Promiti Islam on queerness, Bengali-American identity, and the complexities of family acceptance,
Finding your betrothed’s name in your bridal henna promises a joyous life together
A common requestSophia
Sophia had never dated a woman, nor had she ever even considered it a possibility. And, though we quickly grew close, for a long time it wasn’t clear if we would date each other. Instead of falling into an easy relationship, we had months of denials and stolen kisses and email manifestos detailing all of the reasons our friendship was toxic. Even after we each shed our boyfriends, we lost touch for a year, reconnecting when Sophia moved to Manhattan for her medical residency.
We resumed the complicated relationship, this time allowing ourselves physical intimacy and closeness, and, at a snail’s pace, it began to build, but it was not smooth. My earlier fears resurfaced; I was queer, but I did not want to be gay. It seemed a guaranteed life of struggle, one that would forever mark me as Other. I had always understood my sexuality as a range of attractions, and to pursue this connection felt like a rigid declaration. More than once, I tried to end our relationship. A few days might pass, but like clockwork, liberated by liquid courage, I would come back to her.
On one fateful, wintry night out, I realized that none of the men I had flirted with during the night appealed to me. Still sweaty from the dance floor, I hopped in a taxi, sending Sophia a short text: I’m in. I’m so into your.
Into my what? she had messaged back. Not your, I meant YOU, I clarified. My big proclamation of love—sullied by a typo. But that was all it took.
Amid the bliss of brand-new romance, we were both still anxious about one thing in particular: the weight of coming out to our parents. In many ways, our parents had much in common. They had gone to school together forty years earlier in Bangladesh. They were all survivors of Bangladesh’s Muktijuddho in 1971 and had arrived in the United States before that decade’s end, leaving behind a nascent country just beginning to rebuild after liberation. They had traversed continents and the Atlantic Ocean with bloody recollections of the brutality of warfare still etched into their minds, packed away into suitcases. And our parents had kept their wells of pain hidden within them, concealing just how many sacrifices they had made: saying farewell to their loved ones and the joyful comfort of home, stifling their traumas of a youth rife with violence and loss on an unimaginable scale, all in pursuit of a life in a foreign country full of uncertainty.
Our sets of parents were also both straight, Muslim, educated, and proud of their daughters. They cared about how we would be received by the outside world. Motivated by this, Sophia and I both excelled in school and did not do much to dissent in our teenage years: no secret boyfriends, no wild parties, no major lies. By focusing on academic achievements, we were honoring our parents’ sacrifices, ensuring that their hardships had been worth it.
Still, there were some important differences between our families too. By the time I was a young adult, my parents were willing to afford me freedoms that were uncommon among young Bangladeshi American women my age. My older sister’s rebellion had softened my parents’ hard stances on curfews, education, and dating. I studied anthropology in college, instead of being pressured into studying pharmacy or business, like some of my peers. After I graduated, I felt compelled toward nonprofit work with teenagers, and Ma and Bajan were satisfied, as long as I felt fulfilled by my work. I dated who I wanted, with no input from my parents.
Sophia could not say the same. Raised in a suburb outside of Philadelphia, Sophia’s parents’ pride in her was deeply connected to her academic triumphs. They poured every resource they had into their sole daughter’s success—ballet, soccer, kuchipudi training, engineering camp, piano, and violin lessons—and ensured that she could read and write in both Bengali and Arabic. What may have begun as wanting to meet her parents’ expectations had evolved into having her own ambitions, like her decision to make a career in medicine.
But Sophia’s parents also expected her to date the kind of person—a man—they deemed appropriate. Early on in our friendship, she had been in a stalemate with her mother over the fact that she was dating a Bengali man outside of their religion. Why can’t you find a nice Muslim boy? her mom would ask, sending her biodatas of eligible Bangladeshi bachelors in the tri-state area. We kept our relationship a secret from our parents for a year and a half, knowing that eventually, we wanted to share with them the truth.
By the summer of 2014, Sophia and I had decided that we would wait until she completed her medical residency to have the conversations with our respective parents. We were both twenty-eight years old. Her constant fatigue from weeks of overnights and twenty-seven-hour shifts made the prospect of coming out, and the inevitable emotional fallout with our parents, feel too formidable. But the lies suffocated me. I finally came out to Ma and Bajan from the back seat of a parked car outside of a McDonald’s, at the start of a two-hour road trip, and after a fight. I had blown up at Ma at her proposition to set Sophia up with a friend of my cousin. She had been puzzled by my reaction.
“What I don’t get,” she had started, before pausing, “is why you responded that way to an innocent comment? Ami tomar Ma.” I’m your mother. “I can make these kinds of suggestions. But to get so nasty. O tomar ki hoi?” Who is she to you?
