Comedian Zahra Noorbakhsh is the co-host of the podcast #GoodMuslimBadMuslim.
Happy Bi-Week! We’re publishing this essay today as part of Bisexuality Awareness Week, a week that aims to celebrate and recognize stories about bisexual identity.
In June, I decided I needed to come out to my parents as bisexual. I’m 36 and married to a man, so it felt a little late in life to be coming out. But for me, it suddenly felt crucial.
For years, it didn’t feel like a big secret that I was bisexual, and it didn’t feel that pressing to come out about it—especially after I got married. Since my husband and I are monogamous, my bisexuality became pretty much invisible. But that felt okay to me. Kind of great, actually. I love that I am off the market to everyone. It’s bad enough trying to navigate sexual tension with men; I did not want to have to do that with women, too. This is not to assume that everyone is coming on to me—it has more to do with the fact that I’m turned on by everyone, all of the time. Chances are that if we’ve met, chatted, tweeted, exchanged thumbnails, I probably imagined us having phenomenal sex. We’re all just so damn hot.
But when it comes to the topic of women and sexual desire, people seem to forget that sexual desire and consent are not the same thing and lose sight of that little thing called boundaries. The fact that I get to outwardly conform to a heteronormative presumption that, as a married woman, I don’t have sexual impulses for anyone but my man often felt like a relief from a whole lot of landmines in my relationships.
Bisexuality is often conflated with promiscuity. One of the things that attracted me to my now-husband was that when he heard I was bisexual, he didn’t fall into this assumption. His first question wasn’t whether or not we were going to have a threesome. He wanted to know if I could be monogamous, because he wasn’t prepared to share me emotionally. The conversation wasn’t quite as eloquent as that, though. I brought it up during pillow talk on our first date by saying, “Hey babe, I’m bisexual,” then winked and asked, “Does that turn you on?”
To which he replied, “Uh. Wait. Why are you mentioning this now?”
My mindless coming-out come-on turned into an argument that crescendoed with an anxiety rooted in both of us: “What if my partner isn’t enough?”
I’d wrestle with the answer for eight years before saying “I do” and adding “till death do us part, in sickness and in health, no matter who else turns us on.” I pass as straight because of my marriage, so why stir the pot by telling my family about my internal feelings now?
This June, the problem with not speaking up about my identity came into sharp focus. When Omar Mateen walked into Pulse nightclub in Orlando and killed 49 people—the deadliest incident of violence against LGBTQ people in American history—Fox News pundits circumvented the topic of gun control by emphasizing the threat of “radical” Islam and that Daesh, popularly referred to as the Islamic State, punishes gay men by throwing them off rooftops. The Daily Show put together a whole montage of Fox pundits hitting hard on the “Islam is homophobic” angle.
Queer and Muslim communities in London came together for a rally after the Orlando attacks this June. Photo by Alisdare Hickson (Creative Commons).
A year ago, Reza Aslan and Hasan Minhaj wrote an open letter to the Muslim community to embrace gay marriage—and not just because it’s cool, but because that’s democracy. At the time, I resented that it addressed the “Muslim community” as a monolith. It felt important to me to highlight the diversity of Muslims. For instance, I didn’t feel that my community of Bay Area Muslims was homophobic. But this summer, when I decided to “come out” on the podcast I cohost, #GoodMuslimBadMuslim, I realized I didn’t actually know if that was true. Would my progressive Bay Area Muslim community support me? I got anxious that they wouldn’t, and I found myself appreciating Aslan and Minhaj’s bold fatwa. I thought a lot about this line from their letter: “You’re afraid of the future and what this could mean for your kids. You recognize the growing acceptance of gay rights, but personally you just can’t bring yourself to embrace the shift.”
In “Secrets and Safety,” episode 19 of our podcast, #GoodMuslimBadMuslim, my cohost Taz Ahmed pointed out that some Muslims stood in solidarity with the queer community while simultaneously silencing the queer Muslims in their own mosques. It made me sick. Islam and queerness should not be at odds. There are rich communities of LGBTQ Muslims, but we’re often still seen as exceptions or rare cases. It felt important to me to come out both to counter the media coverage that set up Muslim people and LGBTQ people as two distinct groups that never overlap and to help change the homophobia I saw in a lot of Muslim communities. What I didn’t know was if I’d be shaking up any homophobia in my own family.
As my cohost shared her poem, “Secret Identities,” I couldn’t bring myself to sit in silence. To do so felt like a homophobic act on my part. I could feel the heat in my neck and the tightness in my chest with every passing second that I said nothing. My head felt like it was boiling until it felt like my ears were going to pop off, and I couldn’t take it anymore.
“I’m bisexual,” I said into the microphone, “and I’m married to a man. That’s not an erasure….”
Those were the thoughts I was able to piece together in the moment. As soon as I said it, I felt better. After we recorded, after our producer finished the final edits, after we launched it, after I remembered that my parents listen to the podcast, I felt sick again. I have never come out to my parents. Do I need to come out to my parents? I’m married. What do they care?
