Aunt Miriam was going to be in for a surprise when she arrived in Miami.
In planning for the wedding and my time in Miami I was unsure of how things would go. I realized that I actually knew very little about my Aunt Miriam and my cousins who were coming to visit. From my dad I learned the basics, their names and ages and how they were related to me, but that was it. I certainly had no idea what they thought about being gay, let alone non-traditional gender expressions. I found myself relying on stories from my dad about growing up in Baghdad, media representations of culture in the Middle East, my own observations about how my dad and our friends from the area talked about being gay, and my own experiences being gay and presenting in a masculine way. With this as my background, I wasn’t feeling very hopeful.
At the same time, though, I was very much looking forward to spending time with my aunt and cousins. This was my dad’s favourite sister and I had warm, fond memories of her from our visit to Baghdad. I remember her in the kitchen preparing truly decadent meals. I remember sitting to share those meals with her and a houseful of other relatives. I remember lots of hugs and kisses and “habibis.” Habibi is an Arabic term of endearment. It is used to refer to someone you love and loosely translates to “my darling.” Even though I didn’t know her very well, Aunt Miriam was my family and I was glad to have the chance to be with her, even if we didn’t share a language, a culture, or much of a history.
I’m not sure if it was my method of coping, but in the weeks leading up to the wedding I didn’t actually spend much energy worrying about how my Iraqi family would receive me. I didn’t know what to expect when we first saw each other after decades of so little direct contact, I didn’t have a plan for how to talk to them about who I was or who Kim was, I didn’t know how they’d react when I wore a tux as a part of the wedding party, and that all felt ok. I guess my plan was really to not have a plan. To take things as they came, focus on this special day for my sister, and try to appreciate every moment I could spend with my family.
To be honest, the time I spent in Miami for my sister’s wedding went by in a bit of a blur. In addition to the amazing gift of my dad’s side of the family visiting we had a 150-guest wedding to throw! Scattered in with the running of errands, hosting out-of-town guests, trips to and from the airport, wedding ceremony, reception, and pre- and post-parties, though, there were many moments of clarity. I remember walking into the kitchen in my parents’ house, having just gotten into town, and seeing Aunt Miriam sitting at the table talking and laughing with my dad. Tears immediately came to my eyes as we embraced. I was not prepared for the waves of emotion I would feel when I saw her again. I remember meeting my aunt and cousins in the church before the wedding ceremony all decked out in my tux and them making a total fuss over me! There were tons of “oohs” and “ahhs,” lots of gestures, many compliments in Arabic and English, and even a thumbs up from my Aunt Miriam! In the week following the wedding I remember going out to dinner with my cousin, Raghad, Kim, and my mom. Raghad speaks English fluently and during dinner asked how Kim and I met and how long we had been together. It was clear she, and therefore the rest of the family, understood that Kim and I were a couple. When I told her our story she was smiling from ear to ear, she loved it!
Probably the most poignant memory was when Kim and I were getting ready to leave Miami. Aunt Miriam and the family were staying for another week, so we said our goodbyes at the house. In fact, we said goodbye in the kitchen where I first set eyes on her just a week before, after such a long absence. There were lots of hugs and kisses, lots of affirmations of how wonderful it was to see each other and how much we loved and would miss each other. When I got to Aunt Miriam, though, it felt even more special and deep. We shared another long hug and both of us started to cry. She said “Iove, love, love” over and over again in English and Arabic, and I said “habibi” over and over again and told her I loved her. Then she hugged and kissed Kim and told her, with Raghad translating, “I love you and I will never forget you, because you are Ari’s friend.” It was her way of telling me that she saw me, she understood me, who I was, and who I loved, and that she loved me. What an incredible gift. My aunt, a woman in her sixties who was raised in a conservative Iraqi family, is a practicing Shia Muslim, and has lived almost all of her life in Iraq, fully embraced me, the gender-queer child of her brother who presents masculinely and is in a relationship with a woman. This was one of the hardest and easiest coming out experiences I’ve had, so far at least. It gives me hope. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to visit with Aunt Miriam again, but I know that we have connected, she will always love me and I will always think of her as my habibi.
Ari works as a public policy researcher and plays as a musician and writer. They’re an animal loving advocate of feminism, anti-racism, and trans rights. They live in Calgary and blog at Genderqueer Me. You can follow them on Facebook and Twitter.