Mina Gerges (24)
photo by Jasper Soloff
How did you get into modeling and advocacy work?
Everything I do in my career now is because I want to create the representation that I found lacking while I was growing up. I always felt extremely alone; whether it was because of my body or because of my identity. I craved guidance from someone who could help me understand the complexities of my intersectional identity, but never found anyone. So I decided to use my platform to change that for others.
You’ve gotten a lot of support for your honesty and authenticity on social media. What has been the response from the Coptic community and other SWANA people?
I receive a lot of hate from the Middle Eastern community for publicly and unapologetically embracing my Middle Eastern, Coptic, and queer identities. Even growing up though, I was actively alienated by non-queer members of the Arab community and the subject of homophobic jokes and bigoted, hate-fuelled slurs. Now I receive death threats via comments or DMs, and as recently as 2 weeks ago, I got a message that said I should light myself on fire and change my name because I bring shame to the Egyptian and Coptic communities. The bigotry I receive from the Middle Eastern community is a symptom of the larger reality--hatred and ignorance are the default, with many non-queer Arabs weaponizing our strict religious beliefs and traditional culture as means to invalidate our queer identities and justify violence towards us. The way I’ve dealt with negative comments in the past has been through trying to deconstruct the hatred- asking aggressors why they feel this way in the hopes that they reconsider the route of their hatred. But recently, I’ve wondered what’s the point in talking to people who believe my human rights are a debate? What keeps me going is understanding the impact that my visibility and presence as an outspoken public figure has on helping others like me not feel as lonely as I once did when I was coming out and trying to make sense of my conflicting identities. There is growing support I receive from both queer and non-queer members of the Arab community both online and in real life, which make me optimistic for change. I get a lot of messages from young queer Coptic people around the world who ask me for advice and confide in me because of our shared experiences. The most common message I get is people telling me that I’m the first queer or Middle Eastern person they’ve seen so publicly and unapologetically out, and that my story and experiences with the Coptic community and with my family are almost exactly what they’ve experienced as well. It’s these positive messages from queer people who feel less lonely when they see me online that makes the negativity insignificant.
Have you met any other queer Coptic models?
I’ve never actually met other Coptic people in my field, although I’d love to.
How has your Coptic upbringing influenced your interests in confronting things like toxic masculinity and body standards?
I think Middle Eastern culture in the first place perpetuates extremely harmful and toxic ideals of masculinity that dictate the way men should act and how they should look. When you add our Coptic culture to the mix, it emphasizes those toxic ideas even more. Growing up in the Coptic Church, I always felt really lonely because I was always too gay to hang out with the guys, and felt too judged by the girls. I always felt like I was being stared at for being too feminine or put in situations where our abouna (priest) would be asked to pray for me, as if there was something wrong with me. I think about how isolated I felt and how I so badly wanted to fit in to avoid judgement and how that led me to experience a lot of self-hatred. As I grew up and actively worked to unlearn that self-hatred, I became more confident and realized how important it is to confront and challenge these toxic ideals within our culture, otherwise they’ll never change or improve for the younger Coptic kids in our community.
Tell me more about why you recently have shifted away from drag.
As I get older and more educated about LGBT+ rights in the Middle East, I realize how significant it is to have such a massive platform as an openly gay Middle Eastern Coptic man. When I started out, I was pushing every boundary of what it meant to be queer, Arab, and gender non-conforming, but I was doing it by recreating Kylie Jenner’s hair with spaghetti. I realized that the power of my voice and the privilege of my platform is to actually bring much needed representation to the mainstream. I wanted to have important discussions and to be taken seriously. I still love pushing the boundaries of what it means to be Middle Eastern, but I’m doing it without spaghetti on my head now!
How would you describe your relationship with Coptic Orthodoxy?
The first thing I think of is an instance during Sunday School when I was being forced to attend one of the classes and refused to go. My sister ended up joining the class and confirmed what I had expected. The topic was about why homosexuality was wrong. At that point, my Instagram had already gone viral so I knew everyone in the church knew, but no one confronted me directly. That was the first time I felt genuine hatred and humiliation in our community. Ever since that day, older Coptic people have been attempting to get me to join church initiatives as though they are saving me. It has been pretty constant. I’ve realized that this overt violence and bigotry is what makes so many Coptic queer people remain in the closet, which in turn reinforces misconceptions against us. Because I can no longer hide who I am, I realize that I have to take up space. I have to exist in these spaces unapologetically to force Copts to realize that queer people exist in the church, despite how much they want to erase us.
photo by Jasper Soloff
What was it like to grow up in a Coptic household?
Growing up meant understanding that my identity is extremely complex and intersectional, it’s made up of several marginalized, misunderstood communities that aren’t prevalent in Western culture. Growing up and coming out was complicated and alienating; I grew up in a country where being queer is a taboo subject, where the only word for being gay when I lived there was a negative word. It made finding myself feel like a monumental challenge: how do I accept who I am when my identity is in direct opposition to the very foundation of Middle Eastern culture and Coptic identity, and how do I deal with the shame it’ll bring my family? Growing up, I felt tremendous shame because being queer, Middle Eastern/North African, and Coptic felt like an illegitimate and confusing mix of identities. It just didn’t make sense, and no matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t find anyone like me to validate my experience. I remember a time period when I was 14 years old where I couldn’t look in a mirror without hating myself after failing to “fix” myself.
