OPINION: 'It is humiliating to be in this position'
THIS is very difficult for me to write. But as someone who was raised by Lebanese and Palestinian parents, as someone who is proud of his cultural heritage, and as someone who happens to be gay - we need to have this conversation.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics is in the process of mailing out a survey to determine whether Australia's marriage laws should be amended to allow same-sex couples to marry. You have until October 27 to complete the ballot and send it back in the mail, and ultimately, I hope you vote yes. If not, I hope this open letter inspires you to do so.
Human rights should never be put to a public vote, especially when the tax funds being spent on it could be directed to more pressing needs - such as education and health. But after years of debate, the government is now forcing us to appeal to fellow Australians for equality.
It is humiliating to be in this position. Yet here I am, appealing to my fellow Arab-Australians. Whether you're Muslim or Christian, secular, religious or atheist; whether you trace your roots to the Levant, the Gulf or the Maghreb - this letter is for you. Because we're family, too.
I first came out 12 years ago, when I was 20. It was to a close friend of Iraqi background. I'll forever be grateful for her support at a time when I felt quite vulnerable. I have since gone through various coming out phases: notably seven years ago with mum and my godmother.
My mum even met my boyfriend this year - something she would never have done before.
I have also always been blessed with the support of all my friends - many of whom come from Arab cultural backgrounds. While my immediate family and close cousins have been supportive of me - it hasn't always been easy. However, things have improved immensely over the years and I'm lucky to have their unconditional support and love. But not every gay and lesbian Arab-Australian has that privilege. I do, and it's one of the reasons why I'm writing this. Because we're family, too.
In Arab families across the Middle East, North Africa (MENA) and the global immigrant diaspora, personal success is often measured by marriage and children before career success. From a young age, the family unit is drummed into our psyches as a crucial part of our life.
For the most part, we all love our families despite their faults - but our culture is unfortunately entrenched with toxic patriarchy and no room for sexual or gender diversity. It also doesn't help when MENA countries criminalise homosexuality, and in a few extreme cases, make it punishable by death.
Even if homosexuality were to become legally accepted across MENA, it wouldn't immediately unshackle the cultural sentiment that views it as a choice, a mental illness or a "western import".
We often hear community leaders and even loved ones saying they don't know of any gay people in their networks, or deny we even exist. But here's the catch: we do exist. We're your sons, your daughters, your brothers, your sisters, or one of your (many) cousins. It hurts when you make us invisible. It hurts when we're made to feel inferior for something we can't control. It hurts because we're family, too.
Some of us may be out of the closet, while many are not out at all. We all have different and deeply personal reasons for how open or closeted we decide to be.
We often fear being outcast or mocked by our own families if we come out. There's also a fear of bringing our parents shame. Either way, we work to keep our families happy - sometimes making sacrifices at the expense of our own happiness. We do this because we're family, too.
I acknowledge that people have different views when it comes to marriage equality. It's difficult to change the beliefs of many of our parents, our aunties and uncles, or even our siblings and cousins.
But it is not difficult to do what is fair and just in a secular society. After all, you, your parents or grandparents all settled in Australia for that very reason: to have a fair go. And that fair go should be extended to people like me, because we're family, too.
If you are not same-sex attracted, marriage equality will have no impact on you whatsoever. That is a fact. We're not demanding to have religious ceremonies, and we're certainly not advocating for any changes that could threaten the welfare of children.
I hope you vote with what you personally feel is right as a human being. I hope you don't fall for the misinformation, fear and propaganda being spread by several religious leaders and social media groups in our community. And I hope you question the professionalism of those Arabic-language media outlets with an obvious bias towards the "no" campaign.
But more than anything, I hope you acknowledge that gay and lesbians are just as much a part of the Arab-Australian community as you are. We live just like you do: pay our taxes, look after our parents, babysit our beloved nephews and nieces, dance the dabke at our cousins' weddings, or share a mezze and arak with lunch guests.
We deserve your respect and to be treated like decent human beings - just as we do to you - because we're family, too.
It would mean the world if you vote yes - and tell us that you did. We need our allies in the community, and we need them to be visible and vocal.
We would view your support as reassurance that we are indeed part of the family, too - and that is all we want.
Elias Jahshan is a former editor of Star Observer, and a former Arab Council Australia board member. Follow him on Twitter @Elias_Jahshan