Lee Iskander

Lee Iskander (27)

Vancouver, British Columbia



Mena

Hi! We're doing this! Finally. So we're not doing an interview. We're just hanging out. We're just getting to know each other and talking. And Mimi, like, feel free. Just like, interrupt me. You know, I talk a lot just like interject. Let's be informal. Hi, I’m Mena. And I really am excited to hear your story specifically because, we need advocates. We'll get into that later. But I read up about you being an advocate for our youth, and I want to know about your work. And I want to also know some background about you before we jump in, so maybe that's a good place to start. Why don't you tell us who you are, your pronouns, how you identify, and how you're doing in COVID? Like a year into this pandemic. Let's just start there.

Lee

Cool. Yeah. So, it's nice to talk. I'm Lee, my pronouns are they/them. I identify as queer and trans. I'm a grad student at UBC. Yeah, I do a lot of work around queer and trans issues. So I have a very gay resume. *laughter* And I'm okay during COVID. I'm living in Vancouver currently, so I'm out on the west coast. I only moved here like, less than a year before everything shut down, so it's interesting to be in a different city. I don't have very many friends in my neighborhood, so it's kind of isolating. But I mean, I also live with my partner, which is really nice. And it's kind of good to have the distance as well. And it's a beautiful place here. So doing okay.

Mena

Vancouver is gorgeous. I've been just once. It's also super queer. Right?

Lee

Yeah, mhm.

Mena

I'm glad you have your partner. That sounds so rough to be in a new place during COVID.

Lee

Yeah, for sure.

Mena

*awkward laughter* I had this thought when you were like, I have a very queer resume. This can't be an interview, but I do want to know about all your work and please let's go through your resume. But, let's talk about your interests outside of work too, if you want to. Myriam, Mimi—why don't you jump in.

Myriam/Mimi

I'm Myriam. Mimi is the name that Egyptians call me. Nobody else can call me that. So you're welcome to call me Mimi, Lee. I identify as queer as well, I'm okay with any pronouns as long as they're used respectfully. I'm in California. These people are weird, where I am in California. It's not like the beachy image. It's like, the desert, but also the heavily militarized desert where people like to have drones flying in the air for you know, just for shits and giggles. But I'm okay.

Mena

Reminds me I don't know if you know this, but Mimi and I grew up together, like around the corner from each other in that same strange desert. But yeah, my pronouns are he/him, they/them. And I'm in Northern California. I'm about six hours north of the desert. And I moved during COVID, in October, it was a great move for me. More space, some outdoor space. There have been a ton of people leaving the city, so it's really quiet here and strange to be in a huge city with the downtown being a ghost town. But I'm loving it. Like this is what the Bay Area was like five years ago. And it's a lot more chill. So just doing grad school, trying to get outside as much as possible. And yeah, been doing this work that feels both really near and dear, but also a little bit distant. Coptic queer things are a mixed bag for me, and I could tell you more about that. Growing up, I was majorly involved with church but I left it when I left the house at 17. I stopped talking to everybody for a long time, and then only recently, in the last like three or four years, I’ve been kind of dipping my toe back in. And then actually reconnected with Mimi through this platform. Because we, I think we both, I don't know, maybe. Did you do the same? Did you just like, peace out? *Myriam emphatically nods* Because you need to figure out your shit. And like, you haven't been in the community for a while either? Right? Yeah. So we both are like, "Look, we think this is really important." And it's also like, we're cautiously optimistic and trying to really center, you know, our lives, our stories rather than trying to change the Coptic church. *awkward chuckles*

Lee

Yeah.

Mena

Like dogma.

Myriam/Mimi

They're on their own. They can figure it out.

Mena

So tell us a little bit about your growing up.


Lee

Sure. Um, yeah, so I grew up in Mississauga, which is a suburb of Toronto with a very large Coptic community, I think the largest in Canada. I'm mixed so my dad is Coptic and my mom is Irish Protestant. My parents are both immigrants. They both immigrated to Canada as adults. My mom never converted to Coptic Orthodoxy. So my parents have different religions. And they weren't married in the Coptic church, but me and my brother were baptized in the Coptic church. Yeah, so I mean, growing up like I think I kind of felt a bit--I don't know--at arm's length of the Coptic community? Because we went to church kind of irregularly. So we weren't like going there every week. And sometimes, you know, we would go to the Coptic church for a few months, but then we would go to a Protestant church for another few months, and we’d kind of hop in and out. I went to church but didn't always go to Sunday school. And so I felt a little, little bit separate from the community there. And, I didn't really make a lot of friends at church. I think part of that is being mixed too, I don't know. Even the church that we went to sometimes, they also had separate services, sometimes for mixed families and separate events and things.

