Bonus Ep 2 | Maureen
Bonus Ep 2 | Maureen
In “Episode 1: Are they serious?”, Mohsin and Dalia discussed his struggles at university. At this time, Mohsin saw a university counselor named Maureen. The pair developed a friendship outside of their counseling relationship and have been close for 20 years – Maureen even came to Mohsin and Matthew’s wedding. Mohsin put the producers in touch with Maureen when they were conducting research for the series. While the interview didn’t make it into the show, in this bonus episode, you can hear the conversation between producer Louise Mountain and Maureen, where they discuss Mohsin’s journey over the years.
MOHSIN: Hi there, it’s Mohsin, from my apartment here in New York! Thanks so much for listening to Tiny Huge Decisions. On this bonus episode, you’re going to hear a conversation between one of the show’s producers, the lovely Louise, and a close friend of mine, Maureen.
Maureen and I met almost 20 years ago, when I was a student at university. And when we met, she was actually my counselor. I was really struggling at university. I talk about this with Dalia in the podcast, and I’ve also written about it in my memoir, A Dutiful Boy.
Maureen provided me with a lot of support for me at that time. And eventually, we developed a friendship outside of the counseling service. She has been a dear friend to me. She was at my wedding to Matthew. In fact, she’s one of the witnesses on my wedding certificate. She’s met my parents, and my siblings too. By now, she is more like family.
In making this series, I put the producers in touch with Maureen, to get some insight into my years at school. The conversation didn’t make it into the show, but I think it gives some really interesting perspective on this part of my life. And it’s incredible to hear her remember how important creating my own family was to me, even back then.
MAUREEN: I remember really vividly meeting Mohsin although it was a long time ago, it was in, I think, November of 2004, when he was in his second year as a law student. He had requested a counseling appointment. The first words he spoke were something along the lines of I'm-- I'm gay, and I'm Muslim. And I'm not sure why I'm here, because I'm sure there's nothing that you can do for me. And I replied that if he meant I couldn't make him not gay, he was probably right. But I wondered whether he might like to talk about it.
LOUISE: And do you recall what his biggest fears were in those sort of early discussions?
MAUREEN: I think Mohsin was struggling, on the one hand with his own faith. Feeling that his sexuality and his faith were on an absolute collision course, that it was wrong to be gay, but also, alongside that there was such an awareness in him of the stakes, not just for him personally, but Mohsin was very concerned that if he were to pursue a gay life in any form, this could do huge damage to his family. And whether there was a risk that they would no longer be welcome in their own community. But also, he was acutely aware of the potential implications for his two younger brothers. And he was very concerned that they might, for example, not be able to marry if potential partners knew that they… they had a gay brother. So really, he was managing both of those things, his own feelings, in relation to his faith and also the implications for his family.
LOUISE: And in terms of him coming to that first session and saying, “I'm not sure whether counseling can really help me,” what was it that the two of you built up together that enabled him to, to feel that it might be able to make a difference?
MAUREEN: Well, in the beginning, the Mohsin I heard from was, I suppose, Mohsin, the lawyer, right? He approached things from a very intellectual standpoint, and he could explain to me comprehensively and logically why every possible scenario that related his future would end, you know, certainly in catastrophe. That he could see no good option.
I think a really important turning point was getting Mohsin to start speaking from his gay self. I can remember pointing out that, you know, gay Mohsin never comes here, right, to these sessions. Perfect Mohsin comes here, and tells me how difficult gay Mohsin is making perfect Mohsin's life. It was at that point, that he began to acknowledge to himself how really painful and difficult this… this journey had, had been for him.
So that was when he began to tell me stories about how, at around the age of eight or nine, he had become aware that he liked men. And he, he spoke about through much of his adolescence, having prayed five times a day, year after year, and every time praying not to be gay. He talked about the pilgrimages that he'd made with his family, every year to Syria. And how his, his father had assured him that whatever prayer he offered, if it came from his heart, would be answered. And so every year he would go to Syria and pray fervently not to be gay. So I think the acknowledgement to himself of his own pain and how hard he had tried to follow that path was, was really important in opening up some different possibilities.
