“I had no idea you were gay”, is something I am often told by my heteronormative friends; after navigating this terrain for over 8 year now, I know that there is no one “type of gay” – and neither is this meant as a compliment/rebuff; it is, what it is. At first glance, most people think I am from India (and don’t know where Bangladesh is), similarly, they may have a stereotype of a gay person they have seen on TV.
In a heteronormative world, it is automatically assumed you are straight, unless you do something different – or “look”/dress differently than the norm. Since I have two grown children, this also confuses many about my orientation.
On PRIDE 2020, I am telling you my story of coming out, over 8 years, in a series of questions that are most frequently asked of me as this conversation typically unfolds.
When did you know you were gay?
My first exposure to homosexuality was from a TIME magazine cover on Homosexuality in 1979 and I was 12 years old; I am confident that I had a crush on a friend that I couldn’t explain to myself; growing up in Bangladesh, as a teenager, there was no context of being gay. There were no role models, tv shows, or even books to read/understand the concept. I kept telling myself, it’s wrong – and something was wrong with me. After years of soul searching, and therapy, I realize that this denial of one’s sexuality, is quite common in my generation of young people, male and female, everywhere in the world.
To compound my confusion, at a very early age of five or six, I was sexually abused by a temporary chauffer for my family; I never told my parents because, I was simply ashamed and thought something was wrong with me. This early childhood trauma kept playing tricks on my psyche by denying my sexuality; I kept telling myself that my attraction towards men was due to that incidence and I would grow out of it! Again, after years of therapy, I learned to shift the blame away from myself; I have learned and accepted that this is not something I caused, and I didn’t have the tools to protect myself or complain about it. And most importantly, this incidence, has nothing to do with me being gay.
How did your family take it when they learned you were gay?
One of my biggest regrets is not having the chance to come out to my mother who already knew I was gay; she talked to others about this, but never directly asked me. I am certain, she knew at an early age, I was gay. I used to play with dolls, dress up in sarees and once, in second grade, I played a female role in a play. Since she was a child psychologist by training, my mother never discouraged my desires and gave me freedom of expression. However, she also never directly enquired about my sexual identity and accepted the projection of “straightness” presented to her in my 20s and 30’s.
My father, was cooler to my early childhood behaviors; I remember, once he came home from work and yelled at our nanny for dressing me up as a girl; this very early childhood trauma scared me about behaving a certain way, to gain his acceptance. I was not athletic as a child and leaned towards art and music; I don’t think my father knew how to be an accepting Dad to a “different” child like me. He was the academic Dad who taught me mathematics (in a fun way) but he never took me out to play sports with him or actively trained me on tools, fishing or some sort of trade. He accidentally passed away when I was eighteen, and we never had a chance to connect on these issues.
I am very lucky to have a loving, caring and broad-minded sister; her family, my brother-in-law and my nephew, have been accepting of me from the day I told her, over text, that I am gay. She has always been supportive of my choices and came with me to my first PRIDE parade in Boston.
I have Aunts, Uncles and cousins who have also openly supported my decision to come out and live my own authentic and safe life. Most have told me that it makes no difference to them. A handful have used religion to try and create confusion; I have disconnected from them.
The conundrum of a gay person often is, we have to come out every day to the people we meet. It’s relentless and burdensome. With so much media attention to gay issues, I am a bit fatigued in educating people about the ways of the world.
How did your children accept it?
My children have been by number one supporters, since I came out. My older daughter, who was sixteen at that time, found out inadvertently. She left me a message on my voicemail that she loved me and needed a few days to process the information. After a couple of days, we sat down had an open discussion. She had specific questions about when I knew that I was gay and about my relationship to her mother. Since then, she has fully embraced my life, and we often talk about gay issues and politics. Many years ago, I remember refusing to buy from Chick-Fil-A, a fast food chain in the US, since they heavily contribute to anti-gay issues; at first, she didn’t understand my hesitation; over time she has learned to appreciate the pain and anger that we feel over corporations (or individuals) who use their financial might to suppress something that’s natural and/or use religion as a shield to discriminate against one group or other.
My younger daughter was only six or seven years when I came out; she grew up with a gay dad and has been one of the staunchest supporters of PRIDE and gay causes. In 2017 when I escaped Boston during PRIDE, she went to the parade with her friends in support of me!
Why did you get married if you knew you are gay?
I fell in love with my wife in 1993 at our first meeting in Toledo, OH, over a cup of coffee. We talked for hours over phone and had a life time of common roots to get started in our relationship. We fought with our families to get married quickly (after 9 months of long-distance dating) and moved in together. I believed I had “cured” myself of my desires for men and loved my wife and family during our fifteen beautiful years together.
We had two amazing kids, lived in 5 states and seven homes, and I still believe, we loved each other. Not every fairy tale has a happy ending; in 2011, our marriage was afflicted by her depression and bi-polar disorder which led her to ask me for a divorce in 2011. I was shocked and saddened by this and resisted divorce for over 12 months and went for individual and couples counselling. In May of 2013, when my life was in danger and my children’s safety was in serious jeopardy, I consented to divorce and decided to move forward with my life.
Once, I consented to divorce, I went for therapy over two years, before I accepted my own sexuality and came out to my friends and family. It took me another 3 years, before I came out at work.
What has surprised you the most, about coming out?
I am most impressed by the love and support of my family over the years of this journey of self-discovery.
There were at least twice, during my early years of therapy, that I wanted to go back into the closet; I was confused and perplexed by the complexity of this ‘new’ gay world and rejection; I had never felt this lonely in my entire life. Over time and lots of therapy, I visualized a world I could feel safe and build a community where I would be accepted for who I am. I have now met amazing gay and straight allies who have known me over the years. I have remained close to most of my childhood friends; we get together often at weddings-anniversaries- birthdays!
Had someone told the scared Zain, some seven years ago, that one day his own confident self would autobiographically describe his coming out story, as a gay-out-Bangladeshi-single dad, I may not have believed!
What is your message to others as they may consider coming out?
Coming out is an entirely personal journey and there is no one perfect way to do so! It is your choice and no one can judge you on your journey. And, there is no perfect time for coming out.
Ultimately, it is about happiness, expression and being true to yourself.
From experience, I can say that, the energy required to hide and “shadow” yourself every day, can be put to so much better use once you are free of these games. When you are free to be yourself, the joy is better than anything you have experienced.
What is your message to your straight allies?
Today, everyone has a gay friend, cousin, sibling, or a child. By respecting and celebrating them, you create a world of acceptance that is the most innate of human desire. I invite you to reject derogatory terms, such as, “gay lifestyle”: a lifestyle is something one chooses; or saying, “that’s so gay”, really, in today’s world?
I once had a straight friend (of 40 years) refuse to hug me because he thought I would be attracted to him, if we hugged! Let me assure my straight friends, just like you are not attracted to everyone of the opposite sex, gays are not attracted to everyone of the same sex!
On PRIDE 2020, and every June going forward, I am inviting my straight friends and family to deliberately wish their gay friends and family a Happy PRIDE (maybe, with a rainbow emoji)! This small gesture, costs you nothing; very similar to a Merry Christmas, Happy Diwali/Eid/Easter/Hanukkah greeting.
To a gay man or woman, this may be an affirmation that you respect them and celebrate their differences. This gives them a sense of belonging, and not being the “other” in this dynamic equation called life.