A Dartboard and a Message

Image

For Pocket O

“Everyone should always have hope in their heart, feel love in their life, have an even playing field, and an equal chance to be happy.”

Those were some of the last words my friend O said to me. They were the mantra of his life and the message he wanted carried forward. Sadly, they were also all of the things he was never able to embrace. In the aftermath of his suicide, I am left with the task of deconstructing the taboos that blocked him from realizing what he so eloquently desired.

O was a dartboard for everything we as a culture are afraid of: he was gay, Muslim, and mentally ill. When he came out of the closet, he found there was no place for him inside his religion. As he turned to the gay community for support, he discovered the awkward truth that a culture colored by the rainbow is still uncomfortable with some of the hues inside that prism. Though he constantly desired personal freedom and intimate connections, his personality disorder robbed him the ability to live life on his own terms. He was born into a family that loved him, but most of his relatives were ill prepared for the advent that was O.

When we decide that something is a taboo, we limit people’s abilities to navigate how to deal with it when the inevitable manifests. We can want something to not exist; but we cannot wish away reality. Sometimes, people come into this world to challenge assumptions and expand horizons. With so many taboos tattooed to him, O was one of those people.

Teenage suicide and adolescent bullying are issues that have gained national attention and caused strife in communities across the U.S. News anchors like Anderson Cooper venerably try to dissect how ill treatment from others lead to irreversible decisions. It is not just kids who are offing themselves, though; O was well into his thirties when he died. Causalities come when we refuse to allow people to fully integrate who they are with where they are. When we refuse to confront the things that scare us, we chase off some of the very people we want to love. That is exactly what happened to O.

I am no scholar of Islam, but I know most Muslims will tell you that there is no place in Allah’s kingdom for a gay man. Muslim men are supposed to be the leaders of their families. Their offspring bring honor to the bloodline and goodwill to the family name. This was one requisite O would never manifest. Instead of dealing with that fact, most of his family ignored it, hoping it would go away. Simultaneously, they overlooked his mounting cognitive deterioration. Stigmas over mental illness do not just bring dishonor to Muslim families; most Americans are uncomfortable confronting the challenges that come when a family member has an anguished mind.  When relatives cannot give you the acceptance you need, it is natural to seek that out in other people. Islamophobia and the misconceptions most people have about Muslim culture often prevented O from making those connections.

Suicide, he felt, was the only release from a life full of contradictions.  Race, religion, culture, health, and sexuality tragically collided.

These are not easy issues to talk about. You are probably uncomfortable reading this piece. If so, that is very good. Uncomfortable is compelling. Answers are often found inside the notions that scare us the most.

My relationship with O was complex. He and I never actually met in person. We were introduced via the “Gay Men Who Think Levi Johnston is Hot” Facebook group. See, even Sarah Palin is good for something! Though I never interacted with his physical presence, I got to know his mind better that probably anyone. We talked nearly every day for two years. He knows things about me that even my best friends do not. We had a relationship full of constant challenges. It required my mind to expand. It made his heart open up. It was strange, but it was real. Technology can either be the means by which we break taboos or it can allow them to exacerbate. I choose to let social media broaden the scope of my social understanding.

Every night around 9:00 p.m., I wait for my phone to ring and a picture of O to pop up. That does not happen anymore. It is not the dartboard of our collective fear that I want to hear from, though; I just miss my friend.  Suicide often happens because circumstances larger than a single person overtake an individual’s life.

In our last conversation, O told me he did not want his message to be forgotten. I write this in hopes that you will lace in your heart the words that open this article. When you encounter people whose identities and circumstances challenge or befuddle you, please pay attention. If you have been affected by suicide, examine the conditions that surrounded the event. Sometimes, people come into your life to wake you up. With open eyes, we can level the playing field and create the world of hope, love, and happiness for others O did not have for himself.

Advertisements

Kansas White Boy, Interrupted.

ImageEvery wonder why the rainbow is synonymous with gay culture? Those six colors that fly proudly on flags and are affixed affectionately on bumper stickers are actually a representation of diversity. The gay community is unique as a minority group in that it has no monolithic ethnic, racial, religious, or cultural heritage. It’s simply a collection of people whose sexual orientation is, well, queer.

Although white isn’t a color in the “gay rainbow” it’s certainly the unofficially color of the gay community.  Just as with society at-large, gay Caucasians get the lion’s share of attention, power, and respect. Meanwhile LGBT people of color, many of whom come from cultural backgrounds averse to homosexuality, are marginalized two-fold. It’s not uncommon for them to lose their family because of their sexual orientation and then subsequently have difficulties finding acceptance from their gay peers because of their ethnicity.   If you’re openly gay and not white, you probably feel like you’re running with a double edged sword pointed at your abdomen.

Recently, I got to witness this pain up-close when I met a guy named O. He was born and still lives in New Jersey, but his parents immigrated to the US from Pakistan. O is about as American as you can get, insisting on eating a Wendy’s hamburger every time  I opine about the food at ICT’s Indo-Paki Bistro, Zaytun. The first time that we talked, I felt an instant spark. His personality was an enticing blend of intellectual brilliance, geeky precociousness, and political savviness.   I wanted him. He wanted me. Unfortunately, reality got in the way.

When we start a relationship, we usually bring our baggage with us. The luggage that O was carrying was given to him by others, though. His parents moved to a foreign country and brought the values from their mother land with them; meanwhile their kid grew up with an exclusively American experience, feeling detached from the traditions his parents held dear. He made a very brave move by coming out in high school—something South Asian kids don’t do because it scorns the family’s name. Right around the time he began getting harassed in school for being gay, September 11th happened. Suddenly, he was a fag and a terrorist.

One night, O tearfully confessed to me that he felt ugly, dirty, and disgusting.  He couldn’t be with me because he could barely tolerate himself. Everywhere he turned, he was being told that he was sub-human and less-than. At the intersection of personal freedom and cultural reality, he had become a dart board for all of the world’s social phobias.

I realized then that there are some things my white entitlement just can’t grab. Kansas white boy, interrupted.

This experience has also interrupted the focus on this column. It’s time to make Homo on the Range more reflective of not just the iconic rainbow that’s supposed to represent everyone in the gay community, but also more reflective of the rich cultural diversity within our city. So, I want to hear your stories! Over the next few months, I want to profile a gay Wichitan from a different racial/ethnic background. I’m particularly interested in finding a local Middle Eastern/Indian, African American, Latino, and Asian to talk to about the conflicts between personal honesty and cultural traditions. Identities can be concealed and will be held in the strictest of confidences.

E-mail me at jasonaarondilts@gmail.com.  Gays may be a divergent group of people united by a simple trait, but we can coalesce to increase understanding and awareness within all communities right here in The ICT.