For most of my life, I assumed setting boundaries and having them respected was a relationship dynamic reserved exclusively for white people. The level-headed way that I witnessed my classmate’s parents kneel down to eye level to resolve behavioural issues was not how I was raised and, early on, I accepted this as one of the many cultural differences that separated my family from theirs.
Mid-tantrum, my next-door neighbour would screech in rage that he hated his mother and I sat dumbfounded later as she apologized to him. I remember, on another occasion, marvelling when a different friend’s mother knocked on the locked door of his bedroom to ask for our permission to enter.
In my house, the doors were left wide open. We were always implicitly in conversation through shouted questions and instructions that travelled through walls and floors. My older sister routinely spied on me through a slit in the door while I played with my happy meal figurines and, in turn, I read my other sister’s diary entries meticulously. More than simply denoting a lack of privacy, I think this approach has to do with the way a family conceives of itself.
What happened to one of us concerned all of us, and the collective always took precedent over the individual. Perhaps it started as a pack mentality designed to keep us all safe. Looking back, I wonder what role a deeply racist city like Perth played in forcing a brown family like mine to stay huddled together so defensively.
Of course, I had no language for boundaries or consent at the time. Family is the first institution of behavioural control. The constant barrage of comments and criticism about weight, posture, mannerisms, habits, clothing, play, sleep, hairstyle, gender conformity, heterosexual marriage plans, career aspirations, where I was going and who I was going with became the earliest template for how intimacy is communicated. It made me think that to show concern for, and be excruciatingly involved in, the minutiae of another person’s life is a form of affection. I believed that full-octave intensity was how I could gauge who really loved me.
The process of learning that consent and boundaries are forms of care took a great deal of my adulthood to figure out. In the meantime, many of my friendships and partners mirrored those earlier familial relationships: defensive, all-encompassing, and controlling. Even after I had moved to Melbourne and spent many years living there without my family, the tug of responsibility to them delayed my own ability to confidently come into my queer sexuality and accept my gender fluidity.
I’ve learned that it’s very difficult to assert vocal boundaries and have your consent respected with people who are determined to view you as a ligament of themselves, like an island without autonomy who is tethered to the larger and original continent. When chaos, snooping, intensity and loudness are the normal order of domesticity, maintaining quiet resolve about how you will and will not accept treatment doesn’t hold water unfortunately. Gaining sovereignty over your life becomes the challenge.
I remember one of the central lessons drummed into me as a child was “if somebody doesn’t like it, don’t do it.” The moral here being that I existed to please others and my own interests, if they existed at all, were to be indefinitely ignored or, as it happens, sublimated. With this in mind, it’s no wonder that my body and subjectivity became conflicted emotional terrain. How do you inhabit a body that your family members are convinced they have an equal or, at times, greater stake in? Because I never had self-determination over myself, I found myself as an adult looking for others to exert that same control over me.
As adults, we deserve to thoroughly interrogate the familial cultures that raised us, especially since so much of our desire and social dynamics can be contextualized by the ways we were punished as children for being different. For me, it wasn’t until I was able to honour the harm in my history that I started being able to display compassion towards myself for what I had experienced. Those revelations of self-compassion speak more to genuine self-care than any bath bomb ever could.
My personal process involved therapy and psychedelics. By interrogating the battleground of my body in a clinical and spiritual sense, I came to a middle ground between radical empathy and self-ownership. I stopped trying to negotiate with people who were more interested in status and reputation than my wellbeing. In some instances, that involved adjusting my expectations, in others it was demanding accountability for harm, and in the case of some it meant cutting certain people out of my life altogether. I don’t think anyone who causes harm is beyond redemption, however, some people are simply uninterested in doing the work it requires.
The pipeline from those early dynamics to the found families and intimate relationships that queer people develop as adults can often be seamless, even if the latter is in reaction to abuse from the former. Hurt people hurt people as the saying goes. The truth is that many queer people end up being the ones tasked with the mighty challenge of breaking the chain of intergenerational trauma and abuse.
Bobuq Sayed is a writer and artist of the Afghan diaspora. They formerly edited Archer Magazine and Un Magazine volume 13. Bobuq tweets @bobuqsayed.