I am sitting in a cavernous room on the second floor of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in New York City. It is the room assigned to the evening's meeting of the Gay and Lesbian Arab Society ( GLAS ) .
The room is way too big for the unusually small number of members assembled here tonight. Our words bounce ominously off the ceiling and exposed brick walls like thunder, ricocheting back over us, almost swallowing us up.
We are only six tonight. Up two from the last meeting, when we were merely four.
The group is surprisingly small during this difficult time, I think to myself. Our numbers should swell from the standard core of attendees, not dwindle like this to near nothing.
And then someone in the group utters the obvious explanation, the one none of us really wants to admit or say out loud: Some people are too afraid to come to a meeting right now. Too nervous to come even here, to a gay community center, symbolic as it is of the safe harbor represented by the gay community to us as gay Arabs.
But in these times, even our fellow gay and lesbian citizens see in us the Arab label first. Sometimes, that is all they see.
The gay bond that I used to think was so strong...the one that can at times give me a sense of connection to a total stranger in a foreign city simply by making eye contact...feels broken in a way I never guessed imaginable.
I used to think of the gay community as a refuge, a place I could go and be at ease no matter what. In college, long before I was out, I used to slink away to a local gay bar as the only place where I could let down my guard, the only place I could take off that mask I wore in classes and in front of roommates and showed even to my best friends. Later, the gay community was where I turned, too, when my father rejected me as his gay son. When my mother, who cherished her gay son and the community he lived in, died, it was all the gay men she had known and loved who came together and held me in their collective arms.
There were other times, too, of hardship at work or break-ups with lovers, and it was always the gay community that I turned to as my sanctuary.
But today, as an Arab, even as a gay one, there seems nowhere to turn, no shelter in America.
It is from gay men in my regular local bar that I overhear the most chilling conversation about rounding up Arabs in Brooklyn. It is in some of the gay and lesbian newspapers that I read the most ill-informed pieces on Islam. And it is some of our most prominent gay and lesbian leaders and thinkers who now tell us we should go along with the administration's measures to curb public information and trample civil liberties.
In our oversized room at the community center, GLAS members huddle our folding chairs into a circle and share our personal stories. At one meeting, a member who dresses in Muslim garb tells how he has been the target of constant harassment in his neighborhood, even a physical attack. He's called the police, but the last time an officer showed up, he polished the American flag lapel on his uniform instead of taking notes. Before he left, the policeman said, "You should expect this after what your people did to us."
Another GLAS member describes getting so many suspicious looks, he's almost wary of walking on the street. A third, who works in HIV prevention among Arabs, talks about hiding files and deleting contact names on his computer to protect the confidentiality of his clients, lest the FBI visit him as they have plenty of friends and acquaintances. Finally, a newcomer to the group talks about narrowly escaping with his own life from the offices where he used to work on the 103rd floor of the south tower of the World Trade Center. For the first weeks following the attacks, he dealt mostly with death and grief. Now, he says sadly, he, too, is facing what it means to be Arab and Muslim in America...regardless of the fact he was a direct victim of the attack itself.
Because of my American mother, you might not look at me and instantly know I am Arab. This ability to "pass" often gives me a different experience as an Arab in America, as I am about to be reminded.
I take a break from the GLAS discussion to head to the men's room. On the stairs, I run into a lesbian with a cane, her legs bandaged. I open the door for her and ask about her apparent accident.
"Oh it was no accident," she retorts bitterly, unaware of the Arab blood coursing through my veins. "A fucking Arab cab driver ran into me. It was an act of terrorism!"
Dumbfounded, I say nothing as she blathers on about the cops promising her that the man who did this would get a particularly harsh sentence because he is Arab, how none of them can be trusted, how they are all out to "get us." She passes from the stairwell into the hall and disappears around the corner.
For a moment I stand there motionless, frozen. Still standing on the landing, I let go of the door, and it swings closed in front of me.
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