Los Angeles, California;
I’m a lesbian. Culturally I identify as Coptic because it’s a big part of my life. Rather, it was a big part of my life during the time I was growing up. It shaped me. From 0-16 years old, the culture was embedded in me. But do I follow the Coptic religion? I can’t say that I do.
I still participate in some of the customs, because my family does. I’m Egyptian too, and sometimes I even practice Muslim customs.
I’m the eldest child on both my mom and dad’s side. I had the benefit of soaking in the culture 100%, and I soaked it in well. I loved it; I had my grandparents around, my uncle and aunts; I was fortunate to have that. I had a pleasant childhood, I was the only child though, so we always had my cousins around on the weekends. Daddy’s girl, all throughout, so that was nice. Still a daddy’s girl.
We were in church every Sunday, and sometimes on Friday nights. I grew up with my cousins going to church on the weekend. It was always a lot of fun learning about mass and taking communion. I started going to confession at the age of maybe 11 or 12, and around that time, I started to realize I was a little bit different from my girl cousins. I realized I didn’t have the same interests as them. But you know, just a lot of different changes in your body around puberty-- there was a lot of experimentation going on. I continued going to church because I didn’t really have any other choice. My parents would take me–I hadn’t started driving yet– so I went. I enjoyed it, especially the Coptic culture. Not just mass, but I also enjoyed what happened after mass: the socializing with cousins and friends. All my uncles and guy cousins were deacons. The church was really big. Praying before eating on Sunday, and all that spiritual jazz. My mom’s side was not so big on church, they were a little bit more relaxed. I felt I was caught between both sides of the family.
For some reason during Sunday School I was never able to connect with my peers, unfortunately. I don’t know why, I just wasn’t able to connect, to females or males. I mainly was just surrounded with family members. And in time, I realized it was just because I felt differently and we didn’t really think alike. I had maybe some feelings or emotions I just didn’t know how to express. Maybe I thought of myself a little bit more americanized. And the thing about the Coptic church, it’s just there’s a lot of hypocrisy that happens in the Coptic church. So I just really didn’t understand, you know, people would do one thing and then something else would happen later. There’s a lot of two-faced hypocrites at church and it never made me feel comfortable. Whether that be a lot of judgement, or they say they love god and they go to church yet at the same time they scrutinize anybody and everybody. There were a lot of two-faced situations that would happen, both with my peers and the elders.
So I never really felt like comfortable or safe there, you know? That was around 13 or 14 when I started to open my eyes to social interactions, patriarchy, hierarchy, abounas. I suppose I started realizing everybody’s place. What’s happening exactly…I’m realizing that church wasn’t all that it was all cracked up to be.
Now, I do not practice the Coptic religion. I kinda cut ties when I started driving at the age of 16, when I actually had a choice to attend church or not. I would say, ‘I’ll meet you there later.’ That gave me some options. So I stopped going as much, and when I did go, I didn’t go to Sunday School and stuff. I didn’t really feel connected to people my age. I never made plans with them during the week or weekend, so I never made friends with them. I always thought, I don’t know maybe I was different, I wasn’t really able to relate, I was shy as well… so there was a bunch of things happening. Also, I always surrounded myself with family. That was enough for me, that was satisfying. It was around that time, around 16 or 17, I had my first exchange, my first sexual experience, and it was with a woman, a person my age. So that got me even more thinking like, ‘Wow, what’s going on? I feel like alien now. I can’t continue to go to church and be thinking about these thoughts…oh my gosh…I’m paying attention to women more than men…what’s happening?’ And that pushed me away even more because, as it was, I wasn’t able to connect with them. And now, it’s like, ‘This isn’t gonna happen.’ It was like too much to combine, we kept moving further and further away. Now though I go to Eid, Easter, Christmas, funerals, weddings, and baptisms. Maybe 5-6 times a year.
I didn’t know any gay or queer people growing up. It was just in my head. I thought, ‘Gosh this is weird. What am I doing, what am I thinking, it’s all just an american thing.’ The first time I went on a date... I was finally able to put together a match.com profile my freshman or sophomore year of college. I had the guts to do that. I would pick okay Female for Female. And when I’d be checking my computer in school I’d be freaked out if anyone came behind me who could see what I was doing. And that was when I started… dating I guess…or looking at what’s out there… looking to see what’s going on. I did do a lot of searches on lesbians and gays and I tried to gather as much information as I could at the library or bookstore. Back then, you know this was like 20 years ago. My first girlfriend was from match.com, she introduced me to West Hollywood. As soon as I got to know West Hollywood I met one Arab person. A Lebanese Armenian, and he introduced me to a whole queer Arabic-speaking community. I was about 22. And ever since I kinda just hung on. Now, most of my friends are Arab queers.
