Mithy

By the time I was 12 years-old, the other boys had started calling me ‘fag.’  It was less a considered statement about my sexuality than it was a way to differentiate themselves from me.  I mean, technically it was true, but to this day I don’t know what gave me away.  There had been no “experimentation” with my friends in which I showed a keener interest than the others, and we were all still in agreement that girls had cooties and were to be avoided like the plague.  There was that time I had been sent to the principal’s office for blowing a kiss at Michael Maddox, who was a stone-cold fox, in Mrs. Hoffman’s class during indoor recess on a rain day, but everyone (teachers, Mr. Morris the principal, my parents who were called in as though I had just burned down the lunch room) was so freaked out that the “incident” was never spoken of after that day.  But something had changed with the guys, almost like they knew something I wasn’t really even aware of yet, at least not by name.  Where once riding bikes to 7-11 to get a Slurpee together or playing “Marco-Polo” in Mrs. Masterson’s pool was a perfect way to spend a hot August afternoon, now they could barely stand to look at me.  It was like I had contracted cooties.

I got “beat up,” a lot.  There was blood on one occasion that I recall; maybe there were more and I’ve blocked them out, but it was enough for my parents to transfer me to an all-boys private school 30 minutes away within two years — ironic, looking back, like those countries which put male homosexuals in jail where they are surrounded 24/7 by nothing but… men!  I always thought if you really want to discourage gays from being gay and/or punish them, stick ‘em in a women’s prison.  But it’s easy for me to be glib because the worst thing that ever happened to me because I was gay was I got a bloody nose, or two.

Around the same time, a world away and separated by more than just an ocean, a teenage boy growing up in early-80s Morocco named Abdellah Taïa had a very different experience than mine.  Of course, we know him today as an acclaimed Moroccan writer and filmmaker who writes in French and has called Paris home since 1998, having published eight novels, many of them heavily autobiographical, that have been translated into Basque, Dutch, German, English, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Swedish, Danish, and Arabic, with his first movie, Salvation Army, thought to have have been the first ever to feature a gay protagonist in all of Arab cinema.  To read Taïa is to be heartbroken, and to realize how petty and insignificant my bloody nose was.

He grew up in Hay Salam, a neighborhood of Salé, a town near the capital of Morocco, Rabat.  When he was 11, a mob of men gathered outside his family's home and shouted for him to come outside to be anally fucked in a scene eerily reminiscent of the mob of men in the 19th chapter of the first book of the Bible imploring Lot to send out his male house guests to be raped:

But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without yeast, and they ate. Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom — both young and old — surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them."
(Genesis 19:3-5)

As Taïa told Aaron Hicklin of Out magazine, "Everyone heard, not only my family but the whole neighborhood. What I saw clearly was that this is how society functions and that no one can protect you, not even your parents.”  He described this incident at length in a 2012 op-ed, written in French then translated to English for the New York Times called "A Boy to Be Sacrificed.”  Here is an excerpt:

In the Morocco of the 1980s, where homosexuality did not, of course, exist, I was an effeminate little boy, a boy to be sacrificed, a humiliated body who bore upon himself every hypocrisy, everything left unsaid. By the time I was 10, though no one spoke of it, I knew what happened to boys like me in our impoverished society; they were designated victims, to be used, with everyone's blessing, as easy sexual objects by frustrated men. And I knew that no one would save me — not even my parents, who surely loved me. For them too, I was shame, filth.

A ‘zamel’ [‘fag’ in Moroccan slang] ...

It all came to a head one summer night in 1985. It was too hot. Everyone was trying in vain to fall asleep. I, too, lay awake, on the floor beside my sisters, my mother close by. Suddenly, the familiar voices of drunken men reached us. We all heard them ... These men, whom we all knew quite well, cried out: "Abdellah, little girl, come down. Come down. Wake up and come down. We all want you. Come down, Abdellah. Don't be afraid. We won't hurt you. We just want to have sex with you.” ...

I hoped my big brother, my hero, would rise and answer them ... But my brother, the absolute monarch of our family, did nothing. Everyone turned their back on me ... I was never the same Abdellah Taïa after that night.

I have read Taïa's piece in the New York Times often over the years; I keep it bookmarked in my web browser to remind me not to feel sorry for myself because I was born a member of this despised minority, and as a call to the kind of courage it takes to stand up to the bullies who bloody our noses literally and figuratively by denying our human and civil rights, to live “out” and proud of who you are, to not accept the status quo of the majority.  As Taïa has said, 

The problem with homosexuals is that they are not accepted from the beginning. Where I come from, homosexuals allegedly do not exist, which is a horrible thing to live with and to accept. I had no other choice but to accept this non-existence. We could call this exile, meaning that your people, the ones who say they love you, that want to protect you, that want the best for you, and give you food — milk, honey, and so many other things — they deny you the most important thing, which is recognizing you as a human being.
(A conversation with Moroccan novelist Abdellah Taïa)

It is not just a question of self-acceptance, important — essential — as that is.  Living “out” is a revolutionary and defiant act, it is a political statement.  It is Rosa Parks on the bus, it is Colin Kaepernick taking a knee.  It is refusing to accept marginalization, prejudice, and invisibility.  In 2006, when Taïa came out of the closet in an interview with TelQuel, a French-language Moroccan weekly news magazine known for its resolute opposition to Islamist ideology, he created much controversy in his native Morocco.  He later recounted meeting the TelQuel reporter for coffee:

She wanted to do a profile on me and was interested in speaking about the themes of homosexuality in my books. She wanted to know if I was willing to speak freely. We were in a coffee shop in Casablanca. I never imagined it would happen like that, but I understood that was the moment of truth: The truth about me, my books, and my position in the world. Although it was really scary and I knew that there would be many consequences, I had to do it. I owed it to that little boy who had dreams at thirteen. Now that I have the possibility to speak, I'm not going to stop.

adding…

I never hide. I never put that aspect of my personality aside. I know so many gay intellectuals or writers who say, “I am not going to talk about homosexuality because it doesn't interest people.” But for me this makes no sense. It would be like a heterosexual who doesn't present himself as a heterosexual. I never planned to come out.

Did you think my Rosa Parks reference was a bit of a stretch?  Well, seven years after that coffee in Casablanca, Taïa told the Atlantic’s Jon Frosch in 2013:

The law [in Morocco] still considers homosexuality a crime, and people still are very harsh in their views of gays. So that has not changed.

On the other hand, the Moroccan press has dramatically changed its view on homosexuality — for example, they defend me. They also give gay people in Morocco the chance to express themselves. There are young gay Moroccans who created a gay magazine in Arabic. And there’s now an Arabic word for “homosexual” that is not disrespectful: ‘mithy.' It was created just six years ago, and is now used everywhere.

Abdellah Taïa

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