Mike Matta (28)
Los Angeles, California
I know you talk to your mama like every day, so tell me, were you always a mama’s boi? Tell me about growing up in LA.
I mostly grew up in Chino, Ca. It’s hard to complain about Southern California too much. I have a lot of great childhood memories playing in the sand at Redondo Beach with my cousins, and driving down to San Diego for a weekend getaway with my family--but Chino is a pretty conservative city. Despite it being only about 45 minutes from LA, it is most definitely NOT LA. Most everyone I knew, whether it was through church or school, was very conservative. It felt like how any other small, suburban town feels, I imagine.
I’ve lived in LA proper for almost 5 years now, and I don’t see myself leaving for a while. Despite the stereotypes, which may have a sliver of truth, I’ve been fortunate enough to find some very incredible friends here. Each part of LA has its own culture. I live in Echo Park, which is a little more artsy/hipster, and feels much more like a neighborhood than other parts of this city. I’ve been going to the beach a lot, which is just about a half hour away.
And yes, I talk to my mama quite often. I was DEFINITELY always a mama’s boy. I wanted to be like her so much, in fact, that I would occasionally steal her high heels and stomp around my parents’ bedroom. Twas’ a LEWK.
Tell me a little about how you grew up in the culture.
Growing up in a Coptic household, in my experience, meant that every facet of my life revolved around the Coptic community. Every facet. When I was six or seven years old, I had a weekly Coptic language lesson at my church in Torrance (I can still read Coptic, something I am proud of). By the time I was nine, I was ordained a deacon. For about twelve years, my weekends were occupied with various church activities/hangouts. I attended a mandatory weekly hymns practice, which would take place on Friday or Saturday evenings. One of the head deacons spent countless hours teaching us hymns that we would chant on various occasions throughout the year. Attending Sunday liturgy and serving as a deacon was mandatory, followed by a mandatory Sunday School lesson. In my opinion, many of these “teachers” were wildly unfit to be teaching children anything.
The Coptic League, a summer basketball league, occupied my summers. We would have basketball practice two to three times per week, starting in April and lasting through the end of the summer. I also was very involved in the Youth Spiritual Competition, where churches in the SoCal diocese would each form several teams divided by age groups to compete against other churches and their teams in a trivia-like competition about various topics like Coptic Church History or Coptic Hymns. I remember practicing to recite Coptic hymns in front of a panel of judges, where we would ultimately be ranked among other teams according to accuracy, harmony, etc. For obvious reasons, having a spiritual competition is fucking absurd. But to be honest, I enjoyed parts of it. I was a bit of a history nerd, so I enjoyed the Coptic History quizzes. And I always thought the Coptic melodies in the hymns I learned were enchanting and beautiful.
In many ways, though, these activities felt mandatory for me. There were undoubtedly social pressures from family and other church-goers that applied to all the kids in our church, irrespective of sexuality. But the sense of obligation I had was self-imposed. As a child and teenager, I became hyper-aware of people’s perceptions of me. I was constantly paranoid that I would do or say something that could be perceived as different, so I heavily policed my behavior. I thought that presenting as a pious church-goer would dispel any notion that I was queer. Maybe subconsciously, I believed my queerness could be fixed, and so if I committed to the church for long enough I could fix myself. This begs the point: the Coptic Church, and growing up in a Coptic household, convinced me that I was broken.
My parents were loving, and I developed great (though fleeting) friendships, but I also lived in a perpetual state of fear. Motivated largely by my fear of familial and cultural abandonment, most of my childhood was an exhausting sequence of performative gestures that I hoped would signal “normalcy” to my family and friends.
How did you get interested in employment law? Tell me about your work in anti-racism cases and how UCLA prepared you for this work.
My interest in employment law is very much connected to my passion for racial justice. A few days after 9/11, my dad was let go from his job. At the time, my mom wasn’t working, and for several months we relied on our extended family for financial support. There is no doubt in my mind that my father, who always had an incredible work ethic, was terminated from his position because of his ethnicity. Though I didn’t fully understand what was happening in that moment, his termination was the first time I remember witnessing institutional racism.
