When most of us think about home
, we picture a physical place: the house where we grew up, the address we learned by heart in case we got lost, the room we painted hot pink when we turned eight and our parents allowed us to choose the color, the crack in the third flagstone step leading to the front door, the way no one used the front door anyway, since everyone came in through the back door right off the kitchen. Or our vision of home might be of the house where we now live with our children, where we make the mortgage payments each month and pay the electricity and oil bills, where we have set up a basketball hoop in the driveway for the kids to practice for the big games on Friday night up at the school, where we have barbeques for the neighbors on hot summer evenings, where the traffic and chaos of kids and dogs and busy schedules and homework are both comforting and exhausting. Our vision of home, whether it is the home of our childhood or the home we are creating as adults, has a location, an address, a mark on the map. It is a physical, tangible place. We have photo albums that chronicle our growing family over the years, everyone lined up on the front steps in the same pyramid arrangement—parents on top, kids on the bottom—with smiles that stay the same even as the bodies get bigger and bulkier.Home
is also the place where life is most familiar, where we fall into old patterns, where our roles become scripted and predictable, where there is a fine line between the bonds that bind and constrain. It is also a place where we live by secret codes and allusions that outsiders—even intimate outsiders—don’t understand or appreciate. In her beautiful essay “On Going Home” (1961), Joan Didion speaks about the power and pull of home.
I am home for my daughter’s first birthday. By “home” I do not mean the house in Los Angeles where my husband and I and the baby live, but the place where my family is, in the Central Valley of California. It is a vital though troublesome distinction. My husband likes my family but is uneasy in their house, because once there I fall into their ways which are difficult, oblique, deliberately inarticulate, not my husband’s ways. We live in dusty houses (“D-U-S-T,” he once wrote with his finger on the surfaces all over the house, but no one noticed it) filled with mementos quite without value to him (what could the Canton dessert plates mean to him? How could he have known about the assay scales, why should he care if he did know?) …1
Home, here, is defined as much by those who are outsiders—who have no real clue of what is going on, where signals seem opaque and oblique—as by those who have the inside track, who know the secrets and shadows, the habits and artifacts, the history of the family that lives in this house. Home is made more vivid by the contrasts that get drawn between the outsider’s discomfort and cluelessness and the insider’s ancient and intuitive understandings.
In his biography of the poet Wallace Stevens (1968), Robert Pack echoes Didion’s portrayal of going home, drawing the connection between the intimacy and belonging that home represents and the intimacy with his readers that Stevens achieves through his poetry. Stevens translates the language, rhythm, and cadence from his childhood home into his verse, capturing the themes of family and the feelings of familiarity with which we can all identify. Writes Pack:
Home is the place where one understands the routine, knows the secret rhythms of family activity and communication, and feels the fullness of the presence of the familiar objects. It is this sense of intimacy that Stevens seeks with the world, and it is this sense of order a poet achieves that makes this intimacy possible.2
Here we get a sense of home as the place where we learn to interpret the noises and the silences, the texts and the subtexts of our lives, where the layers and subtleties of our communication are inscribed in our hearts and minds, our bones and bodies, eventually turning up—at least in Stevens’s and Didion’s case—in the form and texture of their art.
The novelist Paule Marshall takes us a step further into the auditory dimensions and cadences of home. In her autobiographical novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones
, she offers an evocative and searing portrait of an immigrant family transplanted from Barbados to Brooklyn, and she speaks about home as the sound of the language of the Bajan women as they sit talking in the kitchen.3 It is a language that Marshall herself heard as a child as she sat on the edges of the women’s circle soaking up the gossip, the stories, savoring the rhythms and poetry of their words. In “From the Poets in the Kitchen,” a short essay published in The New York Times
, Marshall speaks about the language of home—particularly the talk among the women in the kitchen—that carried with it beauty, wisdom, poetry, and culture, that survived the transplantation from the blue-green sea and open horizons of Barbados to the city streets and brownstones of Brooklyn.
I grew up among poets—whatever that breed is supposed to look like. Nothing about them suggested that poetry was their calling. They were just a group of ordinary housewives and mothers, my mother included, who dressed in a way (shapeless housedresses, dowdy felt hats, dark, solemn coats) that made it impossible for me to imagine they had ever been young.4
So whether we envision home as a place, a physical location on the map that we can now google for directions; whether we feel it in the familiarity, obliqueness, and intimacy of family; or whether we hear it in the language and poetry of our mothers, home is the place we return to. It is the place that forms us, that embraces and inhibits us, that shapes our identity. It is a place where our arrival is awaited.
The tales of exit found in this chapter reframe and transfigure the meaning of home. The two stories—of a teenage Iranian boy escaping the political strife and violence in his war-torn country to come to America, and of a middle-aged gay man reflecting on his long and brave exit from the closet—shape a view of home that is earned and discovered after the protagonists have traveled far away, literally and figuratively, from their family’s place of origin, far away from the cultures and communities that nourished and raised them. The lens of exit in both narratives points to the emotional and spiritual construction of home as a hard-won place of comfort, safety, belonging, and love. Finding home requires leaving and searching, trials and tribulations, and many exits along the way.
HUNGRY FOR HOME“I’ll go.”
It did not hit him that he was actually leaving—his family, his country, his life—until he arrived at the airport in Tehran, surrounded by his parents and siblings and a huge crowd of aunts and uncles, some of whom had traveled hundreds of miles to say goodbye. He was carrying one small cardboard suitcase, and his mother had sewn a zippered pouch into his underwear to hide the $3,000 he was taking with him. His father had had to sell a plot of land, use all of the family’s savings, and borrow from his uncles in order to come up with the money that Bijan Jalili needed to travel to the United States.
Suddenly the fear swept over him, and he froze. How could he have said—in a moment of weakness—that he would go to school in America? How could he have committed to something that now seemed so scary and wrong? How could he leave all those he loved and the life he knew? This was unbearable. “Just then it hit me … What have I done! But it was too late to back out,” says Bijan, his whole body shivering as he must have done on that fateful day. “I couldn’t stomach it … my belly was burning. I was scared out of my gourd … I was like a child afraid of the dark … I felt like I was lost in the jungle, being swallowed up by dangerous creatures.”
