By Erika Hayasaki
Aliyah Bacchus returns home to offer a choice: Accept her sexuality -- as she has -- or lose her forever.
Aliyah Bacchus returns home to offer a choice: Accept her sexuality -- as she has -- or lose her forever.
December 17, 2008
Reporting from New York — All she has left of the person she used to be is contained in a 5-by-7 photo album with "Aliyah Bacchus" written in blue pen on its cover, each picture inside tucked beneath a slip of clear plastic.
There she is at 17, barely 90 pounds, smiling sourly on her wedding day in Queens, N.Y., dressed in hijab -- a pearl-toned princess bridal gown shimmering with beads, her slender hands dipped in sleek white gloves, a veil attached to a white qimar, or head scarf, fastened snugly around her face. The man her father chose for her stands behind Aliyah wearing a black bow tie, his hands resting on her bony shoulders.
That was before. Before she walked out on the marriage. Before her Guyana-born Muslim family discovered she was gay. Before she fled.
Aliyah is 22 now, still hovering at 90 pounds, the dark skin of her Indian roots hugging bone, a boyishly feminine lesbian with cropped black hair gelled into a tussle atop her head, long eyelashes and sharp cheekbones.
She has traded her abaya, which she wore throughout middle and high school, for an ankle-length black trench coat and sunglasses with metallic frames. She has one piercing in her left ear, four in her right, a metal rod bridging the cartilage in the ear's upper rim, a ring in her bellybutton, another in her nose.
Aliyah is Muslim. It's a part of her identity she can't shed, like her sexuality, like her last name -- Bacchus, as in the Roman god of wine and merriment -- and like her ink-stained flesh: the angel tattooed between her shoulder blades, the dark dragons on her lower back, the polar bear on her stomach, the dying rose on her right wrist.
She knows that in some Muslim sects, homosexuality is considered a crime punishable by death. But Aliyah lives in America, raised in low-income housing projects 20 miles from Manhattan's West Village, where police raided the Stonewall Inn in 1969, setting off riots that sparked the beginning of a national gay rights movement.
In America, Aliyah knows, it is acceptable to be gay. But how, she wonders, can she be true to who she is while also adhering to her family's faith? How does she reconcile both sides of her existence?
The pictures, faded and fragile, show Aliyah hugging her little sister, standing next to her father, laughing with her brother -- a smiling tribe living in the Far Rockaway neighborhood of Queens. The photographs remind Aliyah that she used to belong to a family.
On an evening this spring, the sun sets as Aliyah sits on a park bench in the West Village, police sirens blaring around her. Police show up to break up two drunken men fist-fighting a few steps away. Aliyah is calm, nearly oblivious to the urban chaos around her.
Sneezing and stuffy with a cold, she is lost in thought, eating a piece of raw chocolate. Aliyah fell in love recently, and the woman accepts her as she is. "For at least one person," Aliyah says, "I seem to be enough."
It is enough to convince Aliyah to go home for the first time in over two years. She will tell her family to accept that she is gay, or lose her forever.
The angel is rising out of flames.
The tattoo represents Aliyah's mother who, at 15, had an arranged marriage. She was 19 when she gave birth to Aliyah, her third child after two boys. She died in a fire two months later.
Unable to raise three children alone in the Guyanese town of La Bonne Intention, Aliyah's father turned child-rearing duties over to his sister, an Islamic studies teacher married to an imam. Aliyah came to love her aunt as she would have loved her mother. In her aunt's household, Aliyah became immersed in Islamic tradition, learning to read and write in Arabic and memorizing portions of the Koran.
Her father remarried. Aliyah split her time living with her father's new family on a chicken farm, and at her aunt's home. When she was 10, her father decided to relocate the family to New York. Her aunt moved here too.
In Queens, her father ordered her to dress in hijab every time she went in public. She enrolled in IS 53, an intermediate school, as the only abaya-wearing Indian student in her class, on a campus of black and Latino students. After school and on weekends, Aliyah taught the principles of Islam to her Muslim peers in the community.
