It took me 30 years to come to terms with my identity as a queer Palestinian-American, so I’m writing this letter in hopes that you might be able to do that a little quicker than I. There’s so much to say and to share, but I’ve boiled it down to three main points. I hope they help.
They say that imitation is the greatest form of flattery, but the first thing you need to know is that imitating the people you admire keeps you from finding out who you really are.
For 19 years of my life, I called myself Kyle because I was trying to imitate the people I saw on television. I completely ignored my heritage because I didn’t see myself in it — there were no queer Arabs around me, no fellow Muslims that liked men. In American culture, however, gay people were everywhere, so I gravitated to it and left my heritage and faith behind. Please don’t let the invisibility of your peers make you think they don’t exist — you just have to find them.
Like many of you, I was surrounded by traditional people with traditional views. What I didn’t realize at the time was that traditionalism meant fighting against who you really are in order to be what you are expected to become. Do not bend to people’s expectations of who you need to be, and do not imitate the people who conform to whatever is popular around them. What you like and love on your own is exactly what you should go after.
The next thing I want to bring up is that brown skin of yours. It is beautiful. When I was trying to imitate the people around me and called myself Kyle, I wore that name like a costume. I begged for that synthetic identity to blend into my DNA. I stayed out of the sun as much as possible, looked up multiple skin-lightening techniques, and even joined a waitlist for an experimental eye surgery that removed the pigment from dark eyes. All of that was so that I could become someone like the blue-eyed American boys that were my crushes.
Have confidence in your melanin, because in a world dominated by so much white, why would you ever want to blend in? Enjoy the outdoors, get that tan, and enjoy your ability to not turn into a lobster, like your white friends. But please wear sunscreen and protect yourself. Don’t assume that just because you’re dark you can’t get skin cancer.
Finally, and most importantly, know that there are so many ways to be a Muslim, even if you don’t want to practice. Having confidence in your identity as a Muslim is one of the ways we can disprove the global misconceptions about us, and the world needs to know that we’re not the stereotypes people see in the media.
How many nonpracticing people do you know from other religions? There are Jews who don’t observe Yom Kippur and Christians who don’t observe Easter. So of course, there are Muslims who don’t observe Ramadan.
I grew up thinking that because I liked to eat pepperoni pizzas at my friends’ birthday parties and I learned to love drinking after 21 that I couldn’t be a Muslim, but that just isn’t true. My family is rooted in Islam — my father, my grandfather, and his father before him — and so I am rooted in it too. We might not practice like our parents, and traditionalists might argue that because we don’t practice the five pillars we can’t be Muslim, but remember what I said about traditionalism? Screw ’em.
You might think that doors of opportunity will open if you hide your identity, blend in with the crowd, and do what people want you to do. I know I did. I spent 19 years trying to be what I thought the world wanted, but the doors stayed shut until I accepted my identity as a Muslim and an Arab. If you embrace that side of yourself, I know they’ll open for you too.
Live your truth and the world will love you for it.
Tariq Raouf is a freelance writer living in Seattle, with a passion for bringing attention to Middle Eastern and North African representation across multiple fields of entertainment. You can find their work at Nerdist and the San Francisco Chronicle. @tariq_raouf