Story Update: Khalid El Khatib On Coming Out And The Importance Of Self-Care & Empathy.

by Khalid el Khatib

Nathan: Hello and welcome to this week’s Story Update. We’re going to be speaking with Khalid, but before we do, let’s take a look at his story.

Khalid: 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 mother 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.

Nathan: Okay, Khalid, it was great to watch your story again, and it’s also great to see you again. How are you doing? It was – what, four years, five years ago, since that video?

Khalid: Five. It looks like. March… March 12th, 2015.

Nathan: Yeah. So how are you doing these days?

Khalid: I’m doing all right. I’m doing pretty well. All things considered the world has changed quite a bit in those five years.

Nathan: Yeah, just a little bit. So, you know, looking back at your story and watching it all these years later, I’m really curious to know what, how your relationship with your father has changed or evolved over these past five years?

Khalid: Well, five years is a long time The video was shot in March 2015 and, you know, a couple of things sort of at the macro level have happened since then.

One, Donald Trump won the presidency, which seemed unfathomable when that video was shot. And my dad, being a Muslim and a refugee who is displaced from Palestine to Syria and then migrated to the US, has been impacted by the Trump presidency as have millions. And so I think, I think the… both the admiration and the empathy that I felt from my father my whole life has really been heightened through this… this sort of assault on, you know, everything from how Muslim people are perceived in this country, to, you know, how Donald Trump has vilified other countries. And so that’s one area where I’ve really strengthened my bond with my father. He calls me almost every day now and often politics comes up.

And the other is the pandemics. You know, like I said, my dad calls me every day and I think that everyone is lonely. Everyone is longing for connection. And it’s a connection that’s only been strengthened by the fact that, you know, we’re both struggling with something that’s common. And I think what started to draw those things is the fact that we’re getting older. My dad is turning 77 next month. I’m now in my mid thirties. and I think that we all realize that our time together is finite. Life is too short, which is both been, you know, made all too clear to us over the past several months.

And so, though we will never, I think, never, ever agree on everything, or understand each other fully, I think that we’ve never been closer than we are today.

Nathan: That’s really great to hear, you know, that y’all have kind of developed this even more mature and it sounds like, possibly even closer relationship. And just five – you know, five years seems like a long time, but it also goes by pretty quickly. So yeah, I’m really happy to hear that. I’m happy for you.

Another part of your story is, you know, someone’s out there watching this story for the first time or might be younger and experiencing something similar to what you experienced. You know, at the beginning of your story of being scared to come out because of, you know, you’re afraid of the consequences and you know, there’s always this balance between Do I come out and live my open, honest, true self? Or do I like to stay in the closet to protect…  to protect myself?  You know, it’s kind of like a safety versus free decision is what it feels like sometimes. And you, you did touch on it at the end of your story, but what would you say today to people who are struggling with that…  that decision to come out? Even if you know, there’s a… there’s a risk or a chance of something negative happening.

Khalid: Yeah, it’s, it’s a really interesting question. And one of the consequences of the video, I think being seen over 300,000 times is people still five years later reach out to me. Often young people from Arab nations or who have a Muslim household, who are really struggling to come out. And I think the first thing that’s really important is to recognize that not all Muslims are a monolith and not all parents are the same, and experiences, especially relative to coming out are super different.

And so as much as I want to say, the perfect thing and, you know, help people by giving them the perfect piece of advice, my experience was super unique and everyone else’s will be too. And I think that what my story does sort of point to that’s universal is that coming out for many people has to be both an act of self-care and an act of empathy.

I think that that’s, you know, I came out to most of my friends and family when I was in my late teen years into my dad when I was in my mid-to-late twenties. And that was because I knew that it was no longer tenable to stay in the closet. I knew that for myself, I had to come out, but it took me to age 27 to come out to my dad in a way that was empathetic and reconciled how much pain it would cause him as well. And so I think, you know, being able to sort of approach it with that mindset, is important when it comes to come out… coming out. But that said, you know, I think it’s pretty untenable to stay in the closet. The psychological damage of holding all that in, especially if you don’t have anyone to tell – what really breaks my heart is when someone reaches out to me and they say, You’re the first person that I’ve told, and they’re telling me over DM on Instagram or Twitter. That’s horrifically bad. You know, not a single family member, not a single friend. And I always hope and encourage people to sort of examine their whole life and find not one person that they can really trust because just telling one person is an enormous, you know, an enormous sense of relief.

Nathan: It makes all the difference in the world just having that one person. You’re right. Even just telling someone on Instagram, like you’re talking about, you… that you are making a big difference in a lot of people’s lives by just providing that one channel.

And I think that it’s important to note that, you know, we’ve been doing – we’ve been collecting stories for 11 years and anytime we get a coming out story, I have never once heard anyone say that they wish they didn’t come out. No matter how hard it was after they did it, you know, it’s kind of like they know in their heart when it’s time and they do. And even if there are negative consequences to that, no one has ever regretted it.

That being said, the flip side of this is everyone knew that they were ready to come out because they knew that they were in a safe environment. So if someone out there is watching, nothing’s more important than your safety, make sure that you have, like Khalid said, someone that you can trust and speak to and make sure that you’re safe. But again, no one has ever told me, did they have regretted coming out no matter how early or late it was.

Khalid: I think the other thing that’s happened over the course of the last five years, and one of the ways the world has changed the sort of… the sort of pervasiveness of social media is great in lots of ways, but what it sort of has done is, to some extent, airbrush the coming out process. So even, you know, even the stories that we tell in platforms like this that are super real and really authentic, we’re really only getting the relief and people are only talking about… they’re only talking about the difficulty of coming out with hindsight.

And, you don’t, you know, no one is recording or very few people are recording their coming out on YouTube. And so those moments of pain, there’s the struggle that happens in the minutes and seconds before you actually come out, people aren’t seeing. And I think that’s sometimes, you know, people look too, too much to social media as sort of a blueprint for what their experience can and should be. And again, I just encourage people to really look inside themselves and know that their experience is going to be unique.

Nathan: That’s a really great insight. Before we log off, is there anything else that you want to share with anyone? Any updates on your life? Or anything about your story or anything at all?

Khalid: I think, you know, I’ve long… so I’ve lived – I’ve lived in New York now for 13 years. And one of the things that I’ve done over the course of the whole time I’ve been here has been a writer. And so, over the past few years, I’ve written a couple of pieces. One for Hello Mr. magazine, which has since closed, about me coming out to my dad, which is available online. And I would encourage people to check that out.

And right now I’m actually working on my book, trying to use some downtime in the pandemic, some alone time to write.

Nathan: That’s great. We’ll definitely keep us posted and you know, whenever that book is out, and we can even linked to the Hello Mister article in the description. So if you could send that over, we’ll include it. So viewers can click on that.

Well, Khalid, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. It was good seeing you again. Hopefully it won’t be another five years before we chat again. but thanks again for your time.

Khalid: Of course. Thank you.

Nathan: All right. And, check back next week for another Story Update. Thanks for watching. Bye.

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