Mena

Really?? Oh!

Lee

Yeah. And sometimes we'd go to that. Yeah.

Mena

Tell us more about that. Have you heard of this Mimi?

Myriam/Mimi

No, I'm curious. Was it an attempt at inclusion? To be inclusive or like exclusion?

Lee

I think it's to be inclusive. I mean, I think it's like special programming they have. It's such a huge church, that there is kind of enough mixed families that they can have a group. So I don't really know, kind of how, like what the thinking was, but I remember going to that as a child. Yeah. And my parents were friends with some other mixed families as well. It's really a massive community. And it's growing, I think, still. So I think they're expanding the church again now. But it's already two churches attached together, plus the whole community center attached to it. There's a whole school in the basement. Like, it's really big.

Mena

Oh damn. Mimi is mixed. And I feel like, we've talked a lot about this and I wonder, Oh, my gosh, I wonder if that's the future for the--I mean, I can’t really speculate, but I feel like I'm feeling mixed feelings about this mixed service. *awkward wheeze laughter*

Lee

Yeah, it's a little weird.

Myriam/Mimi

Yeah. At the same time, I'm sort of, like, "Good for them.” They're normalizing that this happens like that people are more than one thing. And that maybe it's good to foster relationships between people who have similar experiences that shows like, more growth than I have seen our local community capable of. And it seems like it varies by region. And I think it really is influenced by how many people, how big the church gets, like Lee said, like, there were enough people, mixed couples, where they're like, "Oh, this is a thing. Like we accept this. We can't ostracize all of them. That would take too much work." *awkward laughter* But yeah, on my end, there were like a few other, maybe like one or two other families that were mixed. Both my parents were immigrants too. My mom was born in Italy. My dad was the Coptic one. Yeah, it was a very, like, "Those people over there are weird.” Always sort of treated us like the white interlopers sort of. And on top of that, my dad made a point of not teaching my brother and me Arabic, so there was extra distance between us and them. But I think it was on purpose on his part, to keep us separated? But then also forced us to go to church all the time, and policed our behavior in the church, and then policed our behavior by gossiping about us to everybody. So there were mixed messages.

Lee

Yeah. I feel like my experience is similar. Like, I was also not taught Arabic. Yeah. And I mean, I look pretty white. So I already kind of stand out. And people sometimes ask me, like in church would ask me if I was Canadian, which I think they meant white. So I mean, yeah. My brother looks more Egyptian, so he didn't get that. But I think I definitely stood out. Yeah.

Myriam/Mimi

Identities are an issue. In the church in general. Did this become an issue internally or did you have enough distance where you were like, "Okay, their confusion doesn't really bother me. I am who I am. And that's all."

Lee

I don't know, I don't know how to answer that. I think yeah, I think it was. I didn't really start thinking about it until I was older. I think it was I just kind of, I mean, yeah, just kind of accepted that was how it was.

Mena

Did you stick with the community? What does that relationship with that community look like now?

Lee

I think I'll say about my family, because, a lot of, I didn't really have that many friends in the church, so like, the Coptic people I've interacted with mostly are my extended family. Because my dad's brothers are both in the community, in the Toronto area, we'd see them a lot and my cousins. And also, there were a lot of Coptic people at my school. And so…and here is a little interesting—because unlike the US, like religious schools, specifically Catholic schools, are publicly funded, they're not private schools. So it’s free to attend them, and there's two school systems. The public school (the public secular system) and the Catholic system. Almost all of the Coptic families send their kids to the Catholic school system, unless they're were in private schools. The church school is inside the church building. Yeah.

Mena

So wild.

Lee

Yeah.

Mena

That school, it's not Catholic, it's just like a public school, but in the church--

Lee

Private Christian school in the church basement.

Mena

That makes more sense. Yeah.

Myriam/Mimi

I have so many feelings about that.

Mena

I know you have a lot to say Mimi about, school?

Mimi

Well, I'm finding it increasingly difficult to know the difference between like, a missionary school and then all of these schools that are part of churches. The project is similar. Like more intense than normal school, which is like, "This is how you behave in society in this particular colonial context." But also added religious pressure.

Lee

Yeah.

Mena

Who's writing the curriculum? Who's teaching? Like, it's a private school, but it's in the Coptic church--

Lee

In a Coptic church. I think it's like, I don't really know much about it. My cousin went to it. But I think it's like mostly Coptic people who teach there. It's definitely mostly Coptic kids that go there. Yeah.

Mena

Okay, so you didn't do that in school? You went to Catholic school?