By 13, suitors began coming to her father's door, asking for Aliyah's hand in marriage. When Aliyah argued with her father, he threatened to make her marry and drop out of school. Aliyah stopped paying attention in class. What was the point if her life was destined for marriage and kids, with no hopes for college or a career?
Aliyah was 16 when Muslim terrorists attacked New York in 2001. From her 19th-floor apartment windows, she watched smoke billow from the burning towers. In the weeks that followed, she continued to wear the ankle-length abaya to school. A Muslim friend asked her to stop, saying it was unsafe. She kept wearing it, as if daring the world to take her on.
Her anger and disillusionment stewed. During Aliyah's senior year, she enrolled in a yearbook class. The teacher was young and full of idealism. Aliyah daydreamed about her and spent lunch periods in her classroom. Aliyah would not admit it to herself until years later, but she had a crush on her teacher. She pushed her romantic thoughts aside.
Aliyah's father suffered from heart problems and wanted his daughter to be taken care of after his death. He gave his blessing for her to marry a 23-year-old Guyanese Muslim.
She met him in June 2002. They were married in a religious ceremony in August, after her high school graduation. They took wedding pictures in the rain in a botanical garden in Queens, before heading to the reception in his family's backyard. That night, she lay beside her husband, thinking: What the hell am I doing?
The couple moved into a studio. Aliyah did everything she believed a wife should do: She cleaned and cooked his favorite pastas and West Indian dishes. When she visited her aunt, Aliyah told her she did not feel attracted to her husband. Eyeing her suspiciously, her aunt asked: Are you attracted to girls?
I'm not attracted to anybody, Aliyah remembered telling her.
Attraction, her aunt told her, would come with patience.
She quarreled with her husband. She chopped her waist-length black hair into a bob. She started seeing a therapist recommended by a former high school counselor.
One night, Aliyah became agitated after missing a therapy session. She needed someone to talk to. Instead, Aliyah argued with her husband, and this time he grabbed her. She pushed back, jabbing her elbow into his throat. After that, he left her alone.
Ten weeks into her marriage, Aliyah moved in with family and told her father the marriage was over.
Her therapist gave her information about the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in Manhattan. Aliyah had never met a lesbian. She showed up at the center to attend a meeting, and immediately the other women adopted her like a little sister. She began attending dance and movie nights, and weekly meetings and seminars.
It all made sense, Aliyah thought. Her infatuation with her high school teacher, her lack of interest in men: She was gay.
"It wasn't an epiphany," Aliyah remembered. "It was more like, 'OK, time for me to grow up, time for me to face reality.' It's either that, or you live your life lying to yourself."
Inside, Aliyah felt relief. But she knew her family would never accept her as a lesbian. She decided she would live two separate lives, one as a lesbian, the other as a devout Muslim daughter.
Aliyah turned 18 in October. Six months later, her father died of heart failure.
Aliyah mourned, weeping into the dark over his death, while feeling thankful he never found out she was gay. Aliyah continued to keep her secret from the rest of the family.
She took a job at a real estate agency operated by a family friend and moved into her own apartment. Aliyah's boss snooped into her life, one day asking if she was a lesbian. Aliyah told her yes. Her boss told her aunt.
Unaware that she had been outed, Aliyah called her aunt. Aliyah remembered her aunt telling her: If you're going to tell me you're a lesbian, I cannot and will not be associated with you. Her aunt hung up. Aliyah sat on the steps outside her apartment, staring at her phone. Not long after, she received an e-mail from her brother saying something similar.
Aliyah left her job. In January 2006, she packed her belongings and headed to northeast Pennsylvania with a friend from the LGBT center.
'It firmly states in the Koran: 'Ye without faults will be replaced. But those that commit sin, repent,' " says Aliyah, sitting on a shaded patch of grass in Manhattan's Union Square one afternoon. It is her day off as a security guard. Since returning to New York in September 2007, she has been living meagerly.
"Allah doesn't want you to be perfect," she continues, pulling on blades of grass. "He doesn't want you to be without faults, he doesn't want you to be without sin, he just wants you to repent. And if you are without sin, you will be replaced by someone who commits sin."
But is homosexuality a sin?