Bijan looked over at his father, whose head was bowed in prayer, his face washed in tears, a picture of agony and faith. His mother couldn’t stop crying—huge, sobbing wails that echoed through the airport lounge—as she clung to him for dear life. Finally his plane was announced and the waiting was over. Bijan hugged everyone hard and kissed them each on both cheeks before beginning the long march down the ramp to the plane. “Leaving my parents behind was unbearable. My feet were like Jell-O. I could hardly move them. I thought that I would just collapse.” Bijan had never even seen an airport before, never been on a plane. He stowed his suitcase and climbed into the window seat. “The fear was overwhelming as I looked down after takeoff and saw Tehran disappear behind me.” I look across the table and see the sixteen-year-old scared boy. It is thirty years later, and Bijan’s face is contorted in a grimace. He looks down to wipe away the tears with the back of his hand.
The plane touched down at Kennedy Airport at 8:00 p.m. As he heard the screech of the landing gear, Bijan’s fear took over his body and he started to shake. He looked out the window and saw the city stretched out below, “an ocean of light.” “I was new to electricity,” says Bijan as he remembers the strange sensation of seeing a whole city of twinkling lights that seemed to form the shape of “a fiery dragon.” His only thought was that he wanted desperately for the plane to turn around so he could go home. “I wanted to go back to my mom, to bury my head in her bosom … to have her hold me again.”
Once he was off of the plane, the scene was shocking. “I thought to myself, Everything in New York looks so big! I had never seen people over six feet tall … and there were all kinds of people, all sizes, shapes, and colors. They hardly looked human to me.” Not only did the people look strange, but New York did not look like the America Bijan had seen on television back in Iran. It was not pretty or spacious or orderly; it was a confusing blur of smells and sensations. “It was as if I had landed on a different planet,” Bijan says as he admits to being at a “loss to find the adjectives to describe how foreign the place felt.” Even the air seemed unbreathable as he made his way from the international to the domestic terminal where he would board a plane to Washington, D.C. And the water, when he stopped on the way to get a drink at the fountain, tasted terrible, “undrinkable,” so different from the fresh well water he was used to having at home.
Bijan Jalili, a handsome and lean light-brown-skinned man, is now the CEO of Purple Rain, a technology company that makes digitally based software for large firms all over the world. The engineers and designers for the company are based in Tehran; Bijan and the design and marketing team have offices in the United States. But the virtual world is really where they all spend most of their time. Storytelling is Bijan’s medium, imprinted in his family and his culture, embedded in his passionate personality. He spins his yarns with drama and subtlety, picturing the scene, capturing the sights and sounds, relishing the details, enjoying the rhythm of the words, and loving the surprising punch line. His vivid descriptions help me imagine remote parts of Iran, places I’ve never even seen in photographs.
He begins with the geography of his childhood. “I grew up in Razan, a small town in the mountainous region in northwest Iran. You don’t have that type of smallness in the U.S.… There were fewer than a thousand people, and there was no electricity, no running water (we used manual pumps), no utilities. My mother cooked on a small stove top that used kerosene, like the ones you take camping … We took a shower in the local bathhouse once a week.” Bijan, the second to the oldest, had two brothers and one sister, and they had the special privilege of going to the bathhouse once a week because his father enjoyed a large measure of local status. He was the “equivalent of the school superintendent” for Razan and several of the surrounding tiny villages.
By the time Bijan was seven, the family moved briefly to the ancient city of Hamadan, the site of the old Persian capital, founded twenty-five hundred years ago. When they found that they could not afford to live there on his father’s modest salary, they moved again, this time to Shavarin, and they lived in the house where his father had grown up. By the time Bijan was eleven, his father had saved up enough money to move back to Hamadan, where he took out a bank loan and they were able to build a house. “Now we had electricity,” says Bijan with excitement. “Gas and oil were hand delivered to the house … there was a well for drinking water and an outhouse that was unbearably cold in the winter.” Hamadan was located in the shadow of a very high mountain, and the winters were fierce. For several freezing months each year, the town was literally buried in snow. Bijan remembers the snow tunnels he used to walk through in order to get to school, when the drifts would pile higher than the roofs of the houses. And he recalls the koursi
heater—something resembling a hibachi, fueled by coal—that would be put under the table and then covered with blankets. All winter long, while the rest of the house stayed freezing, everyone would huddle together under the blankets with their feet close to the stove.
“It was a fanatical religious environment,” says Bijan about his family’s deep and unquestioned devotion to Islam. The Muslim rituals and restrictions were embroidered into their days. Five times a day they knelt and turned toward Mecca to pray; there was no alcohol and no hanging around with “the opposite sex.” The family fasted for the entire month of Ramadan, and Bijan’s father and brothers went to the mosque for religious gatherings “all the time.” By the time he was fourteen or fifteen, Bijan and his older brother, Sohrab, had begun to mix religion with radical politics, joining the political revolution that was beginning to catch fire all over Iran. “We were teenagers, and there was not much to do in our town … the revolution captured our hearts and our minds. We were great recruits, revolutionary religious kids, young and impassioned and devout,” he recalls.
The brothers joined the Mojahedin, a political party, working underground in support of Khomeini, where they became part of the stealth “distribution channel,” delivering newsletters and tapes undercover and hiding them in secret places in the brick walls that snaked their way through the town. Before they would go off to school in the morning, Bijan and Sohrab served as the party’s “runners,” picking up and distributing political propaganda. In the evenings they would join the noisy street demonstrations, chanting and cheering radical rants, then gathering to listen to the fiery, provocative speeches from their party leaders. Their father never wanted his sons to attend the political rallies and demonstrations. He did not agree with their “radical ideologies,” and every moment that they were gone, he feared for their lives. “He did not want us to get killed,” says Bijan simply.
