How would you describe your relationship with Coptic culture?
I grew up on the outskirts of Coptic Orthodoxy. My father was raised Coptic Orthodox, while my mother was raised Egyptian Evangelical; we were at church 3 nights a week growing up. My parents decided to raise us in a Middle Eastern Presbyterian Church in the US. I’ve always viewed Orthodoxy as an outsider, but identified as Coptic. I thankfully have a community of Egyptian Christians who accept me and my queerness.
What was it like to grow up in a Coptic household?
My parents landed in Jersey City, the first stop for most Egyptian immigrants in the Tri-State; half of my family from Egypt lives there. My maternal grandmother has lived with us since I was born. While my sisters played with each other or locked themselves in their room, I was sitting with teta listening to old Arabic cassettes or making porridge. My parents were what I thought of as typical: a quiet breadwinning father and a mother who ran the household. In hindsight, our house did operate under some feminist ideals that not all Middle Eastern families abide by. That said, I enjoyed many freedoms that my sisters did not, simply because I was a boy.
We grew up lower-middle class and my parents never made it visible if we were struggling financially. We only ate out for birthdays and late-night Saturdays after church when we would go to my father’s store. We shopped at thrift shops, and only bought groceries that were on sale that week. My dad was our sole breadwinner and worked from 9am to 11pm everyday. He only closed his store for major holidays and one week every summer for vacation.
In addition to attending church 3 times a week, every morning we read the Bible as a family. We went to 2 vacation Bible schools every summer, and went to Arabic Christian conferences as well. I was a young leader in my church and sang in a worship team for young adults. I recall wanting to be a priest when I grew up.
When did you first realize that you were queer, and what impact did that have on you and your relationships?
I knew I was attracted to men at age 7, yet I was also attracted to women. This gave me such hatred of my queerness because I really believed my sexuality was somehow a choice. I was attracted to these two genders, yet my experience of the culture surrounding a bisexual identity in the 90s didn’t feel very welcoming. It felt less accepted than strict homosexuality, because gays and straights called bisexuality “gay denial.” My faith also influenced my perspective of seeing queerness as a choice, and of course that one gender was sinful while the other divinely blessed. I still have a letter I wrote to myself that asks if I took care of my “boy problem.”
In high school, I wasn’t into sports and preferred cooking with my mother and writing poetry for a literary magazine. I had an eye for fashion and loved to sing. I knew some gay people in high school, they were very much femme queens that I never allowed myself to identify with, as a Middle Eastern boy fed toxic masculinity my whole life. I always wanted to be the masculine manly man, and I was expected to be, as the only boy in the house. There was always a sense of failure I felt in my father’s presence due to this. As if we didn’t speak the same language of “man”. In hindsight, it might have also been us growing up in vastly different cultures but my queerness was part of it. Perhaps I was just a typical millennial kid with queer tendencies.
While I didn’t feel attraction to or kinship with the gay kids at school, the internet gave me a trove of gay media that I explored. This led me to be in a constant state of shame though, not only because I was watching porn, but worse, it was ~gay porn~. I would maintain this repressed life of watching gay porn and self-loathing throughout college until my junior year. It only took a Biblical Studies minor and an anti-oppression theatre troupe to break me out of that cycle.
How has it been, since you learned to accept yourself?
I’m currently out to my immediate family and a select group of 1st generation Egyptians. I am not out to my greater family or community. I came out to my parents almost 4 years ago after meeting my partner. Leaving college, I thought that I would just hook up with a bunch of men in my 20s and then settle down with a woman after I got it out of my system. Instead, I fell in love with my now fiancé, so my plans went awry. After a year of dating him, I decided to tell my parents that I was in a serious relationship with a man.
Even before the gay thing, I tried to be pretty honest with my parents about my life. Of course, this is another example of male privilege, since my sisters would never get away with telling them that in college they drank, smoked, or got tattoos, like I did. My parents weren’t the biggest fans of my choices (my mom cried when I got a Coptic cross on my wrist), but I always held my head high and told them to suck it up because this was me. Coming out to them sort of ended that confidence.
The night I came out, my mother tore her clothes. She cried out to God in our living room, begging him to heal me from my sickness. She literally beat her chest and wept all night. My father woke up from the crying and asked me if I was trans, if my genitals worked, if I still believed in God. I then went through a series of traumatic inquisitions, where I was accused of being possessed by demons and had holy water thrown on me. I cried, my parents cried, we held each other. Even after 3 years of therapy, I’m still working on how that night has affected me. When it first went down, part of me felt a weight come off my shoulders, but a new one replaced it. The feeling was guilt, guilt for bringing chaos into my family.
