Published 17/04/2010 | 05:00
Riyadh Khalaf (19) will never forget the night he came out to his father. He had come out to friends a year before, when he was 16, but the stress of worrying about whether his parents would accidentally discover the truth had led to tension in the once-happy family home.
"That year was hell," he says. "At school I was open and happy, I could talk about boys to girlfriends and be myself. Then I'd come home, where you're meant to feel most relaxed and most yourself, and I was tense and uptight."
Finally he told his mother, who was generally positive, but he was still worried that his Muslim father, who is from Iraq, would find the news more difficult to accept. Then one night, it all came to a head. "My mum turned around and said 'Riyadh, I think it's time you told your dad something'." Riyadh couldn't physically say the words; it was as if his mouth was frozen. "One of my books was on the counter, so I pulled it over, tore out the corner of a page, wrote 'I'm gay' and slid it across the table. My dad read it, there was a long pause and then he came over, gave me a hug and kiss, and said 'I love you son, everything will be okay'."
It wasn't okay immediately, of course. There were still arguments to come, not least because Mr Khalaf was initially worried about what his more conservative relatives would think. But gradually, the family returned to normal. "My parents, my younger brother and I are so close. This experience has exposed any cracks in the family and cleaned them up."
Riyadh's relationship with his father is better than ever. "Coming out, especially to your father, is like pulling off a plaster really quickly. It's really painful for a while but in the end it's good for you and eventually it isn't a problem."
These days, the fact that Riyadh is gay is just part of normal family life. "My dad will have a laugh with my boyfriend when he comes around to the house," he says. "He's totally fine with it. He knows that my love for my boyfriend is the same as the love he had when he started going out with mum -- it's not pretend love, we're not doing it to hurt anyone."
Now Riyadh, who is studying radio broadcasting and working towards a media career, doesn't regret a thing. "When I first came out, I always said I wish I was straight because it would have been so much easier," he says. "There wouldn't have been all this upsetting my parents, I could just get on with life. Now I've lived in the gay community, it's shown me that I love being gay. It's a gift. And I wouldn't change it for anything in the world."