By the time I got to college at UCSB, I started to become more aware of my own ethnicity, mostly by comparing myself to others (the university’s student body was predominantly white). After taking a class called Introduction to Race and Racism in the university’s Black Studies department, I began connecting the dots between my father’s employment termination and the underlying racial issues at play, which became especially obvious to me in the context of 9/11 and the ensuing xenophobia. It made me angry, but emboldened me to understand structural racism more deeply. I developed comparisons between my experiences as a queer person and as a person of color. My education gave me the language and tools to understand the intersections of oppression. This ultimately motivated my interest in attending UCLA Law, where I specialized in Critical Race Studies. During law school, I took an Employment Discrimination Law course which, after a series of jobs/internships, prepared me to become an employment attorney. I currently represent individuals who, because of their identity, have faced some form of discrimination, harassment, and/or retaliation in the workplace. I love what I do.
What are some of your inspirations and goals with your work?
I have several inspirations, but there are two that have been on my mind a lot lately. The first one is a cliché lawyer response, but I am motivated by my clients. My clients are typically overworked and underpaid people who have faced some sort of injustice at work. Their stories can be heartbreaking and infuriating, but with my legal education and my personal experiences, I believe that I have the tools to fight against injustice. My lawyer friends, most of whom I met during law school, also inspire me. They are smart, passionate, and caring people, and have been extremely supportive. I’m honored that I got to live with two of them (Addi and Rosemary, ILYSM).
In terms of my goals, I don’t necessarily have a solid “5-year-plan” or anything yet. I really just want to soak up as much knowledge and experience as I can while I’m young. I’ve thought about transitioning into politics after a few years of practice, or maybe opening up my own law firm.
You’re super into fitness, and have described yourself as an avid CrossFitter--can you tell me about how you see this as an integral part of your life?
Well I’m not sure if you’ve heard the news, but CrossFit is cancelled because the CEO is a racist piece of shit. My gym has disaffiliated with the CrossFit brand, but we’re doing the same type of exercise/sport. So until we come up with a new name for the sport, now I’m just an avid “person who likes to pick up weights and put them down real fast.”
Fitness gives me structure and community, and I think has amplified my work ethic. I’ve met so many wonderful people at my gym and I’ve become pretty close friends with quite a few people through fitness. I’ve also participated in a few CrossFit competitions, which has been really fun for me. One of them, OutWOD, is a competition/fundraiser dedicated to raising awareness and money for various queer causes.
I’m privileged enough to have made fitness a staple in my life. That said, fitness culture, especially in LA, and especially in gay LA, can be toxic. It is often less about actual health and longevity, and more about upholding Western standards of beauty. I’ll admit I’m guilty of participating in that toxicity to some degree. But I am noticing some slow changes for the better, and I’m thankful to attend a gym that is a little more conscious of fatphobia and emphasizes inclusion regardless of body type. It is a start in the right direction.
I know your dog is also into CrossFit--tell me more about your dog Blue.
Blue is my perfect gentle husky angel. My ex-partner and I adopted him when he was about 8 weeks old, and he has added so much joy to our lives. Blue thinks he is much smaller than he is and doesn’t have a lick of spatial awareness—very much a bull in a china shop. And he is dangerously friendly with literally anyone and anything. He likes to blow bubbles in bowls of water and swim at the beach– which you can see for yourself on his IG page @blue.to.the.rescue.
What was it like dating a famous person in LA?
More than anything, my previous relationship taught me how important it is to be honest with myself, which has always been challenging for me. It put a spotlight on the growth I need to make in regards to listening to my own wants and needs, and my ability to effectively communicate those needs. I consider myself lucky to know my ex-partner; he is inside and out a beautiful human, and I still cherish the relationship we had/still have. But I wasn’t dating him for the right reasons, and I wasn’t honest with myself about why I was dating him. This ended up hurting both of us. I’m slowly becoming more in tune with my own wants and needs, both romantically and in my life generally.
How would you describe your relationship with Coptic culture nowadays?
For about 5 years, I intentionally disconnected from most of Coptic culture, except for seeing family and attending the occasional Egyptian wedding. After recently connecting with queer Coptic folx though, I am finally beginning to reconnect with Coptic culture again. I think as I connect with more Coptic queer folx, my relationship with Coptic culture will grow and become more fulfilling than I ever thought it could be. For example, I’ve recently become friends with another Coptic queer person who I was privileged enough to host in my home for a few days while they figured out their living situation (I’ll keep their identity anonymous for their safety). We bonded quickly, and talked about the parts of Coptic culture we find toxic. We also talked about the parts of Coptic culture we find beautiful. We made kofta, wareh enab, and kunafah together. Coptic melodies are particularly mesmerizing to us. I am incredibly grateful to know them. We’ve also decided that we’re ready to start a Coptic queer revolution, so let’s rally!