I had a lot of guilt for maybe a good 8-9 years, it was not easy to find a supportive Arab community. I would have sex with my girlfriend and I’d feel ashamed. I went through some therapy, I went through the LGBT Center at my university. You know I did have the support, but still the Coptic-Egyptian part of me was holding on tight. It was very hard to try to see, and to try to understand and accept this part of my life. From, you know, age 17 to around when I was 28–so a good eleven years until I could…for example, if I was walking down the street I would start holding my girlfriend’s hand…and I wouldn’t push it away. It takes a lot of time, a lot of time habibi.
I’m out to my dad. I told him about 12/13 years ago. He had a hard time, you know because I was the only child but he’s fine now. My mom was sick at the time, and I didn’t see the point in telling her–she actually passed away 4 years ago. I do think she had a feeling I was different. And in 2014, my two younger guy cousins outed me because on Facebook I had that I was engaged to a woman. They told their parents, they told my oldest uncle and then it was a very funny story.
You know, ugh, patriarchy. Regala…regala (men…men). I was visiting town once and it was around the same time that my cousins found out. And they weren’t malicious about it you know, it was sort of like, ‘Omg Mariam gay!’ You know, they were 16 and 17…they didn’t care if I was gay or not. Then they tell their father, their father tells my oldest uncle, my dad’s brother. I call my uncle by coincidence that day to say, ‘Hey Uncle Aziz, I’m in town and I was thinking of coming by and having lunch with you.’ Because you know I’m really close to my family, I’m really Asharaya. You know what Asharaya is? It means that I call them, I visit them, I have lunch with them. I keep in touch, you know. I was very good at that with them. Not as much now, because things have changed but when I was growing up. But still, I would always do that. So I wanted to see him before I left town, because I was only around for a couple of days. I call and say, ‘Uncle Aziz I’m in town, moonkin ahady aleek (can I stop by)?’ He says, ‘No no Mariam, I’m busy, I’ll call you.’ I thought hmm, how rude. Like someone is saying I’m gonna come visit, you say no I’ll call you? Weird right? But I brushed it off. He told me, ‘Alla fikra your dad is coming to visit me in a few hours.’ So my dad does go visit him, and he returns and sits in front of me and he goes, ‘Okay they all know.’ I say, ‘Okay, how did they find out?’ I mean, I already knew there’s nothing new, he just had to say it. ‘He said you know, Facebook, Peter and Paul elhoom Aziz. Don’t worry about it Mariam, don’t worry about it…I already talked to them.’ He says, ‘Mariam you know with the Facebook stuff just cool it for a little bit, take off the status just for a month until things pass by because some people at church found out and there is a lot of talking and that sort of thing.’ I told him okay, out of respect for my father, I told him okay. I’ll do it. And I did do it, just out of respect for him. I pressed him about what my Uncle Aziz actually said, because it was weird that he didn’t want to see me. My dad tells me that my uncle really didn’t want to talk about this sort of thing… you know how it is. My dad goes, ‘This topic… I’ve known for many year and it is what it is.’ This is what my dad tells me–I don’t know exactly what was said, you know they’re brothers, but this is what my dad tells me. I think my dad is protecting me, he didn’t want to upset me and he’s respecting me and I do respect the fact that he did that, but I guess it doesn’t really matter what the talk was about, in the end I don’t really care. The end result was, ‘It is what it is, don’t worry about it Mariam, I told him that I already know.’ So you know I felt weird for a while. You know maybe 3 or 4 days a little off. Like oh shit now they all know. But afterwards I didn’t really care. I did the whole Facebook thing: a week maybe two weeks. I changed the status and then I changed it back afterwards. And I moved along.