Aliyah knows the story of the city of Lot in the Koran, which is often pointed to as an argument against homosexuality. "It's the whole story about the city being destroyed because they were gay," she says. It is the same text as the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which has been used to condemn homosexuality in Christianity and Judaism.
"I am living an upright life. I try to be charitable," she says. "But who decides what is sin and what is not? It's not for man to decide."
She knows her family would allow her back into their lives if she repented, and renounced her homosexuality.
"I want to be a part of my family," Aliyah says. "But what is the price that I have to pay? Honestly, I would rather die than go back to that person I was."
One evening in February, Aliyah stops by the LGBT Community Center, which is holding a seminar on hypnosis. She notices a young woman, bundled up in a scarf and coat, walking in front of her to sign in. The clerk asks the woman's name. She replies: StellaStella.
That's a beautiful name, Aliyah says.
Stella turns to thank her. All Aliyah sees are green eyes. Once inside, Aliyah strikes up a conversation.
Stella Zagori, an artist, is four years older than Aliyah, and grew up in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, moving to the U.S. when she was 14. Stella has known since she was 9 that she was gay. Like Aliyah, during her adolescence she wasn't interested in dating. Where she grew up, being gay was not accepted either.
With each day, their connection deepens. They fall in love.
Two months later, Aliyah decides it is time to pay a visit to her aunt.
It is a gray and drizzly 50-degree morning in April. Aliyah is wearing her black trench coat, a blue collared shirt and a black necktie. Her hair is gelled, and her eyelids are coated in sparkly silver-purple eye shadow. She left home in such a nervous rush that she forgot her cellphone.
The brick building where her aunt lives is down the block from Rockaway Beach. "This is it," Aliyah says, lingering at the front doors. Inside the lobby, she presses the elevator button.
Her aunt's fourth-floor apartment smells like West Indian spices. Her aunt, who has prepared a beef dish, looks shorter and rounder than Aliyah remembers. Her aunt glances at Aliyah, and says she looks like a boy.
Sitting down to eat, her aunt immediately asks if Aliyah has dealt with her problem. Aliyah acts as if she doesn't know what she's talking about.
They hurry through the meal, and Aliyah says she wants to get some air. Her aunt drives her to the boardwalk and parks her blue minivan on a bare wind-swept road. Gusts of sand swirl outside the windows as they sit in tense silence.
Aliyah tells her aunt she is in love with a woman, who is not a Muslim.
Her aunt does not understand. She tells Aliyah she is too intelligent to be gay. It is the influence of the shaitan, she says, the devil.
Aliyah seethes. She realizes she will never change her aunt's mind. She could return, behaving as her family dictates, belonging to a family in which love comes with conditions. But that life is not hers anymore.
Aliyah opens the van's passenger side door and stomps off to the boardwalk, her fists stuffed inside the pockets of her trench coat. Her aunt follows, wearing a veil and an unzipped blue hooded sweat shirt over her long black hijab. They stand side by side behind a rail, staring into the violent ocean. Their black coverings billow in the heavy wind, as the sky breathes mist against their faces. Aliyah swivels to leave.
Her aunt reaches out for her as she walks, touching a hand on Aliyah's shoulder. She wriggles away.
"You know my number," her aunt says. "It goes both ways."
Aliyah says nothing.
"Salam o aliukum," her aunt tells her. May the peace and blessings of Allah be with you. I'll pray for Allah to forgive you, she tells Aliyah, before getting into her van.
Aliyah nods, and turns away. She does not look back.
In the morning, Stella and Aliyah will board a plane for Arizona.
The couple fasted during September for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. By October, both quit their jobs in Manhattan. Stella's mother lives in Arizona, where they are headed to begin a new life, away from the grip of the city and the memories it holds.
Six months have gone by since Aliyah visited her aunt. The two have not talked since. Stella is her family now.
The two women have a full journey ahead of them. Sitting on a bed next to a vase of wilted lilies on a nightstand, Aliyah stares at what is left to pack: Stella's books of art, drawers of clothes, two bottles of Russian red champagne. Aliyah opens a box filled with diaries. On top sits her family photo album.
For a moment, she thinks about leaving it behind.
She decides not to. Aliyah closes the box and tapes it shut, safely sealing the album away.