Anne-Simone El Sokkary (22)
What drew you to Melbourne, and what makes it different from where you grew up in Sydney?
I visited Melbourne a few times before moving here, and what stood out to me the most was how uniquely and unapologetically people presented themselves. It's a more artistically and culturally interesting city in comparison to Sydney. I wanted to be in a completely new city where no one knew me and where I could begin to introduce myself and socialise around new people with absolutely no filters or a "watered down" personality. I decided I wanted to pursue photography in Melbourne, and I’ve been here for a little over a year. It’s definitely been a liberating experience-- one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life.
Tell me a little about how you grew up in the culture.
Both my parents are Coptic-- my mum in particular is really religious. My sister and I grew up going to church twice a week: on Fridays for youth meetings/bible study and Sundays for the liturgy and Sunday school. Growing up most of my friends were from church. We could bond over having strict parents and the difficulties of navigating our Egyptian and Australian identities-- and they looked like me! However, as I grew older I got exhausted by the "us versus them" mentality. I realised how uncomfortable I felt when discussions about the salvation of those outside of the church came up. These conversations made me imagine my non-Christian friends burning in a fiery pit and made me question if I’d be sentenced to the same fate if I had been born into a non-Christian family. I was scared about saying the wrong thing or revealing that I was not the "good Coptic girl" that I was supposed to be, and I hated it.
I hadn’t yet come to terms with my sexuality as a lesbian when I realized that I didn’t have to filter my thoughts and more progressive beliefs about feminism, sexuality, science, and spirituality around my friends from school. I did realise, however, that I had to keep my opinions and non-Coptic beliefs to myself if I was to have a peaceful home life. I kept my head down and lived a double life in an effort to maintain a decent relationship with my parents; the guilt of disappointing them was unbearable.
When did you first realize you were queer, and what impact did that have on you?
I can recall having crushes on some of my female friends as far back as primary school. As my friends began to talk more about the boys they had crushes on, I struggled to relate to them. I brushed it off as me being more career-oriented or seeing married life as oppressive. In high school, I couldn’t write these crushes off as girls I admired or wanted to be like, I knew I wanted to be with them. After being in a relationship with a girl for the first time, I realised I had to unpack my sexuality. I hoped that I was bisexual so that I could somehow ignore my same-sex attraction and please my parents. I forced myself to go on dates with guys, and while I could see that these guys were attractive in the conventional sense, I wasn’t attracted to them. The dates felt like a performance and the dynamic was uncomfortable. I pushed myself to make out with one of these dates and the whole time I was screaming at myself in my head, “You’re so gay, you’re so fucking gay.”
After that particular date, I cried on the drive home as I realised that I had to face a hard truth. I was so confused, and I still believed in a God that was going to condemn gays to hell, but I knew that I had no choice in my sexuality. Why would this God of love and compassion allow me to turn out this way and then condemn me to hell?
I struggled with my mental health, and didn't see the point of living. I couldn’t imagine a happy future and I didn’t want to live a life suppressing myself. I prayed and prayed and prayed to be "fixed" and to be turned straight. I reached a scary place in my head, and I was convinced that my parents would rather have a dead daughter than a gay one. I soon realised I needed help, I came out to my sister. She flooded me with unconditional love and support and I was able to get the professional help I needed. Slowly, I was able to understand the importance of self-love. I was alive and my existence was proof that I deserved life.
Tell me about your relationship with Coptic culture, being a woman and a lesbian.
I’m still trying to make peace with my Coptic identity. For a long time Coptic culture felt like it belonged to my parents, but not to me. Coptic ideologies are what ripped my parents away from me, and until this day, I cannot have productive discussions or reach any type of understanding with them because of the deeply engrained biases they carry.
The Coptic church is extremely patriarchal; women are told to humble themselves as St. Mary was humble. Purity and virginity are glorified, being outspoken is frowned upon. Women are encouraged to strive for marriage and children and we are likened to a "weaker vessel." It was Eve that tempted Adam into taking that bite of the apple. We’re not allowed to partake in Holy Communion on our periods. We’re to cover our heads and to dress modestly during the liturgy. Women are taken back to their abusive husbands and convinced that their abuse is their "cross to carry" and will somehow lead to their salvation. St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians about women remaining silent in the church is used as a weapon to keep us quiet.
I grew up with a skewed perspective of my womanhood. I never felt strong or empowered in the church; being a woman felt like an obstacle in experiencing life the way I wanted to. Conversations around feminism were cut short, as leaders in the community would insist that we are equal however with "differing roles." I’d have some conversations with more "progressive" priests who’d blame Arab culture for the misinterpretations of scripture. However, these same priests who thought of themselves as progressive, did nothing for women in the church and their silence perpetuated oppressive cycles.
I’m learning to approach my Coptic identity outside of the context of religion, being Coptic is my ethnic identity but not my religious one. It’s still early days in my journey of reconciling all my seemingly clashing identities, but I’m working on it.
What are your thoughts on coming out?
I’m out to my friends, and I come out to new people that I meet. My parents accidentally found out about my sexuality. In 2017 Australia held a marriage law postal survey where they asked the question,“Should the law be changed to allow same- sex couples to marry?” The majority of Australia voted "Yes." My dad came into my room the day the results were announced and went on a rant about how this would be "the end of civilisation" and how this was "a dark day in Australia’s history." I would usually bite my tongue whenever my parents would spit their homophobic venom. However, this day was different...I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. I calmly tried to explain that giving someone else their basic right to marriage in no way took his own rights away from him. I explained that so many other countries had legalised same-sex marriage and the sun still rose and set, no civilisations had collapsed because of it. My dad was shocked that I held such wildly different views. He asked me where I got my views from, and he said that university had brainwashed me. I pointed out that the church and the culture that he had grown up in had brainwashed him into blindly hating gay people. The argument kept going back and forth and became very heated. He stood in my face and screamed that he was ashamed to have a daughter that thought like me. After he left my room, I began to have a panic attack. I worried that I had spoken too honestly and he’d know that I was gay.
