This Arab is Queer: My intersectionality was my biggest bully
Intersectionality pertains to experiences of discrimination disadvantage or oppression that are compounded by an individual’s multiple marginalised identities. My intersectionality was my biggest bully. I was a minority within a minority within a minority. A Black, queer Arab and apostate child of very religious immigrant parents. Knowing from a very young age that I wasn’t ‘straight’ was so confusing to me. Although compulsory heterosexuality was all around me and was nestled in my subconscious, I have vivid memories of the crush I had on my sixth-grade English teacher when I was twelve. I also remember knowing it wasn’t right. I felt sick, I felt dirty, I felt sinful.
I was born in the United Arab Emirates to a Somali father and a Yemeni mother. I was an immigrant child in a country that doesn’t practise birth-right citizenship. Growing up, I went to segregated government schools and was surprisingly exposed to somewhat socialised queer attraction, but in a very specific context.
The effects of gender segregation created a safe space for my peers to experiment with one another. I remember seeing girls ‘liking’ each other and even becoming ‘girlfriends’. Yet, while there was experimenting, I was never seen because I was the only Black girl in my school. There was also a lot of control from the school administration. We were handed flyers, pamphlets, cassette tapes and given talks about the ‘dangers’ of our immorality. We were told we were going to be smote by God and rejected by society for simply acting on our innate natural attractions. Many internalised their queer attractions as a ‘phase’ for them. Not me.
''Those of us who suffer from severe anxiety and PTSD, in my case due to inferiority complexes and repeated emotional, physical and religious trauma from a young age, know that the fear of being found out by family is terrifying.''
While being a sexual minority didn’t set me too far apart from my peers, being Black certainly did. I was the only Black student in a school of 700 girls who knew that I was ‘different’ – and not in a good way. I was also a non-Emirati Black kid in a school of mostly Emirati students, who were living in a racist society and in no way educated on what racism was. I was bullied badly, but no bully was more ruthless than my intersectionality: the collective of all the things that set me apart and pushed me out.
I even convinced myself this was just how things were and should be. I developed an inferiority complex and internalised everything I was told about being queer and Black: my gross, ugly hair, my home-cooked food smelling bad, and the weird other language (Somali) I spoke at home. And, at home, I wasn’t taught pride and to stand up for myself; I was always told to keep my head down and stay out of trouble.
During my first year of high school I met my first real girlfriend. We were crazy about each other, even though she was bullied for ‘agreeing’ to be with me. So, while whatever social circle I had wasn’t entirely homophobic – albeit very racist – life outside of school definitely was.
Living in a religious, conservative household that took no prisoners, and dealing with a homophobic society outside the home, meant I had to compartmentalise and hide who I was for much of my teens. I was forced to lead a double life. That is, until my brother found out.
I wasn’t the only one who fell prey to compulsory heterosexuality. My girlfriend broke up with me after four years because her family found her a good man to marry. She said we always knew this would end and that this was just a phase and nothing more than an indiscretion by a couple of teenagers. While she was able to start afresh, our breakup only added to my trauma, pain and feelings of emotional neglect.
Despite the compulsory-heterosexual baggage I was dragging around – or that was dragging me around, I don’t know – I knew in my early twenties that I wanted to be with a woman. I dated women but never allowed myself to imagine a life or a future with one. I always believed that eventually I would somehow be ‘fixed’, that I’ll meet a guy and just magically become un-queered like the girls in my school. But my proverbial Cinderella’s slipper of a man never showed up, and I continued to date women. Still, I never allowed myself to become involved too deeply with them.
It was also around this time that I started therapy. Understanding who I was – that this shaken shell of a human wasn’t actually me but the result of years of trauma, pain and violence – was earth-shattering, and also highly disruptive. It shook me to my core, but it also enabled me to forgive myself for all that I blamed myself for. I spent my whole life thinking I deserved everything I experienced because I was too different. I thought that I belonged on the outskirts. I thought my constant state of anxiety and hypervigilance was just ‘who I was’.
I thought I was made broken. I had allowed my biggest bully, my intersectionality, to win.
Those of us who suffer from severe anxiety and PTSD, in my case due to inferiority complexes and repeated emotional, physical and religious trauma from a young age, know that the fear of being found out by family is terrifying. Combine that with the fear of God’s wrath (something I can never seem to shake off completely, despite becoming an atheist many years ago), the fear of being jailed in a country where being queer is illegal, and the fear that your partner will sooner or later realise that you’re this shaken shell of a human being and leave you because of it – it all creates this ultra-alert yet sad and anxious, broken robot. One with zero confidence and zero self-trust, and who is incapable of vulnerability or even allowing themselves to have wants and desires. I existed to please others, not myself. I existed to crave love so hungrily. I had a hole inside me that nobody’s love could fill because I never learned to love myself. I didn’t know how to.
My journey with therapy and healing intensified in 2019. I was eighteen months into a relationship and going through an intensely rough patch with my partner because she wanted us to get engaged within a year. Sirens went off in my head, and I felt myself sinking into all the terrifying ‘what-ifs’ and all the terrible worst-case scenarios that my anxious, traumatised brain could think of. I was faced with the reality that I couldn’t run for ever; and that was scarier than anything that happened before. The relationship ended a year later, but my quest to find myself and my freedom was just starting. And, as I continue my healing, I prioritise loving and trusting myself; connecting with and tuning into myself; getting to know myself with no outside influence; discovering who I am without the pain and fear. My intersectionality is no longer my biggest bully.
These days, I wish I could tell my sixteen-year-old self that things get better, just as it got better for me. I came out and cut the homophobic members of my family off, I left Dubai and moved to Toronto. I put me and my needs first and I am now proudly and outspokenly (almost obnoxiously so) out of the closet. I no longer fear my family’s reaction when they find out. I no longer live in a country with homophobic laws.
Amna Ali is the founder of the Black Arabs Collective, a platform that shares and amplifies the stories and voices of Black Arabs. Ali is of Somali and Yemeni descent and lives in the UAE.
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