Some of my relationships changed after I came out. My uncle Aziz didn’t want to talk to me for the longest time, and finally he did tell me, ‘Come Mariam, I want to talk to you.’ And I would avoid it, for about 6 months, and I could avoid it because I was living in another city. I ended up talking to him, but before that, all my other uncles, when they’d see me they’d look at me and be like…like is this Mariam? Like we don’t know what’s going on, they’d look at me with these intense eyes. Nobody ever said anything to me directly. They were a little off… maybe the first year, two years. Now they’re all fine, they don’t say anything like it doesn’t even exist. I don’t know if their wives know. I know all my cousins know. They don’t really talk to me about it, they really don’t care–they’re normal with me they all love me. But the uncles are just, you know, don’t talk about it.
So, I finally went to have a coffee with my Uncle Aziz; he started crying! ‘You know what the church says, this stuff isn’t for us.’ I responded, ‘Uncle Aziz, what’s the problem, I haven’t changed.’ You know at the time I was working with queer Arabs at a non-profit and I told him, ‘You know, there are lots of queer Arabs…and in our church there’s a lot, I don’t know why you’re upset.’ He said that he felt sad and sorry for me. I told him that he didn’t need to feel sad and sorry for me, ‘There’s nothing wrong with me, you don’t need to be sad.’ I think his expectations of me had changed. Maybe he and the rest of them felt a little like, I don’t know at fault, guilty, we lost one to the americans…you never know. I don’t know. Um, the funny thing is that Uncle Aziz, out of all my uncles treats me fine now…with respect. He’s very affectionate with me, he’s very cool. The others you know they’re a little standoffish. There’s no support habibi, there’s no support, it’s just don’t ask don’t tell.
My mom’s side of the family was much more supportive. They called me before I was going to get married, they were very supportive, they would invite my partner over to the house, they would ask about her. My mom’s side of the family isn’t as religious. So there was a big difference between the sides. My dad’s side knew I was engaged, but never asked me her name or anything.
When I came out, I came out when I made sure I was financially stable by the way. My dad never did anything, he never took away his financial support, the car, he never did any of that stuff, but you never know how they’re gonna respond. So much love that parents have for their kids, I’m sure habibi you already know. It’s just difficult for them…they had a lot of expectations and it’s a whole process of coming out and they also have to come out to their families. It’s not easy for them. It’s a coming out process you know, within themselves and then their families. Their brothers, their sisters, their close friends, and then extended family, you know cousins and all this stuff–it’s not easy.
It’s not easy ya habibi, it’s not easy to reconcile Coptic Orthodoxy with also having a queer identity. But, it’s an ongoing, daily conversation I could say. Not daily, maybe weekly conversation I have with my mind. I say, ‘Okay I’m Coptic, I’m Christian, I’m the the oldest one in the family, I’m Egyptian.’ It’s difficult sometimes. But you know what, sometimes there’s no reconciliation, you just create your own path. It is what it is, this is who I am, you can either take it or leave it. Lau mish ahgbec, ekhrab demeghec fi utrub heta (if you don’t like it, hit your head on the closest wall).
What I would say to someone who is struggling to come out to their family is that what I realized was I was putting so much pressure on myself. I expected a lot worse than what happened. I put so much pressure on myself. We, as individuals, in general–not just in coming out, we have so much pressure on ourselves and so much guilt that it takes so much to break away from that and come out. And when you do, there’s a big sigh of relief. You know, it’s not easy. But you know, what you expect to happen is not what usually happens because these are your parents; they love you. It’s not going to be easy for either one for many many years, but in the long run it’s better to come out if you’re living in the same city or state. If they’re in a different country, sometimes it’s not worth it because you don’t have that much exchange to begin with.
I haven’t met many Coptic queers. Just a couple. I think it’s possible to increase visibility, but I just think it’s a matter of quantity. There’s not that many that I know–maybe like 6 or 7 total. You have to have the numbers, or it’s going to be really heavy for a few people. There’s a lot of work to do. As it is the Coptic community is a minority, a minority of a minority. Muslims, for example, there’s a lot more people! They’ve worked on their communities maybe more as well. We’re just a subgroup–so we need to get more people out, we need to get together, we need to talk, we need to put a damn article in that Saint John Magazine– gosh it pisses me off every time I’m looking at that thing. Yalla, enough, let’s put something in there that’s new. Something that will bring up conversation. I still look at the pictures; gotta know who got married, who got baptised. You know, I grew up with that newsletter. This conversation is part of it, starting it.
Other communities talk about lots of issues: HIV, mental health, partnerships, love, sex, open relationships. We have a lot of things we need to sit down and talk about and explore. That would be great. I offer my house. We can get together with food to have some fun. It would be great if we did something.