Lee

I did.

Mena

Okay. Tell us about that.

Lee

Yeah. So I mean, I had gone to public secular schools for elementary school, because you have to be Catholic to go to a Catholic elementary school, *surprised guffaws* but then the high schools are open to everyone. So it's a confusing system. So I switched to the Catholic system for high school. And so, so I came out as queer in high school. And then, I tried to start a GSA and that whole thing happened. And so, so I tried to do that before I was out to my parents. My dad actually found out about my queerness from the newspaper.

Mena

That's badass and also, woah.

Lee

Just I don't know, like, so that's when I lost connection to the church and to my extended family, because I think they found out; it was just like very publicly known. So, I mean, it's really kind of like a don't ask don't tell situation to my family, I don't really know a lot of what happened. It's what I can gather from my mom mostly, but I think there was some kind of argument about it. And then I stopped being invited to family stuff and kind of lost connection to my aunts and uncles and cousins around then. I went off to university, and I stopped going to church. So I think that's kind of what happened there.

Mena

Before we get into that--thank you for sharing as well. That sounds like tricky waters to navigate. Before we get into that, would you mind walking us through the GSA debacle? Like how you became a public figure for that movement. And then got on the news and that whole thing spiraled. Will you just walk us through that a bit?

Lee

Sure. When I was like 16, I think, me and some friends at school, we wanted to start a, just like a Gay Straight Alliance. A group for other queer and trans students at the school. And initially, we thought that would be fine, because we knew other schools had groups like that. But the school refused to let us do that. So it ended up being— we didn't know at the time— but there was already a lot of controversy happening about the Catholic school system, and queer and trans issues. It kind of ended up— it was like 2012, that was when there was the "It Gets Better" campaign. And there were all these news stories about queer youth suicides happening. So it was already like a, like an issue. And I think that's the context of where all of this fell into, and why it got so much attention. And then, there's the kind of always ongoing debates around whether the Catholic school system should be funded. So I think people also took it up around that issue as well.


… so yeah, so I had tried to start a Gay Straight Alliance with some friends, the school refused it. And then there was a queer teacher at our school. He was like, in the closet, like, we didn't know who he was, but he contacted a gay and lesbian newspaper in Toronto. The newspaper contacted us. From there on, we were kind of in and out of the newspaper for two years. Like my last two years of high school, we were kind of continually speaking out about this. We went to protests, we were invited to speak at a lot of things like the Provincial Parliament.


So, yeah, so it was something that we were kind of doing for a long time. It brought a lot of attention to us. And so there was also a lot of backlash from both religious communities and, just like strangers on the internet, but also from people we went to school with. Because like, you know, we still had to go to school every day when we were doing this. I think our teachers started avoiding us. Or like, didn't want to talk about this, because I think they were worried about their jobs. Religious students at our school were kind of harassing us on the internet and in person. Including for me, in particular, I remember, like Coptic students in particular, had like issues with this. Eventually, they did amend the Education Act in Ontario to say that all publicly funded schools had to allow groups for queer and trans students if students requested them. So. So yeah, so that was changed. But at the same time, like I think, in Ontario, in particular, there's, I don't know if this is true in other places, probably? But, there's been so many controversies around gender and sexuality in schools in particular— there's also an ongoing controversy around the sex ed curriculum, which was recently updated, and then like, revoked or whatever, and then updated again…because of protests from religious immigrant communities, including the Coptic community. The Coptic community was kind of also actively protesting a lot of the stuff that me and my friends were advocating for. I know one of the Etobicoke churches, I think during this time, like, shortly after the news stories about the GSA started, they kind of said in the news that they didn't support GSAs, and then if the Catholic school system updated it's equity policy to prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation that they would pull all of the youth from the Catholic system and send them to the private system. So there's several news articles about that. And then they were also protesting the sex ed curriculum later on.


Myriam/Mimi

What was it like for you to be a public figure in such a delicate time?

Lee

I mean, it was really hard. I, yeah. I didn't have overt support from my parents. Or, like, obviously, not the church, or people from the community. Yeah, it's interesting, like, I think, I mean, when my dad found out, he just didn't talk to me for a really long time. Like, he just fully avoided me, even though he lived in the same house. But then, at one point, the school, like the principal, and the superintendent called me into a meeting where they were saying that if I continued this activism there would be disciplinary action against me. It was very vague, but they brought my parents in because they were trying to intimidate me, clearly. But my dad, actually, was defending me in that meeting. So I think he was supportive, in some ways, but it just wasn't, like very overt. It just felt very fraught. Yeah.

Myriam/Mimi

Did you feel like the media treated you in a generous light? Or did you also feel like, it was also choppy waters there too?

