Author: Rahman from Pakistan
For me, self-realization came early, self-acceptance late. My childhood and formative years were very much a product of Zia-ul-Haq’s Islam, which pervaded military culture in Pakistan in the 80’s and 90’s. As an army brat, my Pakistani identity was tightly braided with an exclusionary, militarized version of Islam. I was deeply religious, and my religion was defined by what I was not: Hindu, Indian, Christian, Hijra, critical of the state, and on and on. Several army friends subscribed to at least some of my beliefs, but there was diversity in my friends’ faiths and the strength with which they held on. I would say I was the gold-medalist in the Muslim orthodoxy department. I suppose my gnawing suspicions about my homosexuality made me especially vociferous.
The stridency of my more religious friends and I freaked out my parents’ generation, many of whom grew up with far more pluralistic, progressive versions of Islam. Their concern, though, was restricted to restrained dinner table debates. There were no public questions, no community debates. Looking back, Zia’s legacy was more about public silence than anything else. Without realizing what it was, I was grateful for it. I felt certain of myself. Any contradictory influences never gave me pause.
All that changed in one day. I was 14. It was summertime, and I was headed to my extended family. To save money, my parents would make me hitch a ride on the C-130, the military cargo plane. Most of the plane was filled with large steel boxes strapped to the floor. The edges were lined with a few canvas seats, to which officers and crew-members received precedence. I made do with whatever was left. This time I was to be seated crushed-up next to a junior officer in my father’s command. When my father deposited me to the plane, the gentleman saluted him and then bent down and gave me a peck on the cheek. It was an avuncular gesture that I was used to from my parents’ friends, but this time, it shook the hell out of me. The Major was a terribly handsome man. It was the first time I remember explicitly thinking of another man’s beauty. I remember his lips touching my cheek, and his trim mustache tickling me. Our legs touched during the entire freaking flight. Though the Major didn’t look my way, I was incredibly conscious of him, his tight-fitting uniform, his ridiculously bulging leg muscles, his ridiculously defined jawline. The plane wasn’t air-conditioned, and it was blistering, which didn’t help. I could see his sweat glisten and accumulate in all sorts of prohibitive places. A part of me was transfixed, another was in hell, and a third was convinced that I was headed there soon.
Then the flight ended, and Major Sexy guided me to my cousins. Summer awaited. I remember throwing myself into all that with a vengeance, and renewing religious vigor for good measure, but my C-130 memories were impossible to dispel. They just wouldn’t budge. Then, alarmingly, they found friends in fantasies about other officers, Zoheb Hassan, Junaid Jamshed and many others.
I started losing my religious certainty. I also started losing my mind. Was I going to hell? Was I even a Pakistani? Why me? Why ONLY me? Who could I talk to? How could I talk to them when I didn’t even know the words? The questions just kept piling up, almost as fast as my fantasies.
At some point during that fall, the word “homosexual” floated towards my mind. I can’t remember the source, but the word certainly stuck. No one defined it, but I knew I was connected to it. I couldn’t get it out of my head, so one afternoon I got on my green BMX, and furiously peddled through the broad tree-lined cantonment streets to the local library. I went to the Encyclopedia Britannica section, found the volume with “H”, and found the entry for Homosexual. Suddenly, there it was, like a terrifying, omnipresent mirror: sexual attraction to other members of the same sex (might be a phase). That was me. Homosexual.
That word changed everything, but not for the better. Suddenly, I had a defined word that marked me as surely inferior, if not damned.
I didn’t give up though. I knew the neighborhood mosque maulvi sahib was partial to gulab jamuns, so I bought a dozen with my pocket money, and presented them to him as a sort of a desperate existential bribe. While he inhaled them, I asked him what he thought of homosexuality. He gave me a sufficiently alarming fire-and-brimstone response. Wallet lighter, I then asked my dad. I was nonchalant enough that Abbu didn’t think my question was anything other than curiosity. While he denounced the maulvi sahib as a nutbag, he was vague about the rest.
Two summers later, I was in full-blown crisis mode. I knew I had to tell someone, though, or I would soon lose whatever was left of my mind. My aunt has always been special for me, so I tried to build up the guts to tell her. It took the entire summer for me to do it. I still remember what she said. I remember everything about that afternoon. She said “Listen jaani, we believe in a kind, merciful and just God. Don’t concern yourself with visions of hell and all that. If you’re helping other people, God will love you. That is all. This doesn’t change how much I love you. You should tell your parents – they will feel the same way.”
I did eventually tell the rest of my family over the next couple of years. For the most part, they did feel the same way. But I still hated myself. For the next decade, I couldn’t dismiss the certainty I got with my religious orthodoxy, even though a part of me grew to loathe it. I couldn’t just roll the dice by coming out, hoping my aunt was right and the dice would fall on heaven and not hell. As my orthodoxy became problematic, so too did my nationalism. The definition of Pakistan I had been working with was so restrictive, so dependent on a rigid definition of Islam – it dispossessed so many people. Yet it had been such a comfort to me. I wasn’t strong enough to work through the cognitive dissonance that engulfed my life, so I ran. I went abroad, and stopped thinking of myself as Pakistani, preferring instead to identify as Desi.
It took me a long time to accept myself. What helped most was observing queer or other Desi people, from my family or otherwise, who had an inclusive view of their religion. It wasn’t anything they said. It was just watching them live their lives proudly, observing them help others, listening to them as they wrestled with their own religious or generally existential doubts, and thinking “what kind of God could possibly send these people to hell?” That, more than anything else, showed me a way to become proud of who I was. Gradually, I also started meeting several progressive Pakistanis. From progressive artists, secular teachers, queer and Khawaja Sira leaders, feminist writers and many other Pakistanis, I learned a more inclusive and sustainable story of my nationality. Folks across Pakistan who transcend religious, provincial, gender or class limits to work towards a more just vision of Pakistani society. They have helped me come full circle: queer, Pakistani, proud.