Berlin - With what felt like a gun stuck to his side, and the smiling face of a cousin from across the table, 31-year-old Lebanese immigrant Yahya was quickly coming face to face with the repercussions of his decision to finally come out to his family. Having evaded Beirut years earlier to escape the stigma associated with his sexual preference for men, he was now stuck in a situation he had long attempted to avoid – fearing for his life in the face of family oppression.
Yahya had an average childhood in a middle-class Beirut neighbourhood before finding out at 15 that he wasn’t the only one who felt attracted to other men – thousands upon thousands of fellow Lebanese had shared his feeling. Being in Beirut, arguably the only Arab city where there’s a vibrant LGBTQ+ scene, he quickly found his place on the dance floors of its gay-friendly bars with one boyfriend after another. But a certain fear never left his side: what if his family found out?
In his mid-twenties, he decided to ditch that fear, along with the only place he called home, and move to the city where everyone is queer: Berlin. A big portion of his family already lived there so Yahya made his way to the dynamic German capital in the late 2010s, finding a sense of personal freedom he long lacked in his hometown.
Intense reaction by family members
After a couple of years in Berlin, he felt safe enough to finally let his true self come to the surface, and so he came out to his family. As he anticipated, the confession was soon followed by a violent reaction. Though not in his wildest dreams would he have imagined how violent.
“The intense reaction I got from my family really made me feel that I was under immediate threat, which forced me to seek the police for protection,” Yahya says. “And [I] also resorted to many LGBT NGOs to help protect me and shield me from a worst-case scenario. I thought the worst reaction was going to be in Lebanon, but it was actually the reaction of my family in Berlin that was even scarier.”
With sizeable Arab communities here who sometimes feel the need to enforce their version of what’s acceptable and what's not, coming out is still not an easy option.
With many cousins and a few siblings residing in Berlin, Yahya kept on alert, avoiding areas where he knew he could be spotted by them. One evening, while having dinner at a restaurant, his fears became a reality as a group of men, one of whom was a cousin of his, walked into the restaurant and sat down at his table. Initially taken aback, he decided not to give them the reaction they were seeking: fear. One of the men stuck what felt like a gun to his side and urged him to get up and walk, but he decided that his best option was actually to stay put and not leave the restaurant. He was betting they wouldn’t harm him in public.
A threatening conversation masked by low voices and warm smiles followed, with his cousin and the accompanying men trying all they could to get him to leave with them. Yahya would occasionally utter something in English in a louder voice to alert others to his danger. The restaurant owner finally realised that something wasn’t right and pulled out his phone, turned on his camera and walked to the table threatening the intruders and telling them that the police were on the way. With the same polite smiles, his cousin and his friends excused themselves from the restaurant. Yahya was left feeling shaken, weak and exposed. But he was still alive.
Despite the life-threatening situation, he decided not to file a police report to avoid further trouble for his cousin and an even bigger rift within his family. He disappeared off the face of the earth for the following year, moving apartments and cutting off all connection with his family. Through that time, he went through extensive therapy to help heal the trauma inflicted upon him by the scene in the restaurant.
Reconnecting with family
Almost a year later, as he started to heal, his phone rang and it was a Lebanese number.
“I picked up and it was my sister. My first reaction was to hang up; I didn’t want to hear that either my parents had died or were sick; it was too much for me to bear. But a few minutes passed and I couldn’t take it, so I called back, and my first question was, ‘Is everyone alive?’”
To his pleasant surprise, everyone was. His sister cried as she lamented him for leaving his family behind and cutting all contact with them. A few minutes later, his parents came to the phone and, shockingly, they only had nice things to say to him.
“I realised that I had created all that fear in my head for nothing,” recounted Yahya. “Yes, my cousins and siblings had issues with me being gay, but my parents seemed to be fine with it. If I had just come out to them a lot sooner, maybe none of that would have happened and they would have protected me from all the violence that I went through.”
Yahya lucked out. But for the majority of gay Lebanese and Middle Easterners, the story often has a different ending. Berlin may be a beacon of hope for LGBTQ+ people from all across the region and the world, but with sizeable Arab communities here who sometimes feel the need to enforce their version of what’s acceptable and what’s not, coming out and truly being oneself is still not an easy option.
Yahya has since moved on and not looked back. But for many other Arabs, back home or in Berlin, the insides of their closets are the only homes they’ll ever know.
If you or anyone you know has been subject to LGBTQI discrimination, violence or abuse, get in touch with Lesbian and Gay Association Berlin-Brandenburg on 030 22 50 22 15 or via firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you’re a queer refugee in Germany seeking assistance or protection, get in touch with Queer Refugees Deutschland via this link
*Yahya’s name has been changed to protect his identity.