My parents and I are still a mess, we don’t know what our future looks like. They have never met my partner, and they are not interested in meeting him. I talk to them once a week, but have had months of no communication as well, to avoid additional trauma. I haven’t told them I’m engaged. How do you tell someone you’re marrying someone that they refuse to meet?
My parents believe that I am not a Christian, and that I am living a damned life. My father fears shame from the Coptic community and from his siblings. Arabic has no word for queer or gay, only derogatory words that inherently have connotations of shame and evilness. My father has no way of telling people I’m gay without these leanings, even if he doesn’t agree with them. He told me he’d rather tell people I’m infertile so I can’t be with women. My mother is now seeing that her love for me, her child, is in conflict with her religion. Her culture and religion tell her to exile me, but her maternal love is battling her moral compass. I don’t know what our future holds.
I haven’t come out to my extended family due to the fear of causing more trauma for my parents. Our community cares so deeply about what others think, avoiding exile from the tribe is their main goal. My parents’ tribalism is amplified by being in America, a land that’s foreign to them. The fear of exile or discrimination is always on my mind, I can’t imagine theirs. The constant debate of revealing your true self is grueling and traumatic.
My relationship with my sisters has changed since coming out too. With all the restrictions and repressions my sisters experienced growing up, they have always had a very different relationship with my parents. Both my sisters have always hidden parts of their lives for the sake of our parents. While I charged into the house with tattoos and piercings, my sisters would hide theirs or lie about not having them. After I came out, I expected my older sisters to ride in with chariots and whip my parents into accepting me. Instead I got UN peacekeepers; my sisters do not believe my parents are capable of changing. Herein lies the difference between direct activism and peripheral allyship: my sisters do not think change is achievable, so they just do maintenance. Instead of calls to action and demanding acceptance, my sisters ask me to lie about living with my partner.
What some allies don’t understand is that in asking queer people to hide parts of themselves, they’re asking them to deny the existence of all the people they call family. In my case, my sisters are asking me to hide part of myself that my parents won’t like, but how will they get to choose for themselves whether or not to accept me fully? If I hide, I am enabling them to not accept all of me, and this encourages me to never share my life with them. By hiding, I take away their agency to do this work, and I maintain toxic, familial tribalism. I find myself asking, what’s the point of hiding to stay in the Christian tribe, if their love is conditional?
Being out is important. Being Coptic and out is important. Queer people exist in Egyptian history. Today, I’m privileged to have financial independence and a chosen family to support me that I’m willing to say that I am Coptic and queer. Don’t we all know of a queer single uncle or spinster auntie in the community? Their repression showed me what my future would look like if I stayed closeted. I hate that they are our only examples of queerness. There needs to be more Coptic queer stories, so other queer Coptic people can see that you can be happy and live a queer life.
Can you share a bit about how you’ve started this reconciliation?
It took me years to reconcile my faith with my identity, and honestly I’m still working on it. At its core, Christianity is a faith about grace and love. Jesus teaches us that the two most important things are to love the Lord and to love your neighbor as yourself. Being queer does not prevent me from doing those things. Accepting my identity enables me to love others in a profound way. That’s what being a Christian is. If we want to talk about how the Bible talks about homosexuality, I’m happy to dive into Hebrew and Greek translations of root words and colloquial semantics. I don’t deny the Bible’s sacredness but, if anything, I see its core message of Christ.
What advice would you give to Coptic queers out there?
I was privileged enough to have gone to a 4-year university, where I could live in the dorms and have the space to come to terms with my identity outside of my Coptic bubble. With that, I was able to find support outside of that community, in case things fell apart. Honestly, with how behind our community is and how dangerous conversion therapy is, I waited until I was in a safe place both mentally and finacially to come out to my parents. There are a couple of Arab support groups in major cities; TarabNYC is a great resource for connecting with queer Arab people. It took me a while to find Arab queers, but once you find them, it’s an immediate familial bond. Also feel free to reach out to me :)
What are your hopes for the Coptic community in the future?
I think more people need to stand up in their Coptic communites and show that they are queer. Harvey Milk once said that if everyone would just stand up and say they are LGBTQ+ to their friends, family, and coworkers, there wouldn’t be a problem anymore. It has to be everyone. There are so many of us, and if we could show people just how many, we could change the way they see us. The way they see themselves.