Lee

I mean, the mainstream media? Definitely, yes. I mean, sometimes it was kind of sensationalized, you know, like, look at these students. But then so like, it was, I mean, sometimes it didn't feel quite accurate. Like, sometimes it felt a little exaggerated for the drama of it. But then there were also like, smaller right-wing newsletters or Christian newspapers that were also writing about us. And those were not nice. And the comments were not nice. *awkward laughter* So I mean, yeah, that's a hard thing as a high school student to kind of have your life be so public. One of the Christian newspapers, like, went through my Facebook page, and then pulled stuff that I said on Facebook to publish in their news. *awkward laughter* So yeah, that was like, not great.

Mena

Harassment. What a line to cross. Damn. I wonder--also, feel free to say when you don't want to answer something. Did you ever have a conversation with your father, in private, or after that meeting? It's just like, a lot like, every angle? It sounds like teachers, your parents, and then you know, other students? I have a lot of questions. Tell, tell us what you feel comfortable telling us. Like, who were your allies? How did you really get through that time period?

Lee

Yeah. Yeah, so I didn't have a conversation with my father about that at that time. I think he just really wanted to avoid talking about it. I think he's just very avoidant of conflicts in general. But like, you know, it wasn't something that he wanted to talk about. I think it was kind of like a broken telephone. My mom would tell me what he thought about it, but we didn't have a conversation. Yeah, I mean, I think we got a lot of support from the general kind of queer community in Toronto, like people were reaching out to us all the time to say that they supported us. I think we got a lot of support, too, from other students in our school, you know, whether they were queer or not. The first time we tried to hold a meeting for a GSA in the school, like over 100 people showed up, and then we had to turn people away because we couldn't fit them in the room. I don't know. I don't know, some people were just coming to, like, see what the fuss was about? But there were a lot of people who wanted this, and like who wanted to be part of it. So that was good.

Mena

So twisted. The public-funding-church aspect to like, what a twisted thing to put a high school student through. And I just love that the community at large was like, "Yo! High school kids like, we see you." Everybody else was like, "No, this can't happen." Like, that's amazing. I saw that you won a youth award. What's that about?

Lee

Yeah, a few. Yeah, a lot of that stuff comes up under my old name because I actually changed my name. But yeah, we got a few awards. We got an award from a church in Toronto, that's like a very gay church. So they gave us an award? *awkward laughter* And, like a few other places. Got an award from Queer Ontario, which is an organization. Yeah, I actually was the Co-Grand Marshal in the Pride Parade in 2011 in Toronto. Yeah. So I mean, there was like, a lot of attention on us from the queer community too which was really positive.

Mena

I'm so happy to hear that was a little bit of a balancing factor in all of that. And presumably, I mean, you graduated, you left that environment? You saw some real impact. You saw some real change. You said that there's a GSA there now and you mentioned that the law changed some. Did that happen after you graduated?

Lee

It did. But yeah. I mean, that was really good. And then I think since I left, I've met kind of more like, cuz, then I ran the queer center at York University for a while. I met more people who had gone to my high school after me, who were queer and didn't have such a bad time. You know, so that was nice. Because there was this sense of community. This thing had happened. People knew about it. Yeah. I think the school then won an award for like being the most inclusive--

Mena

What??

Lee

--which I feel critical about. *laughter* Yeah, I don't know what happened there. There is a GSA, it has its own room like they I think they got--they put up more resources. After this law passed, I think a lot changed. But yeah.

Mena

Are they still calling them GSAs? I heard that they are changing that name now.

Lee

Most places go with Gender and Sexuality Alliance now or different names.

Mena

Oh, so it's the same acronym. Oh, that's, like, an easy way. Yeah, yeah. Wow. Well, how did your experience in high school sort of set the stage for where you're at now, if at all? It sounds like a big part of your adolescence. And now you work with youth and for youth, you study youth, you research, you write, you are in academia. Tell us a little bit about that thread, if it's connected, or if it's not.

Lee

So I think I felt, kind of, already on that path after high school. Like it just had been such a big thing, like the most important thing that I had ever done. So I didn't really feel like I had the option to completely stop doing that and just kind of fuck off and do my own thing. Like, I think I felt like the community had invested a lot in me so that I should continue that work. And I think going into university, I really wanted to make sense of those experiences as well. I did get involved in the queer service group on campus then started working there. I have always been doing queer stuff through university.


