Caitlin Abadair-Mullally (22)
Los Angeles, California
My mother is an immigrant from Cairo. Her parents came over first, then she immigrated a few year later in the late 70s. My grandmother’s siblings all came over too, and temporarily landed in NYC. My grandmother was an anesthesiologist, and my grandfather was a pharmacist. After living in New York for a while, they settled in New Jersey. My mom grew up there, and stuck around to raise us there too. There’s a big Coptic community in New Brunswick, and the church is gorgeous. Saint Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church is prettier than the ones here in Beverly Hills.
My mom married an Irishman, and because she dealt with a lot of xenophobia growing up in the states, I think she pulled away from the church. Right now, she’s invested in her relationship with god, but that wasn’t always the case. It was complicated growing up in a mixed home. I’m baptized in both the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. The morals and culture of our household were definitely generated from my mother, because she was home most of the time. I’d say my values and world-view are aligned with Coptic culture and tradition. When my dad married by mom, he converted to Coptic Orthodoxy, but mostly for the sake of a church wedding. I'm not sure he was interested in the Coptic community at large. He dressed in an amazing golden robe on their wedding day, you know the one. The pictures make him seem so out of place. He’s about 6’ 3’’, 300 pounds, blonde hair, blue eyes--wearing an ornate Coptic robe and crown.
I have a distant relationship with Coptic culture. Being mixed comes with impostor syndrome. We went to church for family ceremonies, like baptisms and other holidays. My siblings and I had some resistance to going during middle school. We spent a lot of time with my mom’s side of the family still though, everyone is Coptic. You know you’re Coptic when your grandmother live-streams mass. A few months ago, I signed into my email on my grandmother's computer. Since it was linked to my Youtube account, I could see what she watched and what she purchased. She bought Youtube Red to watch liturgies and listen to hymns uninterrupted. So many masses and hymns...and the royal wedding. Those recommendations lasted on my account for months!
I visited Egypt once, when I was 10. I’d like to go back as an adult, and get to know the country and culture. I visited Ireland the year after I went to Egypt. I have a lot of family in Cork and Dublin. It was really beautiful, and I want to go back.
Mostly, my idea of Egypt is what my grandparents and my mother brought over from the 70s. The version of Egypt that my mother passed on to me isn’t necessarily modern Egypt. My experiences of certain traditions are a different mutation of her versions, which already seem to be of a distant time. Since I’ve moved from Jersey, I grapple a lot with how to have a relationship with the culture. Trying to figure out what my connection is to Egypt has been confusing. It has especially been on my mind since I moved to Los Angeles, and away from my family. My idea of Coptic culture is altered by space, the perspective of the time that my mother brought over from Egypt, and of course being mixed. I think about this a lot with my friends who are also mixed or children of immigrants. I find that we have a lot in common, no matter where our parents immigrated from.
I have two siblings, and I’m the middle child. My dad was born and raised in Detroit--he’s very Midwestern. His mom and her family moved back and forth between the US and Ireland, first because of The Depression, then again during The Troubles. My dad’s dad grew up on a farm in Detroit, and was also a child of immigrants. They had 10 children, as expected from the Irish. I feel like my dad’s primarily Midwestern, but has a lot of Irish tendencies and understandings.
Art Imitates Life
I’m an artist, and my work deals with a lot of this. My current project, Coptic Babe Coptic Dyke, looks at the multiplicity of identity. There’s comfort in being able to temporarily erase one of my identities to be included in another one. I have a pretty strong internal conflict between my queerness, my gender, and my mixed cultural background. Sometimes I consciously hide my queer identity in Coptic spaces, and unconsciously hide my Egyptian heritage in white spaces. I am trying to merge all of my identities, and fully embrace them as one, but it’s not always easy. I’ve visited a couple churches in LA for the Christmas and Easter masses, which were incredible. I went by myself, and I remember feeling like everyone was looking at me, trying to figure me out. It could have been because I was a new face, but I was hyper-aware of my fair skin and freckles in that space.
