Intersectionality is a concept is an idea that our experiences are defined by, and the result, of the nexus between gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class and other social variables that determine our identity. In other words, our sense of ‘who we are’ cannot be understood in isolation from these social variables, given the extent to which they shape our life experiences. As I write this, I feel as if I am writing rather something which probably would be common sense to many people. At least for me, as a gay Pakistani man, I came to appreciate and understand intersectionality as a concept very early on in my life. I was a freshman in university when I came to understand my sexuality. In other words, it was only at the age of eighteen that I genuinely realized I was attracted to men. I realized I was a gay man and like many people in the queer community at my university in America, I came out of the closet. However, I quickly realized that accepting my sexuality wasn’t the end of my struggle and life-long challenge of self-acceptance and empowerment. Being away from home and family for the first time, I had managed to make several Pakistani friends, but they were quick to sever all ties with me since they don’t find my sexuality compatible with their cultural values and religious beliefs. But see, I too had shared those cultural values and beliefs, and that made me realize that my life as a gay man and consequently my experiences would be shaped by my religion and my community. And that’s what intersectionality is – the nexus between all social factors that determine our social and mental well-being.
My experiences as a South Asian Muslim man have made me realize that a discussion of ‘what it means to be a gay man in Pakistan?’ cannot occur without examining the nexus between sexuality and mental health. When my Pakistani friends rejected and invalidated my identity when I embraced who I was, that didn’t hurt all that much compared to when my own sister rejected me and threatened to sever all ties with me for the rest of her life, when I came out to her. She consequently went on to out me to both my parents, without telling me. Consequently my parents confronted me and said to me all those things that I had feared they would, which is why I had requested my sister to please let me be the one to tell them. All I ever wanted was for those I love to hear my story-to know I was their son who was just trying to be his authentic self and how far I had come in my struggle and that despite the knowledge that how my difficult my life was being to, I was ready to face it head on. However, I was called selfish and degenerate and that I ought to have continued to suppress my sexuality as it was not compatible with my culture and religious teachings.
Even though, with time, my family has come to accept me and my sexuality, their reaction did a number on me and my nerves. The whole experience of being outed by a sibling i.e. being betrayed when I placed trust in someone I considered a best friend to realizing family life can in fact be conditional based on one’s sexuality to being labeled a ‘monster’ and an ‘abomination’ to generally being rejected/abandoned has affected my mental health. Following these incidents, I began to experience a high level of anxiety and perpetual worry when it came to school work and other daily tasks. I began to experience panic attacks in my last year of undergraduate which followed me into law school. I began to have difficulty in maintaining friendships and being in a romantic relationship due to no longer being able to trust anymore. Gradually it became more challenging to function and I perpetually felt like I was in deep water and could not swim. Things which I had seem easy to do before and which I had enjoyed to do, especially those pertaining to my education, now overwhelmed me and instilled a fear of failure in me. I had no idea of what had caused my mental health to deteriorate so much. It was only when I began to seek regular therapy that eventually I had a breakthrough which made me realize that the trauma I had experienced as a result of my coming out experiences that I had developed generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). My family’s reaction had been significant stressors and had triggered my anxiety. Hence I realized, for instance the exam/test taking phobia I had been experiencing in university invoked a fear of confrontation because of the way my parents had confronted me and the way the way they asked me questions without giving me a chance to answer and be heard. Exams had begun to stir similar feeling of confrontation and this sense of not being able to ‘answer’. My inability to maintain friendships or be in a romantic relationship was due to the fear of having my trust betrayed if I ever became vulnerable to anyone ever again, like I was with my sister when I came out to her.
However, despite all this, what kept me going was this will to not give in, I kept working with my therapist and did not give up on any aspect of life. It’s been a long and emotionally exhausting road to recovery but it’s been completely worth it to be committed to my mental health because today I have an undergraduate degree, a law degree, a job that I find rewarding, friends who I trust and love and who accept me for who I am, and a partner who is incredibly empathetic and always there for me. Also, over the years, my parents have come to accept me more and there is finally a room for us as a family to have a dialogue through which I am able to tell them my story and make them understand my identity as a gay man. Consequently, due to working through my trauma which ultimately lead to these positive shifts in my life, my mental health has greatly improved and I am able to cope much better in stressful situations and overall be more functional.
If you are queer, Pakistani and experiencing mental health problems, know that there is bound to be a nexus between these factors. Try getting the appropriate help and figure out what is the underlying cause of your anxiety and work through it. You’re already brave and resilient for coming to terms with your sexuality despite society’s skewed construction of it, so you absolutely have it in you to improve your mental health and live a happy and functional life!