I trained as a high school teacher in university, and I also started transitioning, like medically transitioning, when I was 19. These two things started at the same time; it actually didn't go very well. *awkward chuckle* It's very hard to be a trans person in schools, in whatever role. I ended up not continuing with teaching and I - but I had already had this education degree. So I ended up going to grad school for education. And so that's kind of the trajectory for me. One of my friends who's now a professor, Abby Shabtay, she invited me to write--because she was really interested in the activism I had done in high school. She ended up writing a paper about it for one of her courses, and then she invited me to write something with her and so we ended up publishing that. So then I had an academic publication about this, and I continued on like a somewhat similar research trajectory. My research now is mostly about trans people's working conditions. So it's not as connected to youth activism, but it's still queer and trans related. And that's something that's part of my research. Like, that's something that I'm thinking about. It's really about queer and trans issues in schools and public institutions. Yeah.

Mena

Right. That paper you mentioned, that was about your experience as a LGBT advocate in high school. And then you continued your transition you just didn't go teach. *chuckles* That shouldn't be a trade-off. It's awful. Can you tell us more about that experience? Not teaching and now focusing on the subject matter. But past it, you know?

Lee

I think I had maybe a more optimistic sense of teaching as a profession, then was realistic going into it. Like, I think schools and teaching are so conservative, like, a lot of people go in saying, like, "I'm gonna do all this social justice work!” But I think, in a lot of ways, the institution does not allow you to do that. It's just really hard to do that work in that setting, I think, for a lot of people, regardless of their identities. And so I think that's something that I realized. Yeah, and also, like, you know, I'm, like, a very visibly gender non-conforming person. And so it wasn't easy, being in schools and looking like I did, and then trying to figure that out. I didn't have the option of kind of being in the closet. Especially, because there's so much about me on the internet. *awkward chuckle* So, like, I didn't think, when I graduated, I would be able to get a job. There weren't a lot of teaching jobs at the time that were available, also. There's a teacher surplus, or there was. So yeah, I mean, that was hard. We had to do practicums for teaching. My first one, they found me a queer mentor teacher to work with. But even there, like I had problems in that school. So it was kind of hard seeing that, like, you know, even in like the best place I can possibly be this would still be an issue. Like it was hard to feel like I would have a place in the profession.

Mena

Was that--sorry--a high school you're talking about?

Lee

I was teaching middle school at the time.

Mena

Middle school. Ohmygosh. *awkward chuckle*

Lee

Yeah.

Myriam/Mimi

They're really militant about the tiny ones. Like it decreases over time but…

Mena

I mean, short of starting a queer school for queer teachers and queer ki--maybe that's our revolutionary social justice future. But that is really--I feel like that experience was really telling. And I know a lot of people who are older than me who went into academia as an extension of their previous activism work. I feel like that might be easier in university teaching or researching or writing. You know, that's a little bit more flexible. Is that your experience?

Lee

Yeah, I'm on this project right now, where we're interviewing trans people who've done different kinds of community activism, or art or education in almost every way. Like we're trying to find people who are not academics and like, a lot of people we’ve contacted are saying, "Oh, I'm in a Ph. D. program." It's like, so common. *laughter* Yeah. I think it is one of those spaces where you do have a lot of freedom to explore whatever and like, you know, there’s more room to be whoever you want to be. It's not the same as trying to teach somewhere like a K to 12 school.

Mena

What kind of projects are you working on? Yeah, what are you excited about? You're in the beginning of your program? I think you mentioned the last time we spoke it's like five? Six years or seven? I can't remember.

Lee

Yeah, I mean, Ph.D.s go however long you make them. *laughter* Usually like at least four or five years. Yeah, so I'm in my second year. Yeah, my supervisor is really awesome. He's trans, he's doing a lot of really cool projects that are kind of aligned with my interests. So we're doing that one, which is we're interviewing trans people in the community about their--kind of--informal educational work? Or like how they think of education through their activism or through their arts. That's kind of the question. So that's really awesome. We're interviewing some people who are like a bit more high profile, which is really exciting to have that opportunity. We're also doing the first survey of trans people who work in K to 12 schools in Canada and the US, and we got like, you know, 360 people. So I don't think there's any other survey like that. So that's really interesting. We're looking at that data as well. Yeah.

Mena

Like, what?? How did you find, like a recruiting agency that like helps with the--what??

Lee

My supervisor started a few years ago, like this listerv for trans educators it's called the Trans Educators Network. So we just recruited through that. So people find it, you know, like, if you Google 'trans teachers', that comes up. So I think that it was easy to kind of recruit that way. Yeah, so that's really exciting. And trying to come up with my own projects. I don't know what it's gonna look like yet, but it will definitely be about gender normativity in schools. So, yeah.