One night when a prominent and important radical clergyman was coming to speak at the mosque, Bijan’s father knew that there was likely to be violence, and he forbade his sons from going. Not heeding their father’s threats, Bijan and Sohrab slipped out of the house under cover of night, climbed over the stone walls of the courtyard, and went to the mosque, where a crowd of more than a thousand men—no women—had gathered. As the clergyman delivered his fierce oratory, the guards and police surrounded the mosque, ready to arrest him as soon as it was over, but as he spoke his last words, all the lights went out. In the darkness and chaos that followed, the clergyman escaped and the police opened fire. In the mayhem, bullets were blasting, men were screaming and running; some lay bloodied on the ground.
Bijan managed to dodge the bullets, but he got separated from his brother. “I thought they had got him,” says Bijan, trembling. When he arrived home, his clothes torn and spattered with blood, Bijan found his father standing in the courtyard. “He was white as a ghost … completely frightened … he held his Koran in his hands.” Bijan stood silently with his father, hearing the gunshots and screaming in the distance, terrified that his brother would never come home. It was hours before Sohrab appeared, worn, weary, and very scared, but not wounded. No one said a word; their father could not find the energy to punish them. “Having his sons at home was good enough for him,” recalls Bijan about the strange, haunting silence that filled the house for several days after. It was on that night, Bijan believes, that his father promised himself that his sons would have to leave the country. There was no way to protect them from the danger and the violence, and no way to blunt their revolutionary fervor.
And then the unthinkable happened. A few months later, Bijan’s younger brother, Pedram, was taken from them in a horrible accident in the backyard. Before he can begin the story of his brother’s death, Bijan is already weeping.
“Electricity was a new thing in the town, and so there was no regulation, no codes or standards. Our home had electricity, but it was all made up of dangerous, makeshift wiring. It was a steamy day in the summer … In the yard of our house we had a wading pool, and my little brother Pedram—he was fourteen years old at the time—decided to cool himself off in the water. The little pool was right next to an electrical pole with a short. As he came out of the pool, he touched the pole … and he was fried … That afternoon I was at home studying for my exams, and all of a sudden I heard Pedram screaming my father’s name. At first I thought he was screaming because my father was punishing him for something. Then I heard my mother’s wails … so I went outside and saw my father kneeling down with Pedram’s head on his lap … He was gone.”
Soon after the terrible tragedy Bijan’s father asked his two older sons to leave the country. “He was afraid of losing another son. He just couldn’t stomach it,” says Bijan about his father’s anguish that his older sons would be taken too, swept away by the revolution. No amount of pleading could convince Sohrab to leave. “He was too deep in the revolution … so devoted, committed, passionate. He refused to go,” says Bijan. But in the next moment, when his father turned to him, Bijan surprised himself by saying, without so much as a moment of thought, “I’ll go.” And it was done.
Within a few weeks the papers, documents, passport, and tickets had been arranged, and Bijan had been admitted to a prep school in Washington, D.C., that had to agree to sponsor him before the Iranian government would give him a visa. It was August 1978, and political demonstrations were happening everywhere; violence was erupting in the street and “the shah’s regime was falling apart.” Fortunately, Bijan’s uncle, an official high up in the shah’s party, was able to pull strings at the American embassy so that he was able to secure all the documents he needed to travel. “Irony of all ironies”—Bijan smiles—“there I was, having been a young radical with the Mojahedin, the revolutionary party … riding with my uncle in the shah’s police car through the gates of the American embassy to get permission to leave the country.”
When I ask Bijan why he said yes to his father, he looks at me, puzzled, as if he has never bothered—or dared—to ask himself that question. “I had a love affair with English … and the English we learned in school was all about grammar, basic and primitive,” he says at first. “And I liked the American shows I watched on our neighbor’s tiny black-and-white TV … Ironside
, Streets of San Francisco
, Charlie’s Angels
… alluring images of America.” But Bijan chuckles at the incompleteness of his reasoning, at the way he gave such a huge decision so little thought as a teenager, and at the way, as a mature adult, he seems to have protected himself from having to relive that moment. “Maybe it was my childishness or my stupidity,” he concludes, his voice drifting off.
But there is one thing of which he was, and is, certain. As soon as he said that he would go, he began having doubts, fears, and nightmares—all of which he kept to himself as he got swept up in the planning and preparations; as he saw his father selling his land, going to the bank, and counting the dollars Bijan would need to make the journey. And just the announcement of his trip to America changed the way he was treated by everyone in the town. He became Hamadan’s newest hero. “As soon as I said I’d go, I became a celebrity. I went from being a child to being a man in their eyes … I felt foreign to myself.”
It turned out that the prep school in Washington, D.C.—advertised as an elite academy for international students—was a “scam,” “a moneymaking machine, where in exchange for getting visas for foreign kids, the American embassy would take kickbacks.” The whole school was in a run-down office building, and all the students were rich Iranian and Arab trust fund kids. “There was probably something comforting about finding other Iranian students at the school, but they were rich and I was poor, so there was a large distance between us. They were spending big wads of cash on luxury stuff. Whenever I wanted to buy something, I needed to excuse myself to go to the bathroom so I could unzip the money from my underwear.” He shared a shabby dormitory room with another Iranian student, and in order to save money, he ate only breakfast and dinner—no lunch—in the school cafeteria.
By the time Bijan had been there “three months and twelve days” and paid for his dormitory room and fall tuition, his $3,000 was gone. He knew he could not ask his father for any more money, but every few weeks he would call and beg to come home. The phone calls were expensive (three minutes for ten dollars), so Bijan would wait until he could no longer bear not hearing his father’s voice, and he would have to put an entire roll of quarters into the pay phone. “I would try to explain to him my condition … I feel sick, depressed, and miserable … I’m horribly thin and weak … everything tastes terrible and smells awful.” And although he never told his father, Bijan truly thought that he might even die from loneliness and heartbreak. He could hear the sadness in his father’s voice on the other end of the phone; he just could not stand to hear his son suffer. But his father tried hard to be reassuring, comforting him and then staving off his requests by offering him a “deal.” If Bijan would stay just three more months and successfully complete the English courses, he would let him come home. At least then he would return to Iran fluent in the language he loved. Never did Bijan have the heart to break it to his father, the top educator in his town, that the school he was attending was just a “moneymaking scam,” that even the English training was substandard, that the teachers were not well trained, that grades could be bought.