Tell me more about how you’re building out a Coptic community.
In fact, thanks to CQS, I have been able to connect with SO many queer Coptic folx. I thought I was the only out queer Coptic person, which is silly in hindsight. Now, I’m in a group chat (the group chat is named The Tisonis which makes me so fucking happy) with three other Coptic folx. We chat about everything: dating, gossip, childhood traumas, memes/TikTok videos, etc. I really did not think I’d have this community (albeit virtual for now) during my lifetime, and I’m incredibly grateful for it.
When did you first realize you were queer?
I don’t know if I remember one specific moment like this, but I do recall a time in the third grade where I first experienced shame for deviating from heteronormativity. I was on the swings at my elementary school’s playground during recess, by myself, singing the Britney Spears all-time classic Oops, I Did It Again. I was approached by three kids and was very quickly scolded and laughed at. The scolding was something akin to what are you DOING?? Why are you singing that?? What the fuck is wrong with you?! I don’t remember leaving the swings, I think I just froze and waited for them to walk away. And as soon as they did, I sobbed. I felt so much shame, and I became extremely paranoid after that. I started believing that I was constantly under surveillance, whether it was by family, friends, teachers, or even strangers. I was terrified of experiencing that shame again, so I made sure to reassess every action I took. There were other moments like this, where I was shamed for my behavior, but that moment convinced me that I could no longer exist as myself if I wanted to be safe.
One of those boys that laughed at me was my first crush. His name was Jeff...
Tell me more about being out to your family and friends.
I am very grateful for having the privilege of being out. I first came out during my junior year of college to my two friends, Gina and Sean. For several weeks prior to coming out, I was coping with depression. I was barely going to my classes, and I was sleeping for at least 14 hours a day. I first came out to Gina and Sean at a bar, then came out to my cousin Sarah, who was extremely loving and supportive. I quickly came out to several other college friends, and even a small handful of childhood Coptic friends. Some of their initial responses were not what I had hoped for, but otherwise I was lucky not to have had any jarring backlash. Over the next few years, I preemptively cut ties with several Coptic childhood friends. I was well aware of their opinion on my identity, and I didn’t have the wherewithal to prove my humanity to them. I do not regret this decision.
I came out to my parents just before beginning law school. I made sure all of my student loans were approved so that I could be completely financially independent from them, if necessary. Their response was more mild than I expected, but their position hasn’t changed much. “We love you, Michael, but we cannot agree with your life.”
To all the baby Coptic queers: I encourage you to come out when you feel safe and have the resources to do it (housing, income, a support system, etc.). You will likely have painful conversations with family and friends. You might even lose some relationships because of it. But you have a family waiting for you that will love you in the way you deserve to be loved...and I can guarantee that we are so much more fun.
Tell me about how you see spirituality and religion with regard to your queerness.
For a long time, it felt impossible for me to divorce my Coptic identity from religiosity, and as I am no longer a religious person, I spent several years believing I was no longer Coptic. I remember the late Pope Shenouda III said something along the lines of, there are no gay Copts. We do not have that issue here. They don’t exist. For a time, my queerness erased my Coptic-ness. However, and especially recently as I’ve connected with more queer Coptic folx, I’m slowly reconnecting with my Coptic heritage. I might be misquoting here, but my new friend Cyril (who is a perfect angel) aptly described connecting with queer Copts like “coming home.”
I’m seeing some hopeful signs via social media in terms of how our community will grow. I’ve started seeing and following various IG pages that seem to be more informed and inclusive. I’ve also recently started getting involved with SWANA LA – a group of folx in LA who advocate for SWANA people locally and globally, and I think people are paying attention.
In your opinion, what can we do to increase queer Coptic visibility?
I think those of us who have the privilege to be out and vocal have a responsibility to our Coptic queer family who may not be as fortunate. To be honest, I only really care about visibility, acceptance, and hope, insofar as it uplifts other queer Coptic folx. I am not looking for acceptance from Coptic people who are committed to misunderstanding us. I am hopeful that Coptic queers and allies will continue expanding on the work of reclaiming our identities and redefining what it is to be Coptic. Connecting with more and more queer Copts, I think, is a major step in embarking on this journey. We are stronger (and cuter) in numbers. I am excited to see what the future holds for us.