My flatmate and friend Ishmam*, 26, grew up in Bangladesh before moving to the US for university when she was 18. She began identifying as queer in her final year, but had known she was bisexual since the age of 19. The daughter of practising Muslim parents in a country where homosexuality remains illegal, she leads a relatively dual existence between her life in New York City and the way she was brought up. This past weekend, Ishmam, who now identifies as a queer femme, made the incredibly difficult decision to come out to her mother who was visiting for a relative's birthday. We sat down with a glass of wine for a debrief on how it went:
J: Can you talk me through the lead up to making this decision to come out to your mum?
I: I’ve known that I was queer since the age of 19, but never actually imagined I would come out to either of my parents because I didn’t think I would ever fall in love with a woman. Once I did fall in love with a woman for the first time in 2016, I decided I couldn’t come out to my parents until I wanted to marry a woman—because I thought, why devastate everything unless they absolutely have to know. Let me preface this: Bangladesh is a beautiful country with incredibly resilient people, rich in tradition and culture, but it is also sexist, homophobic, and traditionalist. The reason it was especially difficult for me to come out as queer is because in Bangladesh—a Muslim-majority but secular nation—homosexuality and same-sex relationships are illegal, which feeds into the general homophobia. For example, two well-known LGBTQ activists were assasinated in their own homes two years ago, and secular bloggers get assassinated on the regular, so it’s an incredibly dangerous place to be out.
Making the decision to come out to my maa was really, really huge. I decided to do it after a recent break up that taught me I needed to be truthful with my family in order to be more honest with myself and who I am. A lot of my Bangladeshi friends and friends of friends now identify as lesbian or gay or bisexual, but personally I don’t know of any other queer Bangladeshis who have actually come out to their parents—not a single one. I guess I did it because my family have certain expectations. I’m 26 (peak marital age in Bangladesh) and they want me to get married and settle down. I’ve loved and have been in love with men in the past, but at this point I only want to be with women. My sexuality has just shifted that way, and so I thought it was best to slowly start the coming out process with my maa, as I’m closer to her and my dad is more outwardly homophobic.
What was going through your head in the lead up to seeing your mum? Did you ever think of backing out?
Initially, I felt very calm because the whole thing was just so overwhelming, but as the days went by I started feeling a lot of sadness because there was this real possibility that she was going to disown me or at least not speak to me for a very long time, or ever again, or that she would deny the whole thing, or try and “fix” me, or be disgusted by me, or just be so angry. So, when I started thinking about all these possibilities they filled me with a lot of dread and anxiety. The woman I was previously in a relationship with is also South Asian and queer, and she’s not out to her parents yet, so I relied on her a lot to talk about the real possibilities, because when other people heard about what I was doing they would say, “Oh you’re being so dramatic or hyperbolic, I’m sure those things won’t happen.” But those devastating possibilities are very real for Bangladeshi queers.
There was no real precedent for me doing this—I had nothing to work off, and being from a Muslim community, the way most Bangladeshis practise the Islam religion and Bengali culture perpetuates homophobic beliefs, so knowing I was about to do this thing that was going to deeply disappoint someone who loves me, and cause my maa so much pain was really, really hard for me. I kept thinking, maybe I don’t have to do this, maybe I’m not going to do this. I felt physically ill a lot of the time too, like I was going to throw up.
How did it go? When, where, and how did you tell her?
So, I got there and I felt really bad because my maa was making my favourite meal like she always does, and was being so lovely, and my heart was breaking because I knew I was about to make her so sad. It was my niece’s birthday, and mum and I were sat on her bed making goodie bags with traditional Bengali sweets. We had a little assembly line going and were doing this very repetitive and calming action, so it felt like the right time. I said, “Maa, I need to tell you something,” and even after I said it I was like, Ishmam, you can still back out, but I said: “I don’t have any feelings for men. I’ve tried for a very long time, but they’re just not there.” I’ve dated men in the past, but I knew that bringing up bisexuality or polysexuality or anything that wasn’t monosexuality so early in this process would be too hard for her to understand and didn’t want to have to explain why I couldn’t just choose men. I didn’t want the conversation to be too polarising for her, so I didn’t say “I’m gay” or “I like women,” I wanted the starting point to be “I don’t have feelings for men.”
