“How do you think your dad would’ve reacted if he were still alive today?”
I despise hearing that question. It baffles me as to why people feel the need to ask it, even though they only mean well. I always shrug it off with a blasé response, usually along the lines of “I don’t know, and there’s no point wondering.” And while that’s true, my mind would still inevitably spiral into a rabbit hole of what-ifs.
My dad, Faris George Jahshan, died of renal failure nine and a half years ago. I was 23 at the time. I was lucky to have had a close relationship with him. We resembled each other in looks and personality (especially our sense of humor), and I credit him for instilling in me a strong moral compass and a sense of justice and humanitarianism. He was my ultimate role model, and always will be.
However, I never had the chance to come out to him as gay. This was primarily because I was still early in my coming out journey and I had just completed university around the time of his passing. I was also plagued with fear of how he would’ve reacted. And it wasn’t entirely his fault.
You see, my dad was Palestinian. He was 26 when he moved to Australia in 1964, but because of his education, cultural upbringing and the generation he was a part of, his views on gay people weren’t positive. However, he had liberal views in almost everything else.
Unless you are or know a person with Arab cultural background, there’s a chance you may not fully understand why being open about our sexuality to our families can be so hard. In Arab families across the Middle East, North Africa (MENA) and the immigrant diaspora, personal success is often measured by marriage and children before anything else, such as career or academic success.
For the most part, we love our families and our culture despite their faults. But one of those faults is the way our culture is entrenched with toxic patriarchy. It also doesn’t help when MENA countries criminalize homosexuality, the product of laws imposed during British or French colonial eras. In a few extreme cases, it’s punishable by death.
Even if MENA countries underwent legal reform, it wouldn’t immediately unshackle the cultural sentiment that views it as a choice, a mental illness or a “western import.” It wouldn’t immediately stop community leaders — or even family members — degrading us or outright denying we exist. Regardless of whether it’s coming from a Muslim, Christian or secular Arab, the prevalent homophobia is a cultural one — although religion is often used to justify it.
While there are glimmers of hope — such as increasing visibility of out and proud Arabs, social media campaigns tackling homophobia, court cases that challenge legal statutes of same-sex criminalization, and even burgeoning gay scenes in cities like Beirut — it’s still not easy. There is a prevalent fear of being outcast by our families if we come out or “get caught.” There’s also a fear of bringing our parents a form of shame, since many things in Arab culture are linked to the parents first — especially the father. For example, in Arabic it’s common to say “the son of Abdullah is gay” instead of “Fadi is gay.”
From the moment I began questioning my sexuality in my early teens and even after I came out in my early 20s, that fear was a constant presence in my mind. I feared extended family members defaming my parents for having a gay son. I feared being judged or belittled for something I cannot control. But more than anything, I feared being excommunicated by my parents completely.
It didn’t help that I have a few memories of my dad mocking gay men. It also didn’t help that another specific memory I have was when he told me — with a cold stare — that I would no longer be his son if he found out I was gay. It was a response to a throwaway question I put to him while we were watching a random TV show and Elton John was a special guest. I was about 17 and it pains me that that memory is seared into my mind. But given the context of his background, I forgave him for it.
When I started my coming out journey at age 20, my siblings advised me not to tell our parents at all. I wasn’t ready, anyway. Three years later, when my dad was in hospital and had just weeks to live, my older sister at one point asked if I was going to come out to him. I remember responding with a resounding no — I didn’t want to risk jeopardizing my relationship with him when he was at his most vulnerable. I was clearly still not ready – and scared.
Watching my dad on his deathbed and the mourning period that followed made 2009 the worst year of my life. However, amidst all the grief of losing him – a grief that I have never been able to shake off, and probably never will — I was lucky to have had the closure of telling him I loved and appreciated him before he died. I was also at peace with not coming out to him, as it ensured he and I were on good terms when he departed this world.
Since then, I have endeavored to hold on to all the memories of my dad – most of which involve him being a joker. He was a man who despised negativity and strove to spread laughter. He was a great storyteller and orator who wasn’t afraid of being sentimental. He was known for making everyone feel warm and welcome under his roof. He was my biggest supporter in my career ambitions as a journalist and writer. He never shied away from showing how much he appreciated and loved my mum. And more than anything, he had an abundance of unconditional love for his family and cared far more about our happiness than his own.
So when people ask me how I think he would’ve reacted if I came out to him while he was still alive, it forces me to reconcile the fact my dad had his faults — just like any other human being — when all I want to do is remember him as my hero.
I also feel a tinge of regret among all the what-ifs racing through my mind. The regret I feel isn’t for my decision to not come out to him before he died, but rather because I never had the chance to educate him and change his views on homosexuality for the better. There is no denying my dad may have struggled with me being gay at first, but he didn’t like holding grudges and I’m confident he would’ve eventually come around. After all, my very existence helped change my mom, who’s Lebanese — but that’s another story.
Regardless, just as it happened with my mom, my dad would’ve realized my happiness was more important. He would’ve also seen me grow to become the man I am today. A man who navigates being proudly gay and proudly Palestinian with ease. A man who I hope, in turn, would make him proud.