Some names and identifying details have been changed for privacy.
How would you describe your relationship with Coptic Orthodoxy?
It’s difficult. My personality has always been unorthodox. For me, that meant I internally criticized many of the stories, rules, and practices of my religion. The older I became, the more often I joked to my Egyptian friends about the rigidity and structure of the church. They often laughed with me while also implying, “Oh well, that’s the way it is.” As a teenager, this created a tension within me that I couldn’t explain or name. I can now name why that feeling existed: I felt trapped by the expectations that were decided for my life. Those expectations were provided to me by my community, family, and culture.
What did it mean to grow up in a Coptic household?
It meant I went to church on Sundays with my mother and on the days she did not work. I took an offering to Sunday School and attended every time we attended the liturgy. I went to Vacation Bible School, Mahragan Al Keraza, hymns classes, choir, and other church activities for children/teenagers. I joined in on countless church and community orchestrated events such as retreats, end-of-fast celebrations, annual Sunday School celebrations, birthday parties, graduation parties, and group holiday outings. It meant that all of my close relationships were exclusively with Copts, and my weaker relationships were with other Americans of non-Coptic heritage.
It also meant that with whatever was going on at home, whatever struggle we were facing, we were always thankful and grateful to God for what we had. We did not complain because others had it worse. Unfortunately, this attitude was very destructive for my family and I because it limited the possibilities for people to ask for help. It also created this “suck it up” attitude that emotionally stunted everyone in the household.
I ate rice and molokhaya. I never flirted. I planned to marry a nice Coptic man. My destiny was to be a physician. I was told that I was a special child of God. The stereotypes go on. Although I’ve shed these, they were markers of my cultural identity at the time.
Are you involved in a Coptic community?
Yes. I still have friends that I talk to in my community. Only one is aware of my sexuality. I see my Egyptian friends only on occasion, as I am not a regular visitor to the church anymore. I still attend events organized for my age group, such as lessons and discussions similar to Sunday School. I go to liturgy occasionally, to keep my parents happy, but there is no spiritual gain for me. I currently live in their household, so I try not to butt heads.
I often get approached by members of the church who have gotten to know me over the years that ask me to volunteer as a servant in hymn class or Sunday School. I usually answer with a complicated no.
When did you first realize you were queer, and what impact did that have on you?
This is rather complicated, and I do not have a straight answer (no pun intended).
There were lots of hints and confusion during my teenage years. The most confounding was when I found myself falling in love with my same-sex Coptic best friend. I would have dreams about sexual encounters with her. I even told her about one of the dreams. I brushed it off as an odd subconscious thought, while she simply reacted with an “okay.” It didn’t seem to matter to her then. It wasn’t until much later, when our relationship began to deteriorate because I was away at University, that I began to experience extremely powerful emotions of loss and neglect. I began questioning the intensity of these emotions over the years, and it only dawned on me maybe a year into the separation that those emotions were perhaps related to romantic feelings. I quickly dismissed these thoughts, and it took another year or two to start seeing that as a valid explanation. It was kind of a slow realization.
I had another similar situation occur during college, where I fell in love with another best friend. In this case, she was not Coptic, so I felt that I had some security if I admitted my feelings. I chose not to however, because I was aware that she leaned towards homophobic perspectives. I also valued our friendship so much and I didn’t want to risk losing it. My emotions scared me, because I could confidently confirm that I was attracted to men, but I did not want to confirm my attraction to women. It was something that I just didn’t want to fathom.
I didn’t truly investigate this feeling until my last year in college when I got on Tinder and swiped away. I found someone I was interested in and we started interacting. I quickly realized that I was attracted to this person and had feelings for them that was further confirmed by our sexual encounters. As a matter of fact, that was the hard proof I needed to accept my reality.
The impact this had was ground shaking. It was the first time I realized that I am bisexual. There were a lot of thoughts in my head, most of them relating to how to hide this part of myself. Actually, even as I was swiping through Tinder, I considered how easy it would be to hide this “half” of myself. I thought I can simply know the answer and deny myself any pursuit of women. After the Tinder dates, after I had allowed myself to express my sexuality, that line of thought felt so wrong on so many levels. It’s the equivalent of forbidding yourself to fall in love with all short people. That means that you are limited to finding love with only tall people? That’s so limiting, and frankly unrealistic. You can’t choose the height of the person you fall in love with. Love is blind. It’s the same with bisexuality. It doesn’t discriminate. You can’t help who you fall in love with. Those thoughts I had about hiding my bisexuality evaporated after I realized I was truly bisexual. That said, I was also painfully aware that it would be impossible to justify queer relationships to any Coptic person in my immediate circle.
Do you have anyone you can talk to about these issues?