What was her initial reaction?
I could tell she was in disbelief, as I don’t neatly fit into the stereotype of a gay woman. But as the realisation started setting in her eyes welled up and she started crying and saying things like she never imagined this would happen to her family. I apologised for making her sad, but it was a very complex conversation because she’s never really been exposed to gay people, so she doesn’t understand gayness. She was saying things like “This isn’t normal, it can’t be this way,” and I reassured her that I had initially felt that way too, and I tried for a long time to like men so as not to disappoint her, but I couldn’t change it.
She wasn’t angry. She was sad and she was crying but she was composed, which is not what I expected. I expected her to be furious and horrified (which is the reaction I know I would get from my father). She asked me if I have been to a doctor to try and “fix” it, and I explained that I have been in therapy for the past three years, and that I know my queerness is true about myself, and that this is who I am and that’s not going to change. Honestly, it was remarkable how understanding she was. I think for the most part her reaction was because of my dad. She told me he will never be able to accept it, that he can’t ever know, and that, literally, “this will kill him.” My parents are public figures in Bangladesh, so I guess for my mum it’s about protecting their reputation as well.
How did you feel after you had told her?
Relieved. It felt like the most honest moment in our entire relationship. We don’t have the easiest relationship for a number of reasons, but it felt for the first time like we were actually seeing each other, and having and open and honest conversation. I live a very dual life, and I’ve only recently started telling my parents that I go out and drink and date people. For South Asian women, it’s common for your parents to never really know who you are, and I guess this is a a part of me I never really thought my maa would get to know. I honestly thought she would disown me or feel like she loved me less, or that our relationship would change, but she said, “Nothing you can do would make me feel that way and nothing you can do would make me love you less. You’re my daughter, you’re my life, you’re all I have.” That was the most profound moment in our conversation, because that’s what I was most scared of, and I really went into it thinking there was a possibility that my maa wouldn’t speak to me for a very long time.
You were obviously surprised by her reaction then?
I was completely, 100 percent blown-the-fuck-away. I don't know how to explain this to people who are not Bangladeshi or South Asian, but this is not the reaction I would expect from any Bangladeshi parent, ever. My former partner thinks it’s the luckiest coming out story she’s ever heard. Right now, maa laments things like, “you’re never going to be with someone, you’re never going to have kids,” because in her head I think she would rather me be alone than with a women because it’s just too hard for her to process. We’ve got a way to go but we’re going to work on it, and we’re going to get there. If she can comes to terms with this, I know she will be okay, and that she could eventually come to love somebody that I love. At the end of the day, I think the biggest worry for her is that she doesn’t want me to be alone.
I’ve learnt that my maa is a lot more open-minded than I give her credit for. It has taught me to see her outside of just being my mother, seeing her as human and someone who’s much more empathetic and unconditionally loving than I realised. I thought she would be in denial, but she’s not. I thought she would see me as a different person, but nothing has really changed. I genuinely believe she just wants me to be happy.
What advice would you give someone in a similar position to you who was thinking about coming out to their parents?
I can’t really give any concrete advice because honestly, I lucked out so hard. I’m in disbelief that I’m recounting this story, which is not the story I thought I’d be telling. I know a lot of queer people already dread their coming out but it’s important to imagine all possibilities, including the worst case scenario, and how you would deal with that.
For me, I have my chosen family — so many of my friends texted me and called me over the weekend to check in, and I know that I have a lot of people in my life who will be there for me if my family ever did cut me off. I guess my advice would be to do what you think is right for you and your growth and your happiness. A lot of people will tell you a lot of things, people will say, “it’ll be fine, they’re your parents, they’ll love you no matter what,” but that is not helpful to hear. This is the biggest and craziest decision you will make, and quite honestly there’s a chance it could go terribly, and losing your family is a really big deal. Surround yourself with people who support you, and get a good therapist. Seriously.
*Ishmam did not wish to disclose her full name in the interest of protecting her parents’ identity.Support Villainesse