My name is Khalid el Khatib and I’m from Dubuque, Iowa. I always tell people that I had a sort of unconventional life in a very conventional place. I was different than everyone else, not because I was gay but because my father was a Palestinian immigrant that came to the United States in his late 20s and married my mother who was an all-American girl that was born in Wisconsin and grew up in Iowa. My dad didn’t start practicing, or end up becoming incredibly devout, until he was middle aged. so by the time I was in high school and just before my parents divorced, my father was praying four times a day, he wasn’t drinking. When I went off to college I sort of elected that I would figure it out when I got there and that’s sort of what I did. I came out to my close friends my freshman year and then my mom shortly thereafter when I was about 19. I felt like a burden had been lifted, she was incredibly accepting, she told me that she had known for a long time which I think is something we hear pretty often. Certainly by the time I had left school, I felt very much like I was fully out, except to my father who had divorced from my father when I was 16 years old. We maintained certainly a closeness but I didn’t feel comfortable telling him.
I had a terrible time coming to terms with my sexuality. My grades were terrible one semester because I was drinking all the time. I couldn’t hold down a relationship, there were days and weeks when I couldn’t get out of bed. Then I went to a therapist just for one session. The circumstances were unique because this therapist was part of my dad’s practice because it was a small town and there were only so many doctors. And he, knowing who my father was, sort of said without saying, “If I were you, I wouldn’t come out to your dad, your dad is a tough guy, he’s stubborn.” And at that point, my father was paying for my school, I was financially dependent on him. And he was like, “Look, you have to look at it from a risks/rewards standpoint. If he cuts you off completely and cuts you out of your life, is it really worth it to you?” I moved to New York when I was 22 and I was fully out in the city. I met a guy that I dated for a year and it was a tough relationship. It was very tough for me to reconcile the fact that I had thrown away something that could have been very real after 6 or 7 years of casual dating and fun and I guess disconnect after disconnect. I was incredibly depressed, it was tough for me to go to work. So it was a moment for me to really figure out why I was unhappy and change everything in my life that I wasn’t content with. I decided to fully rip the band-aid off to fly home to Iowa where my dad was still living and to come out to him.
You tell yourself internally, “I’m going to count to 5 and then I’m going to say it.” So I was constantly counting to 4, never quite making it to 5, just saying, “I flew home to tell you…” and a look of panic washed over his face and I couldn’t get it out and he finished the sentence for me and said, “that you’re gay?” My father, who I grew up and still think is one of the strongest people that I know, has soldiered through incredible hardship, grew up with over 10 siblings, incredibly poor as a refugee, put himself through medical school, is partially deaf because of bombings that he lived through, was on a plane that was hijacked, it was an incredibly odd thing in this moment to sort of see my dad start to react so viscerally that he doubled over from crying, lost his breath, and started saying, “Oh my God” over and over again, offering me money, therapy, anything that he could do to make me change. He kept telling me over and over again that he didn’t want me to die, I would go to Hell, “Why did I come here, I met your mother that ended in divorce, I had you and you turned out gay.”
Clutching his stomach and his heart, rolling around on the floor. If it hadn’t been so upsetting, it would have almost been funny to see someone react so horribly to something that isn’t necessarily bad news. My relationship with my father didn’t happen overnight, and it’s still ongoing, but we are really close now four years later, it’s just something we don’t talk about but we both know is there. The way it typically manifests itself is in these birthday cards he sends us. I write for a few magazines and my dad has always been incredibly proud of the fact that I’m a writer and fancies himself one. For as long as I can remember has written me these expansive birthday cards. “To Khalid, the boy, the man, the poet, the scholar.”
And then tells me how much he loves me, how he’ll always support me, how he’s so proud of me, everything that I’ve worked for and everything he’s worked for, and how his values are reflected in me, and ever since that year that I came out to him, he includes this sort of sentence, “There’s a thing that you and I differ on, but I’ll always support you and I’ll always love you.” And that’s really the extent to which we talk about it today. I think that anyone who sort of expects to come out to a parent, certainly one that has an incredibly complex history and difficult feelings of gayness, expecting that to be wrapped up neatly, I think that’s an unrealistic expectation. To some extent I think that the complexity of it is something you should cherish. I think that we have his tendency to vilify people who aren’t accepting or aren’t understanding from the start and I think that the burden he carries with him is just as heavy if not heavier than the one I’ve always carried with me.