Gay-Bashed -- Among the 'American Taliban' in Smalltown, USA
The happiness, the relief, the triumph in knowing you are out of harm's way -- only those who have escaped imminent injury by crossing borders or oceans to America can understand my elation upon reaching this land. Though not American, I was truly proud to be in America.
"Yes, children of decent fathers can turn out to be weirdos," the intelligence officer from Pakistan's dreaded Inter-Services Intelligence agency had said to me outside my apartment in Karachi. His meaningful smile told me that Pakistan's premier spy agency, angry over my writings against the nation's nuclear and jihadi follies, had begun blackmailing me over my gay sexuality. Soon afterwards, I escaped to U.S. safety after winning a journalistic fellowship.
Barely 10 months later: "Jesus Loves All." A Protestant, I carried the handwritten pink placard at a nearly 1,000-strong rally of a religious leader in the local football stadium. Then, as the clerics and the gathering looked on, I spun the placard to its other side: "Gays, Lesbians Bisexuals, Transgendered and Blacks."
Perhaps such in-your-face protest was wrong, but I felt justified in my anger: I went to the "religious crusade" after being badly wounded in a gay-bashing incident. The featured speaker, whom I will not name here, lamented that "America is becoming the drug and homosexual capital of the world." I was incensed all over again -- why put a person's sexuality in the same dirty basket as drug addiction?
Imagine a man who for half of his 40 years suffered with silent shame over his same-sex preference in a Pakistani society of medieval values. I even got married, in part to conform to societal norms, but mostly to challenge my orientation and try to return to the mainstream. No dice.
So in America, in celebration of my newfound personal freedom, I decided to come out of the closet. I no longer hid that I was gay. I felt safe.
But I discovered that Taliban-style attitudes are not restricted to Afghanistan and Pakistan. They exist tenaciously in American towns like this one. Sometimes tolerance prevails in small towns; other times the dark fears and hatreds of the "American Taliban" -- vicious fundamentalists -- are resurgent.
"This town once had the reputation of being a little bit like San Francisco," said one resident, Ray C. Others agreed, recalling more live-and-let-live days. Just a block from a statue of the town's founder had sat the town's openly gay bar, Water-on-Main. Outside stood a statue of a female pink poodle, which relieved its bladder male-style -- with one leg raised.
Those days are gone. Today, gay-bashing seems to be acceptable, and out of fear, many people here remain in the closet.
I am leaving Piqua with some fond memories, but also with a police report, and the emotional and physical scars it outlines. An officer writes of coming to the department's lobby to hear of an assault. "Upon arriving, I made contact with Ahmar Khan ... Four white males in a sports car had seen him walking and had yelled 'hey faggot' at him. Mr. Khan, who is openly homosexual, advised that the four males had then stopped, exited the vehicle, and one of the subjects, a white male with a muscular build, struck him in the face with a closed fist."
The operation at the local hospital lasted more than two hours. My jaw was broken in two places. For 50 long days I was on a liquid diet, unable even to eat Gerber's baby food.
Those who attacked me have yet to be brought to justice.
Before leaving Pakistan, I imagined white Americans were the embodiment of liberty. Whenever I had thought of America, I thought of freedom, and when I thought of freedom, I pictured white Americans -- the Founding Fathers, all U.S. presidents to date, most in Congress. And I had considered that small towns like this one must be "pure America" -- standing for freedom of speech and expression -- since most here are white.
My mistake. I don't mistrust all white Americans now, nor all small-town Americans. I'm just much, much more careful. And I'm moving to Las Vegas.
PNS contributor Ahmar Mustikhan (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a dissident Pakistani writer who came to the United States on a fellowship from the Society of Environmental Journalists.