My name is Jawad Bandar. I’m from the port city of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.
When I was 15 years old, still living in Jeddah, I happen to be the one of my friends who had the biggest house. So naturally my friends liked to congregate at my house on weekends as teenagers do.
My last summer before moving to the US – my father had decided he wanted us to move at 16 – my friends and I were partying my last weekend when I was there. And I decided that this was probably the best time for me to probably say for the first time that I was a gay man and to also admit it to my friends.
After the party had died down, I was there with probably eight of my closest friends and I just told them, “Hey, before I leave, I really want to tell you guys that I am gay.” Most of my girlfriends knew just because I’m not exactly the least obvious individual, but from what it seemed a lot of my guy friends seemed to take care pretty… pretty well. They were at least supportive to my face.
I think it was two days later – we have this tradition of going to this hookah lounge and the name of the place was Mirage. As I was arriving, I had texted my friends that I was about to be there, this a black suburban car pulls up behind us. Isn’t very uncommon. It could have been another patron or any of that. And these men started coming out of it. I had a driver, which in Saudi Arabia is very common to have regardless of your socioeconomic class. I had a driver who kind of started getting uncomfortable.
I didn’t think anything of it until one of the guys tried to block me from entering Mirage. I thought, Well, this is strange. So, you know, I ducked from underneath him and I kept walking until I realized another guy had a bat. And there were others and they were starting to essentially circle me.
My driver, and I can’t even remember how he got to my side of the car because obviously I was exiting on a different side, he literally opened the car door, threw me in my car and sped off. And all I remember seeing was, like, these guys in the background, running after the car yelling, waving their bats. And at the time, I was just extremely confused.
I didn’t text any of my friends. Didn’t tell anyone what happened at the time. I just made an excuse to not be there because I was still trying to process and understand what it was that was going on.
After my last weekend in… in Jeddah, we actually moved to Beirut for the month, mostly because the house in the US hadn’t been ready. And my last weekend there, I spent with my oldest friend, my best male friend. And he spent the night just kind of as the last hurrah. I told him that, you know, about the story of where I almost got assaulted. And his response was very much, Oh, I was aware.
What I found out from him later that night was that my friends who I thought were comfortable with me being gay, essentially told these goons, these… these people about me and told them where I’d be, and kind of set up this whole situation.
While he admitted that it was something he didn’t necessarily feel was good, it just hurt. It was devastating that someone I knew, people I knew would set something like this up. It sealed the deal for me in terms of, you know, who these people were, that they were definitely a thing of the past. And it also kind of opened my eyes to even more, you know, the reality of what it was like being gay in the Middle East.
I made the decision that being, you know, that I would not allow those men to, you know, assault the gay out to me, to scare it out of me. This was a big part of my identity. Moving to the US the next day literally gave me this blank canvas to go from this – you know, not that I was ever scared – but to go from this person who hadn’t really verbalized or identified who they were, to being who I wanted to be, which, you know, is this out and proud, this… you know, this flaming homosexual.
I was able to kind of set the narrative. I was able to, you know, introduce people to my real, full, authentic self for the first time ever. When conversation allowed, you know, if it ever got there, like, Yes, I identify as a gay man.
And I actually remember a situation where I was out in a market. And I remember this… there was literally this… this guy who was talking to his mother, also of Arab descent. And he was, you know, explaining to her about how he was hanging out with his boyfriend. And I remember at the time she was being very aggressive, but not physically, just verbally.
And she was like, you know, talking to… essentially saying, “God, how could you do this to me? Why would you send me this gay son?”
But I remember speaking to this woman and telling her, “You know, God has nothing to do with this. Your son is, you know, your son still, and you should love him.”
And I even explained to her son, I… I told him, I’m like, “Hey, I’m also gay.” And I remember just looking at this woman’s face because here she is in like an Arabic grocery store in Dearborn and the last thing that she expected was to run into this, you know, openly gay man who was very unapologetic about who I was.
If like me, you were a 16-year-old, you know, queer, you know, Arab person going through this. I want you to know – انت لست وحدك – you’re not alone.