The Marginal Man
My family was never like the other families in the Lebanese community. We certainly knew many of them, and they knew us, we were like them in many ways; we shared the same kinds of values, joined them in many activities, went on holidays with them. But we never really fitted in properly; there was something about us that didn’t fully connect with these people. I don’t know, maybe that’s just how it was for every Lebanese-Australian family back then – striving to fit in with a community that is within itself, striving to fit in with the wider Australian community.
My parents migrated to Australia, my mother as a refugee from the Lebanese civil war and my dad the Australian citizen who married her. When they arrived in Melbourne, my mother was already pregnant and my dad set them up in a share house in Collingwood with an older white couple. Hearing my mother tell her stories about those times is hilarious. She is still helplessly indignant about being served sausage and mash with peas or corn for dinner, at 5 o’clock, before her husband came home. She is still so upset at the woman who showed her around the house and explained to her where she could go and where she couldn’t. My mother was not used to these kinds of living arrangements. She grew up in Beirut and was popular throughout the entire neighbourhood, nowhere was off-limits.
So, given how my mother was first introduced into this Australian life and the cultural struggles she faced, I can totally understand why she didn’t want her children to share that experience and why she tried so hard to connect us with our Lebanese heritage. My mother didn’t want us to grow up knowing only how to be Australian; to her we were Lebanese first.
There are 6 of us children to my parents. I’m the second youngest sibling, the only son my parents had – by the time I was conceived they’d already had 4 daughters and were hoping for a son. So naturally, they were overjoyed when they found out their 5th child would be a boy. This is the son who would walk in his father’s footsteps and would one day carry on the family name.
But this is where things start to get a bit more complicated than my parents had hoped. I wanted to be more like my sisters than they’d ever imagined. I always felt somewhat different from the other boys in the Lebanese community – not only because I somehow knew that I was different but also because the other boys would treat me differently. It was where I would split, the birth of my queer identity. Was it because I didn’t have any older brothers? Even as a child, I wondered if that was how the other boys knew how to act and what interests were acceptable to pursue. I tried sport; hated it. I tried video games; my older sister was always beating me at them. I tried to be a boy in every sense that I knew how. But nothing changed, I still felt different.
I needed to know if there were others like me, whether or not I was just an anomaly. So, I did a lot of research on queer culture in the Arab world. Because of the silence surrounding this issue, I had no idea whether what I was feeling was even real. Was I just imagining this? The sheer dissonance between the world I was living in, and the one that was beginning to play out in my adolescent mind was incomprehensible. It was like a minefield that stretched out beyond the horizon, treacherous and deadly. I knew from the casual homophobia that surrounds the Arab community that one slip-up and my world would explode. I’d be alienated from my family and the wider community, and even if I weren’t, even if my ‘condition’ were embraced, my reputation would be tainted. You can’t un-break a mirror. It was while navigating this private minefield that I reached out to the LGBT community.
With tentative steps, I emerged onto ‘the scene’ and discovered the queer community in Sydney. I found myself surrounded by people who experience this struggle as part of their everyday existence. People who are estranged from their parents and families, with no hope of ever returning to that inner circle. I was now looking at the queer community from within its walls, I was inside and I felt like I was home. I know that’s a cliché but that’s the only way it felt to me – I was enveloped by an understanding that wasn’t about the fact that we all preferred people of the same sex, it was a deeper acknowledgement of our cultural struggle. Recognition of the pain and triumph of coming out in a stranger's eyes – it felt like this world was holding my hand.
But the experience I was having in my new community was so at odds with the family life I knew and loved. It was shockingly different – I quickly realised that I couldn’t take this world home with me; I couldn’t share this community with the one I associated with home. I would have to experience this strange new world alone, despite how much I wanted to show my family how wonderful it is.
This feeling of being trapped between two worlds wasn’t new – it had been a long time coming. I knew there was more out there for me to discover and it was a difficult realisation, knowing I’d have to do it alone. I had nobody to share it with, nobody who could see it the way I saw it, nobody who could see past the sex and the drugs and the nakedness. Not to mention the utter obscenity of two men or two women together (sometimes three! The horror!). It felt like there was a war being waged inside me – that minefield in my mind getting deadlier and more treacherous. he deeper I went into my private world outside of home, the more I realised I couldn’t go back. I was discovering a whole new way of existing and turning back meant denying it, shutting it out absolutely.
So I sought to move out of home, if only to bring some legitimacy to the life I felt like I had to lead. Leaving the parental home as a young Lebanese adult is difficult, I had to field questions like “why don’t you need us any more?” which made it a highly emotional transition – unnecessarily so. But with having my own space came some clarity and I began to immerse myself into the many aspects of queer culture. I found that even in this world, the same basic prejudices exist as they did back home. I found that being an Arab, my culture, language and skin colour was fetishized by men in this community for many different reasons.
Some men preferred having sex with Arab men because they have more hair on their bodies, some loved ‘that caramel colour’ of my skin. Some men wanted me to speak to them in Arabic, while others made me tell them about Lebanese food. Saying I came from a Lebanese background opened up a whole other realm of questions and at times I felt like I had to explain or justify my position in both the queer and Lebanese communities. The realisation that my safe new world relies much more heavily on superficialities than the one I had discarded for it was crushingly disappointing, so I sought to remove myself from it, or at least reduce my visibility within it.
These days, I don’t venture out onto the LGBTI scene much or for very long. I still have many friends who are gay and I still identify as part of their community, but I have finally reached out and embraced my Lebanese heritage as a larger part of myself. But I have to step carefully in this minefield where my own identity as a queer Muslim Arab can be used against me like a weapon, a mighty weapon that has the power to sever all of my ties with the community I grew up in. A community I am only now beginning to identify with. As a queer Arab man who is not out (I have no idea how this is still a thing, I’m not even trying to actively deceive anyone anymore yet people see and hear what they want), my activities and associations outside of this community can significantly affect my interactions within it. I’ve even had to make a decision on whether I would put my real name to this piece and if nothing else, that fact alone saddens me beyond words.
As aspects of my life have changed, there is still a great deal of tension between the two worlds, what I want from one is incompatible with the other and so I continue to live on the margins of two cultural realities.
I feel like I have not yet found where I belong and I am slowly understanding that neither positions are necessarily right or wrong – just two unlikely worlds that have no choice but to co-exist.
Photo credit: Lucienne James