By the time three months had rolled around, the Iranian revolution was in full swing. Khomeini was in power, the war had broken out with Iraq, the airports were closed, and it was impossible for Bijan to go home. He had run out of all his money and couldn’t pay the room and board at school. He managed to rent a small apartment with three of his fellow students in a run-down neighborhood close to the school, and he found a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant, where he worked for $2.75 an hour and was paid under the table because his student visa did not permit him to work. “The apartment was three hundred dollars a month, but there were four of us, so my share was seventy-five. I ate one meal at the restaurant, which had to last me the whole day,” he says, remembering every detail of every dollar earned and spent.
After six months, having successfully completed the courses he had promised to his father, Bijan once again begged to return home. But by that time the war with Iraq had escalated, the borders were closed, and military service was mandatory for all young men. This time his father didn’t even try to be reassuring. He had no more deals up his sleeve. He told his son, “You will be drafted and sent off to war as soon as you touch down at the airport. You come back, and you will die, for sure … I’d rather have you be sick over there than dead over here.” Bijan knew his father was right. Even though he was still lonely and miserable and longed to be in the embrace of his family, he couldn’t go back. At that moment it hit him that he was in the United States for good, and something in him shifted. Rather than focusing his fantasies on escape from a life that felt unbearable, and rather than hoping his father would somehow save him from it all, Bijan decided to take hold of himself, stay in school, and get a good education. He would somehow find a way to make it on his own.
He spent the next few years finishing school and doing any job—however unsavory or menial—to earn his keep. He throws back his head and laughs. “I’ve done everything but prostitution and pushing drugs … hard labor, working for a moving company, a gas station, a cleaning service, painting houses, dipping ice cream.” By the time he was admitted to American University as an engineering student, he was working at a gas station from 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. and going to his first class of the day at 8:00. He was eating sandwiches of Wonder Bread—which he bought in bulk—smeared with ketchup and mustard, which he took from the condiments counter at Burger King. And he was sharing one small room with two other Iranian guys who were not in school, so they slept in shifts in the one bed that they had on the floor. He shakes his head at how hard his life was then, but he was filled with a fierce determination that seemed to make it all possible.
Despite being chronically tired and hungry during his three years at the university, Bijan made straight A’s and graduated with honors. He even made a little money on the side, tutoring other undergraduate students. “But all the time, I’m wanting to go back,” he says about the deep yearning to return to Iran that never abated. Sometimes he would call his father to beg anyway; there was some comfort in just hearing his voice, and the exchange between them had by now become a well-rehearsed script. “I knew he would just keep playing with my brain … making the old deals which we both knew would never happen.”
After college, Bijan got “a big break” when he landed an engineering/technology position at Dell Labs, where he stayed for a year and a half, until they learned that his visa had expired and they fired him. Now he had a visa problem and had to worry about getting deported. Just as he was leaving Dell, the “hostage crisis hit” in Iran, and “overnight, we were the enemy.” Bijan remembers the huge painted sign hanging at the entrance to American University—ALL IRANIANS GO HOME—and how his good friends from college suddenly deserted him. He remembers the jeers and racial slurs people hurled at him as he got on the bus or walked by them on the street. For their protection, Iranians closed ranks, hung together, watched each other’s backs, and tried to live under the radar.
After several months of looking for work in Washington, Bijan reunited with an old childhood friend he knew from Hamadan, who was now living in Philadelphia. They schemed together, made a business plan, used up all their savings, sold their cars, and opened a restaurant in West Philadelphia. The ingredients for success seemed promising. The food was yummy—they cooked exotic and savory recipes from home—the decor was funky and welcoming, and they worked all the time serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They hoped to attract the college crowd and ethnic food lovers from Drexel and the University of Pennsylvania, which were within walking distance. But the restaurant was off the beaten path, so they were never able to attract the necessary foot traffic to make it work and pay the bills. A year after opening, they had to close it down, but the disappointing entrepreneurial venture turned out to have a silver lining. Bijan got $7,000 back on his tax returns that year, and he decided to use it to bring everyone together for a family reunion in Turkey.
It took months of planning and scheming to make it happen, but in the end everybody came. It was the peak of the war in Iran, and their journeys across the borders were taxing and treacherous. Bijan’s parents flew from Tehran to Istanbul; his brother and sister and their spouses and children took the long bus ride. There were eleven of them, all “happily stuffed” into a studio apartment Bijan had rented. It was the first time he had seen his family in more than ten years, and he was beside himself with joy. His face lights up as he remembers the scene. “It was an amazing reunion … wonderful, passionate, a one-of-a-kind experience. I had such a hunger for them. I coveted every minute of being with them. There was so much to talk about … I wanted it to last forever. They listened to all of my stories, and they were overwhelmingly proud of me … for surviving, for sticking it out, for doing so well.” He laughs. “Of course, they had no idea that I was going home to nothing. I had paid for everyone’s trip, and they didn’t have a clue that I was completely broke.”
There was something about the reunion in Turkey, the loving embrace of the family, the endless conversations, their adoration of him, how safe and secure he felt in their midst that allowed Bijan to finally exit Iran. Nourished by his family’s soulful companionship, lifted up by their laughter, he knew then that he would never, ever leave them. He might build a life very far away, he might have friends they would never meet and experiences they could barely imagine, but he knew they would always be inextricably, forever joined.
And as it has turned out, after all those years of painful struggle, decades of dissonance and dislocation, periods of unemployment, and the distaste of absorbing and resisting ethnic slurs and racial profiling, Bijan is now living a life of abundance, doing work that is creative and satisfying, raising two children who are smart and sweet, and running a business that has feet in both his homes, Iran and America. He recognizes the bitterness and cynicism that still rise up in him; he can still sometimes “taste the deprivation” and loneliness of having had to leave his family too early. But all that is mixed with the sweet pleasures and many good memories of his life, an imperfect and exotic brew he has grown to appreciate.