As much as I wanted to honor the agreement between Sophia and me, the thought of enduring Ma’s tirade and constructing elegant lies to keep the closet doors shut had become too daunting.
“I reacted that way because she’s my girlfriend. I’m dating her. I love her.” I spit out each sentence, giving myself space for my breath to catch up with my words. “I didn’t tell you before because I’m scared you won’t love me anymore.”
“Well, we would never stop loving you,” Ma said, simply. Bajan kept his eyes on the road. Although it had seemed to go well at first, my parents soon had painful questions for me. If you had been born this way, we would get it, they said. We could tell. But why now? Did something happen to you? Why choose this? If this relationship ends, will you go back to men? Is this safe? Is it because we came to this country? Are we too old to understand? Did we fail you somehow?
Each milestone in my relationship with Sophia was a new coming-out process to my parents, over and over again.
Stung by the barrage of queries, I felt ashamed and rejected. But I sensed that their questions were laced with fear. I tried to put myself in their psyches, attempting to provide direct answers. I spoke calmly. Sexuality is a spectrum. I’m choosing love. There are queer people in Bangladesh. They are gay people your age. This is not a failure; this is love.
Often the conversations devolved into frustrated cries and everyone feeling shut down. It was clumsy and exhausting and full of tears. But throughout, Ma and Bajan listened, ending each difficult interaction with assurances of their unconditional love. I continued to bring Sophia along to family events, trying to deepen her personal relationship with my parents, and, over time, they began to welcome her more, observing the tenderness between us.
I just see her as another one of my daughters, Bajan said about a year after that day in the McDonald’s parking lot. It touched me. I don’t even think about your relationship to each other,he continued. I wondered if he knew that his words muzzled our sexual relationship, our intimacy. Each milestone in my relationship with Sophia was a new coming-out process to my parents, over and over again. And when I told them we were engaged, it sunk in for them, that this was true. Sophia was here to stay.
I learned that Sophia had come out to her parents two bites into a steaming bowl of pho in Chinatown. It was six months after I had come out to mine. Sophia called me, crying, from work. She had sent her parents an email; her mother had telephoned her ten seconds later, leaving a minute-long voicemail of wailing with no discernible words. Her father called fifteen minutes later, voice quivering but calm: We just need more time, he said.
I jumped on the 6 train to the hospital, where Sophia had just started an overnight. We sat in silence in her team room, while she answered pages. It was a long night. After a few days, she received an email from her father. Gone was the honest, reassuring tone of the earlier phone call. The email reeked with anger, disgust, and disbelief, and its phrasing indicated that she had been disowned.
As months passed, her father thawed somewhat, sending friendlier emails, but never mentioning our relationship or his harmful words. He invited Sophia to brunch in New Brunswick, a halfway point between her home in New York City and his in South Jersey. He wanted to be in her life, he had said. Her mother, absent from all communication, needed more time.
It took her father four years before he uttered my name to Sophia for the first time. It was to invite me to join them for brunch. I agreed to go. I was sick to my stomach for the two-hour ride on NJ Transit, but my anxiety subsided when he greeted me with a hug. We met at a chandeliered Mediterranean restaurant, and I ordered kebabs for the table while Sophia sat, mostly quiet, processing in real time.
I tried to ignore the awkwardness. Keeping it light, I spoke about Bangladesh, my parents, and my work. He chatted easily, a smile on his face. But he never actually acknowledged us as a couple, and so, even though it was a start, the meeting felt empty.
A few weeks later, Sophia and I sent her parents an electronic invitation to our wedding. Her father thanked me in an email, saying that with our nuptials four months away, he had time and would respond once he had spoken to her mother. But it would be a long time before we heard anything from him at all.
We scheduled our gaye holud for the Friday evening before our wedding ceremony. This was keeping in Bangladeshi tradition. Our bellies would be full of sweets and our skin would be glowing from the turmeric, each meant to prepare us for the sharing of our vows in Central Park, where we had scheduled our wedding to be.
We spent Friday morning grooming. Eyebrows threaded and hair done, we arrived at our venue, a rented Brooklyn loft, three hours before the event’s start. Sophia’s father had still not replied to her text message when we let ourselves in. In the flurry of activity—receiving deliveries, setting up, and alternating seats in the makeup chair—Sophia and I did not share a private second until we entered the bedroom to start the process of getting dressed.
She sat on the bed and, closing the door, I turned to her. “My dad wrote back,” she said.
