Mark Guirguis (38)
Los Angeles, California
Growing Up Coptic
I’m the oldest of 4 brothers. Growing up, we had a big, busy home, and the idea of a ‘happy family’ was incredibly important. My family, like many other Coptic families, was emphatically patriarchal. My dad was expected to work and bring home the money, and if he didn’t, then he was seen as a failure. His word was king, and everyone knew it. My mom stayed home and took care of the kids. That was her job, her duty. She was never expected to work, and was never encouraged to work either. My parents were stuck in very strict gender roles, and still are to this day. Respect was a big thing. My parents cared deeply about how we spoke to them, and the way my siblings and I spoke to each other. I couldn’t even call my brothers stupid without my mom dramatically gasping, as if I had cursed my brother to eternal damnation or something. So if I ever called my dad stupid, he’d beat the shit out of me. I should clarify, we were never abused. We were spanked though-- it was the 80s.
Coming Out to Myself
If I go back in time and look at the shit I did when I was young, I can’t believe my parents didn’t know that I was gay. When I was 8 or 9, I memorized the entire Little Mermaid movie, word for word. I still know every word, I was obsessed to say the least. Surprisingly, I didn’t even consider that I might be gay until puberty hit. Puberty made it obvious, though I was still in denial for several years. Then it hit me, ‘Oh wait a minute, I kinda like being in this locker room.’ You know what I mean? That’s when I said to myself, ‘Okay, I’m definitely different.’
At first, I thought something was wrong with me. Then, for the longest time, I thought it was a phase. I remember thinking, ‘You know what, I just have to get this out of my system. I should just try it once and I’ll probably get over it.’
In junior high and high school, I joined an AOL chat room. This was pre-Grindr, pre-Scruff, this was pre-everything. This was the beginning of the Internet, the “M4M Gay Los Angeles Chat Room” days, or whatever the hell they were actually called. I watched at first; I wanted to know what people were talking about. After observing others chat for a while, I eventually spoke out myself. I remember the first thing I said after being silent for so long was, ‘All of you are going to hell and you’re all sinners!’ I blew up in this chat room with some serious homophobic ranting. And now in retrospect, I feel really badly about it. I was definitely lashing out; maybe out of fear, out of jealousy, out of anxiety, or whatever it was at the time. I remember that day very well. ‘You’re all fucking going to hell! How can you do this? This is disgusting.’ But over time it progressed into well, ‘Hi, how are you?’ After high school, I had just graduated so I was 18 or 19, I told myself, ‘Okay you just need to get this out of the way.’
At the time, I was dating a girl. I was really in love with her, though our relationship was not physical or sexual. It was very sweet-- we called each other on the phone every night and we wrote letters back and forth. She was a good girl, and I was a prude. What we had was genuine; I wasn’t trying to pretend that I was straight, and it didn’t feel like a phase either. While I was in love with her, it was also confusing. When we broke up I was shattered, and it broke my heart. But, in the back of my mind, I always had this gay thing going on. So when I was newly single, I said to myself, ‘I guess this is a great time to dive into that!’
I had talked to some dude on Craigslist or Adam4Adam, something prehistoric like that, who was in a similar boat. We had both never been physical with another man before, and we both had a laundry list of sexual things we wanted to try. It was sort of like a business arrangement. We were going meet, and you know, experiment. We got a hotel room one day, and we began to check things off our lists.
What Does it Mean To Be Gay Anyway?
I guess that’s a nice snapshot of how my brain was working at that time. It was just one of those things that I thought was a phase. I didn’t know any gay people; I had no frame of reference on how to start acting on my feelings. There was one gay kid in my high school, and he was super flamboyant. At the time, I found that annoying, and I avoided him. I made it clear that I wasn’t his friend, and he wasn’t mine.
I remember when I was really young, my brothers and I were watching this program on KCET, and whatever show was on had a male ballet dancer. I don’t think he was gay, but my grandmother walked into the room and was horrified. ‘Isk Isk alik,’ (shame on you) she said over and over again, reacting to seeing a man in tights. I remember lots of things like that. My dad, my brothers, and my best friends said homophobic things all the time.
