Kerolos Saleib (36)
What was the inspiration to establish your non-profit? Tell me a little about the events that led to its inception.
Middle Eastern Nights – formerly known as Arabian Knights LGBTQ was inspired by the LGBTQ Middle Eastern community. There was an influx of Middle Eastern newcomers here in Toronto, at a rate I never thought possible. A lot of the newcomers were discussing having an Arabic party, and since I pretty much grew up here, I took the initiative to make it happen. I had a few connections, and some possible locations and entertainers. This was also an opportunity for me to connect with an LGBTQ community, since I pretty much had next to none. Most importantly, I had the opportunity to potentially provide employment for newcomers, most of which could use some extra money. So on February 26th 2016, it all came to life.
Tell me more about the parties and services you provide.
The party is meant to be a safe and inclusive space for all LGBTQ+ Middle Easterners, and also a place of education for non-Middle Easterners to have a taste of our music and culture. It’s a chance to show how much we connect through music and dance. The parties are an opportunity to show that Middle Easterners are not uneducated, conservative terrorists like so many stereotypes make us out to be. And, the parties are working.
Part of the services I provide are done through a program I helped launch, through the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention. It’s called RAHA program. It’s a program for Middle Easterners living with, affected by, or at risk of HIV/AIDS. This program was started September 2016, and has been a great success. We provide one-on-one support for sexual health, harm reduction, and connect folks to other medical health services and HIV agencies.
What is your favorite part of doing this work? The most challenging?
The joy and love that is shared within the community warms my heart. I especially love when I see newcomers, who often just escaped literal death, having the time of their life. Freely and openly dancing like nobody is watching.
The most challenging part is when the conflicts of the Middle East are brought to the event. For example Palestinians vs Jews; Christians vs Muslims, etc. This is something that we all have to reconcile with. I try to remind everyone constantly they left that life behind, and as queer Middle Easterners, we have the chance to show that we are more than this and that we can be united together. It doesn’t always go over well.
Do other Coptic queers attend or participate?
Yes, so many from my childhood are there and it’s beautiful.
Have you learned anything interesting from throwing LGBTQ Middle Eastern parties?
I’ve learned a lot. One big thing that I learned about myself is that I needed to accept and embrace that I am Egyptian. I used to be so ashamed of my skin colour, and I used to hide it by wearing coloured contacts and by pretending to be Italian or Greek.
When did you first start exploring drag and how have people received KeroPatra (cute name btw)?
KeroPatra was born February 26th 2018. On the 2nd year anniversary of Middle Eastern Nights. Accepting myself as non-binary was the first step. Exploring my feminine side has empowered me. KeroPatra has been received like the queen of her people. Literally the reaction from the community was priceless, and it’s been helping me break down the toxic masculinity that affects Middle Eastern men very heavily. Of course, some of them asked me if I am transgender now. This has allowed me to help educate people on what it means to be trans. It also encouraged other interested Middle Easterners to try drag for the first time.
You were an ordained Old Catholic priest living in a monastery in Kenya, tell me about that and how that came to be.
Actually I wasn’t an Old Catholic priest at the time. I was ordained January 7th 2012 in Washington DC. I met my now ex husband in Kenya in 2010. I lived in a monastery for the first three months there, and it was amazing. I was supposed to be there only for a month. My cousin, Fr. Mena, was a priest in Kenya at the time and found out that I was homeless and had gone deep into the substance abuse and circuit party world. I had lost everything, and I had no idea who I was. The spiral had started because I had moved to Montreal in 2007, when I was diagnosed with HIV due to rape, and didn’t know how else to handle it.
When I was living in Kenya at the monastery in Maseno, I questioned who I was, why I was doing what I was doing, and I learned that the biggest reason why I was hurting was rejection. I was rejected from the Coptic Church and the community when I was pretty young. My parents were encouraged to kick me out of the house at 15. I was bullied all my life. I was living through constant trauma and rejection, and my only coping mechanism was to numb myself from all the punches. My time at the monastery taught me who God is in my life. I learned that God isn’t who she/he/they are made out to be.
When I met my ex husband, he asked me to go back with him to DC after knowing each other for a year in Kenya. So I did. We got married the same weekend I was ordained. It was controversial. My reason for getting ordained was to show that the church is meant to be a place of inclusivity and love, where everyone is welcome. It worked.
How has that experience informed who you are today?
I realized that I could rise above the challenges that were presented to me. I learned that the whole time I was being manipulated, and realized I had no idea who I was. That I was a suppressed little boy. I learned that I am an activist, and that I have the ability to make change for myself and be my own leader. I learned that I don’t need to fit in anywhere, and that it is also important to connect. I learned that I see the world through eyes that the Church would have never ever taught me.
How would you describe your relationship with Coptic culture and/or community?