Mena

Amazing. I mean, part of that work is to add something to the canon. And I imagine there's not a whole lot written and done, so I feel like the world's--a little bit--your oyster. That's exciting to— I mean, maybe I'm wrong. Is there like a long history of research in this regard?

Lee

There is a lot of research on queer issues and schools. Trans issues is a bit newer. There's kind of an emerging body of literature. So yeah, I think it's kind of a unique opportunity to kind of contribute to something that's still in the process of becoming.

Mena

The theme of your life just like friggin breaking ceilings. *laughter* Setting up new pathways for queer and trans folks. It's amazing. And I can't wait to see that work as it develops, that's amazing.

Lee

Thank you.

Myriam/Mimi

It's actually interesting, I find the opposite. Maybe it's because of cis-passing privilege. But like I've had the opposite experience with academia. I sort of like ran screaming from it. Not necessarily from a queer lens, although that was part of it. I think, massively. But I've run away from teaching as well for the same reasons: for how heteronormative it is, how enmeshed it is in systemic oppression. I went into academia to sort of escape how complicated human beings were. And I was like, "I'm just going to study the past in an indirect way to connect with how disconnected I feel with my own past because I'm not allowed to access it in a way that feels comfortable for me because of racism, or assimilation or whatever-survival." And then found the more I invested in academia, the more separated I felt from the things that I wanted to get closer to. And so it's interesting. How can it be a haven but also…a cage. But I'm glad that havens exist because it has transformative power. It is immensely powerful. And it gives me hope that it’s sheltered you and others. It's like you were handed the baton from somewhere in the sky, and you're like, "Okay, I'm gonna run with this. And I'm going to keep running with this." And even though, I don't know how to say this...you were forced to make choices, and to separate yourself from things and from people in order to pursue an ideal, a future that was beyond any of our scope at the time. And that is heavy, it's a heavy burden. And you carry it well.

Lee

Thank you.

Mena

Just going off on that I remember you saying that it felt like pressure, the community invested a lot in you in high school in your undergrad. Do you still feel that now? Do you still feel pressure? Or do you feel there has there been a change? And I ask that kind of, because of what Mimi was just talking about, but also you had mentioned that some of the work you're doing now is looking at what queer and trans people are doing as part of their activism. Their art, their education, that sort of thing. And I wonder, yeah, if you could talk a little bit about that. Because Mimi and I have talked about this, we need academia, we also need people not in academia. You know, like, there is a bridge with people doing lots of different kinds of work. So if you could talk a little bit about, like, where you're at with that, that feeling of pressure now. And yeah, where you feel like your academic work is?

Lee

Yeah, I think there's both things, like, in a lot of ways, I feel like, there's nothing I would really rather be doing. Like, I think the work I'm doing now is like, very interesting to me. And it's like, very fulfilling. And so you know, how many people get to do that for their jobs? But then, you know, at the same time, it is kind of a fantasy to be like, "It would be so nice to be something that's like, you know, where I don’t have to think about these issues that are so personal to me all the time." But I don't know if that's really an option. Like, I feel like if I took everything queer related off my resume, I would have very little. *laughter* I don't know if that's something I can do. But there are opportunities to kind of branch out and explore new things. And so I'm liking that about my program, really delving into topics that are also not about this, really. And so, yeah, I just like it, I think I'm having a good time with what I'm doing now. I think I've let go of that pressure a little bit. You know, I'm really just interested in doing the kind of work that I am.

Mena

It doesn't have to be separate, right? Like, that is your background, that is your foundation, that is who you are, you're/we're always going to bring our own subjectivity to anything we do. So it's not like you will rid yourself of who you are ever. I see that you bring that richness to the work, right? You bring that energy, you bring that desire. But how do you balance it? Do you have hobbies outside of this, that you use to mitigate identity work? Or these you know, these more personal topics? I mean, you're in a Ph. D. program, and I know how all-encompassing that can be.


Lee

I try. I mean, yeah, I think being in Vancouver has been a bit, like, good for that distance, too. Like, I think when I was in Toronto, I was very enmeshed in the community there. And so being here, you know, like, when I was in Toronto, literally, all my friends were queer, trans, and here many of my friends are not. Because I've met most people through school. And so I'm kind of, you know, I'm exploring, like some friends here who are doing art stuff, and you know, different kinds of things that are not all about this. And so, that's been nice. Like, it's been good to have that space as well. I think it's kind of made me less jaded and more interested in my own work to also be doing other things. Yeah.

