Andrew Demetry (33)
Tell me about NAFS.SPACE and how it came to be. How has your art and fashion background influenced the platform?
Having worked in both industries, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of representation of Middle Eastern and North African creatives. We stem from a history of beauty and creativity but due to political issues within most of our countries, our community has gone into a type of survival mode where creativity is considered a luxury and unnecessary. I do not see it as such. I believe that creativity is at the core of self-development and helps in the healing of traumas which, unfortunately, are experienced in both the queer community and the POC community.
What have been some of your greatest moments and greatest challenges in establishing a Middle Eastern and North African queer online platform?
The greatest challenge was being told that I’ll get death threats if I started this- but I realised this platform is bigger than just me; and if I’m angering people then I’m doing something right.
The greatest moments have been receiving messages of encouragement and support from strangers on social media-- keep ‘em coming.
How have people responded to NAFS.SPACE? How has your family responded?
Friends and peers have been very supportive. My parents have never really understood much about the creative world, although both of them are creative individuals. My mother taught me everything I know about fabrics and constructing garments from a young age, as she makes her own clothes and my father draws and sings (only alhan and taratil). My father’s attitude these days is very relaxed and he continues to say, “As long as you’re happy, I’m happy.” My siblings have been extremely supportive and helpful.
Have you worked with many Coptic queers? To what extent?
My queer circle in general is very small. I only recently became friends with an amazing collective called PRIDE OF ARABIA, who have helped me accept my Egyptian identity and have encouraged me to start NAFS.SPACE. I do not have many ties with the Coptic community apart from the people I grew up with (who are not queer); they are also very supportive of NAFS.SPACE.
What are your hopes for the platform in the future?
I want NAFS.SPACE to be the go-to platform for creative Middle Eastern/North African queers, showcasing a multitude of passions, intellect, and creativity.
What did it mean to grow up in a Coptic household? Tell me a little about where you grew up and where you’re at now.
I grew up in Copenhagen, Denmark in a small Coptic community which has expanded drastically. It started with circa 5 families, who I consider my family. Our families responded to the pressures of assimilation by putting us all in international schools in Copenhagen, while our households were very Egyptian. I grew up reading the bible with my mum and singing taratil she had taught me. My parents would watch the gruesome news of what was happening in the Middle East and I remember always hearing my mum tah-tahing in the background. I quickly realised that the world wasn’t a great place for someone like me. That, and being taught to always fear god and that he was vengeful. From my appearance, thoughts, and my feelings I knew in my early teens that I didn’t belong in any of the communities that surrounded me. Growing up in Denmark wasn’t easy, as I was constantly confronted with the dichotomy of being a good Coptic child and being accepted into the Danish community. I felt hated by everyone. When I turned 19, I moved to London on a type of pilgrimage to find myself and find my tribe. I initially started by exploring my queerness, but quickly found myself in a volatile relationship for 8 years. Now in my early 30’s, I am at a reflective stage. There are many wounds that are still healing; yet the older ones seem to be the most stubborn. I want to move on from things, but need to acknowledge my scars, traumas, and hurt before I can do so.
Tell me a little about queer culture in POC spaces in London vs those in Denmark.
From my 14 years living in London, I have rarely been in exclusively POC spaces due to the fear of being harassed for being queer. It wasn’t until recently when collectives such as PXSSY PALACE, MISERY PARTY and PRIDE OF ARABIA started nights for queer people of colour I began to join in. These are places that allowed me to explore my culture and sexual identity amongst others who have had similar experiences. These are spaces where you are free from conforming and are celebrated for being you. Denmark has no such place, for now. In my eyes, Denmark is still very segregated; they struggle with the concept of being queer and POC as if being queer is exclusive to the western world. I will be returning to Copenhagen this summer so I might have more insight later.
How would you describe your relationship with Coptic culture?
Currently non-existing. I removed myself from it for many reasons. Growing up I was very religious, but noticed many things about the culture that I disagreed with. As I got older, I noticed how many people within the community cherry-picked what they wanted and didn’t want to follow. I remember that from an early age, I put up a fight with my parents for not wanting to be ordained as a shammas. Having resisted and won that fight, I believe they still think that is the reason why I am gay. The only two Coptic queers I know are the founder of the Coptic Queer Stories platform and a friend in New York. I have never asked my queer Arab friends in London about their religion; I was more infatuated by getting to know them.
I will admit, the smell of bakhoor in church makes me feel a sense of comfort and hope. I enjoy the ritualistic aspect of the Coptic religion and love our historic iconography; I find it fascinating where it once terrified me.
When did you first realize that you were gay, and what impact did that have on you?
I always knew I wasn’t like the other boys around me. I masked it with religion and being very insular and withdrawn from everyone from a very young age. Until the age of 5, I only spoke to my mum.
When I chose to accept myself as a gay man at the age of 15, I thought to myself that I had two options. The first was to kill myself because of the shame I would bring to my “highly respected and religious family,” and the second was to mentally detach myself from my family. I chose the latter.
My plan was to make them hate me. I cried unstoppably that night, as if I was mourning their death while also realising that I was going to be alone for becoming my true self. Being gay is not a choice, but what you do with that information and realisation is. The pain I felt that night I later felt again when my close friend died from a brain tumour 3 years later. Her and I had planned to move to Paris as soon as she turned 18 to get away from our “crazy Egyptian families” – she died a week prior to her 18th birthday. The pain felt like I couldn’t breathe, and my heart had been squeezed and pulled out of my chest, like something told me I wouldn’t ever need it again. Since then, I never wanted to attach myself to anyone to that extent, at the risk of having to go through that pain again. After she died, I had to leave Denmark of my own accord; I had damaged my relationship with my family and a few friends. I moved to London with a stone-cold persona. I rarely spoke to my family, avoided my childhood friends, and had the freedom to create the person I wanted to be.