How involved are you in the Coptic community, and how do you navigate those spaces while having a public and queer platform?
I grew up in Abu Dhabi and moved to London Ontario in Canada when I was 11. The city was small and extremely white, so we felt this tremendous pressure to integrate well in the church as a way to maintain our language and culture. Finding myself, and coming to terms with my sexuality, was difficult because I felt a lot of pressure to fulfill what it means to be a Coptic man when I already knew that who I am fundamentally goes against what the church teaches. I led a double life growing up- I’d get changed into more colourful clothes when I left the house and made sure my parents never met my gay friends just in case. I was like an Egyptian Hannah Montana!
My relationship with Coptic people has evolved over the years. I remember going on a youth trip to visit a monastery near Las Vegas, and none of the other kids my age would talk to me. I was still in the closet at the time, but they all knew. As I grew up and fully embraced being gay online and in real life, a lot of the kids I grew up with from my church became more friendly and have even apologized for alienating me. They recognized how hard it is to be openly gay as Coptic and Middle Eastern, and have apologized for contributing negatively to that alienation.
This is what I want young queer Copts to know: even if we can’t change how the older generations see us, we do have some allies in the new, younger generation of Copts who recognize our human rights.
When did you first realize you are gay, and what impact did that have on you and your relationships?
We never talk about sex or sexuality in Egyptian or Coptic culture, so it made the journey toward understanding myself really difficult. I remember feeling like there was something wrong with me, and had a tremendous amount of fear and shame. I was afraid that who I am meant I’d lose my family; that it meant I’d embarrass them or that I’d fail them as a son who couldn’t grow up to be the good Coptic man they wanted me to be. I remember how powerful it was to come out for the first time to my girlfriend Emma, and realizing that she didn’t stop loving me because of who I am left a remarkable impression on me. Shortly after, I came out to my sisters, and their unconditional love and support really helped me flourish. They would cover for me as I lead a double life, and they’d take the blame instead of me if I was caught leaving makeup around the house or looking through my mom’s jewelry.
I saw on Twitter that it was hard for you to be around your family on Christmas a few months ago. How do you balance self-love with an unaccepting family?
Coming out was a process that took years, with every time feeling like a huge milestone, but it also got harder each time. I came out to myself first, which was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. Then it only got harder as I had to come out to a family and culture that I knew wouldn’t accept me. The thing is, I never came out to my family on purpose or because I wanted to. When I was 19, I started recreating celebrity photos because I found freedom in expressing myself through drag. Then Buzzfeed wrote about it and my Instagram went viral. It was the #1 story on Buzzfeed, and eventually every major news website in the world wrote about me, including an Egyptian blog that my dad follows on Facebook. That’s how my parents found out that I’m gay. When my extended family saw my photos, they made it clear they didn’t want me to be part of the family unless I was “fixed,” and decided to cut ties with my parents because of it. I was never ready to come out to them, it all just kind of happened so fast and I couldn’t control who knew and who didn’t.
I’m still working on my relationship with my parents and my family. My parents still haven’t accepted it, and my mom prays every day that I’m cured and hopes that somehow I will get over this phase and marry someone from the church and start a Coptic family. They’ve also externalized a lot of shame towards me, and it’s lead them to exclude me from events where we’ll be seeing other Coptic people or our family members. While this still affects me, I’ve learned to deal with it because I spent 3 years in the closet where I looked in the mirror every day and tried to unlearn the self-hatred projected onto me by our culture, and reminded myself everyday that I cannot change who I am.
What are your hopes for the Coptic community in the future? Do you have advice for other Coptic queers who are looking for support and a community that accepts them for who they are?
My hope for the Coptic community is that there will be growing acceptance and allyship, if not from the older members of the community, then from the new generation of Copts. I'm hopeful. What my journey has taught me so far is I have experienced oppression and bigotry that I live through all the time, but I also have access to privilege. Living in Canada has granted me the safety of knowing I can walk down the street without fearing for my life. I can’t imagine the strength it takes for queer people where I grew up to live as their authentic selves, especially because the default is bigotry, persecution, and misunderstanding. My community tells me that I’m brave for being so open and unapologetically queer, but the reality is that I have it easy comparatively- so what can I do with this privilege? As I work through finding my community, I’m hopeful that having my huge platform will allow me to bring awareness to these complex issues. The issues that queer Arabs face aren’t talked about enough, and I hope to elevate our voices, and create more access, openness, and space for our community within the larger context of LGBT+ issues. Ultimately, I’d like to create social and legislative change for our community in the Middle East.
I think the first step for us would be to increase our visibility, elevate and amplify our voices and experiences, and ensure that there's spaces for our stories to be told. We need the human rights violations that our queer communities face every day to receive coverage so more people know what's happening, and we need our allies to vocalize their discontent about the rampant homophobia and transphobia in our communities. Queer people with intersectional and marginalized identities face the challenge of trying to understand how these identities make sense together- a process that leaves so many of us feeling isolated and misunderstood. This is why providing platforms that elevate our voices will allow us to find a sense of community--and that is crucial to bring awareness to the obstacles and complex realities we face.
My advice for other queer Coptic people is don’t come out openly unless you know you’re safe to do so. Look for your Coptic family online first, reach out to us (platforms like this that weren’t around when I was coming out will genuinely be life changing for so many young queer Copts and hopefully make the coming out process less alienating). There are so few of us out there, but because of our shared experiences, I know we will be there for each other.