“Won’t make it. Have fun!” she read out. “Have fucking fun? Exclamation point?” Before I could react, she added, “I’m good. Tonight will be good.”
I sat down next to her. “Our people are here,” I said, lightly touching the garments on the bed. Her hand met mine.
We had purchased the saris in Jackson Heights the previous month. Ma, mellowed by the absence of Sophia’s parents, had taken on the responsibility to act as a mother to both myself and Sophia. My dad waited in the car, and my mom led Sophia, my sister, and me around her usual jaunts. Ma had entered each store announcing, “I’m here to shop for my daughters’ wedding.” Audibly indistinguishable from “my daughter’s wedding.” No specifications presented, but no lies, either.
“Ektu komman na, Apa?” she repeated in store after store, haggling with skill. If she was uncomfortable, she did not externalize it. She bought two of everything for two Bangladeshi brides, outfitted to our personal styles. My gaye holud sari was ornate, dandelion-yellow accented with red and fuchsia, while Sophia’s was classic, scarlet with gold trim. Our clandestine relationship was slowly inching out of the margins.
An hour before the gaye holud’s start, my sister adorned the ground with palm fronds and jasmine; carnations in pink, yellow, and crimson; and painted candles. Friends rearranged furniture and set up the bar. When Sophia’s childhood Bengali friends arrived, I could feel her mood rise. Ma went into hyperdrive, transitioning into hostess mode, familiar to my youth.
Bajan, dressed for the occasion in his cotton panjabi, busied himself with the catering, but after a bit, I caught him sitting in a chair, lost in thought. His face appeared distraught. In the bedroom, as we wrapped our saris, my father’s unhappy expression buoyed in my mind, haunting me.
“Ma looks okay right now, but can you check on Bajan?” I asked my sister. “I can’t handle him being upset right now, about this. I didn’t even want to do all of it. We didn’t need to fuss with tradition.” My voice broke.
After a bit, she returned. “He’s okay. He’s sad, but for Sophia, doing this without her family,” she reported. She paused. “He said, ‘But Sophia loves Promiti. My little girl, she’s happy.’”
I felt stunned. The reminder of his love allowed me to feel fully present. I looked up to see Sophia by my side, realizing she had overheard our conversation.
“Our people are here,” she said, kissing my forehead, before being whisked away to get dressed.
Ahead of making our entrance, Sophia and I took a breath together, holding hands. She beamed, exquisite in handmade floral jewelry by a locally famous auntie. We shared wordless comfort like the hush at morning’s first light. The velvety fragrance of fresh tuberose calmed my nerves. Ma and Bajan waited for us in the doorway. We joined them and stepped into the dimly lit room teeming with our dearests as Alice Coltrane hummed on the speakers above. My sister explained the tradition to the guests, inviting my parents to be the first to anoint us with turmeric. The air hung heavy, still.
Ma knelt down next to me and began to weep. Her chipper attitude had cracked.
“I never thought I would have the courage,” she confessed, her voice shaky. I held her, stroking her back.
“Kedo na, Ma,” I whispered. “I’m grateful for your courage. It helps me be here.” My dad knelt beside Sophia and cupped my bride’s chin in his ample hand. Sophia and I received their blessings as they patted turmeric on our cheekbones, feeding us payesh and grapes.
We went to bed knowing that someone, at some time, somewhere, shrouded in the branches of our family trees, was like us. We knew that we were not alone.
The night of our gaye holud was a portal into belonging. I felt the four of us, ascending through lifetimes of memories to bring us to that very moment, together. With our guests around me, I felt awash in hope. I thought about all of the stories of Bangladeshi and Muslim queer people that Sophia and I had heard within our lives, ending in violence or death, and gratitude overwhelmed me. I felt my queer friends joyfully seeing Sophia and me choosing to be together and being accepted by my parents. Traditions bended and blended. We had no precedent, no context, no touchstone. We were the first people in our families known to seal a queer relationship through marriage.
In committing to our love, regardless of being wed, Sophia and I had decided to live a life rooted in the truth of our whole selves, embracing a future of the unknown and believing in our ability to succeed. I like to think that by making this choice to live together, we unwittingly enacted our parents’ dreams for us. We belonged. We went to bed that night knowing that someone, at some time, somewhere, shrouded in the branches of our family trees, was like us. We knew that we were not alone.
Promiti Islam is a writer and educator based in New York City. The daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants, Promiti learned early on of the power of language for community mobilization and in amplifying narratives pushed into the margins. She seeks to uplift the nuanced ways in which we experience the world through culture, diaspora, alienation, and a sense of belonging through her writing. She has received fellowships and support from Kundiman and the VONA/Voices workshop.