My project also deals with questions around the power dynamics and social structures of mixed families, like who feels comfortable in particular environments and circumstances, and who does not. Though my mom was the one who provided us the Coptic influence, my father was expected to take on these historically patriarchal roles in that environment. I investigate the way my mother began valuing herself differently, no doubt a result of being treated as an immigrant by my dad’s family. Especially growing up post 9/11 in New Jersey, these signifiers became more clearly defined. In a lot of situations, I felt like I was politely asked to white-wash myself. The violent effects of whitewashing that happened to my mom fucked with my life in different ways. I think a lot of mixed kids of immigrants deal with that tension, and I still am trying to navigate those feelings. It’s great meeting other people who are merging the Coptic and queer identities though, it’s been helpful to see how other people are negotiating that in interesting ways.
Something else I’ve been playing around with is imagery from Ancient Egypt. In Los Angeles right now, there’s a bit of Tut-mania. A lot of different museums have exhibits like King Tut: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh at the California Science Center, The Vincent Price Museum has a mummy out, and The Getty has an exhibition called Beyond the Nile. I’m thinking about how these large institutions have the ability to show first and second gen kids supposedly where they’re from, their origin, with super biased histories and presentations. Both Egypt and Jordan refused to lend The Getty anything for this show, so all the artifacts on display are from The British Museum and other European institutions. Everyone just accepts the colonialist history without a whole lot of renewed criticism or conversation. There were no Egyptian-American scholars, or Middle Easterners involved in the research or curation of the show, which is really gross and confusing. Here I am in the US with a bunch of privilege and access, trying to have some sort of relationship with ancient Egypt, especially being Coptic (whatever that means), and this is the perspective that I have access to? Apparently in year 2022, a big museum in Giza is going to be finished being built for King Tut and all of his stuff.
I mostly identify as queer. I’m a cisgender queer woman, and I often identify as a lesbian. Gender is expansive, and I’m invested in dyke culture. I realized I was a baby queer when I was 12. During a game of Truth or Dare at a sleepover, I dared my best friend to kiss me. I didn’t experience a kiss like that again until years later.
It took me a while to realize that I truly liked girls because I kept telling myself, “I hope this isn’t true.” When I caught myself crushing on girls, I tried to fight it. It was absolutely compulsory heterosexuality. I was seeing a boy, and I knew I couldn’t do it anymore, because I felt terrible all the time. For a while, I couldn’t stand to face myself because I was ashamed of doing things that I didn’t want to be doing.
I fell in love with a girl for the first time at summer camp when I was 15. My journal entries from that trip are so embarrassing. I still remember the silliest details about her dad’s motorcycle and the music she liked.
About Coming Out
At home, there is stigma around queerness. I came out to my mom 6 months ago. I came out to her on 4/20, because I thought that would be funny. I planned to come out when my sister and my brother would be home, and my army would be ready to calm her down if she freaked out. I’m super grateful to have siblings that would go to bat for me no matter what. When I came out to her, she was really quiet for a long time, then finally said that she loves me. She’s not able to acknowledge it. My mom says that she wants us all to be together after we die, to be with god. She told me that being queer would not only mean a really hard life for me here on Earth, but it would also mean that we wouldn’t be able to be together in heaven. I feel like I am a disappointment to her, and that I broke her heart. I think she hopes that it’s not true. I remember having that same exact feeling at first thought myself, I hoped that my queerness would be fleeting. That feeling still comes up for me sometimes, so I understand.
I came out to my sister probably about 5 years ago, when I was 16. She has known longer than anyone else. When I came out to her, she told me to try dating this boy that I grew up with, just to see if I could. So I did for a while, but it blew up in flames! I couldn’t be who he wanted me to be. And, the morning after the first time I slept with a woman, I cried the entire drive home. I cried because I had a lot of shame of being a disappointment to my family, and felt like I'd be fucked in the afterlife now that I was an official sinner.
I’m not sure how much of my extended family knows. I’m pretty sure my aunt and my grandma know. I don’t call my grandma teta by the way, because she doesn’t like to feel old! She has us call her by her first name, Nelly! Nelly was making a joke to my mom, asking her what she would do if my sister also came out as queer, and my mom freaked out!
I had a girlfriend of sorts for a while, and my mom wouldn’t acknowledge her. It was really sad, because when I first started seeing my now-ex, her mom would ask about me. She would say things like, “Tell Katie that she’s gorgeous.” That would make me cry, because my mom didn’t even want to know her name. I couldn’t handle how my mom didn’t recognize that she existed at all, while her mom cared to know me. It was really hard. One of the hardest parts was to have those interactions, to see how someone else’s family treated me with kindness and love. I felt unprepared to see them accept their child with so much love, and knowing that my mom was not treating me like that was kind of harder than coming out.
