Note: Letter writers’ names and some details might be changed to protect their privacy.
You may not have gotten a letter from someone quite in my situation. I’m a 39-year-old, ex-Catholic (now atheist), gay Lebanese man living in the West. I have resolved to come out either as gay and/or atheist to my religious and conservative parents. My parents are divorced and my siblings and their spouses live outside of Lebanon. My mom is born-again evangelical Christian (of the Jesus loves you camp, not the Fred Phelps camp) and my dad is just a very traditional Lebanese man as well as still practicing Catholic.
My question is that next year I will turn 40. For me it’s a bit symbolic and it’s time for me to break loose from my family and live my life exactly as I wish. I have a huge family reunion next year in Lebanon with my dad who turns 60 and his siblings and their families are coming as well. I am hesitant to come out as either atheist or gay to them before that trip, and am preparing myself mentally that it may be my last trip to Lebanon where I’m welcome.
If I had to choose, and I plan to let my parents and siblings know after the reunion is over next summer, when I have left the country, would it be better to let them know I was gay, atheist, both, or neither. I am prepared for the worst (total ostracization from my dad, sadness/prayers to get “well” from my mom) but I have no financial dependencies with them. In fact, my dad was planning to give me a sizeable down payment on a house next year at the reunion to bring back home with me, but I convinced him that my younger sister should be next in line to get it as she’s married.
Any thoughts on how I should proceed, even if you can’t answer exactly what I should do?
Thanks very much.
I think you have the sequence of your actions thought out well. You should definitely not reveal either being gay or atheist until after you return from Lebanon. The upset that might result from disclosing either of these beforehand or while you are there could spoil the event for you, your parents, and perhaps other family members. After that is over, you should begin taking care of your own needs.
I did some reading about Lebanon, trying to gain some insight into what you might face from your family. You already know these things, but the readers might not. If my quick reading on the subject is correct, and please forgive me where I am not, Lebanon, like the other Arab nations has laws against homosexuality, but only Lebanon also has a legal organization, Helem, that is working to annul those laws and to establish social and legal rights for LGBTs. According to the 2007 Pew Global Attitudes Project, 18 percent of Lebanese people think that homosexuality should be accepted by society, and 79 percent do not. As abysmally prejudiced as that is, it is the highest level of acceptance among the Arab nations.
As for the plight of atheists there, Lebanon is characterized by many as one of the most secular countries of the region, but it is certainly not technically a secular state. The Lebanese Constitution declares freedom of religion for all citizens, but it also requires that power must be apportioned among the major religious groups. Political offices are allocated according to religious affiliation. I found nothing indicating that atheists are even considered as a category for this allotment, probably in part because their actual numbers are unknown.
Regarding the social and interpersonal attitudes toward atheism, I found a few anecdotal accounts by people who have lived there. They ranged from saying that atheism is no big deal and nobody bothers you about it, to saying that revealing your atheism will put you into serious social and financial jeopardy. Several agreed that there are more atheists there than is commonly realized, but generally no one is asking, and no one is telling.
Joseph, all of this comes from my attempt to understand how your family might react, but it has become clear to me that Lebanese culture is so complex, with so many influences in constant interaction, that even consulting a knowledgeable native will produce only a partially accurate characterization.
So as you anticipated, I cannot give you a straight-forward answer of what exactly you should do. I can only say that I commend you and encourage you to continue to free yourself from the bonds of socially-imposed shame and fear, and I admire your courage to be true to yourself, despite the difficulties that you anticipate.
As for revealing first that you’re gay, or first that you’re an atheist, or both at once, you are the only expert on what might be your family’s particular reactions. Other letters I’ve received from gay atheists have described doing each of the options, and I haven’t seen an approach that is clearly the best. Revealing both at once gets it over with, but it might be a strong shock for some family members. One at a time might be less intense of an upheaval, but it will also prolong the period of tension and adjustment.
I think in the end you’ll have to consider which approach is best for you more than what will cushion the discomfort that others get from their own prejudices. You’ve already resolved to be free; the time for accommodating everyone else’s bigotry is over.
Regardless of the sequence and timing that you choose to share these two truths, your family might mistakenly conclude that somehow one has caused the other. There is so much superstition about these two things. Be ready to help them understand, if they will listen at all, that being gay and being an atheist have very different causes.
Read this column for some additional suggestions, a few of which you might find useful, especially expressing your love for them. Do not return abuse for abuse. If a family member insults you, only reply that you hope that some day their heart can grow bigger, and their mind can become better informed. If they use Biblical scripture to justify their loathing, gently ask if they would dare to try to justify their hatred of you to Jesus. As you have treated the least, so you have treated me, and so forth.
I know that you’re anticipating the sad prospect of being at best patronized and at worst shunned by your family both in and out of Lebanon, but even if their immediate reaction is rejection, keep your heart open to the possibility that some of them might gradually come around. At least keep a channel of communication available for them.
Some of the younger members of your family might privately accept you, but they might want to avoid open defiance of the older and more powerful family members. Some might even have one of those two secret truths of their own, being gay or an unbeliever, and in you they’ll find a comrade. When we dare to tell the truth we get the backlash, but we also give others permission and inspiration to tell the truth.
I wish you well in this challenge that you are bravely facing. Please feel free to write again, to keep us appraised of how things are going.
With my deepest respect,