I left home for a few days and stayed with my close friend Mark who’s also gay and Coptic. He had moved out of his parent's home, so his place became my sanctuary until I could collect my thoughts. My parents questioned my sister and asked why I was so passionate about gay rights. She broke down and told them that I was gay. I’m thankful that my sister told them, she did the hardest part for me.
My parents pleaded with me to come home. I made them promise that they wouldn’t ask me anything or talk about my sexuality until I was ready to. I went back home and mustered up the strength to confirm my identity to them. I managed to conjure the words, “I’m gay.” I explained that I wasn’t ashamed of it, I tried to explain that I hadn’t chosen my sexuality just as they hadn’t chosen theirs. My parents denied it and they said that the devil had tricked me into thinking I was gay, that the friends I had made brainwashed me into thinking I was gay. They said that if I prayed and repented that God would heal me. This felt like a slap in the face, because they had no idea how hard I had struggled to even accept myself.
My home life became unbearable; my mum would look at me with such cold eyes and they’d question my whereabouts and the friends I had. I was constantly interrogated and made to feel guilty. I felt like every move I made was inspected and critiqued. Home no longer felt comfortable, so I decided I had to move out for the sake of my mental health. I dropped out of university without my parents knowing, and instead worked full-time. Telling my parents that I was moving out felt even more difficult than telling them that I was gay. I knew that to them, me moving out was me choosing to live a life of sin. I decided to tell them that I was moving out in a week, and I had a bag ready to go that night in case the conversation escalated and I felt unsafe.
I told my mum first, and she began to cry and asked me why I was doing this to her. She professed that she had treated me so well and gave me the best opportunities she could. She cried while asking me why I wasn’t normal. That night, I told my dad when he got back from work. My mum had already told him that I was planning to move out. He took me aside and began to accuse me of breaking the family apart, that I was destroying my sister’s chance at finding a husband. "What would people say, what about my reputation?" I tried to explain that this was something that I needed to do for my own good, that I didn’t care about what people thought about me. I told him that I don’t live my life for the comfort or approval of others. I wasn’t tearing apart our family, I was giving them the opportunity to get to know the real me. I could see my dad trembling with anger. He said he didn’t give me permission to move out, and I replied saying that I wasn’t asking for permission, that I was letting him know.
The conversation ended with him saying that if he died he wouldn’t want me at his funeral, and he no longer had anything left for me. I left. I moved in with Mark and his housemates, and I didn’t speak to my dad for nine months until I decided I needed to let him and my mom know that I was moving to Melbourne. They were surprisingly supportive of me moving to Melbourne for study, but I never got an apology for the words that were spat at me. I chose to forgive them, and I realise that they’re a product of their upbringing. Maybe if I had grown up in the same society as them I’d do the same to my child. I love them and know that they said the things they did because their greatest fear is me losing out on salvation.
That said, I also know my worth and prioritise my journey of healing. I don’t engage in toxic conversations with them and have accepted that I won’t ever get the validation I wish I could get from them. I choose to surround myself with a network of people who unconditionally love and accept me.
Is this why you aren't involved with Coptic community?
I’m learning to navigate my spirituality and God beyond the confines of organised religion. My perception of God doesn’t align with what is preached at church.The youth at church act and engage with each other the way they think they’re expected to out of fear of being judged. Many interactions felt disingenuou while everyone is trying to fit into the role of a good Coptic girl or boy. The youth in my experience are just as conservative as their parents; self-righteous and godly at church, and then they behave the way they want to outside of it. The hypocrisy is painful to observe.
"Progressive" youth pat themselves on the back for saying things like, “I don’t judge gay people, I still love them but just don’t agree with their lifestyle.” This notion of loving the sinner but not the sin is so toxic. You can’t claim to love me if you hate an integral part of my identity. Pity is so far from love.
I find it hard to navigate people from church reaching out to me. I think that a lot of people see it as some service to bring the lost sheep back. Reaching out to me for the sake of service isn’t a genuine interest in who I am. It makes them feel better, and it makes them the saviour in their own narrative. They’re not trying to expand their understanding, neither are they trying to become an ally. I’m also weary of generalising, as I’m sure there are people in the Coptic community who are struggling with being allies and genuinely want to engage with LGBTQ+ identifying people with love and understanding. I’m just yet to see these people speak up and unapologetically show support in Coptic spaces.
What advice would you give to Coptic queers who are looking for support?
If you’re reading this, you’ve already found an online platform where you can connect and reach out to people who are living through the same struggles as you might be. Don’t hesitate to message me, or the people that run Coptic Queer Stories. You’re not a burden on anyone. You deserve to feel loved and supported, especially when you reach out, and in my experience the people that you reach out to are just as happy to connect with other queer Copts. Join queer groups at your school/university/workplace or community centre; it’s important to surround yourself with people who have learnt to love themselves and who speak about their identity from a place of acceptance.
Follow more queer POC/queer positive accounts on social media, seeing the representation relevant to you works wonders on your journey of self acceptance.
I also want to bring up the importance monitoring your mental health. There is no shame in admitting that you need help. Reaching out to a professional is an essential part of healing, you’re not doing yourself any favours by silently sitting with your trauma. Culturally many of us have grown up with a lot of stigma surrounding mental health, and I think that every single person should be talking to some type of therapist. We don’t hesitate to see a doctor when we’re physically unwell, don’t hold off on your mental wellbeing.