I ask Bijan what in his character or temperament might have contributed to his resilience, his courage and stamina after leaving Iran, and his determination to stay the course. He immediately says, “Loyalty … loyalty to my dad. I couldn’t dishonor him, and I trusted him to guide me and be there with me even if we were thousands of miles away, living on different planets.” He pauses and says quietly, “I knew how much education was valued by my father. And I knew how he suffered after my brother’s death … My father and mother would never laugh again after we lost him, and I wanted to somehow make up for that loss and live a life of meaning and commitment.”
Bijan now brings this same deep loyalty and devotion to his own family, his wife and his two children, and their close friends. He always wants to be there for them. He knows, however, that he would never ask his son—now a teenager—to leave his family and his country behind, to go and make his way in a strange, foreign place. His final question floats in the air as we both fall silent. “Were my parents stupid or naïve … or did they know something about me that I didn’t know about myself?”
* * *
We hear the myriad meanings of home echoing through Bijan’s story. Home as place—the twenty-five-hundred-year-old city, Hamadan, at the base of the towering mountain, where his family huddled together under blankets in the freezing winters, warmed by the tiny coal heater; where Bijan and his brother became young radicals, hiding secret political messages in the ancient brick walls that wound through the city; where the snow got so deep that children carved tunnels underneath to walk to school; where Bijan’s little brother came out of the wading pool, touched the electric pole, and “fried” to death.
Home is also the place where we are in touch with the familiar, oblique rhythms of our family; where our communication with one another is often gestural; where words unspoken can carry enormous meaning. As Joan Didion reminds us, home is in the “troublesome” and “oblique” nuances of family intimacies.5 After telling his sons that they are forbidden to go to the mosque to hear the radical cleric, Bijan’s father waits alone in the courtyard, his face creased with fear, the Koran in the tight grip of his hands, praying for his sons’ safe return. The gunshots from the mosque ring out in the night air; he can hear the screams of desperate men trying to escape the bloodshed and the mayhem. Bijan comes home first, bloodied but safe, and waits with his father. He knows not to say anything; he knows his father is more frightened than angry. He knows that his father has already made a deal with Allah that he will do anything—including not punish his sons—if he brings them home safely. When hours later Bijan’s big brother climbs over the wall, they all go silently to bed. No reprimands, no punishments, no apologies. This is the familiar way they deal with danger and fear and terror in this family; this is the silence and sound of home.
These familiar rhythms and resonances from home stretch across the globe—from Washington, D.C., to Tehran—and across the years, as Bijan pleads with his father over the phone, begging to come back to Iran. He is desperate and miserable, sick, hungry, and lonely. Over and over, father and son cut a deal that they both know will never see the light of day. Over and over, they play the “brain game,” knowing the dueling exchanges by heart, shielding each other from the truth. As they rehearse the familiar script, Bijan listens for what Paule Marshall calls the “language and poetry” of home.6
The deals and exits last for years and years until Bijan—flush with a new resolve and the surprise bounty from his tax returns—decides to stage his own “homecoming.” His parents, sister and brother, their spouses and children—eleven of them in all—crowd into a tiny studio apartment in Turkey, a place that none of them call home. For seven delicious days they experience the thrill and familiarity of one another’s company, an orgy of eating, drinking, and most of all talking and telling stories. As Bijan says his farewells and his precious family returns to the country where he was born and raised, the place to which he has been dying to return, the idea of home and belonging are transfigured. He has an epiphany. Home is where the love is, a place that is impossible to leave.
In many ways, Bijan’s exit—from the parental home—seems archetypal. It reminds us of the stories played out in fairy tales, myths, legends, and memoirs. The son leaves in due course to start his own family, or he runs away, or he is cast out. All three leave-takings are emotionally searing; all three have their share of turmoil. Even if the exit in the first scenario is anticipated and planned, even if it fits with what is deemed developmentally and culturally appropriate, it may still be a departure filled with ambivalence, conflict, relief, and liberation. But the drama seems heightened in the exits that deviate from the conventional mold. Those who run away from the parental home and those who are kicked out are exiting an untenable situation. Running away may be a desperate act, but it is an act of will. It is an exit of one’s own choosing. Being kicked out is a forced exit, a circumstance that wasn’t chosen, but one that must be endured and survived, where the connections to home are harder to repair or brutally severed forever.
Bijan’s departure weaves together all three archetypal narratives. He chooses to leave; he surprises himself by saying, “I’ll go.” But the choice comes on the heels of his older brother’s staunch refusal and his younger brother’s tragic death. As soon as the words escape his mouth, it does not feel like free choice. It is a choice made out of loyalty, the son protecting his parents from additional, unbearable grief. As soon as he arrives in New York, he wants to run back to his mother’s waiting arms and feel the softness and warmth of her bosom. But his leave-taking is also a story of running away—from the seductions of radical politics, from the war, the violence, the bloodshed—and a story of being cast out by a father who does it out of love, not punishment or anger. The father’s insistence that he go and stay away are indicative of the tremendous protection and life-giving care he feels for Bijan. Exiting home is a family love story.
DANCING ALL THE WAY HOME“It always begins with a declaration to yourself.”
This next exit narrative—of homecoming—does not have the geographic sweep of Bijan’s story; it is not about traveling many time zones away from a parental home or about the clashes in language, politics, and culture that mark the separation between a son and his family of origin. Rather it is a story played out on a smaller scale, where the movements and exits reflect an interior journey, where the borders and barriers are partly defined by public presumptions and societal prejudices, but also by the deeply embedded definitions of manhood and morality that were shaped by growing up in a working-class Irish Catholic family and neighborhood. Andrew Connolly, a fifty-eight-year-old gay man, tells the brave and hopeful story of coming home to himself after a long series of exits from the “closet.”
