Storytelling is a social catalyst and powerful force for change. The Embracing Identities Project is a series of narrative interviews about coming out as LGBTQ and atheist in a variety of communities. Our mission is to increase understanding of the diverse collection of people who identify as queer and faithless, examine the intersections of identities and experiences within this group, and to inspire others to embrace their identities within their communities.
Make sure to check out other stories in the series too!
- Melanie Brewster: Don’t Tell Your Grandmother
- Aadil Salam, Pt 1: The Best Thing & the Worst Thing at the Same Time
- Aadil Salam, Pt 2: Coming to American and Coming Out
PART 2: COMING TO AMERICA AND COMING OUT
The moment I moved here to Princeton to work on my PhD, it was like every fourth person was gay. My advisor is gay, and one of my other professors. My religion controls everything from how you go to the bathroom to how you have sex and what you wear in the morning. How much could I be attracted to other men and still be in line with the doctrine? There is this fake idea of what is proper—what is propriety. I felt my mind thinking about these things too much and wanted to feel free to think about my work and research. I felt that with every step I took, I had to be thinking about what my religion had prescribed to me versus what I wanted to do. I had a ping pong ball being bounced around in my head while I was trying to do day-to-day things.
One night I was at the mosque; it was the biggest night of the year. It was this holy night and here I was supposed to be praying, but I couldn’t get my mind off of these desires. I got really angry. I knew nobody else in the room was thinking about sex because nobody else there was sexually frustrated. I finally realized that there’s something wrong here and it’s not me. It couldn’t be me. I did everything by the book: I went to the religious school, I got married, I obeyed my religious leader. I’m devoted to this faith, but this faith has never done anything to make me feel comfortable in my own skin.
I couldn’t pretend anymore, and I cared too much about my wife to keep making excuses.
“I think I’m going to tell you something. I don’t know whether or not you’re going to stay in this marriage, and it’s going to affect how we move on from here.”
She didn’t wait for me.
“What are you going to tell me? Are you gay?”
“Well, I think so.”
She was really angry. She got up and announced that she was leaving and going back to her family’s house. I was so upset.
“Well that’s what I was wondering—if tomorrow would be different than yesterday. Apparently it will be.”
At this, she turned back around toward me. We cried for about an hour and talked.
“It doesn’t matter in the end,” she said. “We’ll work through this. We’ve worked through everything. We have a wonderful five-year-old.”
Everything on the surface is still completely normal—my wife and I sleep in the same bed. I think we’re happy under the lens of the collective society. We’re close to my brothers and their children—my daughter has cousins. We’re all part of a unit, and living within the unit makes my life very easy and nice.
Under the lens of western society, I’m miserable. Every morning I wake up and think, “How am I going to do this?” There are times when I think I should just come out to everybody, but “coming out” is not something that’s defined within my community. If I came out, I would be the only person in my community to ever publicly do so. It would also be to the detriment of my wife and my child, who are my dependents. It’s expected that women will be in a marriage—so their main role, as prescribed by the community, is to rear the children and hold the family together. Who a girl marries and which family she goes into is seen as such an important dynamic of how social class works, and if they all knew, my daughter’s life would be finished. I can’t just walk away from my responsibility to them—these are the people that I care about the most in my life.
I don’t pray to myself anymore, but I pretend to in front of other people. We pray five times a day. My wife and my daughter pray in one room, and I’ll just go to another room and stand there. I’ll look out the window. I don’t want to hurt their feelings, but I just can’t come to terms. I always thought that Islamic law (Sharia) was very beautiful. It was beautiful for me because I was thinking according to the collective and not as the individual. I don’t think you can create a truly beautiful social order and then not allow a huge part of the population to conform to their biological make-up. I don’t think that any god would create a situation where so many people have to be miserable all the time.
Even if I’m not sexually active, or with someone where we love each other “body and soul,” I’m okay. I have things that are important in my life that I’d like to hold on to. I’m not completely open with my wife about who I see, but we’re able to joke now. She’ll say, “Oh, here’s a hot actor—you’ll probably like him too.” She’s making huge strides. Her identity is so wrapped up in her family and faith, in me and my daughter and her religious identity. If I took that away from her—she would endure, of course, but I don’t have it in me. I’m leaving things in her court. The day that she feels like she needs to walk away, I’ll understand.
At least at this point it’s not a life of suppression. I’m out to my wife, to my colleagues, and to many of my closest friends at the university. My Princeton community is where I feel most comfortable now. Most of them are humanist and two of them happen to be gay. I don’t have to pretend with them. I can just be myself. I don’t have to hold my hands down like somebody’s going to think I’m not masculine enough, or tone down my voice to talk in a certain way. I’m doing my PhD in Art History, and I’m almost done. PhDs in the humanities kind of suck. They are the best thing and the worst thing at the same time. They are never-ending, and you have to give up being a perfectionist. That’s when you are able to move on to the next step where you realize, “Okay, well I don’t know everything, but I have to make do with what I have.”
Click here to read part one.