Andrew Botros (37)
Garden Grove, California
Some names and identifying details have been changed for privacy.
Can you tell me what it was like to grow up in a Coptic household?
I was born in Egypt, and my family immigrated to the U.S. before elementary school. We were a typical Coptic family living the American dream in the suburbs of Los Angeles; mom, dad, 2.5 kids, 2 cars, a cat, and a household filled with cumin-garlicky aromas. I was a very well-behaved kid, and I tried to follow the rules as best as I could. I was really into basketball, and I played guitar. I have a sister who is a few years younger than me. Growing up Coptic in America meant I brought “weird” foods to school, and spent my Saturday nights learning the Coptic alphabet. I had two sets of friends, and I spoke several languages. My life looked pretty normal I think, as far as normal goes for immigrant families.
However my dating life was not very typical. The lack of healthy teachings in human sexuality created a lot of guilt for me. In the early 90s, the church had a strategy of using shame to promote purity. This did not stop my peers from having sex, and this boggled my mind. My friends all seemed immune to this shaming, but for me and my young mind, it seemed like an act of war to live out my sexual desires. I suppose I was a lot more porous than others, and that shame infiltrated me every which way. Between this sexual policing by church leadership and personal confusion about my sexuality, I didn’t feel comfortable dating or exploring romantic relationships until I was much older.
How would you describe being raised Coptic?
It’s complicated. Being raised Coptic gave me a strong sense of identity and a connection to a rich, historical, ethnic, and spiritual tradition, and it also confused me. Our insular community put many of us in a position to have dual lives, since it felt almost impossible to integrate Coptic life with “normal” American life; they were drastically different worlds.
I have a long history with the Coptic community. By the time I got to high school, I started to immerse myself in church life after a spiritual experience that impacted me in a deeply personal and profound way. That experience made me consider the church a place where I could find a home. I served as a deacon during liturgies, vespers, tasbeha, and special occasions. I also began serving the youth on Friday nights and became involved in that ministry. As I got older, I served the community more and more. Starting my junior year of college, my weekends became less about partying as they normally had been. Instead, they were spent driving around going to different churches, working with youth and serving; I helped organize retreats and spearheaded a ton of projects. Those are some truly memorable days.
I especially had a soft spot for kids who didn’t fit in. Knowing that I too was a bit of a misfit, I wanted to make sure everyone felt at home in the church and could have access to that same love I knew. I also knew that, although I found acceptance and divine connection in the community, there were many barriers to belong. There is an unwritten social contract within the Coptic community that requires its members to look, think, and act a certain way. I had a vision that we could be a community of people where the clean-cut, grungy, struggling, unique, different, broken, put-together, and everyone in between could come together and be bound by a common thread of love. And I know that if we could do that, we’d all be better for it. All I had learned about our tradition, including the gospels, inspired me to see these possibilities.
My commitment to this belief is why I gave my time, my energy, and most importantly, my heart to this place. The great irony of this is that when I finally came to terms with my sexuality and I turned to the church for help, I was not afforded the same access I had worked so hard to give to others.
When did you first realize you are bisexual?
It wasn’t until I went to college that I began to accept that I was not straight. I developed strong feelings for this guy; he was a cool, fun, straight latin-american surfer dude. It was the first time I felt something for someone that was more than just lust or sexual attraction, both of which I had felt for men and women. I fell for this guy. I felt, for the first time, that I wasn’t being tempted by something external. It actually felt like something very good and beautiful that was coming alive. But, pursuing those feelings was not compatible with the world I was in. I did not know what to do, and for months I walked around like a zombie, consumed by inner conflict. I discovered the meaning of the phrase, “between a rock and a hard place.” Do I reject an identity that I had known my entire life, and a world that gave me so much meaning and purpose, or do I reject a part of me that seemed to be core to my nature as a person?
Desperate, I approached a priest I knew fairly well, and although he was not my own parish priest, I needed answers. This priest told me that my sexuality was an illness that could be fixed. I’d never heard of such a thing but I was intrigued, because it provided an answer, and on some level it seemed to make sense. It was a path where I could still “be” Coptic. So, instead of finding peace and a way to integrate my sexuality and faith, I was told my only option was to fix this problem or risk being shunned from everything I knew and valued--or worse, burn in hell for an eternity, and I certainly didn’t pack for that. How many millions of people have had to face this same problem...
