Bo Hanna (24)
What made you want to be a journalist? I was born in Stockholm, Sweden before I moved to Egypt just before I turned 5-years-old. After half a year, we moved to the Netherlands. From a young age, I’ve been fascinated by media, television, and language. I think mostly because I learned Dutch by watching cartoons. It was quite complicated as a child to keep on with all these languages and cultures, but I feel like it gave me the perspective I have today. Also being of a Coptic minority put identity politics and exclusionary structures on my radar at a young age. Later when I went to study French literature I was exposed to writers such as Sartre, Proust, Beauvoir, and Camus. I loved philosophy, and especially existentialism; the concept of choice always resonated with me. Engaging with community and writing gave me the means to make the world a better place. During my studies, I applied for an internship at VICE and I started writing for vice.com and i-D when I was 21. I felt an urge to bring a certain perspective to the Dutch mainstream media, because LGBTQ+ issues and women’s rights were portrayed through a Western lense. Once I got going, I basically haven’t stopped. I’m very happy to have had VICE as a learning school, they gave me so many opportunities to grow and develop my talent.
What kind of stories do you love to write? I feel like intersectionality is at the core of my work. I care deeply about representation and confronting people if they’re prejudiced or have a limited view on a particular topic. I write a lot about LGBTQ+, emancipation topics, and identity politics. This year I’m going to focus more on fashion and youth culture, because being involved in identity politics all the time is quite exhausting. I’m ready to broaden my writing, and engage in some of my other interests.
LGBTQ+ media representation is important to you. Do you have a sense of how you’re affecting perceptions of LGBTQ+ SWANA folks?
It is important to me because I never had the representation that I needed as an adolescent. In the Netherlands, there are so many misperceptions like being gay is either only “Western” or “Orientalist”. Homophobia and sexism are mostly portrayed as an issue that is caused by immigrants. I feel like that’s not right. I grew up in a white, Dutch countryside and I experienced a lot of homophobia. Ultimately though, ignorance doesn’t have a color, so I like tackling these issues with facts. I tend to fight against LGBTQ+ phobia, regardless of the cultural background of the person perpetuating it. .
Has your Coptic name or background affected your journalism? I don’t know. 9 out of 10 times people think I’m Muslim here, because Christian Arabs are such a minority. When people look like me and see a full beard, big eye lashes, dark skin, etc., they assume I am Muslim from the Middle East or North Africa. Because there is a lot of institutional racism and islamophobia here, I think being non-Muslim has given me some privileges. When I tell people that I’m Christian, they seem to fear my perspective less. It’s messed up, but having a name like Boulos, Danial, Michaël, or Hanna opens doors that might be closed to me if my name was Abdullah, Osama, Mohammed, Ahmed, or so.
I know, as an Egyptian growing up in a white-dominated society in the Netherlands, that I share so much with other people of color, whether they are Egyptian, Muslim, Christian, or whatever. All people of color need to work together for their rights.
Have you written about queer Coptic people before, or has this topic come up for any publications you write for? No. I have written about queers from the SWANA region though, because we share more than you might think. I don’t consider LGBTQ+ Coptic people that different from LGBTQ+ Muslim folks. Being an LGBTQ+ Egyptian is hard enough, due to government crackdowns and propaganda; intolerance is cultural rather than religious. Not only does the Egyptian government blast propaganda attacking the LGBTQ+ community, but they also police female pop stars and women’s bodies under the guise of protecting the country from Western influences. I feel that government officials might not really care about LGBTQ+ issues, but they want to get votes from people that would otherwise support the Muslim brotherhood (I wrote a whole academic paper about this).
How has your cultural background influenced your writing?
How about your queer identity? Since I’m a minority wherever I go, my intersecting identities definitely influence my writing. In Egypt, I’m Coptic and queer. In the Netherlands, I’m an immigrant and queer. My perspective is typically always shifting in order to avoid creating cliche content or content that confirm stereotypes. I strive to always bring a new perspective to complicated issues, and I have high standards and respect for intersectionality.
Arabic is such a beautiful, poetic language. From a young age, I was exposed to Oum Kalthoum, and she showed me how words can move people.
Tell me about coming out. Was it important for you? Here’s what I’ll say: the most important thing is that you feel comfortable and don’t live a double life. That’s stressful, and you will always feel like people don’t truly love you because they don’t know all of you. I know it’s hard because people feel they have to choose between themselves and their loved ones, and it’s unfair. You owe it to yourself to be happy. I have made personal sacrifices to be able to live openly, and I'm aware of my privileges--one being that I don't have to be concerned with things like state violence, among others.
What are your hopes for the Coptic community in the future and what can we do to increase queer Coptic visibility? I feel like we’re becoming a diaspora (or we already are), and that we’re still between worlds. Whether we are seen as Middle Eastern, Arabs, or Muslims, we are confronted with a lot of the same prejudices that affect all SWANA people. I feel like our Coptic community needs to create an environment where everybody feels welcome, and not have conditions for entry. We need to grow up, and leave behind the victim-role that is deeply rooted in us because of stigmatization in Egypt. Let’s organize a community based on love and be there for each other. When I was in New York recently, I saw the beauty of collective communities and how they organized themselves (like Chinatown). I wish we were a community that you feel welcome in and accepted as a Copt no matter where you are on the planet. We should be proud because we fucking invented falafel!
What advice would you give to Coptic queers who are looking for support and a community that accepts them for who they are? Try to find a safe space, and people online you feel safe with. Of course it’s great if you can find other Coptic people who support you, but I feel LGBTQ+ people of color can understand each other! A transgender person with a Chinese background or a Muslim gay man from Pakistan might understand your struggle. Don’t limit yourself by thinking that only Copts can understand you. The internet brings us together! Be everything you want to be, but do it safely and wisely. Watch out for the dangers in the digital environment like surveillance and privacy, especially if you live in a country where you could be at risk if your identity is leaked. Be the person for others that you wish you had during your struggle.