My name is Anthony Mercurio and I’m from San Francisco. In 2009 I studied abroad and lived in Morocco, studying Arabic.
I came out of the closet when I was very young, I was 15. Out and proud and pretty loud about it. I grew up in, I was lucky enough to grow up in the Bay Area, where I had, you know, lesbian and gay idols, both in pop culture and in my personal life.
But when I was 20, I temporarily decided to go back in the closet for like 6 months because I was moving to the Middle East. Before I went, I didn’t know that much about it, researched it a lot, but was ready to learn Arabic, was ready to jump into the culture.
But I had a few worries and nerves when I was getting ready to leave in the late summer of 2009 or so. One being leaving my boyfriend, who we had been together for a little while, quite a while, and I wasn’t going to see him for 6 months. It was my first love, it was wonderful, but I had to do this. This was what I was studying, this was what I was going to do with my life, I was excited about it. So I decided to go and we, foolishly as 20-year-olds, decided to stay together.
The other nerve I had, beyond that personal concern, was being gay in Morocco. It’s one of the 77 countries where it is actually illegal to be gay. North Africa and the Middle East, not well known for their, in general, for their tolerance and openness towards homosexuality.
So I made the decision to, instead of being out and proud as I had been for five years at that point, to silence myself. I walked back into the closet, at least that part of myself, not everything.
So, flash forward, I made that decision and got to Morocco and just jumped into it. I lived in an old city, an ancient city really, right by the sea, and lived in a beautiful traditional Moroccan riad, which is like a traditional house, with a traditional family. They didn’t speak English, so that was a difficulty at first, but I knew going into it that I would be speaking Arabic for 6 months and really ramping that up.
I was Skyping every day with my boyfriend and talking to him. He was the only one I was really talking with about my sexuality and just connecting with about that and sharing that part of my life with him. So after two months I was there, Skyping every day, the 10-hour time difference and the 6,000 mile space between us kind of started to wear. After a few hard days, he dumped me. Right away. I was pretty devastated.
So for a week, basically, I was in tears or crying or upset and my host family had no idea what was going on, so they were so confused as to what was happening. They were like, “What is it, is he homesick, is he?” They kept asking me questions and I was like just like, “Everything”, in Arabic just saying, “Everything is fine, I’m just sad.” And you can only say that so much.
One of my favorite people in my host family was my host grandmother. Like she didn’t even speak Arabic, she spoke Berber. So we literally could not communicate ever. There was no point at which we could communicate verbally. We had to use like handsigns and stuff. But when I was, you know, inconsolable, and kind of crying, she was just very confused, but she’s so motherly and so sweet and so kind to me the whole time I was there that she would literally just bring me plates and plates of food. So we couldn’t talk, but she would just like, as I was kind of isolated by myself in a part of the house, she would just bring me a plate of food and like pat me on the back and like rub my back and walk away. And then she would come back like 20 minutes later and take whatever I probably hadn’t eaten that much, but she would like bring another plate of food and she would bring me tea, or something because that was her way of making me feel better, and it was, that was glorious.
And so after that week, I made some changes in how I was acting, and you know, though I was still sad, obviously, I kind of buckled up and decided that I’m in Morocco for another four months and–Morocco for another three months–and this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. So I decided to kind of jump off, and just be fully present in everywhere I was.
I think my story’s important to share because, for myself, it reminds me of what I’m passionate about, and I think for other people, I think Americans in general just don’t have an understanding of what even traveling abroad being gay is like. It’s a different world. It’s not necessarily bad or good, there’s no qualitative judgement to make upon other cultures, its just a different world that LGBT people and queer people around the world live in.