'Fear of being gay drove me to manic perfectionism'

Amrou Al-Kadhi reveals how suppressing their sexuality led to unhealthy coping mechanisms they are still trying to unlearn.


This article first appeared in Attitude issue 316, December 2019

I was 13 when I realised I was gay. It was 2003 – the year I also became a perfectionist.

By this point in my life, deep down I felt a failure; Islamic instructors had convinced me that homosexuality would lead to an eternity in hell, while my parents warned that I’d be disowned for not conforming to Iraqi cultural traditions, so I inherited the belief that my very being was a failure.

It’s long been argued that feelings of inherent worthlessness can lead queer people to all kinds of behaviours which compensate for them. For me, it became perfectionism, and a severe form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) that has required continued medical attention.

It all manifested with Islam, where you are taught to count all sins committed on your left shoulder, and any good deeds on your right. Through monitoring the numbers, you get a sense of whether it is hell or heaven that awaits you (if there are more sins than good deeds when you die, then Satan’s lair it would be).

Trouble was, anything – including a shoe being upside down, or being annoyed that your dad didn’t buy you that KitKat – could constitute a sin while good deeds are hard to achieve, requiring an active, positive contribution to the world (a hard task for any child).

And mentally plotting to have anal sex with Robin Hood — the cartoon fox — totalled around one trillion sin points! And so, to counteract the growing weight on my left side, I did everything in my power to achieve 100 per cent in every bit of homework. I worked day and night, handed in a 123-page course work when it needed only be two, wrote essays for multiple choice questions, and took three extra GCSEs in my spare time.

It was all to prove to that I was, in fact, worth something. Whenever I failed to achieve full marks — even 99 per cent — I’d be furious with myself.

Sometimes, my behaviour was extreme. Once, after handing in a piece of English homework that I’d drafted 32 times, I realised that I had forgotten to put a comma in a sentence that needed one. I starved myself for a week as punishment.

It’s been a long road since then, and I’ve learnt to be much kinder to myself. Paradoxically, I think this also comes from Islam: while every sin is worth one point in the Quran, each good deed is worth 10. It’s as if Allah believes we are inherently good.

In Islam, as in Christianity, the devil is not pure evil, he is a fallen angel. So the sin collector on your left shoulder isn’t a Satanic force, it’s an angel. Despite everything, part of me believes I must be good.

It’s why perfectionism, not self-destruction, has been the result of my velvet rage. If only I’d known that growing up.

Amrou is the author of 'Unicorn: Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen'. Follow them on Twitter @Glamrou.