An Interview with Gay Identical Twins Michael and Zach Zakar
By Gregg Shapiro
Even if there was just one of them, the story that the Zakar twins, Michael and Zach, have to tell is unlike anything you’ve ever heard. First told in their 2017 memoir, Pray The Gay Away, Michael and Zach convey how their devout (and deeply homophobic) Chaldean Catholic mother not only didn’t accept the fact that her identical twin sons were both gay, but employed a series of absurd methods to cure them of their homosexuality. The good news is that she failed miserably. In addition to their childhood home being ruled by their religious zealot mother, Michael and Zach also had a surprisingly antagonistic relationship that changed dramatically when they came out to each other. Fast forward to 2019 and Pray The Gay Away has been adapted for the stage starring none other than the Zakar twins! After all, who better to tell their story than the guys themselves. I spoke with the brothers shortly before the show opened in Fort Lauderdale.
Gregg Shapiro: I recently interviewed actress and singer/songwriter Jessica Harper who is a twin. In fact, there are two sets of twins in her family. What would each of you say is the best part of being a twin?
Zach Zakar: Having a twin is like having a built-in best friend. Being a twin makes you feel naturally special. Sometimes I get this strange feeling we were put on this planet for something special because of the mere fact that I am a twin.
GS: What’s the worst part of being a twin?
Michael Zakar: The worst part is working together. We tell everyone we’re like an old married couple that does everything together, except play around [laughs]. So, six out of seven days a week, we’re fighting. They say your worst critic is yourself, obviously that person didn’t have a twin [laughs].
GS: I’m glad you mentioned fighting, because early on, your story shatters a couple of myths about twins. One is that twins have a sort of telepathic connection and know everything about each other, and another is that twins are the other’s best friend and are kind and loving to one another. In fact, on p. 202, Zach wrote, “We fight. It’s our dynamic.” Can you say something about the exceptions to the twin rule?
ZZ: We’ve been together for 26 years. We wouldn’t call it telepathic connection, but knowing the person inside and out. One thing that I do find true about twins is the whole “yin and yang” concept; Michael and I look the same, but we’re definitely two very different people.
GS: When religion is used as a weapon, as it was in your home and at church, do you still think it’s possible to find faith from another source, say becoming a Buddhist, a Quaker, or a Unitarian Universalist, or converting to Judaism?
ZZ: Religion can be a beautiful thing. But similar to what we saw in our mother, if you rely too heavily on it, is it healthy? Believe what you want, but if you treat religion similar to how you use drugs, as a way to cope, then it becomes a problem.
GS: What was the impetus for you to co-write your memoir Pray The Gay Away, and was it a synchronous decision or did one of you come up with the idea first?
ZZ: We went to film school. After our mother tried “de-gaying” us with green grapes blessed by a priest, I told Michael to write down that whole experience to be used later for inspiration in a movie script on a sticky note. Then our mother began to do more and more things to de-gay us. The sticky notes added up and the book wrote itself.
GS: Michael, on p. 71, you wrote, “I never felt different until people started looking at me differently.” In context, this refers to being treated differently because of your Middle Eastern heritage. Would you also say it’s applicable to being gay, and what advice would you offer to those who are also looked at differently?
MZ: You’ll find that people won’t like you for no reason whatsoever. Accept the fact that every person you meet will view you differently, but just be a person you’re proud of and everything else will fall in place. Being Arab males, we’ve always resonated with being gay first and then Arab because it always felt like this was truly who we are.
GS: A turning point occurs on p. 87. It’s the moment you both discover the other is gay. Do you recall the feeling, and does it still resonate with you today?
MZ: That moment is a day we will never forget. Everyone always asks if we knew one another were gay, but truthfully, we were both [too involved in] dealing with our own gay problems to notice the other’s gay issues. So, when we both had that “you too?” moment, it reminds me that we are the same. The first thing we did was grab our yearbook and circle every guy we thought that was cute and would date from our grade [laughs].
GS: As I was reading the book, I kept thinking, about the possibility of reconciliation with your mother. Then I read the final chapter and saw the acknowledgement where you express your gratitude to her. What does reaching an understanding with your mother mean to each of you?
ZZ: For me, it was getting that feeling that I was good enough and she was proud of her son. I want her to see that I can be gay and successful, that being gay was helpful, not a hinderance. Our mom has a notion that gay people can’t be successful. You have to realize the word “gay” doesn’t have a translation in our dialect of Arabic so to our mom it was literally a confusing concept of what we are. A new disease?
MZ: For me, I just want both sides to be happy. I don’t want to live a life filled with guilt and or shame, but I always thought I played a part in my parents’ happiness and emotional state and I didn’t want to hurt them because I just wanted to be myself. It was more of a learning process for our mom, we had to teach her acceptance.
GS: Please say something about the process of turning Pray The Gay Away into a stage show.
MZ: Nuts [laughs]! Especially for the fact that we are not just acting in it, but [we] also wrote the show along with the original editor, Bobby Brower, a brilliant playwright in NYC. Our executive producers Murray and Peter Present, gave us complete creative freedom in the writing process, which doesn’t usually happen for independent writers. Sometimes Zach and I have to take a step back and realize that this show is literally about our life in Michigan, about a book we thought no one would read, when 50 book agents said it wouldn’t resonate with many people.
GS: What are you most looking forward to about bringing Pray The Gay Away to a live audience?
ZZ: Many gay plays can be very sad. Pray The Gay Away is a funny night out that people won’t forget. It will remind you of all the silliness that comes along with coming out. We are an all gay cast and crew and excited to bring this story to life. Three years in the making and it’s ready for Florida!