I’m from the Detroit suburbs, and lived in Michigan through college. I’m half Egyptian and half English-Lithuanian. Since my mother immigrated from Egypt when she was young, I didn’t grow up speaking Arabic at home. After visiting Egypt for the first time as a teenager, I realized I did not really know the language, even though I was immersed in it at church and in the Coptic community. I eventually studied Arabic in college and graduate school, spending time in Cairo and later Damascus. I’m currently living in Amman, Jordan.
I grew up in the Coptic church - I was a deacon and it was the center of my life. I attended Lutheran and Catholic schools, so I also had those religious and cultural influences. Growing up in the church, I sometimes felt like an outsider. Being half Egyptian and closeted, I had no queer role models. Now, I appreciate the fact that there is room for all of these identities. While living in New York, I was introduced to Tarab - the queer collective. The first time I remember meeting queer people of various Arab and Middle Eastern backgrounds was at one of their events. They throw these great events, and create an environment that is positive and joyful.
No Time for Resentment
My connection to the Coptic community is through a small group of close friends. But to the church itself, I’m not involved anymore. Lately, I’ve been thinking about what it means to have come up in the church, and what I now feel about spirituality. I used to tell people that I feel like I’ve spent most of my adult life un-indoctrinating myself, which is true. Growing up in the Coptic church, I mostly remember shame. The feeling of shame is the overwhelming memory for me, and a lot of that came from the absence of positive voices around sex and sexuality. I appreciate the sense of community I had, and the beauty and history of the rituals and culture, but I haven’t been involved for a long time.
Several years ago, after having left the church, I became influenced by the idea of God as described in AA literature - a higher power that was greater than all of your fears. At the time, that idea was really helpful to me because it helped reframe my spirituality during a period of my life that I needed it most. This updated lens helped me come out to my parents and other people in the Coptic community for the first time.
I think of my Coptic identity as more of a cultural heritage. I’m proud of it, but of course that’s complicated. When I came out to my family, I had a couple close friends from the church that I knew I had to come out to as well. That was one of my many fears, because I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Still, I felt like I had to come out to them specifically. These particular friends were conflicted when I told them. They said, “I love you, but you know how I feel about this,” and, “hate the sin not the sinner.”
Hearing this from people that I loved was hard for me to accept at first. Thankfully, with time, I’ve been able to prioritize self-acceptance over the acceptance of others. I carried resentments with me for a long time, and dealing with them has been a lengthy process. I think a lot of people want to be free from that, right? Anger was such a part of my identity for so long. I don’t want to hold that anymore. It’s not easy, but that’s the goal.
Out, Here and Now
Mostly through social media, I’ve met other queer Copts over the past five years. This has brought me so much joy. Just to meet them and have a moment of, “I see you, and we have this shared experience,” is really powerful. I still feel that way whenever I meet someone from our community. It’s important for people to know that they’re not alone. Talk to other queer folks, either within or outside of the community, because we share a lot of the same struggles and emotions. Feeling understood and accepted is so important.
Growing up, there was no visibility of LGBTI and queer people in the church. It was actually the opposite, we were told that there were no gay or queer people at all. Desire Marea, of the South African based queer art collective FAKA, spoke about the power of queer erasure. I’ve been thinking about that within the context of the Coptic community, and it’s very real. I remember when a priest told me I wasn’t gay after I confessed my same-sex attraction as a teenager. And later, another priest urged me to see a Christian therapist - the message being my sexuality needed to be “cured.”
To counteract that, I think projects like this are important. I think it’s important to know that there are people who you can share your story with, people who will listen to you, and people who accept you. It’s also okay to distance yourself from the Coptic community, if that’s what you need to do. I know it might not be easy, but sometimes that’s what you have to do to feel comfortable and safe. My hope for the future is that the community continues to evolve, and for there to be more acceptance of queer children and young people. It’s awful and tragic that queer kids in our communities are dying by suicide. I’d like for the church to pay attention to the messages that they put out there for our children. I’m hopeful that we’re starting to be more visible to one another.