I still connect very strongly with my Coptic heritage and take pride in it. Not the religion, but the heritage. In regards to the Church, I don’t connect because I learned that many of them, no matter how often you try to talk to them, they ignore facts and act out of fear. I have to pick my battles wisely.
What did it mean to grow up in a Coptic household?
My parents were very rigid. It affected me positively and negatively. I learned a lot of good morals and values through the Church, like compassion, love, and empathy. Though mostly these concepts weren’t put into practice. Another memory I have is that we constantly presented ourselves as “low-lives” in order to appear “humble.”
When did you first realize you were queer, and what impact did that have on you?
I was in 5th grade when I realized it. I was wearing a trench rain jacket and it had just finished raining. I imagined my jacket was a big skirt. We went out for recess, and when someone splashed water all over me, I remember screaming flamboyantly, “OMG? UGH” while holding my “skirt” up practically curtsying around puddles in the playground. Lol. Also Martin Leon, my first boy crush in class. I still have a crush on him. We actually reconnected a while back and I told him. We laugh about it now.
Are you out, or is it important to you to come out?
I am fully out as a gay man, not as a drag performer yet. In 2000, my priest was the one who outed me at the age of 15 to my parents. I shared it with him in confession. I left on a school trip for the weekend, and I came home on a Sunday to find the priest waiting for me with my parents. He told me to stay away from children, and to stop my pedophile-like ways. He made my parents believe I was a pedophile. My mom held a knife to me saying that she wished she never had me, and my dad took a spatula covered in hot oil to my face, raging in anger. The priest stood in the living room, arrogantly approving, as though he believed they were doing the work of God. This is still very hard for me to talk about. Reliving that moment will forever give me PTSD. My parents denied that they even did that, for 19 years. After that event, the priest asked me to come to church at such an odd time of the day and meet him in the boardroom. I remember walking into that boardroom, and all 5 priests and 2 head Sunday school leaders were waiting for me at a long table. He told all of them about me to make sure I was no longer allowed to receive communion or be around children. They didn’t want me anywhere near the church until I signed a document agreeing to stop being gay, to follow their ways, and to go to conversion therapy. I refused. I was 15 years old!!!
I stayed with my boyfriend, who was also closeted and Egyptian. He encouraged me to go to university, and that’s what I did. I lived on campus, and attended university when I was just turning 16. I lost him to a car accident in 2004. It was awful, and I had no one to turn to. I remember calling my mom and she said, “This is God giving you a chance, you could have been in that car with him.” I believed them, and agreed to go to therapy. Seven therapists later (all were Egyptian), nothing changed. Each of the therapists told the priests and my parents that I was very gay, and that it wasn’t a mental health thing.
The priests were convinced that I needed an exorcism. While that didn’t overtly go down, I was forced into a formal marriage engagement with a woman. She was actually quite abusive toward me, but that’s another story. A miracle happened: 30 minutes before the engagement party, she called it off because I refused to gift her additional diamonds. She was a gold digger. I prayed so hard about it, and asked God to have mercy on me. I told God that if who I was was wrong, then let the engagement go through. When it fell apart, I was so relieved and told my parents that I was not doing anymore of their therapies.
To what extent are you involved in a Coptic community?
I’m still involved with some folks who have been kicked out of their homes or rejected by the Church. All I can do is offer them comfort and love, because the Church and their parents have failed them. I have tried to talk with priests in several churches, but they always want to have it their way and not change, no matter what history has proved, no matter the damage done.
How do you reconcile your Coptic identity with also identifying as LGBTQ+?
Homosexuality existed in the Coptic Church for a very long time. The Church erased our history from the Synaxarium and other historical texts. This includes the stories of Sergius and Bacchus, David and Jonathan, and so on. So many others. Saint Mary of the Monk was actually trans, and pretended to be a man. How can I not reconcile being Coptic? Coptic means Egyptian, and during ancient pharaonic times, being gay wasn’t condemned. The Church made it a problem after translating the Bible to Arabic.
What advice would you give to Coptic queers who are looking for support and a community that accepts them for who they are?
Find your voice. You’re not alone, ever. You have the power to make change and a difference where the Church has failed you. Once you do, you’ll see life from a different perspective—a more loving, humbling, and caring perspective. You will see the true light of God in your own life in your own way. Most importantly, do not worry about what others think of you.
What are your hopes for the Coptic community in the future?
My hope is that more and more people stand up for change. It is happening, and I am connecting with Copts who are queer and others who are allies. They’re starting to show up and make a change. I don’t ever see the Coptic Church changing because its teachings are based in fear.
To increase queer Coptic visibility, we should continue to share our stories. We need to let people know what hardships we face. We need to have a stronger voice and unite together. No more living in fear.