LOUISE: And how was that pain manifesting itself when he came to see you in terms of what he was dealing with at uni?
MAUREEN: Oh, gosh… no, I think the way Mohsin managed his sexuality for a long time was to try to fill every waking moment with other things. So he tried really hard to ensure that there was never room for thoughts about his sexuality or his hopes or desires for himself, to take up any space in his own mind. And had a real terror of ever being alone with himself or alone with his own thoughts.
So I think one of the things that was so difficult about this period for Mohsin was that he began to allow some space for those thoughts, you know, just to be with himself and to cautiously allow himself to acknowledge what he felt. And I think, long term that was incredibly important for his development and for his health, but short term, it was tremendously difficult because for the first time he was having to hold that really extreme conflict between what he was asking of himself in terms of life choices, and what he actually felt on the inside. You know what, what he knew about who he authentically was.
LOUISE: And in terms of Mohsin starting to voice some of these feelings and thoughts, what was the support available to him, that you could offer and beyond you.
MAUREEN: In the early days, when Mohsin was acknowledging his sexuality to himself, I think he was very very alone. Mohsin had wonderful friends, I think he's always had a knack for friendship, you know, he's good at connecting with people. He's a very warm person. So it's not that there weren't people around him. But that this was such a huge step for him, and thinking back to 2004, I can remember searching high and low for information about whether there might be some sort of support group for gay Muslims and discovering that there really wasn't anything at that time.
In fact, the only group that existed that I was able to learn about was a group that met in London under conditions of real secrecy and they didn't disclose the meeting location until just before the meeting. People would often not use their, their real names. The whole purpose of a support group is to feel really safe and just the conditions of that kind of support group felt anything but safe. So there really wasn't a lot of support around.
And I think also…with social media with the speed at which information travels, it was really difficult for Mohsin to feel that he could disclose anything to anyone safely, without, without that information traveling further than he was really prepared to, to deal with.
LOUISE: And, of course, at this point at university, he's got a high profile role as president of his college. And he's cover-- he’s kind of keeping the secret about the internal turmoil that he's going through. How, how concerned did you get for him across that sort of year because in his book, he does talk about really hitting rock bottom, at one point.
MAUREEN: I was very concerned for Mohsin. He, he led this completely double life where, from the outside everything looked perfect. From a certain distance, he seemed to have everything that anyone would, would want. You know, good friends, he was doing fine academically, he was making all kinds of interesting opportunities for himself. And yet on the inside, he was really in utter despair. He couldn't see any possibility of bringing those two selves together that that outer Mohsin and that inner Mohsin.
And it was quite, quite some time before that, that darkness really lifted. And it took a real act of faith, I think on his part that he had to keep going. Without any assurances about how things would turn out. Right? He had to trust himself. And he had to trust a process. But I think there were times that that was a really difficult thing to do.
And another thing that I felt would be really helpful for from Mohsin, in his early 20s was to have the opportunity to just meet other gay men, but including older gay men who maybe could give him some sense of what it looked like to have a really rewarding, fulfilled stable, gay relationship, or to have a family as as a gay man. I can remember vividly Mohsin asking me whether I could recommend a book that would help with that. This was when he was probably 19, or 20. And we'd been talking a little bit at that point about what are the ways that you can develop a richer sense of what it might look like to be a gay man?
So it was a great question, asking me if I could recommend a book. But I can also remember what a bizarre question it was to try to think about because no one would ever ask you to recommend one book to show what a heterosexual life might look like. Because we know what a diversity of people and ways of living that there is. So I came in one day with a very large, heavy carrier bag full of books. And I can remember just spreading them out on the consulting room floor and sitting there with them together and just picking up different books and looking at the covers and looking at the pictures, looking at the author photos at the back, you know, talking about some of the things that might be in them. But it felt really important from the beginning to establish there's not just one way to live.
