I've always worried about coming out to older Bangladeshis. LGBTQ issues don't even seem to exist for them, so how can they be understanding of my sexuality? But I guess you never know till you try.
This post is about my aunt who lives in the States. Earlier this year I flew over to hers as I'd not seen her in half a decade, and I came out to her while I was there. It was unlikely I'd be able to do it face to face any other time in the near future, so I thought I should take the chance. She is the first and currently only Bangladeshi over a certain age to whom I have revealed my bisexuality to. She doesn't know about this blog, and so right now I can only write about my point of view. Hopefully one day that'll change, and I'll be able to share her thoughts as well.
My aunt was born and brought up in Bangladesh. She is a religious Muslim woman in her late thirties who prays five times a day. Make of that what you will. She is also a thinking woman, a scientist and a person who relies on logic and reason in a manner that the world could learn from. We were close while I was growing up. She was still at university when I was in school and this made her feel young and approachable. She is openly liberal, and accepting of the fact that my peripatetic upbringing has made me different. She always acknowledged that said upbringing meant I was not the traditional Bangladeshi son my parents once wanted me to be. Most importantly, she also asserted that this was completely fine. This made me feel that there was someone in my corner, something that was often missing during my childhood.
She eventually left Bangladesh to live, study and work across Asia and America. These experiences have made her, in her own words, different now – although I would personally argue she has always been different. All of this made me think she would be the ideal first candidate to come out to amongst my older relatives. If things went well, she could become an ally. If things went badly, I couldn’t imagine her telling my parents or setting out to harm me in any way. Nevertheless, the actual act of explaining my bisexuality to her was a daunting experience. I was planning to spend almost ten days with her family, and I had already decided to let the first half go by as a normal holiday. The day I eventually did decide to tell her, the baby cousin got sick. The day after my uncle decided to come home early and take us out to dinner. The day after that my aunt decided to have a massive migraine, but by now I was going crazy so I decided to hell with the headache.
I told her we needed to talk, and so we sat down and talked. Same-sex marriage had actually come up a few days earlier on the news, and her own commentary on it had left me a little nervous. She had said that physical pleasure had many forms, which was no big deal, but had questioned its need to be validated through marriage. I made the point about the emotional aspect of a same-sex relationship, she hmm-ed and didn’t press the argument further. Now, we had the entire conversation. Hours of it. In a way, it helped that I was bisexual. I can be emotionally and physically attracted to a woman in the same way I can be attracted to man. This duality actually seemed to make it easier for her to understand. I put it to her in other ways too. I can be attracted to a man a same way she can – we experience the same spectrum of feelings and emotions.
She accepted that a variety of attractions can exist. She didn’t need the cliched question of “when did you choose to be straight” posed to her. But she did want an explanation of the origins of sexuality, biologically speaking. I didn’t have an exact answer and frankly I don't think anyone definitively does at this time. I mentioned various studies that I had read of, including one relating to higher female fertility being directly proportional to a greater number of gay men in a family. She countered that these studies ultimately proved nothing as correlation does not prove causation. She offered the explanation espoused by her friends in Bangladeshi medical circles – the idea that same-sex attraction was a mental disorder. I questioned their qualification to comment on mental health given that this was not their specialisation. I also asked her if she thought I had a mental disorder. I don’t think she believed I had, but was rather setting me up for what I’d face in Bangladesh. I was glad that she was willing to communicate openly and unflinchingly.
We even briefly covered the thorny issue of Islam and its stance on non-heterosexuality. The conversation was actually quite tentative on both sides. Neither of us could claim any great amount Islamic knowledge, me even less so than her. My aunt admitted that she was becoming less certain of what is sold to us by the status quo, from an Islamic perspective at least, as right and wrong. She mentioned the usual obstacles to seeking more knowledge, like her inability to speak Arabic and the need to rely on translations of the Quran and questionable Hadith. She expressed her frustration with not being able to question the validity of scripture others quoted to her, or indeed quote scripture back. To this end, she asked me about a rather popular 'Hadith' used to condemn homosexuality and usually worded as: “when a man mounts a man, the throne of Allah shakes.” Now, I haven't ever been able to find a chain of transmission for this Hadith. Not that the internet knows everything, but I've never seen it backed up with thorough references and contextual information. This is scary given how commonly it's touted online, even to the point that my aunt would ask me about it.
She set about asking a few more practical questions. Who else knew that I was bisexual? Did I talk about it a lot? Did people in Bangladesh know? Her tone implied that she thought I should keep it quiet. I think this was partly because she wasn't completely comfortable with it herself, although she maintained it was because it could put me in harm's way. But I've left behind that phase of hiding for a long time now. All of my close friends know, in Bangladesh and elsewhere. Younger members of the family know, as do many colleagues and acquaintances in the UK and around the world. I told her as much, and she pursed her lips and glared at me. This made me laugh a little. I knew that look – she was annoyed with me. But I knew she would help me deal with things, if things were to ever happen.
The conversation then took a lighter and bizarrely amusing turn. She asked me if sexuality was indeed genetic, who did I think were the other queer folk in our extended family? And then she rattled through all the possibilities. Was it the cousin who'd not gotten herself a boyfriend yet? Or was it the uncle who's marriage had broken down in divorce? Or was it was the one who'd resisted getting married for years on end? Or maybe it was the other cousin who'd never gotten married at all! All of this speculation really did make me laugh. But I had to wonder, with such a large extended family, surely someone else out there isn't heterosexual?
She asked me about my relationships, and if I was dating. When I said yes, she asked me if I slept with everyone I dated, being carefully gender neutral with the word “everyone” in Bengali. This I loved. At the same time, I wondered where she was coming from. Was she uncomfortable with the idea of promiscuity, or the idea of gay sex specifically? Did she think I was dating, or just hooking up? I thought it would be better to clarify my approach to dating – which really meant meeting someone to hopefully establish a meaningful relationship with. That meant a lot of forgettable first dates, or even second and third dates that went nowhere. I was honest about how I did things – I wouldn't jump into bed with someone if I didn't think things were headed somewhere. So no, no promiscuity, but yes, gay sex is implied. Trying to gauge her feelings, I asked her if it mattered to her who I brought home. She was frank. She said she needed time to get used to my bisexuality. For now, she'd encourage me to bring a girl home. It would make my life easier, and it would be easier for her to accept at present. But what if I brought a guy home? Well, she was sure one day she would accept him too. Which is all I needed to hear really, as one day I may be counting on her to be a stand in for my parents.