We are only six tonight. Up two from the last meeting, when we were merely four.
The group is surprisingly small during this difficult time, I think to myself.
Our numbers should swell from the standard core of attendees, not dwindle like
this to near nothing. And then someone in the group utters the obvious explanation,
the one none of us really wants to admit or say out loud: Some people are too afraid
to come to a meeting right now. Too nervous to come even here, to a gay community
center, symbolic as it is of the safe harbour represented by the gay community to
us as gay Arabs. But in these times, even our fellow gay and lesbian citizens see
in us the Arab label first. Sometimes, that is all they see.
The gay bond that I used to think was so strong—the one that can at times give
me a sense of connection to a total stranger in a foreign city simply by making
eye contact—feels broken in a way I never guessed imaginable. I used to think of
the gay community as a refuge, a place I could go and be at ease no matter what.
In college, long before I was out, I used to slink away to a local gay bar as
the only place where I could let down my guard, the only place I could take off
that mask I wore in classes and in front of roommates and showed even to my best
Later, the gay community was where I turned, too, when my father rejected me as
his gay son. When my mother, who cherished her gay son and the community he lived
in, died, it was all the gay men she had known and loved who came together and
held me in their collective arms.
There were other times, too, of hardship at work or break-ups with lovers, and
it was always the gay community that I turned to as my sanctuary. But today, as
an Arab, even as a gay one, there seems nowhere to turn, no shelter in America.
It is from gay men in my regular local bar that I overhear the most chilling
conversation about rounding up Arabs in Brooklyn. It is in some of the gay and
lesbian newspapers that I read the most ill-informed pieces on Islam. And it is
some of our most prominent gay and lesbian leaders and thinkers who now tell us
we should go along with the administration’s measures to curb public information
and trample civil liberties.
In our oversized room at the community center, GLAS members huddle our folding
chairs into a circle and share our personal stories. At one meeting, a member who
dresses in Muslim garb tells how he has been the target of constant harassment
in his neighborhood, even a physical attack. He’s called the police, but the
last time an officer showed up, he polished the American flag lapel on his uniform
instead of taking notes. Before he left, the policeman said, “You should expect
this after what your people did to us.”
Another GLAS member describes getting so many suspicious looks, he’s almost wary
of walking on the street. A third, who works in HIV prevention among Arabs,
talks about hiding files and deleting contact names on his computer to protect
the confidentiality of his clients, lest the FBI visit him as they have plenty of
friends and acquaintances. Finally, a newcomer to the group talks about narrowly
escaping with his own life from the offices where he used to work on the 103rd floor
of the south tower of the World Trade Center. For the first weeks following the
attacks, he dealt mostly with death and grief. Now, he says sadly, he, too, is
facing what it means to be Arab and Muslim in America -- regardless of the fact
he was a direct victim of the attack itself.
Because of my American mother, you might not look at me and instantly know I am
Arab. This ability to “pass” often gives me a different experience as an Arab
in America, as I am about to be reminded. I take a break from the GLAS discussion
to head to the men’s room. On the stairs, I run into a lesbian with a cane, her
legs bandaged. I open the door for her and ask about her apparent accident.
“Oh it was no accident,” she retorts bitterly, unaware of the Arab blood coursing
through my veins. “A fucking Arab cab driver ran into me. It was an act of terrorism!”
Dumbfounded, I say nothing as she blathers on about the cops promising her that
the man who did this would get a particularly harsh sentence because he is Arab,
how none of them can be trusted, how they are all out to “get us.” She passes
from the stairwell into the hall and disappears around the corner.
For a moment I remain there motionless, frozen. Still standing on the landing,
I let go of the door, and it slams shut in front of me.