Gay Man´s Memoir Recounts Forced Marriage, Coming Out
Michael El Bacha (pictured)
It was that terrible moment when Michael El-Bacha wanted to end it all, feeling he was better off taking his own life.
The tumultuous events that led up to his attempted suicide, and the way he has rebuilt his life since that nadir, are the focus of his new memoir, Oh, My God! Am I Alright?: A True Account of My Life, about growing up in the western suburbs of Sydney, Australia to strict religious Lebanese Christians.
El-Bacha, 41, met to talk with the Bay Area Reporter during his weeklong stop in San Francisco in early August, part of a monthlong whirlwind book tour in the U.S., including stops in Las Vegas; New York; Fire Island; Washington, D.C.; and Los Angeles. What makes El-Bacha's journey so compelling is that he is the first Australian Lebanese man with a Christian background to come out publicly and on TV. What has garnered so much attention in the Australian media is that he is also the first man forced into a marriage to come out in the media as well.
"It didn't make sense to me why my parents, who had defied tradition by eloping and marrying for love, would arrange my marriage to my first cousin whom I had just met in Lebanon a few weeks prior," El-Bacha said. "However, I believe that my parents knew I was different from my brothers, as growing up I was my mum's little helper with the household chores. I think that even before I had a chance to discover my own sexuality, even before I definitely knew I was gay, they wanted to marry me off before I found out the truth."
He said he married at 19 after graduation from high school.
"I wasn't sure if I was gay. If I had thoughts about men, I would hit myself on the forehead, saying this wasn't the way I was brought up to believe, especially with my strict Maronite Catholic background," El-Bacha said. "In that tradition there's no room for gay, or it's seen just as a phase. I thought once I married Fi, who was just 17, those gay thoughts would go away, which was not the case."
Forced marriages among traditional cultures in Australia are used to discourage gay men from coming out. A law passed in 2013 makes it illegal to coerce, threaten, or deceive someone into marriage, with punishment being up to seven years in prison.
The first honeymoon night for El-Bacha was disastrous in that no sex took place, as both he and his bride were exhausted, physically and emotionally, he recalled. The next morning his parents were angry and gave the couple an hour to consummate or face disgrace. Thinking about men the whole time, the conjugal act was mechanical and sterile with no foreplay, but the bed sheets inspected by El-Bacha's parents were proof enough to satisfy them.
The next day El-Bacha became physically ill with a bright red band on his abdomen, resulting in a three-day hospital stay attached to an IV drip.
"I later learnt that my illness was a manifestation of the stress and anxiety of my arranged marriage, a kind of nervous breakdown," he said.
After a six-month separation so his wife could immigrate to Australia, El-Bacha honored the family commitment to get his wife pregnant.
"I knew what I had to do, but I still was not physically attracted to her and intimacy between us was very textbook and rigid," he said. But it was successful, as a baby boy, Buddy, was born.
However, his wife's sexual advances were becoming increasingly unbearable.
"I found myself cringing whenever she touched me and I started pushing her away, both physically and emotionally," El-Bacha said. "I was having sexual thoughts about men and I could no longer stay in my marriage and live an absolute lie."
El-Bacha also started abusing alcohol and using drugs. It reached a crisis when he told his wife he didn't love her anymore, and he was not even sure he ever had. He asked her to let him go, as he didn't want to be with her any longer. His parents were devastated by the collapse of their marriage and his father slapped him across the face.
An in-demand escort
Starting to meet men at a gay sauna, El-Bacha had no place to go. He couch-surfed at friends' homes. He needed money and a girlfriend suggested he could be an escort, which he did for six months, as Lebanese men were highly sought after in the Australian gay community.
"I lost myself for awhile, often high on drugs," he recalled. "I made enough money to rent a lovely place on the beach in Sydney, which very few guys at my age could afford. I had to entertain both men and women, though for women I couldn't get aroused. But I was good with my fingers and mouth, which usually did the trick, though one woman was upset and demanded her money back.
"But escorting helped me realize I was gay," El-Bacha continued. "One client requested I put a chocolate doughnut around his penis and watched me eat it, which would get him off every time."
Christian guilt and a desire to have a committed relationship with a man led him to leave escorting.
