“Why are you wearing flowers?” my mother asks in Urdu.
I freeze, kicking myself for not de-gaying my appearance before visiting her at work.
“And is that henna? What’s with all of this?”
Before I give her even one more second to notice, I thrust my wrists under the desk and twist off both of my floral bracelets and that telling rainbow band I hope to Allah she didn’t see. I can’t give her anything more to worry about. She wouldn’t understand; she wouldn’t see me the same.
“It’s for, uh, Halloween? I don’t know, it’s just the culture on campus…”
And maybe it is just that. A costume. A reassurance to myself that I really am queer and okay with it. As a comfortably gay man (at least outside of my house), I usually have no trouble wearing flowers because I’m not trying to prove anything. But am I wearing rainbows as a reminder to others of my gayness, or as a reminder to myself?
I fought long and hard by myself in the endless desert of my self-loathing; I was parched dry from years of performative heterosexuality. Now, the thought of coming off as straight is downright appalling to me—why would I want to look like a h*tero, like those kids and adults who oppressed me for so many years and made me pray to Allah every night that I wasn’t gay?
Yes, as a kid, I prayed to Allah to make life easier—my skin less brown, my religion less foreign. I wanted to give in, blend in, relent to the crashing wave of fingers pointed at me. The playground was hell, and if the playground is a child’s hell, where do they turn? My only logical answer was toward home.
However, home was a different hell at times. Even in my first moments diving into queerness, my days of childhood security were numbered. As much as lipsyncing Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” on infinite repeat alone in my room just screams preteen closeted homosexual, I began to feel shut out. I felt separate. I felt othered. I couldn’t shoot hoops like my brothers, couldn’t get into wrestling my cousins for fun, couldn’t say the right things or make the right jokes. I was searching for a reason, anything to explain the divide. But slowly, and then all at once, a pattern started to emerge.
All the times my parents would change the channel when the news anchor mentioned the word “LGBT” made sense. All the times my older brothers would lower their windows and taunt the “fag flag” flying outside the local Unitarian church made sense. All the times my relatives would drag me out of my female cousins’ rooms to play with the boys made sense.
There was this awful thing, this word my parents could never use to describe me. There was this deplorable group of people, this label my brothers constantly needed to give to anything annoying or detestable, including me sometimes. There was this horrible, ungodly thing no one in my community would wish on anyone else. Queerness. The big Gay™. That was me—surprise! I was that terrible thing the whole time, and it desperately confused me as to why these pure feelings inside me were apparently so disgusting to everyone else. I was gay, and if I wanted to be safe, I had to be anything but that.
I didn’t disguise my religion or other clearly visible identities for very long—at some point, I grew into being myself in these unchangeable ways. Being gay, for all the intents and purposes of being a good Muslim boy, was internal, personal, hideable. I rebelled against my inner desires. I burned what felt natural, sterilized the natural colors I felt, left my truest self to wither. I pulled off the flower bracelet and as I cast it as far from sight as possible, suppressed the truth that would later explode from the pressure.
If I took anything from growing up as a person of color in America, it’s that mass media and pop culture were not made for me or to give my race representation. If I took anything from growing up as a gay person in America, it’s that heteronormative media and mainstream culture were not made for me or to give my minority group representation. If I took anything from growing up as a person of color in America’s LGBTQIA+ community, it’s that gay media and gay culture was not made for me or to give my race representation within the community. If I took anything from growing up as a Muslim, it’s that I wouldn’t ever meet an older LGBTQ+ role model within the community or believe that other Muslims could even be gay.
In so many spaces, I am invisible. I am not wanted. I am denied. I internalized this erasure.
Enter queer rebellion.
At some point in high school, I decided to let a small piece of my world know by donning a bracelet of small flowers at school. It was 2017, gay marriage had been legal for a couple years, and still, my greatest act of queer bravery was wearing flowers. It was one toe in the pool, one finger unclenching from the chokehold around my personhood. People asked questions or gave me quizzical looks, but it was safe. It sewed just enough doubt that the rumors germinated and began to bloom. A wash of colors returned to life one by one as curious petals unfolded. My quiet flowers were breaking the silence.
My queerness finally started to receive some (positive) attention, and I wanted more and more of it. I had found a niche in my classmates’ lives and started to play the part. Before I even knew it, I became “The Gay Best Friend.” I learned how to be a quirky confidant for my girlfriends, spilling tea and spreading rumors, and I traded my flowers for a new vocabulary and an edge of sass on my tongue. I used the White gay models on the TV screen to create my new personality. Popular gay media was not made for me, but I wanted—needed—attention. I was willing to play the part, to don the costume just to no longer feel alone. And so my rebellion fell in line with all the other portrayals of White gays, with portrayals of what I felt I needed to be.
And yet, I was still Muslim. I had this whole other life at the mosque and at home where I wasn’t so queer, didn’t use “queen” and “sis” nearly as often, hung out with the boys more often than with the girls. As I grew older, I gave in and assimilated. I learned how to dap up my brothers and just be one of the boys. Because I took in these skills much later, I no longer felt the need to be queer in a “traditional” sense in order to find a place for myself among other Muslims. Our view of the world, our shared histories as immigrants and their children, our common struggles everyday in a culture not made for us—these things made me Muslim and made me feel more like a person than mainstream queeness ever did.
And yet, I was still queer. But over time, I realized there is color to my queerness. More than what the pride flag gave me. At some point, being just another gay in the Tufts “Heterosexuals” GroupMe wasn’t enough. I needed to rebel against queerness.
I am a queer Muslim. I face unique struggles and contribute to a novel history, one my queer brothers and sisters in Islam are also fighting, sometimes to their very end, for the attention of others, for the acknowledgement of our existence. For our own colors. Our own rebellion.
To my mother, the flowers are hidden, the colors are veiled. But even if I exist in her mind as just Muslim, I carry the full palete of my queerness, knowing that others can see it, other queer Muslims not as visible can see me just existing—and knowing that it’s enough.