I later acknowledged that it was not that simple. In order to know where you are going you need to know where you’ve been. I was continuously confronted with my past and realised that I had to repair relationships. After an abusive relationship, accepting homophobia and racism at countless jobs, I had to increasingly look inwards. It was necessary to learn about my self-worth, my boundaries, and my traumas. I met friends and colleagues who taught me how to love and be loved, and I began my own spiritual journey.
Tell me about coming out.
I am out to my parents; I came out to them a few times and I still believe they are in denial. But my coming out stories haven’t been great. I came out to them during fights over the phone. More recently an “uncle” I met once as a child came across my Facebook. He decided to call my dad and tell him that I had “lost the way of god.” My mother called me crying, explaining that I had humiliated the family and that I had put my dad in a depression (good thing they didn’t see my Instagram). She then proceeded to compare me to a murderer. At this point, I was done with this narrative of Coptic beliefs. I asked my mother to repeat herself, which she did 4 times, and I said, “Well, if this is what you think of your own child, I don’t think it’s healthy for us to have a relationship together.” I blocked both their numbers and we didn’t speak for a little over a year.
My siblings would call and ask what happened, and I would tell them that this time my parents had overstepped the mark. My Coptic friends who knew my parents would tell me that my mum would ask about me crying and ask them to tell me that she missed me. My childhood Coptic friend, someone I consider to be my sister, had a talk with my mother during this time. My mother approached her crying, and my friend, knowing the full story, asked my mother the question, “Do you choose your son, or your religion?” After some time, I eventually ventured back to Denmark to deal with this situation. After a matter of hours of my parents pussyfooting around me, my mother approached me and apologised. She explained, “We don’t understand this, but you need to know we would do anything for you and we will always love you.” That is all I needed to hear and feel.
The issue that our Coptic and Egyptian communities suffer from-- much like many other POC communities-- is that it revolves around the idea of “what will the neighbours say.” That is not very befitting of Coptic beliefs. I know in my heart that my parents love me and would do anything for me, but they are constantly threatened by what the rest of the community is thinking about our family, their parenting, and the general comparisons.
In an ideal world, I believe everyone should live their truth, but for POC queers that is not the case. It can be unsafe to come out. It is each individual’s decision to come out or not. If you chose to come out, there is a beautiful accepting queer family waiting for you when you’re ready. I am lucky to have my best friend Tom, darling friend Natalie, and my Pride of Arabia family who support me and help me talk things through.
How do you reconcile Coptic culture with also having a LGBT+ identity?
I believe you can be queer and be a part of a religion if you choose to be. My father always taught me that religion is between an individual and god. I feel that the community compares, judges, and condemns others as if they are somehow doing god's work. I think the Coptic church follows a narrative that does not give much leeway when it comes to sexual identity. They say that sex is not for pleasure; it is a tool used only for procreating. I was shocked when I read about FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) within the community.
The Coptic view of homosexuality is that of frivolous fornication, promiscuity, and self-indulgence. The concept of homosexuality as a form of love and compassion is yet to be acknowledged by Coptic culture. It needs to stop demonising homosexuality and queer culture, which I believe is best done by educating people. However, in order to educate someone, they need to be willing to listen-- truly listen.
This isn’t the only issue regarding being accepted by the Coptic community. Much like many other post-colonial countries, the Coptic culture is nuanced with a superiority complex; the culture that I know praises money, class, and how one’s family is perceived by others.
This superiority complex has also manifested itself into a whitewashed culture, making it easier for the prejudice of not only those within the community but everyone who does not identify as a god-fearing Coptic. It’s extremely superficial, masked with the veil of religion. It’s classist, colourist, racist, and homophobic. They forget our historical roots and where we, as a community, came from. We are African, we are Beja, Ethiopian, Sudanese, Egyptian, Eritrean – we should celebrate our rich, joint histories. Humans are unable to accept others when they cannot accept parts of themselves.
There is deep rooted internalised homophobia, internalised racism deluded by their desire to follow the popular systemic and structural beliefs of white culture/supremacy.
What are your hopes for the Coptic community in the future?
I hope that the Coptic community begins to ease up and starts living from a place of love and not comparison. It would be great for the community to be open to more points of view.
You have lots of ties to folks in Egypt-- can you tell me anything about LGBTQ+ lives there and the culture of queerness as we understand it in the West?
It depends on who I talk to--some say it’s hard to be out in Egypt, others say their circles and families are accepting of it regardless of religion; and then there are my non-POC friends who have had amazing experiences in the underground gay Egyptian community. I cannot truly say I know much about the queer scene in Egypt, I only hear stories that aren’t mine to tell. I am just very pleased to know that there is a community there, doing what they can and trying to live their best lives.
I also love seeing my queer friends in Egypt using their creativity as an outlet of expression.
What advice would you give to Coptic queers who are looking for support and a community that accepts them for who they are?
There are so many of you! You are not alone! Do not be afraid to reach out to communities like NAFS.SPACE, COPTIC QUEERS STORIES, PRIDE OF ARABIA and the list goes on. There is always a home/safe space for you within these communities; use social media to get in contact with us if you want to talk. We are here to help you in whatever stage you’re at in your journey. And, be safe.