It is impossible for him to talk about exiting from the “closet” without returning to his roots—the home where he was raised; the neighborhood where he played and made friends; the school where he learned, competed, and secured his place in the pecking order; the church he attended; the gods he worshipped. Andrew Connolly begins at the beginning with these pieces of his background. “I grew up in a very Catholic, working-class, ethnically identified Irish family,” he says plainly. Andrew’s father was a firefighter, his mother a stay-at-home mom until her three children, all sons, finished high school, when she went back to school and became an elementary school teacher. They lived modestly on his father’s income in a triple-decker house that they saved for and eventually owned in a neighborhood in Worcester, Massachusetts. Family life—which Andrew remembers as “nurturing and loving”—largely centered on the church. Andrew was a devoted altar boy, donning vestments and participating in services every Sunday morning and a few times a week. Their parish priests and the professors from the nearby College of Holy Cross were frequently honored guests at their dinner table, and Andrew’s maternal uncle—a family favorite—was a Jesuit priest, a highly educated, well-traveled, worldly man who was seen as a worthy role model for his three nephews.
Although the family was solidly working class in terms of income, Andrew remembers home as a “pretty middle-class intellectual environment,” with “ideas and politics thrown around at the dinner table,” a huge emphasis on education, and the visiting professors offering them a larger vision of the world. As a matter of fact, all three Connolly sons grew up to be highly educated achievers who earned advanced degrees and enjoyed successful careers. The oldest is a physician, the youngest a clinical psychologist, and Andrew—in the middle—is an educator and university professor.
Andrew smiles at the way in which his parents divided up the world. “They were fighting the Reformation,” he says. “It was the Protestants versus the Catholics … the Democrats versus the Republicans.” As a matter of fact, all these things were seamlessly combined into a collective identity. “My parents were Roosevelt, liberal Democrats … Irish/Catholic/Democrats … It was all one word, melded together.” It wasn’t until Andrew went to college, when he discovered that there was a tiny but vocal Republican Club actively trying to recruit student members, that he even knew there was such a thing as a “Republican Catholic.” The “us against them mentality” extended beyond politics and religion to class divisions. Andrew recalls, “My dad was a labor leader. He always saw the struggle between the workingman and the man
. I never heard racist remarks, because blacks were considered allies, part of the working class … on our side.
“The assumption going in was that I would be a priest,” says Andrew about the way in which early on he was identified as the one who would honor his family in that way. In most of the families he knew, parents hoped and prayed that at least one of their boys would become a priest. I ask Andrew why he was the one “chosen” in his family, and the question seems to surprise him a bit, as if his “being the one” felt so natural and inevitable to everyone. “Well,” he says tentatively, “I was deeply religious … I liked church, the liturgy, and all the rituals, and I probably wasn’t chasing after girls the way my brothers were.” He smiles. “I must have lacked the same kind of enthusiasm for the opposite sex that my brothers exhibited,” he says with understatement.
Andrew’s relative “lack of enthusiasm for girls” reaches back to early adolescence, a time when he seemed to be sitting on top of the world. “I was athletic, popular. I loved sports and fishing … I liked to do boy things.” He contrasts his popularity and his devotion to sports with the characteristics of many gay boys who grow up feeling “alienated from the guys,” who are so often marginalized or even bullied by the straight boys who won’t let them join the masculine cliques. “You know,” says Andrew, underscoring his very different experience, “the story of the last kid chosen for the team … I was the one choosing the team. I was the exemplar … I very much belonged.” The feeling of being one of the boys “with muscles”—one of the very masculine boys—seems to be an important theme in Andrew’s exit narrative. In eventually declaring himself gay, he was not leaving a community in which he had been diminished or excluded; he was not responding to being an outcast, derided for being effeminate, a “fag.” He was leaving a group of his peers where he was admired and included, where he was considered strong and powerful, a leader. And he was finding his way into a community where he wanted to connect with gays, like him, who had muscles and were winners, whose experience had not been overwhelmed by the feeling of being “other” or “less.” Andrew’s adolescent experience of being a popular, admired leader in the straight boys’ world seems to have provided him with a level of self-confidence that made his exit out of the closet less fraught, less painful. “You see, I was feeling good about myself, comfortable in my skin … exiting from a place of strength.” he says.
Andrew was thirteen years old when he had his first sexual encounter with a boy who was one of his best friends. At the time—and all through high school—he was openly and “pleasantly” dating girls, but this encounter with his good friend seemed “special and sweet.” Andrew chuckles at the memory. “I enjoyed it. There was nothing negative about it … except that it was sinful.” It only happened once, and neither of them ever spoke about it after that. After high school Andrew decided to attend college at Holy Cross, where he entered as a day student because his family did not have the money to pay for room and board. He continued to date girls, but he remembers “a growing attraction for men at an emotional and physical level.”
Again Andrew recalls one encounter with a straight guy, during his freshman year, where he “acted on his attraction a bit.” But it was more of a flirtation, not the real thing; nothing was acknowledged by either of them. This was 1968, a time when no one—“not a single guy”—at the all-male Catholic college “would have called himself gay.” From time to time Andrew reminds me of how “different things were back then,” how “gays were invisible and everything was underground,” and “how much guilt, shame, and secret pleasure were part of the hidden life.” Even though no one at Holy Cross admitted to being gay, there was definitely “gay sex going on.” There were the real effeminate “glee club guys” who everyone believed were having sex with one another. “But that was not me,” says Andrew about how he never found “those types” attractive. And there was also gay sex going on between a few well-known professors who were “actively cruising their students.” In fact, Andrew remembers being hit on by two faculty members. “They came on to me, but I never acted on it,” he says casually.
Although Andrew did not identify with the glee club guys, he did begin to frame a political outlook that redrew the map between gays and straights. “I was beginning to develop an identity as a progressive thinker,” he says about opening his mind and heart to the gay world. One evening he went with a bunch of his friends to see The Boys in the Band
, a play about gay men at a party. Andrew explains, “The playwright had a preliberation perspective … you know, the view that these gay guys are pathetic and we need to have sympathy for them … a view that would today make most people cringe.” Andrew missed all the political and social subtexts. All he remembers is sitting in the audience lusting after the sexy-looking actors on the stage. He is grinning at the memory of his big, surprising response. “I sat there thinking, These are some hot guys who are gay … they are not like the guys in the glee club.”
