George Andrawis (33)
Lisbon & Chiang Mai
How would you describe your relationship with Coptic culture?
My relationship with Coptic Orthodoxy has been a tricky one to navigate. I felt as if there wasn’t any space to identify as queer and Coptic simultaneously. Religion was my first exposure to the damage that binary and normative thinking could do. I felt things were heavily structured, and if you did not operate within the confines of those settings, the sense was, “You are not one of us.” A sense of persecution that, ironically, Copts have had to undergo repeatedly throughout history.
In more recent years, I have come to terms with my Coptic parts by being able to interpret them in my own way. I can be queer and still identify as Coptic. Historically Copts have been able to think and build their own interpretations and beliefs. In 451 AD, the Coptic Church separated from Christian denominations at the Council of Chalcedon due to theological disagreements. It is true that the disparity between us and other Christian denominations has minimized over the years, but if anything, this is an example of how as Copts we’ve always had to trust our own beliefs, judgements, and thus identities. Identifying as Copt and queer can sit alongside each other. If anything, I see a lot of similarities being Coptic and queer, they’re both marginalized subgroups.
I spent the first ten years of my life living in The Gulf. This was a time where we weren’t allowed to follow any religious faith, except for one. If you didn’t follow Islam, you were seen as an infidel. My parents ran an underground series of prayers in various homes. We weren’t able to bring in many bibles or religious iconographies into the country, as it was deemed haram. Even though it was secret, the fellowship and community was brilliant. Occasionally we would get found out, arrests were made, and some of our community sent packing. I remember finding solace when I learned about the civil rights movement. I was inspired by the struggles and resistances of the Black community, because we were another marginalized group who were fighting for our rights. Being able to pray and identify as Coptic was a fundamental right, and we resisted. I recall being arrested throughout my childhood, dragged to the mosque, forced to pray, etc. As a child, my nightmares were not about the boogeyman. Instead, I was haunted by the Gulfie moral police.
When did you first realize you are queer, and what impact did that have on you and your relationships?
I realized I was queer quite young, but needed some time to understand it fully. The problem was I had no frame of reference. It wasn’t until I moved to Europe for university that I began to discover that there were others like me--others that lived in the light. Being with another man didn’t have to be this dirty thing married men did on the side. I realized that I would be able to formulate relationships with other men and be open about it. I would be allowed to fall in love with another man, and publicly celebrate our love. Initially my family found this challenging. They believed I’d been tainted by the West, and I needed saving. I humored their efforts, as I was sure what I was experiencing was A). ‘normal’ and B). permanent. I prayed hard, and had lots of holy water splashed about, and you know what…I’m still me. There was talk that my parents were going to increase their attempts, conversion camps and whatnot, and that’s where I drew a line. If they could not accept me as queer, I did not want to be involved in what was starting to affect our ability to connect and my mental health. Bit by bit, they have come around. Now I drag my partner to Coptic reunions and religious celebrations.
How did you end up in Thailand? In Lisbon?
There’s always a man, no? In my case, a Portuguese man. I’m living between Lisbon and Chiang Mai at the moment. My time is split between love and work.
How did you get interested in the mental health field and begin working as a psychotherapist?
Coming out was not a straightforward process for me. I’ve been lucky with how my family managed the situation, but it was challenging to not have access to other openly gay members of the community. There was no distant platform somewhere to refer to. I attribute my career choice to this really. I wanted to give others what I felt I could have benefited from. Providing LGBTQ support services contributes to our inclusion, well-being, and activism.
Tell me about your community work and the organization in Thailand that you direct.
I work for The Cabin, which is a world renowned addiction and behavioral health treatment center based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I direct and manage the Salam Programme, and act as the ambassador for the programme. The Salam Programme focuses on MENA clients who suffer from drug, alcohol, and process addiction. I took this post last January and have been balancing this work with my private practice. Taking this job also meant spending a portion of my time living in Chiang Mai. Relocating has been wonderful; warm weather all year, some of the world’s best beaches, and a weekly practice of holistic therapies and massages. London is a great city, and in order to get myself to relocate after fourteen years, I needed to find a strong cause.
As for my private practice, I started off in East London four years ago. In my private practice I like to work psychodynamically, which means sessions focus on the unconscious, early relationships, and development as a way of understanding moods, behaviour, decisions, and patterns. People that find this model helpful usually feel their problems are things that are much more complex and deep rooted. My clients also express that working psychodynamically has taught them to be much more reflective, and have a greater sense of awareness in their everyday lives.
What do you find most rewarding about your work?
Nothing beats supporting marginalized minority groups, whether it be for their skin color, faith, or sexuality. It’s about empowerment, giving them a voice, and then teaching them how to pass all the skills and tools they’ve learned to others in their communities. Folks that I’ve worked with become more able to cope with mainstream society, and work to destigmatize the prejudices that they experienced. It may seem odd that someone like me, the supposed 'antichrist' to the MENA region, is leading the Salam Programme, but in a lot of ways I feel a social responsibility to address these myths and entrenched societal norms. I am working with families who don’t always understand being different, and typically they feel a need to ‘rectify’ or ‘fix' these differences. Many families that have loved ones who suffer from addiction can complicate recovery by the way they address certain topics.
Conversion therapy is often recommended in some Coptic circles. What can you tell us about this practice?
Conversion therapies don’t work, period. There is no evidence that suggests sexuality can be changed. Many medical and psychological organizations strongly oppose this approach, and clinicians who perform this practice. This is a very serious matter that further perpetuates hatred, lack of acceptance, and extreme psychological trauma. For me, it’s about giving the client a safe non-judgemental space where they can process their own feelings or desires, and to learn how to negotiate/manage their identities in a culture that may not necessarily accept them.
If there are any Coptic queers out there that would like support in this, or anyone who feels they can benefit from speaking to an openly queer Copt, please contact me.
What can we do to uplift queer Copts and increase queer Coptic visibility?
I know a few queer Coptic individuals, but probably enough to count on both hands. I am hoping by coming into the light and standing up to be counted (such as this with this platform), more people will feel safe enough to come forward. It is about removing all that shame our cultural and religious parts have built around what it means to not fit in. The binary concept can create deep wounds. Listen, there are more of us! We are not odd, and we don’t need helping- we are beautiful creatures just as God has created us. :)