I felt like I had to grow up alone in a lot of ways, because everyone was openly vocal about their aversion to gays. Whenever my friends and I would go out, I’d have to pretend to be someone I wasn’t. When we went to Tijuana, we would all dance and grind up girls and make out with them. Don’t get me wrong; I like having fun with girls because I’m a flirt, and I like physicality and attention. I’d inevitably get bored and disappear. My friends came to know me for that. They’d endlessly ask, ‘Oh hey, where’d you go off to again last night?’ And I’d tell them that I was just doing my own thing. Of course, I was always finding a gay bar or a hookup. No matter where we went, I would always do that. Now that my friends know I’m gay, everything I did for years makes more sense to them now. Sometimes you just make a place for yourself, even when you seemingly don’t have a space. I felt like I didn’t have any other choice for a long time, and it was just how I had to live.
So rewinding, I fooled around with that one guy right after high school. It was awkward and kind of hot. I thought, ‘Maybe I should try it again because what if it wasn’t that good the first time. Maybe I just need to do it again and I’ll get over it.’ And of course, that’s not how it works. For a couple years, it was just that--me being super promiscuous. Seeing a bunch of one-night stands. It was like...WOW. I was wild. I mean I can’t even tell you. But then, I met one of my best gay friends that I have now, I met him during my days of extreme debauchery. We hooked up, and then afterwards he asked, ‘You wanna hang out or something?’ I was shocked. I remember asking, ‘What do you mean? You mean, like as friends?’ He was so casual about it, I couldn’t believe it. What a concept, right? Two gay people could actually be friends outside of sex? We ended up becoming really good friends, and he also kind of became my partner in crime. He’d be my wingman and I’d be his. I finally had a friend who I could go out with, and that’s how it was for a very long time.
I eventually started to feel unsatisfied with the party scene. I had one gay friend, but I didn’t have strong friendships with gay people. So through him, I started to make friends with folks that I could have actual conversations with that weren’t all about sex. But don’t get me wrong, I probably had sex with everybody at some point, but that’s neither here nor there. I started building a small group of gay friends, and eventually I starting thinking about dating someone seriously. This was all a slow progression. I started dating my first boyfriend when I was 30 or so. It was basically a whole decade of me being a floozy. For me, being gay was just about being sexual with other men.
I always maintained that I had the capacity to fall in love with a woman again. I didn’t want to let go of that. I held onto it as long as possible, because I was terrified to live a gay life. On some level I still thought being gay was wrong, and possibly a temporary phase. I contemplated what life would be like if I married a woman while sleeping around with men. Honestly I didn’t know; even now it’s difficult to be definitive. I think I never really thought about what was permanent or what was temporary, until recently. Back then I had really compartmentalized my two lives. There was the gay me and the ‘straight’ me. I had a lot of sex with men, but I was not pursuing that life. Then, somehow, I began getting more comfortable with the idea of being gay. I talked to my gay friends about it; that really helped make me more comfortable with myself. I finally admitted that this is the way I am.
My first boyfriend was Lebanese. I introduced him to my parents as ‘my buddy.’ I also knew his parents under that cloak. He spoke Arabic and everything, it was pretty hot. We’re still friends today, even though it didn’t work out. I didn’t have a network of gay Middle Easterners, he was kind of an anomaly because most gay Middle Easterners are in hiding. For a while I felt like I might be the only one. That really only started to change about 5 years ago. Just in the past handful of years, I started to meet more and more gay Egyptians. It’s still very rare for me to meet other queer Middle Easterners, but it’s comforting to know that I am not the only one.
Coming Out to Others
Coming out took years, and I’m still coming out all the time. The first person I came out to was my good friend Iris. She’s fucking crazy, she’s wonderful and I love her. She always sort of knew, and she eventually made me tell her. It happened when I was really depressed. I’d just broken up with my ex, and she told me that she knew something was wrong. I was so relieved to tell her. I mean, it was one fucking person in my life, but it felt like such a burden was lifted. Of course I had a lot of gay friends who knew, but it was so different because I always had my gay world over here and my straight world over there. I don’t know if she realizes this, but coming out to her was such a big step for me, and it changed my life. She broke the barrier that separated my two worlds. I felt, for the first time, that maybe my two worlds could merge. But, it wasn’t that simple.
For a very long time, Iris was the only straight person in my life who knew, and it began to take a toll on her. Suspecting friends would bombard her with questions about me, and she felt like she had to be dishonest in order to protect me. Facebook posts were getting people even more curious about my sexuality, and poor Iris would be getting all the questions. ‘So, is he gay or what? Is he into guys?’ She told me that it felt like she was in the closet with me, you know? It wasn’t just my straight world vs my gay world, it was probably also my Coptic world vs my gay world. My Coptic world associations absolutely had a lot to do with why I was in the closet for so long.