So I joined an ex-gay ministry, a religious organization that practices reparative therapy on homosexuals. This therapy is a mixture of pseudoscience and unconventional psychology practices to attempt to change an individual’s sexual orientation. I spent years with this ministry. While it was no Boy Erased, the experience did lead me to a very dark place. I fasted, prayed, engaged in various talk therapies and activities. At first I felt a huge relief that I found an answer to something that was plaguing me; I was sharing secrets I’d never told another human. I believed that I was on the right path until things took a turn.
My ability to love and receive love, which I now believe is one of our greatest superpowers as humans, was labeled as pathology and mental illness, and I began hating and fearing this part of myself. I did not know it at the time, but my sense of self was eroding slowly, and my life and personal development was on hold. I thought it was only thousands of dollars that I was spending on these programs but in reality, the cost was so much higher. I fell into hopelessness and even greater confusion. Eventually, suicidal thoughts began creeping in and I perceived my existence to be a mistake. One night, I almost ended it all and found myself in the emergency room of a hospital in downtown LA. I might not be alive to tell my story if it weren’t for a couple of kind friends that got me through that time. I finally left the conversion program and began a very long journey to heal from that experience, but more importantly, to begin to accept the parts of me that were designed to love.
It should be known that in 2020, the Coptic Church is heavily promoting these dangerous therapies. Recently at a convention entitled “Homosexuality: Preservation and Recovery,” the church gathered to promote the use of ex-gay therapy on church members as official remediation for being a gay person. An open letter has been created in response, condemning this move by the church. The Coptic Diocese of the Southern United States is also offering a course on homosexuality, where ex-gay therapy is taught and the teachings of Joseph Nicolosi are required reading. The American Psychological Association, the authority that produces the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), has both dismissed these therapies as ineffective, as well as condemned them as being dangerous. Governments around the world are banning the use of this treatment because of the dangers it poses. And I can attest to this first-hand. We must not allow ex-gay therapy to become normalized in our community.
When I told my parents and my sister that I accepted my sexuality as it is, it shook the very foundations of our family. There were no resources to help us get through it. This was a painful time for my family, filled with a lot of tears, confusion, and anger. Having a bi or gay son was just too shameful for them. My identity and value was boiled down to this one aspect, instead of all the other things I was and had accomplished. All of this was caused by my potential to love another man.
While this introduced considerable pain for my family, we never stopped loving each other. We persevered through so much discomfort and disappointment, and somehow found a way to love each other through it all. I know some people who got kicked out of their homes because of unsupportive family, and I’m grateful to have had mine stick by my side, even if it wasn’t perfect. I made myself vulnerable, asking for their love, all while reminding them that I too have had to accept them for things I didn’t understand. Framing things in this way began a shift toward positive interactions. That said, while my parents love me, they don't really understand the whole picture. Just like I’ve asked my parents to accept me for who I am, I’ve had to learn to accept my parents for who they are. Families are a gift in this aspect. They’re a training ground for how we can exist in this world and practice our abilities to love others. We don’t get to choose our biological families, so we will most likely be related to people who are much different than ourselves. The practice of acceptance and love, despite differences, is a tremendous gift for those who are willing to engage because it allows us to grow.
My Egyptian friends had a difficult time with it at first. Every conversation resulted in a discussion where I was being asked to defend or explain myself from either a spiritual or cultural point of view. Many of these friendships persevered because we kept engaging in conversations, and some of these friends came around, some even came to sees the church's teaching about LGBT+ people as incorrect. It pleasantly surprised me how open and how supportive my friends became, once they started to understand. I found allies within the community.
Tell me a little bit about why you started your blog, Being Queer and Coptic (formerly called, Being Gay and Coptic).