I think one thing, Mohsin was always clear that he wanted was a family. And one of the things that we had to talk about pretty early on was that there isn't a choice between going along with expectations of a heterosexual marriage and having a family on the one hand, and on the other hand, being a gay man. He really saw that as the trade off at the beginning. And he really saw that as such a sad outcome, it was almost unbearable to think about. So beginning to acknowledge actually, gay people have families, and they have wonderful families.
LOUISE: And when you were exploring the concept of family with him, did he talk about wanting to be a dad?
MAUREEN: Mohsin spoke so movingly and wonderfully about his relationship with his little brother. And I think that was the beginning of my sense of what a great dad Mohsin would be one day. But when his little brother was a baby, Mohsin had been really involved in taking care of him. You know, held him, played with him, changed his nappies. He also really wanted to help his mom to get a good night's sleep. And so he used to get up and do the night feeds with his, his little brother.
And what I remember most about those conversations about his little brother was not the content of what Mohsin said, but just how he looked when he talked about his little brother, there was such a kind of warmth, and, and tenderness. And actually, at every stage in his little brother's life, it's been so important to him to be a good big brother, and to work out what that means, and to be really respectful of his little brother as an individual in his own right, but also to be present and enabling in whatever way he could. But it was really clear to me that this role of being a nurturer was a really important part of who Mohsin is.
But also Mohsin has frequently spoken over the years about how much it means to him to have a family in the future. And wondering about whether he would meet the right person. I know when he got to the stage of life when he wasn't dating just for the enjoyment of dating, but was really looking for a long term relationship, a really big part of that was wanting to make a family with someone. And it's, it's wonderful to see him at a place now where he's really ready to move forward with that and, and has found the right person and has such a, you know, a wonderful, solid relationship and there is that readiness to take, take the next step together.
LOUISE: And have you talked much about the sort of surrogacy exploration that Mohsin and Matthew and Dalia are undertaking together?
MAUREEN: Yeah, we've talked a lot about the practicalities of the process of, of having children. Which is, is part of this, you know, has to be part of this. And we've had conversations about the practicalities that long predate the specific discussions that Mohsin and Dalia have been having. So when I reflect on the thought process about surrogacy, what I'm remembering is a conversation in which Mohsin said something to me like, “But of course, I could never let any of my female friends offer to do this.” Right?
He took this as a given that that could never be the solution. And I interrupted him and said, “Well, why, why not?” That would seem from my vantage point, like a really good possibility to pursue and you have such good, long standing friendships with some really wonderful women, if one of them felt moved to offer this to you, why would you not seize that opportunity with both hands. And I think he was a little bit taken aback.
I think it's been really important to Mohsin that no one ever feel pressured to do anything that's wrong for them in order to help him. So I think he was really trying to manage his own feelings about the process and you're wanting to keep them in check and not wanting to hope for that solution, lest his friend Dalia in this instance, discern that hope and as a result, put too much pressure on herself to respond to that hope by by fulfilling it. And yet, I think it's a wonderful thing, that he has now been more open to that possibility and, and that, that he and Dalia are exploring that.
LOUISE: I'm really interested that you referenced the word hope in relation to them exploring routes to have a child. And what you said earlier as well about helping Mohsin to have a vision of what life as a gay man, and in a fulfilled relationship could look like.
MAUREEN: I think hope has been incredibly important. Nothing is possible without a little bit of hope somewhere. I remember Mohsin talking about how hopeless he felt at the start of his… his journey. And he used to be quite preoccupied with the Gwyneth Paltrow film Sliding Doors, that cuts between two alternative versions of the main character's life and he had his own sliding doors narrative where he could contemplate on the one hand, a life of pretending to be straight and getting married. And then, on the other hand, his gay life. But he had convinced himself completely that both of those lives would be really deeply unhappy lives.
The straight life would be unhappy because he would be in a marriage where true intimacy was not possible. But on the other hand, he was convinced that if he lived a gay life, that that would involve numerous fleeting superficial relationships that were ultimately unfulfilling and never having a stable partnership and never having a family.