“Is this necessary?” I asked my queer friends who I knew wouldn’t call me a coward to my face. I was so scared and expected that I’d get an answer like, “You’re not bisexual, you’re just not letting yourself be gay.” Or worse, that I would be seen as somehow usurping a queer identity as a woman married to a man, a woman who lives a straight-passing life, who is not “gay enough” to be queer. But I got none of those dismissive responses. What I got instead from friends and fans of the podcast alike was, “Zahra, coming out is so hard. I am sending you so much love right now. I wish I could give you a hug.”
At a rally in London this summer, marchers made clear that Islamophobia and homophobia go hand-in-hand. Photo by Alisdare Hickson (Creative Commons).
I’m a comedian, so I’m on the road a lot. Between the podcast recording and the end of July, I had three gigs in three different states, so I hadn’t seen my family yet to tell them. I trekked the mountains of Utah, the drought-ridden dry grass of California, and the gritty streets of New York praying to the air I breathed in as I paced that at some point in high school, my dad had come across my porn stash, and this whole conversation would be superfluous. Yes. I prayed:
Dear Allah, remember that time in junior high that I drew a gay porn comic strip with stick figures in a threesome and hid it between my bed and nightstand? Remember how I prayed and prayed to you because Dad had cleaned my room without my permission, and I said please Allah, please make it so that Dad never saw my porny gay stick figures? Change of plan. Can you actually make this a reality where Dad DID see it? Can you make it so that actually Dad saw my gay porn threesome stick figure drawings and told Mom about it? And, they’ve been waiting for me to come out. They’ve known all along. They watched Ellen, Oprah, and Dr. Phil and have learned a lot these past few decades. When I tell them, they’re just going to smile and say, Your stick figure drawings with tits and dicks and orgies are actually pretty good. We’re proud of you, and we love you, and we’re glad you came out on the podcast.
How about it, Allah? Can it just go like that?
The first week of August, I finally flew home to the Bay Area, where my family is from. As the plane landed, I felt the hives creep back up my neck. I was terrified. What if Dad is repulsed by me? What if Mom cries? What if…oh my god, my brother and sisters! Do I need to come out to them too? Do I call them? Do I text them? Cousins? Old teachers and former mentors? Why do I have to do this at all?
I walked down the stairs of the BART station and felt nausea in waves with each text Mom sent telling me she was almost there. She pulled up, I shoved my luggage into the trunk, and I gave her a hug despite my vacant mind.
“Anything you want to tell me?” Mom said.
Oh my Allah, I thought, They heard the episode, and Mom and I are going to do this now in the car right now? I’m going to puke.
Mom continued scolding me. “Baba says you can’t make it to your cousin’s wedding! How much traveling are you doing? Are you paying attention to your finances?”
“Oh, right. Finances. Yeah Mom, don’t worry.”
It dawned on me that every new question could be that moment, THE moment: coming out time! I couldn’t take the suspense, and I couldn’t stand another day curled up in the fetal position on my bed, trying to manage the sensation of bugs crawling up and down my nervous system and lying to my parents, telling them I had the flu to explain why I wasn’t joining them for dinner again.
Eventually I found my bearings. I took a seat for dinner with my little sister, mom, and dad and looked down as I blurted out a run-on sentence in one steady breath: “In the latest episode of #GoodMuslimBadMuslim I shared that I am bisexual even though I’m married my husband knows he’s always known and now you know.”
I winced, bracing for impact, and looked up at my father.
He had the biggest grin on his face and blurted out, “Girls?! Women?” Then he looked at my mom, looked back at me, and said, “Good luck!”
Mom punched him in the shoulder and said, “Shut up. Are you serious? Oh my god, are you sleeping with Taz?” Then I watched her laugh at her own joke. Though my parents haven’t spent much time with my #GoodMuslimBadMuslim sister-in-mayhem, they do listen to the podcast and know that Taz is family.
But Mom wasn’t done having fun. “What about your other friends?” she said, and she began running down my Facebook feed making all the dirty jokes she could think of about me and my besties.
“No!” I said, even though I was laughing so hard that I almost couldn’t talk.
“Okay, look,” I said with my arms out as though to steady this alternate reality I had not anticipated. “I’m laughing, but I hate you guys right now. You have no idea what I’ve been going through. I get that you’re joking, but this is exactly why I never tell people I’m bisexual in the first place. It’s all about sex!”
My little sister was processing too.
“Wow, Zahra, I never knew you were bi,” she said. “Orlando must have been really hard for you. Are you okay?”
It was like a hard punch in the gut. I felt like falling into a puddle of tears in my bowl of Persian eggplant stew for a good long private cry. But instead, I smiled at her and took a breath. It’s hard for me still, as the oldest in the family, to let anyone take care of me.
“That’s the thing,” I said. “There are a lot of people saying that you can’t be gay and Muslim.”
“Oh god,” Mom said and rolled her eyes until they boomeranged back into their sockets. “Nobody stands between you and Allah. Remember that. THAT is Islam! Jesus walked on water, but Allah gave a young, illiterate orphaned boy named Muhammed a book and said, ‘Read.’ Self-discovery made a prophet! Not a bunch of self-righteous jerks.”
Dad furrowed his brows like he always does when he’s tired and worn from a long day, tore into his flatbread, shook his head with dismay, and said, “Yeah, that’s bullshit, man. Maybe this time, people will hear it.”
I needed to hear it. If I ever forget it, inshallah, my parents will be there to remind me.