I eventually told each of my brothers, but it was a slow, and sometimes dramatic process. It was really emotional each time. I’m 38 now. Agizna (I got old), and I just told my youngest brother about 1 year ago. Coming out to the people you’re closest to is the hardest, because you have more to lose.
I’ve been coming out slowly to people in the community ever since. But Egyptians are nosey as hell, and they gossip a lot. There have been whispers about me for a long time, and people seem to scan through my Facebook with a fine-toothed comb. If my life gives you that much entertainment, go for it. On my Facebook, I have a subgroup where I post pictures of myself and friends at Pride and things like that. I also have my main page, where I post no gay content (another great example of my compartmentalized double life). But my main public page is slowly getting saturated with gay comments these days, though things that are really extreme still go into the subgroup. In a lot of ways, I’m still shedding my double life I guess.
Some of the only people that don’t know are mama and baba. They're the last hurdle, and I don’t think I can really ever tell them. I don't expect that it would work out at all. You think your Coptic mom is religious? My mom takes it to the extreme! For example: my youngest brother is the perfect child who went to high school and graduated with honors, went to college, and is an engineer now. He has been with his girlfriend for 8 years; they were high school sweethearts. He eventually proposed to her. He did everything exactly like my mom wanted him to. But a year before their wedding, they moved in together. Holy shit, that almost tore the family apart. I’d come home and my mom would be sobbing, just so upset. I’d ask, ‘Melik (what’s the matter with you)? Did someone die or something?’ And she’d wail, ‘How can they live like this, in sin? How!? Haram (it’s sinful)!’ I wanted to tell her, ‘Are you serious? You’re acting this way because your son is living with his fiancé of 8 years, a few months before their wedding?’ This stupid, traditional values mentality is so common in the community. If that was my mom’s reaction to her perfect, heterosexual son’s behavior, imagine what she would think of me: her eldest being gay. She might literally kill herself. Anyway, my poor brother and his finance were pressured into moving out of their apartment. After getting married, they just moved right back in together. It was so fucking dumb and pointless. It’s backwards thinking, but my brother went along with it just to appease everyone.
Apparently now in the Coptic church, you’re almost required to take a counseling course before getting married. Our cousin, who got married right before my brother, was telling him the horror stories. Basically engaged couples go to classes, where Abouna (the priest) tells you not to fuck in any position besides missionary, and that oral sex is unholy. Really? That’s their marriage advice? Habal (nonsense).
Community Informs Community
I sometimes go to church when my mom pushes me to. When I go, I like to attend the Wednesday mass (yes, Copts have mass on more than just Sundays). It’s very small and intimate mid-week, just three or four people and the priest. It’s really zen, and the bakhour (incense) is calming to me. When I was young, the church felt like a very safe place; it was home. It was really fun too, and it was where all my Egyptian friends hung out. Church can have a very calming effect on me, it can be very peaceful. I’m not as religious as I was when I was a young shamess (deacon), and I question a lot of things now. Do I believe in god? Yes. Do I believe that there is some historical significance to what the church teaches, and stories that are passed down? Yes. Do I believe that’s all there is in this world? No, because a lot of it is still translated by man. A lot of it is probably lost in translation. A lot of it is based on really old rules that don't apply anymore. But, I do believe there is a god and that he loves me. So am I religious? It’s funny because my non-Coptic friends think I’m some sort of pious saint just because I still pray and attend church every now and then. To my mother, however, I’m basically an atheist infidel because I don’t go every week.
I don’t know if my gay life and the Coptic church life can exist in harmony, I’m still struggling with that. I’m 38 and I’m still struggling with that, it’s crazy. The way I look at it, the church teaches us that god loves us no matter what. Jesus would have dinner with whores and tax collectors. He made a point to do that, so I know I’m loved. I went through a phase where I’d beg and pray, ‘Lord, take this demon out of me. Go, take it away.’ But he didn’t, so where does that leave me? Is my sexuality a result of my own weakness? I’ve asked him many times, ‘Just heal me of this affliction.’ But he doesn’t. So I think to myself, what are my options in life? Do I just live a completely celibate life? Do I become a monk or something? Do I marry a woman and just try my best to suppress my true nature? I mean it’s either that or be a sinner, right?
The way I reconcile this is by recalling one of my favorite bible verses. It says something along the lines of how love will overshadow a multitude of sins. I can have lots of sins, but if I’m a good loving person, then that’s going to erase all the shit I do...hopefully. That’s between me and god. When it comes to the Coptic community, I really don’t care about what anyone thinks anymore. When it comes down to it, as long as I have my family and good friends, fuck everybody else.
