A rising politician and son of Assyrian refugees from Iraq made waves in Sweden on Monday by coming out as a homosexual, and renouncing the “honour culture” that had previously kept him in the closet.
“I realized that I couldn’t be credible if I didn’t practice what I preach. I needed to deal with it and stop lying to myself and everyone else,” human rights lawyer Robert Hannah, 28, told The Local.
Hannah had much of Sweden talking on Monday after he come out as a homosexual in a personal account published in the Dagens Nyheter (DN) newspaper.
In the article, entitled ‘From now on I will be myself’ (Från och med nu är jag mig själv), the local Liberal Party (Folkpartiet) politician who lives in Bromma outside Stockholm, explained how he struggled to unify his sexual preference with the strict morals of the Assyrian culture in which he was raised.
“Oppression is a part of my everyday life, as normal as eating breakfast or taking a shower in the morning. And I hate it,” he wrote.
The piece goes on to describe Hannah’s efforts over the past 15 years to protect his family from the “shame” of having a homosexual member of the family.
“In the Christian Assyrian culture, where I have my roots, having a homosexual son or daughter is the worst thing that can happen to a family. Being a homosexual is disgusting, unnatural, and completely reprehensible,” he wrote.
Born and raised in Gothenburg suburbs with large Assyrian communities, Hannah eventually fled to the Swedish capital to build a new life, accepting that “I am Assyrian in Gothenburg and gay in Stockholm”.
The article quickly had much of the political establishment talking, drawing kudos from across the spectrum.
EU and Democracy Minister Birgitta Ohlsson, also of the Liberal Party, praised Hannah, calling him “brave” for telling his story. Former Left Party leader Lars Ohly, took to Twitter to urge his followers to read Hannah’s account of the struggles facing homosexuals from “honour cultures” in Sweden.
“It’s a much bigger problem in Sweden than most people realize, I think. There are thousands of people who suffer the same way I have. Many of us are left in a no man’s land between our families, the cultures in which we were raised and our hidden identity as homosexuals,” he told The Local.
“I think it’s important to highlight the everyday oppression that many people face. Most of the time, the expression of this so-called honour culture in Sweden isn’t about high-profile acts of violence, but rather the small lies we all tell ourselves and others in order to fit in: it’s not being able to be honest with ourselves.”
When asked about his decision to come out, Hannah cited his experience at Stockholm’s Pride festival, which wrapped up earlier this month. He explained that he was struck by how few of the people he spoke with while manning the Liberals’ booth at Pride were homosexuals with immigrant backgrounds.
“This is a city where a third of the residents are foreign-born, but that wasn’t reflected at all at Pride. There were really very few LGBT people with immigrant backgrounds,” he said.
With an eye toward earning a spot in the Riksdag in Sweden’s 2014 parliamentary elections, Hannah realized he needed to stop “living a lie” even if it meant putting his family’s standing in the Gothenburg Assyrian community in jeopardy.
“The hardest thing to deal with was how coming out would affect my family,” he said.
Prior to Monday’s publication of the article, Hannah travelled to Gothenburg to warn the closest members of his family. While he was hesitant to divulge many details about the meeting, he was pleased with the outcome.
“It went better than expected. I was really surprised,” said Hannah.
In publishing the article, Hannah hoped to turn a page in his life.
“From now on, I’m choosing to make honour culture a part of my past. I’m choosing to be both Assyrian and gay. Both in Stockholm and in Gothenburg,” he wrote.
He’s also been left in awe of the response generated by the article, which quickly shot up to be the most read story on DN on Monday, and spawning a flood of shares and accolades on social media.
“It’s really unbelievable,” said Hannah when asked about the response to his decision. “I’ve been inundated with emails, messages on Facebook, Twitter, everywhere.”
“One of the biggest surprises has been how many of my countrymen have gotten in touch and expressed their support. I haven’t received one negative reaction saying I shouldn’t have done it.”
Hannah agreed that the decision to come out of the closet is difficult for anyone, but that those who grew up in cultures marked by the sort of overt hostility to homosexuality that pervades the Assyrian community often face additional pressures.
However, he hopes his decision will inspire some of the other “thousands” of closeted gays in Sweden from “honour cultures” to be open about their sexuality.
“Life has more meaning when you live as you are, when you are true to yourself, and don’t conform to others’ limitations,” said Hannah.
“In Sweden, it is possible to live life as a homosexual. There is a lot of support. I know of many people in politics, the business community, and cultural figures in Sweden who have lived like I have. And I hope my decision inspires them to come out.”