First, I wanted to add a voice where there was none. I knew there were others like me out there and I wanted them to feel less alone than I had once been. When I started the blog, there was nothing on the internet that covered the topic of being gay and Coptic. As far as anyone knew, there was no such thing as a gay Copt. There were pro-gay Christian communities that appealed more to Westerners but LGBT+ Egyptian and Arab resources simply didn’t exist. Not only were there no resources online, but I hadn’t (and still haven’t) seen an openly gay, active member of the Coptic Church. I have not encountered a single person. Those who have come out have had to sever ties with the church, and many I know personally are living happy and fulfilled lives. Being out within the mainstream community does not seem possible at this moment.
Second, I started the blog to add a positive voice to a sea that has become overcrowded with hostility. H.G. Bishop Suriel gave a sermon on the subject where he claimed that gay people have a secret agenda to make pedophelia legal. H.G. Bishop Youssef wrote a number of articles for the Southern U.S. Copts website, one of which advises the people of the church to refrain from being friends with gay people. While there are many examples online of this sort of thing, there have also been countless sermons on the topic, given by clergy and leadership who lack any real experience on the matter, so the ignorance is prolific. I constantly bear witness to ignorant, homophobic, and sometimes aggressive speech and attitudes by church members, both in-person and online.
Finally, I created the blog to help heal our community. I believe this homophobia and lack of acceptance is a symptom of a greater spiritual weakness in the church. As long as we are unable to extend love to all members of our community and outside our community, we ourselves will be cut off from experiencing the fullness of a spiritual life. I wanted to dispel some of the myths and lies that have been instilled in us. The biggest lie being that God’s love is not for gay people and gay people have no place in the church. That message could not be further from the truth.
What has been the response from people, both inside and outside of the community?
The responses have been mixed. Many people from all over the world have written to me, sharing their own stories and support. Many clergy and other members of the church have written to me with messages of love and support. Many have written me with kind words, but with the stipulation that I’m making a mistake. The most rewarding is when I hear from fellow LGBT+ Copts. I’ve had the chance to meet queer Copts from the US and from Egypt who have shared their stories with me. People have written me to thank me for letting them know that they’re not alone. A few of us also started the LGBTQ Copts page on Facebook, and that’s been a thriving community. I’ve stepped away from it a bit, but it’s in very capable hands. I’m amazed to see how much it has grown!
Other responses haven’t been so kind. We have received a number of aggressive emails and blog comments over the years. One individual who is a deacon in the church, who is very prominent in our various online Coptic communities threatened me physically. It’s one of the reasons I keep my blog profile anonymous. There have been threats against my body and against my life because of these writings. Here are some examples of the responses, if you’re interested in reading [Warning: disturbing and hostile language]. This form of hostility has become so normalized in the Coptic mainstream. Words of hostility, shame, and ridicule are too easily given without any repercussions. The leaders do not hold these people accountable. This sends a message that it’s acceptable to behave in this manner. The clergy online are quick to admonish gay people for seeking acceptance, while turning a blind eye to their congregants who continue to make the community unsafe. Makes you wonder why people are so emboldened to post hate-speech, while LGBT+ people are made to feel afraid and rejected.
You haven’t posted for over a year, could you tell me about that?
Life keeps me busy. I think there was a time when it was important to invest a lot into this blog. These days, there are so many more resources, including CQS. If a time comes where it’s needed that I post more often, I absolutely will. For now, I’m just taking a bit of a hiatus.
How do you reconcile Coptic culture with also having a LGBT+ identity?
I refuse to shed my identity as a Christian, as a Copt, or as an Egyptian, simply because my sexuality is not commonplace or openly discussed in our culture. I believe that I belong in the church alongside anyone else. Being plugged into my community is important to me and it gives me life. I’ve spent years disconnected from the church and separate from my people. I learned a lot during those years, but ultimately, I felt like I was being called back.
Unfortunately it has been more of a don’t-ask-don’t-tell situation, which I do not believe is sustainable, and there’s a good chance even this will change. I still wrestle with a lot of fear. Some friends in the church know my full story but the majority still do not. It’s a process that I’m still navigating.