So I think it was really important to challenge that assumption that heterosexual lives can have happy endings, and gay lives can't and to feel some hope. And hope begins with imagination. And with giving your thoughts permission to go wherever they want to go and to sketch out different possibilities for yourself, because if you can picture it, then it starts to seem like it's a possibility. And you can take steps that maybe lead in that, in that direction.
LOUISE: And how did that extend to him talking to his parents about his sexuality? How did he find the courage given how tough that was for him and all the context you've outlined to do that?
MAUREEN: I think having hope of his parents and his family coming with him on this journey, was one of the hardest kinds of hope to find and to hold on to. And, and I think what Mohsin came to realize was that there was only ever going to be a possibility of, of getting to the outcome he wanted, if he really gave them a chance, or if he had some faith in them. And if he continued to ask more of them than they felt ready to give it that point. So if he continued to insist, I need you to come along with me. I'm not giving up on you. You know, don't give up on me. Let's do this together. And he had to wait a long time. Right? This wasn't a short, a short process. But the preparedness to stick it out has really paid off.
LOUISE: And I'm always struck by the values that he's taken from that family unit, the relationship with his mother particularly, and how… how painful that was when they were going through, you know, in the period after he came out how tough that was for him. But when you think about where they’ve got to now, how do you think about that sort of journey that Mohsin and his mother's particularly have been on?
MAUREEN: Mohsin and his mother have been on the most remarkable journey. Mohsin was really the center of her world when he was a child, and I think the fact that he was so loved, and so affirmed, in being himself as a young child, first and foremost by his mother, has really accounted to a huge extent for his ability to navigate the difficult territory that he's navigated since that time. You know, he was very much a loved child and a secure child. And he had a tremendous confidence that was really helpful to him.
So she gave him… she gave him that gift. And although it was really difficult for his mother for a long time, and she had a lot of her own hard work to do, to get to where she is now, it's a process that they went through together. Not continuously together. There were elements of that journey that had to be separate journeys. But I think they've, they've always come back together. And it's been a really wonderful thing to see.
LOUISE: And when you look back on that period where they were both working towards what they've now achieved, which is acceptance of each other, and Mohsin's mum and family having met Matthew, is there a particular moment or a turning point that you can see sort of made the difference? For either the two of them or for Mohsin’s mom.
MAUREEN: I think probably the most important turning point was the moment when Mohsin’s mother met Matthew. Because at that point, this became real for her. It was no longer about anything abstract, it was about people. And for her to be able to see Mohsin with Matthew, and to recognize what anyone who was present in the company of those two young men together would recognize, which was that this was a wonderful, loving, healthy, wholesome, beautiful relationship. I think, probably made everything much easier.
LOUISE: And given everything you've been through with Mohsin, what was it like to be at Mohsin and Matthew’s wedding and to see them get married?
MAUREEN: Going to Mohsin and Matthew’s wedding was an absolute joy. It was wonderful. And I think it's something that I have always imagined would happen. Because I know how important it always was to Mohsin to find a life partner and to get married and to have a family. And to share that sense with the others who were, were gathered together that day.
There's something really special about a wedding that is celebrated in the company of people who know that it wasn't a foregone conclusion that this would happen, right, that there were so many difficulties that had to be navigated along the way and who could so appreciate therefore, and sort of not take it for granted, but really celebrate. And, there were a lot of really big smiles that day.
[END CREDITS MUSIC]
Tiny Huge Decisions is a Chalk and Blade production for APM Studios. At Chalk and Blade, the executive producer is Ruth Barnes, the showrunner and story editor is Louise Mountain, and the producer and sound designer is Matt Nielsen, with original music by Ian Chambers. Special thanks to Jason Phipps. At APM, the executive producer is Erica Kraus, the senior production manager is Nick Ryan, and the executives in charge are Joanne Griffith, Alex Schaffert, and Chandra Kavati. With thanks to Dahlia, Mohsin, and Matthew.