Queer Iraqi Woman Breaks Down the Closet Door. “This Is Not a Way to Live.”

by Alaa Wasfie

I’m Alaa Wasfie. I’m from Baghdad, Iraq.

In 2003, I was 13 years old during the American-Iraqi war. My grandmother wanted us, the entire family, to be together in one house so that if we live, we live together. If we survive, we survive together. If we die, we die together. To respect her wishes, we all stayed together and it was a difficult time and a boring time for me.

I tried to distract myself from feeling bored. I sneaked into my cousin’s bedroom. He had access to a lot of American music, English music, and – which were forbidden in Iraq. And I turned on his computer and as I was listening, I saw a video of two girls kissing and it was t.A.T.u, All the Things She Said. And that – at that moment it was, That’s it. That’s it. That’s me. That’s what I want. So that music video kind of taught me that there are people like me and I was still afraid, but at least I knew that what I felt somebody else felt.

When I was 15 years old, I had my first high school crush on a girl. And I was so scared and to… from everybody to watch us and notice that… that we used to hold hands on piles and piles of paper and binders. And we used to sit in a car all the way in the back and just hide our hand underneath.

One night, I was talking to that girl that I had a crush on, and my brother overheard me saying, “I love you.” So he went ahead and he told my parents and they were very, very mad and upset. They send me to the mosque, so they – I can learn a few lessons to put me back to being straight and they try to arrange a marriage for me. When my parents wanted me to get into an arranged marriage, I felt that it was not fair for him or for me to lead an authentic – an inauthentic life. So I refused that marriage and I let him go.

Because the situation was very dangerous in Iraq, my dad felt that we need a second chance and living. So he packed nine luggage and we flew all the way across the Atlantic to Chicago.

So I was 19 years old. I looked for resources. I went to the Chicago Public Library. I research every single young adult LGBTQ novel that I could find. I picked out and borrowed a lot of LGBTQ movies because I felt like pop culture is where I can start.

I came out to my brother when I was 21, and I came out to my older sister as well. Because I respect my parents so much and I understand where they come from, I didn’t want to hurt them. So I started making up excuses. Whenever I go out with someone, I would just say “my friend.” If I’m dating someone, I would be just like, “That’s my friend.”

One day, my mom, when I was in college in nursing school, 2013, she looked in through my stuff. She found an iPad and she looked through the pictures of of people, gay people, like, you know, innocent pictures of people kissing each other. And I was working on a collage at that time. It was from movies and songs and whatnot. She saw that and she start crying.

She told my dad, they gave me an ultimatum. “Either you leave this lifestyle or we’re never going to speak to you again.” So I told them I’m in nursing school right now. I need to focus on my studies.

And then after I graduated, two… three years later, they came knocking on my door and said, “Hey, did you decide?”

And I was like, “Well, I just graduated. I am studying to get my RN license.” So they left me alone.

And then a few… one year after that, they came knocking on the door and said, “Hey, you got your license now. What did you decide?”

And I said, “Well, I am having a post-graduation depression and I need to find a job, and I don’t have time to decide.” I kept putting it to the side. Until I met my partner whom I am with her for eight years now. I kept hiding her whenever they come over for Thanksgiving or Christmas. I would cook for them and my partner would leave the house. She’s from Iraq as well, so she kind of understood why I was doing that.

One time in the Thanksgiving, I invited my parents over and I cooked for them. So my partner of course left and I hid all the pictures from the fridge, all everything. It was getting late. We were having fun. Then my parents left.

I texted my partner. I was like, “Hey, my parents left. You can come over now.” She didn’t respond. An hour later, I called. She didn’t respond. I went out, started looking for her. I went to the storage room and – in the basement, and I looked and I saw her sleeping on the floor there hiding in a filthy basement. So I looked at her and I started crying and I said to myself, This is not a way to live at that moment. I did decide. I decided that I want to lead an authentic life. And my dad’s voice of the ultimatum came across and I was like, That is it.

Six months later, my sister was getting graduated from high school and we decided to go all the family, my mom, dad, my brother and my sister. I… at that time, I decided that my partner should come, too. And why not? She is part of the family. So I picked up the phone. I called my dad and I said, “My partner is coming.” And I picked up the phone and I told my mom she is coming, too.

My mom was like, “No, no, no, we don’t want that person to come over.”

And I told my mom, “It’s not about you. It’s not about me. It’s not about my partner. It’s about my little sister.” She stayed silent for a long period of time. And I took that as a yes.

So she – we ended up going and – to the graduation, and I remembered when we were clapping for my sister, she graduated and… and…  and climbed that platform, I remembered my 13 year old self, and how she used to hold hands underneath the pile of paper, or how my 13 year old self used to hide and be so scared. And I look at myself now and how I’m holding my hand – my partner’s hand next to me, while my parents standing in front of me and we’re all there together.

Maybe my parents still have a lot to catch up and learn about my sexuality, about my way of life. But at least now I’m not scared anymore. At least now I’m not afraid. It’s okay that you maybe love your parents and your parents maybe they can be, like, against what you love. It’s okay. Try to not hate yourself because of it. Embrace yourself for that. Because in the end, when you accept yourself and you accept the love that you’re giving, then things will open up and that’s all that matter… is you.

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