An Arranged Marriage and a Son: What’s a Gay Dad To Do?
Coming out of the closet can be vastly challenging for people of any culture. There’s a fundamental and often rational fear that people will never look at you the same. For some though, revealing their sexuality comes with a weightier fallout. Try being a gay dad in an arranged marriage.
Michael El-Bacha was born into a Christian Lebanese family in Sydney’s western suburbs. At the age of 19, he was married off to his first cousin, with whom he was told to conceive a child with. Michael wrestled with his identity for years. To come out was to risk his relationship with his son, as well as a sense cultural belonging. After gathering the courage to bring things out in the open, he became engaged in a battle with the people he loved most, which in many ways continues to this day. It was the darkest stretch of his life.
Michael has reached the other end of the tunnel, though. His memoir ‘Oh My God! Am I Alright?’ is going to be released on the 19th of this month (there’s also plans for a film adaptation.) He has become a spokesperson for arranged marriages. He’s opening a support forum for people in the same boat. And best of all, he’s kept an inspiring bond with his son.
I caught up with Michael to find out more about his experience of fatherhood and cultural stigmas. Michael told me about discovering he was not compatible with his upbringing. “There were feelings growing up which I chose to ignore. At 19, it reality hit me in the face. That was the day I was married to my wife, and it all sort of hit the fan. I had a nervous breakdown.”
He explained to me how his marriage came about. “From a young age I had family embedding the message that I would be married to this person. After the HSC, my family arranged a trip back to the motherland. My father dropped the penny at the airport. He said ‘get to know your cousin, over there.”
I was curious about the prevalence of arranged marriages in Sydney. He explained it’s partly a matter of locality. “On a local scale, there’s certainly more of it happening where I grew up in western Sydney than in say, the eastern suburbs. I guess this is just the demographic.”
It is Lebanese tradition not only to arrange marriages, but also to arrange children. “One time, my wife and I were at home, and my father said ‘go now and get her pregnant.’ That’s the tradition. There was a lot of pressure on me at the time, and it certainly got the better of me. Having said that, I’m very glad that it happened. I’m very happy and blessed, because I now have made a beautiful soul (in my son). It’s a bit of an anomaly to be a gay parent with hereditary children.”
The most endearing part of Michael’s story is undoubtedly the bond with his son. “He turned 18 last week. He’s my best friend. We have an honest and respectful relationship. I believe in honesty, and I aim to pass this onto my son. That said, I think now he’s 18 we could go to a bar together and drink. We’re friends as well. I see a lot of myself in him and I love that.”
His son has also taken an active role in Michael’s campaign. “He’s going to make an open/anonymous forum with support for people with similar scenarios. He will be moderating it and I’ll oversee things. The goal would be to help save somebody’s life.”
It wasn’t always smooth sailing, though. Michael told me about the largest hurdle in his relationship with his son. “It was the hardest thing to tell my son why his mother and I needed to part. I didn’t want to tell him. I was very depressed and thought he would be better off without me.”
“When I told him (I was gay), he said ‘I know, I’ve got a father who’s different.’ I’ve told him most of what his Dad has done. I did this to show him that, like everyone, I have made mistakes, but with each of these mistakes there’s been a valuable lesson. I’m so lucky he didn’t reject me for this.”
On top of the book, there are also plans to bring Michael’s story to the silver screen. But this has come with a fresh batch of challenges. “It hasn’t been signed off yet-there’s been a lot of interest in this story, but I need to keep it true to myself.”
“I went to Los Angeles and some prominent directors there agreed to take on the film. But there was a catch. They wanted to change my background into an Irish American. I figure it was a result of Americans stereotyping middle-eastern people as being terrorists. I had to decline the offer. I’m proud of my culture, and my story needs to be real.”
Not only has he kept an intimate relationship with his son, but Michael is even close with his former wife. “We’re very respectful. We work together to give our son the best upbringing possible. She’s amazing. We have a special bond now which I’m very grateful for. She’s remarried, and I’m very happy for her.”
He continued “I admit it was difficult for her to understand the gay thing, but we have reached an understanding now. I take my son to parent teacher nights and we share responsibilities. It was all her for a large period. I didn’t want to be around my son until he was comfortable. I think it affects the child if you are living a lie.”
When I asked him if he had any advice to people living a similar story.“Never give up. There is support out there. My forthcoming blog is just one example, but there are plenty of others. Don’t be ashamed. Be true to yourself and don’t let cultural stigmas run you down.”
Michael left me with a very poignant story of a defining fork in the road of his life.“I was ready to end everything from the shame. I thought my son was better off without me. One night, I text messaged my son, and in his reply he said that he loves me. It saved my life. That message kept me breathing, it’s the reason I’m here today.”