After college, Andrew went on to graduate school in Rochester, New York, his first time away from home. But even there—even without “the inhibiting influence of home”—he really didn’t do “gay stuff.” He shakes his head, remembering a single encounter. “There was sexual stuff with one guy, but we didn’t really go far.” Occasionally Andrew dated women, but by now it had become “more of a cover.” There was some pleasure, but no sexual attraction. His heart was definitely not in it. He remembers one woman that he very much enjoyed being with, so they dated off and on for several months and it “got pretty serious.” When she began to talk about the future and hint at marriage, Andrew—for the first time—confronted himself. “I thought to myself, It is wrong to be doing this … I’m lying to her and lying to myself. This is not honest, not authentic.” And although he didn’t yet have the nerve to tell her that he was gay, he broke off the relationship, felt guilty and sad for how he had misled her, and never dated a woman again.
After his year in Rochester, in 1973, Andrew moved to Boston, a city he had known growing up, a city that had a lively gay community and an emerging gay political movement. There was also a tempting nightlife that beckoned to him. He began frequenting a gay bar—the Cabaret—first joined by his friend and roommate, a straight male, and a couple of straight girls who were his “good buddies,” then finding his way to the club on his own. “It felt open and cool, and I would go there and dance the night away,” he says about his beginning dance steps into gay life. But when he stopped dancing, he realized that the Cabaret was not a place where he really felt comfortable. A lot of the guys there reminded him of the glee club boys from college. “Back then,” Andrew recalls, shrugging his shoulders, “it was fashionable to be thin and very effeminate. These were gay guys who called each other by girls’ names, and I wasn’t comfortable with that … I was looking for guys with muscles.”
Several months later Andrew heard about another bar—Rizzo—that “catered to guys like” him. “The first time I walked in there,” he says dramatically, “I thought I was in heaven … and I was!” He reminds me that discovering and finding his way to Rizzo was not easy. This was 1976, and there was, of course, “no Internet and no gay news channel that kept folks in touch with one another or helped direct you to the right gay resources.” Finding Rizzo and mixing with the musclemen felt to Andrew as if he had come “home.” It was also the moment when he definitively came out to himself, when he said, “I’m not going to fake it anymore. I’m going to pursue relationships with men, and I’m going to call myself gay.”
Although he can identify the moment when he declared himself gay—first to himself—he wants me to know that the process of coming out is “long and layered.” “It is not binary,” he says, “like one day you’re in the closet and the next day you’re out. It’s like peeling an onion … slowly removing the layers that cover and mask.” And “it always begins with a declaration to yourself” that you are gay, and then announcements along the way to family, friends, acquaintances, and colleagues. It is “tedious and difficult” to carefully spread the news, to not fall back into the old habits of obfuscation, to ride out the ambivalence that sometimes reemerges even if you feel sure of what you are doing.
As he relives those early days, Andrew says that for him the process of coming out may have gone a little more quickly for two reasons. First, by then, he was loving his work as a special education teacher and had become deeply involved in the “disability movement.” His advocacy for the fair treatment of disabled students made him think, “If I can do this for them, I can also stand up for myself and other gays.” And second, his “progressive political orientation” easily mixed and merged into the gay rights movement, which was in its early stages. “All at once, I was having sex with men, going to Provincetown as a gay person, and joining the gay rights struggle in the streets. I no longer wanted to live a separate, private life, hiding my gayness, muting my voice.”
Even though he was clear that he no longer wanted to be closeted, Andrew did worry about losing his job. At the time, he was teaching at a vocational high school in a suburb of Boston, where he definitely would have been fired had they discovered that he was gay. “There was no job security. We were always having to watch our backs,” he recalls. “This was the terrifying era of Anita Bryant’s ‘holy war on homosexuals,’ and folks were doing witch hunts against gays. It was a dangerous time.” As a matter of fact, Bryant’s religious crusade—when she unleashed her infamous slogan, “Gays can’t reproduce so they have to recruit”—was initially focused on prohibiting gays from becoming teachers. Andrew felt somewhat safer when he found an administrative job in the Boston public schools; he immediately joined a newly formed activist coalition called Gay and Lesbian School Workers. “The fact that the teachers called themselves workers gave a sense of where they were coming from.” He smiles. At first they were suspicious of Andrew’s wish to join; as an administrator, he was seen as “the enemy.” All the other members were lefty teachers—“workers”—who were suspicious of his “establishment credentials.” But it didn’t take long before they realized that his heart was in the right place and that he was a valuable political ally. “Even though Boston was more open, and even though there were clear signs of political change, these were still very frightening times,” explains Andrew. “We wanted to make schools safe places for gay teachers. At the time, we were not even focused on the vulnerability of gay students.” Within a couple of years they had secured job protection for gays in the Boston school contract.
One of the leaders of the movement—Earl Haywood—became a close friend and an important and valued mentor. Several years older than Andrew, he was an experienced and savvy activist, an outspoken teacher at a local progressive independent school, and someone who seemed both fearless and strategic. It was at his urging that Andrew and he collaborated in starting the Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. When Andrew thinks back on his gay identity and his political activism, he often points to the critical role of mentors in his life, Earl being at the top of the list. “I was fortunate to meet guys who really pushed me and guided me.” He underscores the ways in which his mentors combined the personal and the political, blending passion and discipline, strategy and courage. As Andrew paved his own path, their influence on him was big and exciting. “Coming out sexually and politically was exhilarating … I loved being part of the gay rights movement.” He beams. The exhilaration, of course, had its dark and scary side. In the summer of 1979 at Boston’s first gay rights parade, many of the marchers wore bags over their heads to hide their identity, and people watching along the parade route threw bottles and rotten tomatoes and shouted ugly homophobic slurs.