Mena

Hearing parallels a little bit about, you doing what you need to do to feel at home, you know, in high school, with your parents, maybe also at the start of your transition, and then moving to a new city—I feel like you have just kind of been prioritizing this work, and your personal work at the same time. And I think that's really admirable and, oh! A fresh slate! Moving to a new city? It's so odd what it does. It gives you--everything has more space somehow. Is that your experience too?

Lee

I think so. It's kind of been, I think it's been kind of good to have that distance a little bit from my immediate family as well. I don't know if this is most people's experience, but having a little space, people are nicer to you. *laughter* And it's like not, you know, there's not like conflict all the time. And so that's good. I had, shortly before I moved here, started to kind of reconnect with my extended Coptic family. So, you know, I'm back in the family WhatsApp group now. I was invited to a few family Christmases before moving here. So it's kind of sad to like, be away again, and to not really be able to develop those connections. But it's alright. I think we're all dealing with it.

Mena

If you don't mind, tell us a little bit about that relation--that like dip out and then back in. We won't talk about your future aspirations. Me and Mimi both have our own stories of coming back into like, I didn't really talk to my mom for 10 years. And I'm estranged from my father for the last seven, eight. I can't remember. How are you doing with that? What do you want from that? Like what does the future look like? How has this process been for you?

Lee

Yeah, I mean, I think it's something that I'm still trying to figure out. What that means, or like, what that's gonna look like. I don't really know how much people know about me and my work? Because I've also seen more of my family that's in Egypt, and I don't know what they know, like, I don't really know. It still feels difficult to kind of navigate. Like, I think people know, I'm, like, a visibly queer person, there's so much about me out there. Like they definitely knew when this was happening in high school. I don't really know, like, what changed for me to be invited back, like a lot of things kind of happened around that time. For example, my teta died around that time when I started being invited back. But then I also stopped medically transitioning. So I don't know if that had something to do with it. And then, you know, I think they're like, also, like, my cousins are older now. So I don't know which of those things was kind of the factor or if people's attitudes changed at all? Like, I don't really, I feel like I don't know what the terms are, kind of navigating that. It feels tenuous. I haven't introduced my partner to my extended family. I don't know if I could do that, or if that would just blow up again. So I feel like it's tricky, as well.

Mena

When was this? Were other things happening in Egypt? I'm thinking because there was that famous actor, and trans issues are like being talked about all of a sudden. When was this timeframe?

Lee

Like 2017?

Mena Kamel

Okay. Yeah, an odd, but maybe welcome change?

Myriam/Mimi

Does it sound like your family is doing any of the work? I'm assuming that it's them attempting to reconnect. They're not asking you questions. So does it seem like they are learning on their own?

Lee

I would hope so. I mean, it seems like something that's just not discussed. Like I just haven't, you know, I look totally different when they saw me after like five years, but they didn't ask about that. So it's hard for me to kind of know what's going on? I mean, I would hope so. But I'm not sure like, like, I don't know. My extended family's a lot more religious than my immediate family. I don't know what that means or how they're making sense of it.

Myriam/Mimi

The most surprising thing to me about all of this melding and mushing and reconnecting of these worlds that I thought wouldn't be able to coexist in this way, is that people are surprising? But also very predictable. It's a very dangerous landscape. But I don't know, I find it encouraging that people are starting to respond to the kind of groundwork that people like you have put out there. They're finally starting to take advantage of like, "Oh, these things are possibly things I should engage with in my own time." Which is good. And I'm glad they're not making you a science project and poking you, and asking questions. That the burden is not on you. And I hope it stays that way.

Lee

I hope so, too.

Mena

I’m thinking about capacity, because it's so different to do that in your work in your own social groups. You know, I think it's clear that you could have a lot more boundaries when it's work or social, but then when we look at the cultural landscape, or family landscape, do you feel like you have capacity to--maybe not educate--but to open up and carry some of that? You know, working through that? Is it worth it for you right now? Do you have capacity for that? If you know, if that does come onto your plate? How are you invested? Do you care…?


Lee

Yeah, I don't know. I think that would be hard given all that's happened. Like, I don't know. It's like, in some ways, it's nice. It's just no questions asked. I don't know how it would go. It feels scary. Like, I don't know what I would say.