I don’t think there’s a place for being gay in the Coptic church, at least not right now. You make it what you make it. Am I going to get married in the church? No. Am I going to come out to everybody at church? No. I don’t think they’re ready for an open dialogue. I don’t think there will be acceptance to the point where you can just walk into church with a same-sex partner without incident; I can’t imagine that. I do think you can have an individual relationship with god and that you can still practice some of the Coptic traditions--I do it all the time with my family on religious holidays. You have to maintain a balance for yourself, and that’s really all you can do. I wish more Copts would come out, because the few that I know who are gay are so deep in the closet that they almost live vicariously through me. They’ve told me, ‘Oh, I saw your post the other day, it was so hot...that party looked so fun.’ So I’ll tell them to come out with me, ‘Yalla let’s go.’ And of course they say, ‘No, we can never.’
I have a friend who lives abroad who is super religious. If you go on his IG there are tons of Coptic images since he's very involved with the church. While he was visiting me recently, and I happened to turn on my Grindr and guess who showed up on it? It was awkward at first seeing each other, but we were able to talk about it, which was really cool. He has a confession father and tells him everything that he does. His confession father tells him, ‘It’s okay, don’t fall into temptation. Just keep yourself busy with other things.’ I know it is probably not the most accepting response from a priest, but to me, it’s actually relatively understanding coming from a holy man who practices a strict religion! Of course his abouna isn’t giving him the green light to be gay either, but he’s not telling him that he’s going to burn in hell. I was surprised, to say the least. His abouna is pretty young, so maybe that has something to do with this outlook, and I’d like to think that we’re moving away from conversion therapy and toxic judgment. As the modern LGBTQ+ movement gains more traction, I’m learning that perhaps there’s a spectrum of thought on the topic within our small community. There are Coptic folks who believe there is no god, and some are like my friend. He still absolutely believes that god loves him; he serves, he confesses, he takes communion, and he’s on Grindr.
My peers and I were somewhat bad kids growing up. We didn’t follow everything the church outlined for us, but we still maintained that church life. We had one foot in and one foot out, but overall we actively and willingly participated in community. I’ve noticed that younger generations seem to be less religious than we were back in the day. A majority of people who go to my church now are new immigrants from Egypt. Fewer and fewer members of the original congregation attend, and I’ve heard the elders talk about this like it’s a crisis. The church is having trouble connecting with the youth, and folks are afraid of that they don’t have a handle on them anymore; they can’t engage them in activities. It’s not like back in my day, when we had a nady (a gathering) every week. It was so much fun for me to be at church, I loved those days. Honestly, I never felt like the church was pushing me away. I don’t remember anyone ever mentioning the gay thing. I’m pretty sure none of the elders or my Sunday school teachers ever brought it up. I mostly remember great things. The church taught us, “Love thy neighbor” and all that stuff.
I told you that I can be extremely promiscuous, but when it comes to relationships I’m super traditional and surprisingly monogamous. My most recent relationship was interesting, because it was my first open relationship. It was really hard on me because I didn’t think I’d be the jealous type; we fought a lot. At this point of my life, I know I want to be in a monogamous relationship, but it seems everyone is poly or open. I don’t know if I’m ready for that again. I like sex, but when I’m in a relationship, it gets complicated. My ex was jealous whenever I hooked up with someone, and he pretended that he wasn’t. The breakup took a lot out of me. We still talk, but I had to cut him out of my life for a while because it hurt to see him. He doesn’t know what he wants. He dropped the, ‘I think I want to be polyamorous’ bomb on me a few months ago, and I was like...alright?? I knew I couldn’t do that, but said I’d try it out for him. First he wanted to be open, so we tried that, but we were struggling. Then he wanted to be poly! We couldn’t even get a handle on our one relationship, and you want to juggle five? I don’t think he really knows what polyamory is. Make one relationship work, and then try two or three. But he really loved me, and I let him know that I really loved him too, but we weren’t on the same page.
As I tell my story and come out to more and more people, I feel like I’m winning my friends and family over. Lately I feel liberated, and I’ve only had good experiences coming out. Coming out helps humanize gay people and I think that’s especially necessary in the Coptic church where a lot of folks have never met a single gay person. Gay people can be good or bad, religious or not. A person you know and love could be gay. It’s someone’s inner character that should be important, not their sexual preferences. I really hope my story and my life not only help the Coptic community see gay people in a different light, but I also hope that it helps scared, confused, or questioning Egyptians out there. I once also thought I was alone. You are not alone!