The first person Andrew came out to was Greg, his best straight friend and roommate, with whom he “shared political views” and whom he “trusted implicitly.” He knew this would be the easiest, least stressful of his coming-out conversations. “Greg was not at all surprised,” recalls Andrew. “Within a few weeks we were double-dating.” By contrast, another good friend, a working-class Italian kid he had known from his childhood, acted as if Andrew’s news were a death sentence. “He said, ‘I feel terrible for you. I can’t believe what pain you must be experiencing’ … He was patronizing and sympathetic,” says Andrew, shaking his head. “My response was, ‘Time out, man … being gay is not a tragedy. I see it as a gift.’” He tried to draw an analogy. What if his friend could take a pill that would render him non-Italian, would he do it? Of course not! He was proud of his Italian roots, his heritage, and his culture; he would never do anything to alter that. So neither would Andrew take a pill to become straight; he loved being gay.
Coming out to his brothers was a “piece of cake; they were completely cool with it.” They were right there with him, cheering him on, embroidering him into their straight lives, going out dancing with him at gay clubs. It was mostly the same with the rest of his family, many of whom had not thought of him as gay and expressed some surprise, but then accepted him fully. One Sunday he even hosted a big brunch at his place in the South End for all his cousins, nieces, nephews, and gay friends—bringing his two worlds together—and everyone had a great time.
It was only his mother and father who never fully accepted his being gay. They never wanted to talk about it, and Andrew did not “force the issue.” Even though he tried to “have the conversation” several times, they always came back with the same brief, dismissive response. “We love you … It’s your business. We don’t want to talk about it.” Andrew’s face is resigned but sad. I ask him how he has made sense of his parents’ refusal to talk, and he says gently, “They came from a different generation, and sex wasn’t anything my parents ever talked about … I knew my mother was opposed to birth control because of the church, but nothing else was ever said.” He describes the “huge family tragedy” when his older brother got his girlfriend pregnant in college and they had to get married by a justice of the peace because the church refused to allow them to have a wedding. “They were thought to be living in sin,” says Andrew as he recalls “where his parents were coming from” and the prohibitions and guilt piled on by the church.
Andrew can somehow manage to understand the generational and religious reasons that his parents could never accept his being gay. What he can’t bear, and what still makes him angry and bitter, is the fact that they never recognized his long-term partner, Matthew, “as my spouse.” And when he died of AIDS after a decade-long union, they refused to attend his funeral. “It was devastating,” says Andrew, his eyes filling with tears. “My uncle, the Jesuit priest—my mother’s brother—was completely accepting. He gave Matthew his last rites and did the funeral service, but my parents never came around.” Looking back on what now feels like “the ultimate betrayal,” Andrew wishes he had at least “forced the issue” with his parents when his spouse was buried. But even now he doesn’t seem to have a clue about how he might have confronted them in a way that would have changed their disrespectful behavior.
Andrew had to peel another layer of the onion back at work, in his professional life. Because of his very public role in the gay rights movement around town, most people at work knew and accepted the fact that he was gay. Fairly quickly he rose in the administrative ranks in the school system, and he remembers an incident around his gayness that backfired in unexpected ways. Andrew, the youngest in his department, was about to be promoted to the top position, director of special education for the whole school system. At that time, there were two warring factions in the department—the old guard and the young Turks who had very different philosophical and political takes on the field of special education. Andrew was clearly in the latter camp.
When he was about to be appointed, the old guard decided to voice their opposition directly to the five members of the school board, complaining that a gay person should not be allowed to get the top job. “You see, they used the gay thing because they couldn’t get me on my competence,” says Andrew about their “pathetic attempts” to be obstructionists. But in each meeting they had with individual board members, their requests were denied, and they were turned away. In fact, in a couple of cases, members of the board actually threw the petitioners out of their offices. The old guard hadn’t counted on the fact that Andrew had either exchanged political favors or developed a personal relationship with each and every member of the board, and he already knew the votes were there. And it turned out that the most conservative woman on the board, a middle-aged single mother from Dorchester, was the most sympathetic. She had a son and an administrative assistant who were both gay. The victory was sweet, but the bitterness still lingers. “It was a five–zero vote … but for me it was very hurtful.”
The evening after the vote, Andrew went to a community gathering, where the man sitting next to him offered congratulations on his new job and asked him for the “backstory.” Andrew was forthcoming, telling him about the opposition’s efforts to stop his appointment, how they had used his gayness as their rallying cry. The next day, the whole story appeared in the Metro section of The Boston Globe
. The stranger sitting next to him had never identified himself as a newspaper reporter. Although it was shocking and unsettling to see the article in the paper, after a while Andrew saw the whole thing as positive, even liberating. “As it turned out, being in the newspaper was wonderful. I didn’t have to do any more of this coming out … it had all been made very public.”
From Boston, Andrew moved to Chicago to become associate superintendent of schools, and once again he was forced “to figure out how to be out.” Some of his friends said that the Midwest would be a much less friendly place for gays, that he needed to be more cautious. And Andrew didn’t want his sexuality to take center stage; he didn’t want it to become “the issue” in Chicago. “I was always wanting to be careful that my gay identity wouldn’t distort or compromise the work I was doing in the disability movement,” he says about a calculation that always seems particularly pointed when he enters a new political environment and must decide whether to peel back another layer of the onion. Before arriving in Chicago, he decided to dismiss his friends’ warnings and come out to his boss, who was “cool with it.” And soon after he arrived in the Midwest, he met and befriended the mayor and his wife, who had a disabled son, and they became staunch allies in his work on behalf of disabled students and then big supporters of gay rights. Andrew had arrived just in time to lead the AIDS prevention work in the Chicago schools, developing a sex education curriculum, setting up health clinics, and distributing condoms to students who were sexually active. The culminating event was the walk for AIDS down Michigan Avenue. “That was my very public way of coming out,” Andrew recalls of the moment when his political and personal worlds converged and he marched at the front of the line with the mayor.
Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, a MacArthur prize–winning sociologist, is the Emily Hargroves Fisher Professor of Education at Harvard University. She is the author of ten books, including The Third Chapter, Respect, The Essential Conversation, and Balm in Gilead, which won the 1988 Christopher Award for “literary merit and humanitarian achievement.” She is the recipient of twenty-eight honorary degrees and is the first African American woman in Harvard’s history to have an endowed professorship named in her honor.