I began coming out to people that I felt safe with, such as non-Coptic friends, coworkers, and mentors. I was lucky that they were supportive. I also studied Women’s Studies in University, which helped me break down so much of the hate that targets queer people. I eventually fell in love with someone that I worked with, and I eventually felt like I wanted to come out to some of my Coptic community.
My sister is pretty liberal, but believes that queerness is a sin. When I told her, she calmly accepted me without being upset or bothered. She had questions about how I knew I was bisexual, etc. To this day, if I ask her if she thinks what I’m doing is wrong she says yes and that I am pushing myself away from God. Even so, she keeps my secret safe from my parents, asks for updates on my relationship, and seems curious about my personal life. We’re close, and I’m determined not to let my sexuality create strain on our relationship.
I only told one of my Coptic friends, because she also was away at University and had a non-Coptic circle. I trusted that she would keep this secret from the larger Coptic community, and felt like she could safely process it with her own non-Coptic community if she needed. Basically, I tried my best to choose a person who would not feel forced to be closeted with me, as is the case with my sister. It turns out that this friend also has similar perspectives as my sister does. I remember when I first told her that I was in love with a woman and that I was dating her, she calmly responded with, “Okay.” Soon after though, she asked questions like, “Have you tried to stop?” and, “Have you talked to a priest?” I think this created some tension because it was hard to explain my perspectives. I think we have an unspoken agreement to disagree. I am getting more comfortable talking about queer-related topics with her.
I have a decent support network, and that involves only two Copts who I’m out to. I think the most difficult hurdle was coming out to myself because bisexuality is framed as a half-and-half attraction. It was hard to justify dating women and risk losing almost all of my Coptic community when I have the “ability” to date men.
I don’t wish this type of double life on anyone though. My partner has come out to her family. They accept me and are aware of my situation, which eases some of the pressures involved with hiding. However, the double life weighs more when my parents talk about marriage and dating. It’s difficult to hide something like this from my parents because I want to tell them I found someone that makes me happy. I know if I tell them, it will unleash a great amount of sadness and frustration for them. It also weighs more when I’m at church or around most of my Coptic friends.
I don’t really have intentions of coming out to my parents until I move out for good because of safety issues. Only then would I feel free to interact with all my Coptic peers without hiding my identity.
How do you reconcile Coptic Orthodoxy with also having a LGBTQ+ identity?
I don’t. I think it’s clear that a mission of the Coptic community and the general Egyptian community is queer erasure. I am willing to leave all of it behind to pursue my queerness. I generally see more damage than aid when I think of my upbringing. I think it’s important for Copts to know that we, Coptic queers, exist. Praying and conversion attempts only create hatred, including self-hatred for the queer person. “Hate the sin, love the sinner” is impossible. The sin and the sinner are one. If you hate one, you essentially hate the other.
To me, the Coptic religion and culture simply don’t make sense. Trying to reconcile the illogical is a futile effort. I choose to be Christian without being Coptic. I don’t think I can separate the Coptic culture from the Coptic religion either, so everyday I choose to abandon the preservation of my heritage altogether so that I can preserve myself.
What advice would you give to Coptic queers who are looking for support?
Don’t come out unless it’s safe. That means, if you’re coming out to your family make sure you have another place to stay, in case things go badly. That means if you live in a country where you will be threatened because of your sexuality, then be cautious about who you come out to. If you’re closeted, there are several risks to dating someone who is out, so identify those risks before you continue dating them seriously.
Community is everywhere. If you’re reading this, you’ve made a step towards finding community. Try searching social media, LGBTQ centers, & at school. Most Coptic LGBTQ people (in the West) face similar issues to other extremely conservative communities. For those who can be in physical danger, I honestly don’t know. I know police in Egypt catfish people through Grindr. It’s bad out there. Just be careful.
The best place to start looking for support is within yourself. Learn to love yourself by undoing some of the harm that your culture might have done to you. Who you are is exceptional. Try to understand that your Coptic family and friends might have reactions that are partly a product of their own upbringing and culture. You are not malicious by choosing happiness for yourself.
What are your hopes for the Coptic community in the future?
I think as younger generations fill communities in the diaspora, we can expect to see more understanding and tolerance. However, “I tolerate you” is not the equivalent of “I love you.” I personally do not think tolerance is enough. I want to be able to be married in my church. I want people to recognize that my partner is my partner. I don’t want my partner and I to be a don’t ask, don’t tell scenario. I choose to not have hope for the Coptic community because I believe it will fail me in my lifetime.
Coptic queer visibility can increase if people in our communities stay to say, “I exist!” without fear of being silenced. I know zero queer Copts, probably because this isn’t happening yet. I know its cliché, but I think for those that have the courage and support to be fully out, they should do it loud and proud. It's only a matter of time before I, and hopefully others, will do this.