Mena

Yeah, that's real. The cultural side of Copticity is like, *awkward laughter* a whole mixed bag of unknowns. And that's changing right now. Right. Like, I think there's just, not so many, but there's a handful of platforms on social media. People talking about gender issues, and I just looked it up, not Coptic but—Nour—Hisham Selim's trans son is who I was thinking of. Did you see this in Egypt recently? I just feel like there's a little bit of--not change--but a little bit of, I don't know, space?? Some. Like Mimi said, like the work that's been happening—like this is kind of going noticed. And I don't know the future either. But I encourage you, if you are invested and have capacity for it to...yeah, the personal side? Oof. The family side? No.thank.you most days. *laughter* But I have to say my own experience is adjacent, when it comes to feeling capable of talking about these issues in spaces that I've carved out for myself or have been made for me outside of the Coptic community. And, interacting regularly with my mother again, after all these years, has been...gosh. You said it right Mimi, predictable and surprising. It can be really really, really challenging and also, I've made so many mistakes. And so many insecurities of mine were made so apparent in the earlier days of reconnecting. When I introduced my ex to the extended family, I was in my head spinning a little bit, and I did not know I would go there. I ended up making my mother cry. People were throwing shit at the door. Like it blew up! People left early. It was also around the holidays, like many bad choices. This was only a few years ago, and just looking back, I realize how much of my own insecurities were--or how quickly I could like go back into those roles and how resistant I was to allow them to change. My expectations hadn’t been shed, I think. So it's muddy, it's really tricky. And I think now if I did the same thing...I think the only way to do it is to do it. And to adjust in real time. That's all I'll say. You know, there's no fucking rulebook for this, right? Or is there? Did our queer elders write one?

Myriam/Mimi

If there was one, it's gonna change. I mean, I'm thinking about how you were talking about how it's your family coming to terms with it, or engaging with it, is because of a high-profile person in Egypt, right? But I think about how old the underground is. Because there's many, there's a lot of different, like, little parallel universes in our reality, where everybody just sort of coexists but doesn't interact. And then people don't understand how people's experiences could be so different because they have no interaction with it, because most people are sheltered and hidden, because they would not survive otherwise. And every once in a while, things pop up, and they merge and they converge, and then people will deal with it or they don't, and then it shifts again. I've never been inducted into the Egyptian underground. But I know it's quite extensive. And it's probably full of much more powerful people than we realize, in the same way that that exists here. Or in North America I should say. I don't know. The burden has been on them when these interactions happen. They usually ask the people who've been like, you know, afraid to be, to suddenly have to be okay with being in full-blast sunlight, and responding to like 50,000 questions at the same time. And that is an unrealistic expectation. But society keeps doing that, or at least in recent memory. And I thought that's how it would be for so long, so I don't really consider myself as ever having been in the closet. I was just like, "There's no existing between these worlds, right? There's no, there's no way." And now that this platform gave me the opportunity—my father passed. He was the major threat to any sort of coexistence. So I have that tragedy and privilege at the same time, which is weird. So it gives me a buffer behind me to be like, "The work is done. The work is there. It is there. It is accessible." And Egyptians gossip like nobody's business. So it must be known. Let them know. And then let them figure it out. "Don't bug me, I have my own shit." *laughter*

Mena

I'm going to the Egyptian underground, thank you very much. Bye.

Myriam/Mimi

Bye, invite me, where's my invitation?

Mena

Ohmygod take us to the queer Egyptian underground puleez! *giggles* Actually, you're right, you're fully right about that. What other choice do we have? Right? Like, we keep doing the work. We're gonna keep building.


Ugh, so, we're just running out of time here, I have to hop off soon. So before we wrap up, is there anything else that you'd like to add Lee?


Lee

Cool. Yeah. I appreciate that. Um, no, I don't think I have anything else. Have you been able to reach out to Didi?

Mena

Yes! Yes. And thank you so much for putting us in touch. We didn't really talk about that, huh? Um, you've written with her? Tell us a little bit about that relationship!

Lee

I mean, I met Didi during my master's. My advisor told me that there was another queer Egyptian in the faculty and that I should take their class. So that's how I met Didi. And then we ended up writing a paper together. So it was really nice. She is great. I think she's writing her memoir currently. That's what she told me. She's retired already. But yeah. Been out as a lesbian for a really long time. That'll be interesting. I think she tried to do a project at one point on lesbians in Egypt. I don't know what happened with that. You can maybe ask her.

Mena

We will need to pick her brain about navigating that space for sure.


Thank you both for being so open and honest and being-fucking-here. Lee, thank you for sharing your story with us—I know it's not super fun and easy to open up the past and Pandora's box. So drink a lot of water for the rest of the day and please stay in touch. *laughter*


All

Okay. Talk soon! Bye <3


Lee and their partner Julie pose for a selfie with Hamm the cat.




Lee can be found online at @queernerdxo

All images courtesy Lee Iskander.


Myriam Bestowrous (AKA Mimi) is a facilitator, educator, writer, ex-social scientist, the co-founder of The Turn Left, and a member of Coptic Queer Stories.


Mena Kamel is the founder of Coptic Queer Stories.