I think another aspect of this is how I reconcile LGBT+ culture with being Coptic. I’m not of the belief that because I’m bisexual or queer that I must throw out religion, or make sexuality my sole focus. It’s important for me to have a balance between my sexuality and all aspects of my life. My faith in God gives me parameters on how I express myself romantically and sexually. While these parameters may look different than what’s taught in the mainstream church, they are parameters and boundaries that I have for myself nonetheless. For me, it’s important to maintain those parameters because they keep me a whole and integrated person.
What advice would you give to Coptic queers who are looking for support?
Find your tribe! Find people who love you and accept you for who you are. Make sure you have this safety net. This is a necessity for a happy and healthy existence. We are all deserving of this love and acceptance.
Only if you are able and want to, stay in the church and stay connected to your family and community. The church and the community need you. They need all of us! We have so much to offer the greater community. It’s not our obligation or responsibility to do so, but the reality is we are a special group of people. The church has cut off her own arm by closing her doors to us. I realize that this may be an impossible ask, to just show up despite it all, as I realize in some circumstances we’re not talking merely about rejection or polite avoidance, but rather physical, mental, and economic threats to safety. To those who are at such risk, I advise you to prioritize your safety as much as possible.
I believe that the church needs to hold families who have rejected their sons and daughters accountable. The church needs to hold itself accountable for rejecting the LGBT+ people of our community. I should be very clear, for LGBT+ people to show up in this way would be an act of courage and immense love! It would be going above and beyond what is required. For the church to open her doors, this is her baseline responsibility. This is the bare minimum. I went to the church for solace and help when I was at my most confused, and when I started finding answers. It didn’t matter how much bad history we had together. The fact that I am gay was enough to feel that I wasn’t wanted and that I didn’t belong, and that isn’t true. Ultimately, your community needs you as much as you need your community. Let me repeat this: your friends, your family, your community need you as much as you need them. I promise that allies do exist, and there is a great deal of healing that comes from finding them. It’s amazing to find new possibilities of what our community could look like. Remember that finding allies comes with a degree of risk. If you’re able, it’s worth it.
As the diaspora evolves, what are your hopes for the Coptic community?
First-off, I hope all who read this will go over to the LGBT Copts page, and give us a like. We need advocates to be more vocal. We need straight allies in the community to use their status and privilege to help create a safer world. Straight allies in the church, let LGBT+ Copts know you are there and that you care!
My greatest hope is that the church will stop making her children suffer needlessly. The mother church says I cannot take communion because of my sexual orientation and the fact that I am open to partnership with another man. According to the tradition of our church, to not be allowed communion sends a strong message on the status of a person in relation to the community. It says that I am not seen as a child of the church nor does the church see me as a brother to her children. Of course I reject this, but many others I know have faced this and this status can be painful. It is a mistake to stand between a human being and the sacrament, especially for those who may need it most. Matthew 5:3-12 was written directly to my LGBT+ siblings who are seeking a place to call home.
I hope that the church will encourage families to embrace their LGBT+ family members with fierce love and acceptance. My hope is that the church will stop rejecting and neglecting her own, because of archaic biases and cultural norms that have ostracized people like us. I hope the church will start repenting of its position on LGBT+ issues. I hope the church will begin to strongly hold those members accountable for the hate speech they too easily spread. While there are a great deal of people who have become more accepting of LGBT+ people, their voices are often drowned out by clergy who have a clear agenda to keep the environment hostile for gay people.
I believe we are at a turning point, and very soon these hostile voices will become the minority. You see, for the church to be accepting of LGBT people would not be a change, but it would be a return to the church’s most authentic state. Currently the church is too heavily influenced by Middle Eastern cultural norms around homosexuality and gender. The church is also heavily influenced by American evangelicalism, the original proponents of ex-gay therapy, and very much rooted in American politics. My hope is that the church looks to its own roots and ancient wisdom. In doing so, I believe the landscape will be restored considerably in our favor.
I hope the hearts and minds of LGBT+ people in the community, especially those who are living in shame and fear, will be restored. I hope that people will write and speak up about their own stories. As LGBT+ people, we should approach our Coptic community from a position of having something to give. Invite others to your home and break bread with those who may not know you. Serve your community, and realize your life is a gift, and you’re filled with love, even when others haven’t been able to return this gift. Remember that love is our best and most authentic state of being.