By Rami Balh
All my life I had to hide who I was to protect myself. Because of my family’s traditional Middle Eastern background and viewpoints, I was forced to hide my sexuality and beliefs about the world for my own safety. I learned to smile along when my family would make homophobic remarks and condone the violence the LGBTQ+ community faces in Muslim spaces. Every time this happened, I wondered what my parents would think if they found out that their daughter was one of those same “kafir, haram, gay sinners” they hated so much. I would always regret not speaking out against their violent words even though I knew what the consequences would be; so I would bite my tongue and look away instead of risking my safety and asserting myself in the way I wanted to. That is until I ran away from home when I was 15 and found freedom on the streets of Queens.
I ran away because I was tired of living the lie my parents wanted from their only daughter. Even with all the dangers and uncertainties of being homeless, it felt so much better then the constrictions of home. I remember the first place I went to was a park, I flew on a swing set and cried. When I pass by that swing set today, it isn’t sadness I remember feeling, but an overwhelming sense of clarity. I used to feel like I had betrayed my family because of my sexuality and my activism. My parents broke their back to cross the ocean to give their children the opportunities they never had. But I could not become the quiet subservient brown girl who only dreamed of getting married to a nice Sunni Arab boy my parents had always wanted. Instead, I became a radical queer Muslim activist they could never accept. Naturally, I felt guilty for this. As do most people of color with immigrant parents. We feel guilty for having any type of negative feelings towards our parents even if they’re being physically or mentally abusive. We don’t allow ourselves to be angry with them because of the fact that they gave up their entire lives for us and struggled in this foreign, white land.
It never registered to me that I could exist as myself until I ran away and didn’t have to be surrounded by the toxicity of my family. Perhaps it is strange that I found a moment of temporary reprieve and crucial self reflection within the dangers of homelessness, but it was the only space I found that I could truly be myself in.
I do not know why I went back to my family’s house. There were certainly pragmatic reasons; I was tired of starving, sleeping behind a church at night, and being scared of everything that could happen when I was at my most vulnerable. When I think back on it, the reason that I really went back home was because I wanted a real chance at a future. I could not imagine that I could live like I did during that period of homelessness forever; not when I had so many aspirations for my future. How was I supposed to achieves those dreams, go to college and prosper when I did not even have a place I could call home? I was lucky that I had a home to go back to, albeit an abusive home where I still have to lie about my sexuality and exist within the restrictions of how my family perceives femininity.
I look back on my life and remember the feeling of clarity I had experienced on the swing set and how alone I felt. But for some reason, even though I was completely vulnerable and powerless physically, I felt more safe and protected than I ever felt in my entire life. Some may say that I shouldn’t have had gone home that night. But I’m sure that I would not have the same life I have right now.
Now, I am beside my window in my college dorm. I’m currently attending my dream school, Skidmore College on a full ride scholarship.
I look out and see hundreds of trees reaching out to the blue cloudless sky. I feel the sense of clarity I felt when I was alone on the swing set a year ago. But this time, with no guilt lurking at the back of my mind. I am completely free. For the first time in my life, I no longer need to hide.
I am safe.