Loneliness sets in
Meanwhile El-Bacha's devout Christian parents were so desperate to get him back to his wife that they resorted to using black magic, a love potion made by a sheik (part of the Islamic tradition) meant to make him fall back in love with her. His wife was supposed to put the drug in his tea, but told him about it and they threw it away. He had heard a similar story occurring to a young man in Lebanon who had left his girlfriend, but drank the potion, started hearing voices, and later hanged himself. El-Bacha eventually had gay boyfriends and a successful job, divorcing his wife, who later remarried.
But in 2008, he was unemployed, returning after traveling abroad, long estranged from his family.
"I was depressed, after losing my ex, the love of my life, plus my closest straight friend and support was away, deeply involved with his girlfriend. I had spent my severance pay on drugs, so I had nothing and no one," El-Bacha said. "I was very lonely, hated myself and where my life was at, which led to my suicide attempt, which I had never thought of before. Everything that had happened to me had led me to this state of mind. I figured it was best I should go. I consumed a dangerous cocktail of drugs. I began to text my friends and family saying goodbye, telling them I loved them.
"I messaged 12-year-old Buddy: 'my son, I love you no matter where I am in life. I love you with my all, as much as a father could love his son. My blood, you are always in my heart. Please look after yourself and try never to forget about me.'"
He then received a reply from Buddy, who had never answered his messages in the past.
"He wrote: 'I luv u 2 dad.' He became my reality check and it dawned on me – my son does love me and I had to be strong for him," El-Bacha said.
He writes in his book his thinking at the time: "I felt as though I was better taking my own life, so that my son wouldn't have to deal with his father being gay, that my family wouldn't suffer anymore, so I could be free. I was ashamed of who I was and believed they'd be better off without me."
Fortunately his roommate discovered him unconscious in time.
A reevaluation and recovery
With therapy, anti-depressants, quitting drugs, and reevaluating his life, El-Bacha recovered, eventually telling Buddy he was gay, with him replying that he knew he had a father who was different.
"I let Channel 10 television, primetime news, tell my family that I was gay when my book came out and I revealed how I was forced into a marriage. They were angry with me; that I had embarrassed and disgraced them. They don't like talking about me being gay but eventually came to respect me," El-Bacha said.
He added that his youngest brother also came out as gay and his family attended his engagement party to his boyfriend.
"I think I paved the way for him," El-Bacha said. "The whole family was there. But when I went to Lebanon, I released my book in a bookshop in my father's village, yet I had to do it behind their backs because they didn't want me known as gay in Lebanon. The owner embraced my book because of the forced marriage issue. I told her everything except the gay part.
"There is a gay movement and community happening in Lebanon," he continued. "It's still backwards and you can't come out publicly. If there's anything pro-gay occurring in the Middle East it will be in Lebanon, because it is a country run by Christians, not Muslims."
El-Bacha believes that Omar Mateen, the Orlando Pulse shooter, was gay, but couldn't be true to himself.
"I think his experience and mine show the importance of cultural acceptance and tolerance, with education being vital," he said.
El-Bacha, while acknowledging he has made many mistakes, now feels he has grown to be wiser.
"I believe in God. I was born this way; having had no choice in the way God has made me and feel he would not want me to live a tormented life. My life and my sexuality is between me and God," he said. "I'm involved with suicide awareness and proceeds from my book launches will go to groups dealing with that issue. I want to give back and save lives. I also will be promoting gay rights in Australia. We get treated fairly but not equally. It also depends in which state you live in. We are pushing for marriage equality, no longer satisfied with second-class domestic partnerships. It's time, as New Zealand has already legalized same-sex marriages."
El-Bacha said there's expected to be a public vote on marriage in Australia in 2017.
"Though we would have preferred a law in Parliament, as the election will bring up a lot of unnecessary hatred toward us," he said.
El-Bacha signs his messages, "love and light," believing there is always hope.
"I want to be a role model and help people deal with their sexuality struggles," he said. "No one should be afraid to be who they are. Be true to yourself, who you were born to be."
When El-Bacha returns to Australia he is planning to write a film script based on his memoir.
Oh, My God! Am I Alright? is available at www.amazon.com in a Kindle edition.
By Brian Bromberger