I decided to come out because I left home, and I settled myself almost 3,000 miles away. I was just beginning to become my own person, not just a shadow of the household I grew up in. Part of that was recognizing my queerness, and allowing myself to love who I love. I felt a little bit more solidly that my queerness wasn’t something that was going to go away.
I began feeling more comfortable with being queer because my siblings supported me. They told me that I shouldn’t be ashamed of it, and that prepared me to stop hiding it from my mom. I was doing a lot of work at the LGBT Center doing policy stuff, and some activism post-Trump’s election. I’m currently working with a queer archive, and queerness started to become a huge part of my life here in LA. My mom would ask me what I was doing all day, and I thought to myself, "Do I really have to omit this much of my life?” I wasn’t just omitting my romantic relationships; now it was my activism, my perspective on the arts, the places I work, the classes I take, and stuff that I really cared about. Queerness made its way into more that just my personal relationships. I wanted to talk to my mom about the phone banks and actions I volunteer for, the work I have been doing concerning the ACA, the bills I helped fight for that protect survivors of domestic violence. This work is super important to me, and I wanted to share that with my mom. I think coming out was an important step for me, so that I could open up to her about different parts of my life.
I joke about this now, but I feel like I studied queerness really thoroughly before I came out. I read queer fiction, learned the work of queer artists, and worked with local queer organizations. I felt like I had to know a lot about being gay before I came out to my mom. I felt like maybe I needed to know a lot about queer history, so that I could be allowed to be queer.
Coptic Community and Identity
The process of finding peace with having both a Coptic and queer identity is difficult to do alone. Especially at this moment in my life, when I feel like I’m outside of the Coptic Community. I imagine it would be hard to go back and engage in that way. I also feel like people in the community will not support me, with the exception of my siblings. I do have a relationship with god. That’s a relationship that I don’t talk about very much, and I feel it always evolving. Trying to navigate the Coptic community here in LA has been confusing. I suppose once I understand my relationship with being Coptic, I can further reconcile my queer identity within that space. I would love to know people at these churches in LA. The big holiday masses are beautiful, and they are also overwhelming.
I think Coptic people need to be better at being less Islamophobic and more inclusive. My grandmother would tell my sister not to hang out with her Muslim friend, out of fear that she might marry a Muslim. I felt like I was in a weird space; I witnessed Coptic Egyptians constantly criticizing Islam, then that same behavior was adopted by white americans. It was post 9/11, and there was a lot of anti-Arab sentiment. I remember a schoolmate who would hide behind her mom whenever she saw my mom. Microaggressions like that happened to my mother as a non-Muslim Arab-looking person. Of course, this is how Islamophobia and xenophobia work.
I wasn’t able to talk about this with my mom, because I think she was going through a lot of self-hatred. I think she internalized being treated as a POC Arab in different ways. Honestly, sometimes she can be oblivious too. My dad would point out a couple occurrences of bigotry directed at my mom, and my mom wouldn’t have a clue. My older sister was bullied a lot by this kid after his father was killed on 9/11, and she only realized in the past couple years that her childhood bully was probably motivated by racial profiling.
I think it’s really hard to be young and queer trying to figure this stuff out. Navigating the Coptic culture with a queer identity is hard. If there are resources that advocate for acceptance in Coptic churches, that might save a lot of kids. The church and the community might even be able to support kids in ways that their families cannot. A few simple resources that don’t demonize LGBT+ can help with the chaos that is figuring out your identity when you’re growing up, you know? I don’t know what that would actually look like. Finding out that Coptic Queer Stories exists, seeing that it brings people together, is really incredible. Digital initiatives are super important for younger Coptic kids who are just trying to figure this out like I am. And, I think it helps that progressive Egyptians are beginning to notice the lack of Coptic representation.
If I had to give advice to a young Coptic queer who’s looking for support I would say, 'Ask god for the strength to accept yourself for who you are, even when others don’t.
Ask god for the strength to keep looking for people that accept you for who you are. Find support from folks that can support you, for who you are, because they’re out there.’ Also, clubbing is very important. Just dance. Experience anonymity in a loud room with flashing lights, and surround yourself with sweaty bodies. Cruise with your eyes, really allow yourself to look at other people. Your sexuality is your own, and you should experience it however you want.