In one word, how would you describe your relationship with Coptic Orthodoxy?
What did it mean to grow up in a Coptic home?
I grew up in a household that started off as Coptic Orthodox and always maintained aspects of it (celebrating feasts and holidays), but my parents started going to a Coptic Protestant church when I was young. They were among the wave of Egyptian immigrants to the US in the late 1960s, and found the Coptic Orthodox church and congregation to be rather classist. My parents are working class people, and those in the church they attended (which happens to be the first Coptic church established in California, St. Mark's in Los Angeles), were not helpful or kind to them. So they felt hurt, and I remember being confused about our religious community because it seemed we had been cast away. My grandmother, who lived with us for a while, was very devoted to the Orthodox church and I learned to love it through her. I did not understand Coptic Orthodoxy until I pursued it more deeply later; my mother returned to the church as well. All that to say, it was a mixed and painful experience for my parents and a confusing one for me.
When did you first realize you are LGBT+, and what impact did that have on you?
I started to have an idea in high school, and really started identifying as queer around 20. It was, of course, a secret I kept from my family at first so that was painful and confusing. At the same time, I felt liberated and many things that were confusing came into focus. I moved out of my parent’s home the day I turned 18 because I knew that I could not find my true self living with my parent’s conservatism. Of course they were very unhappy about this, but I feel that if I had not moved out, it would have taken me much longer to understand myself.
Are you out, or is it important to you to come out? Do you mind sharing your coming out story or hurdles to coming out?I am not out to my parents, though I have good reason to believe they know and just have never said anything directly. They never ask me about getting married or pry into my personal life. My mama once told me that her hairdresser's mom doesn't talk to her son because he's gay, and was incredulous that a mother would be that way; it was clear what she was telling me. I came out to my siblings one by one (four of them), and three said they knew and accepted me fully, one had a strange reaction and has used it against me in the past; they even recently outed me to my mom. It is not important to me that I come out to my parents, aunts or uncles. My siblings and cousins know, and that is enough for me. I used to feel like there was a void in me because they didn't know, but as I got older, I realized that it is not worth it and that they actually already know. I am closest to my parents and they express love and appreciation for me. Coming out is clearly not for everyone.
Are you involved in a Coptic community?
I have no involvement with the Coptic community right now. I have not be attending services, and the only real Coptic community I have are my few Coptic friends.
How do you reconcile Coptic Orthodoxy with also having a queer identity?
Honestly, it is the church that needs to reconcile it. I do not see my spiritual roots and my queer identity as being at odds. I think the church has evolved away from our loving and mystical spirituality, to a more rigid and patriarchal/homophobic/misogynistic one due to imperialism, politics, power and corruption. Given this, yes, there is some navigating I have to do in traditional Coptic circles but I tend to avoid them for a number of reasons anyhow, one reason being homophobia.
What are your hopes for the Coptic community in the future?
I hope that the Coptic community can one day truly acknowledge and address its oppression of its own through the replication of patriarchy, homophobia, classism, and other systems of oppression. I deeply hope that the Coptic community can break the silence and remove the stigmas about mental health in our community. Our family has known many Copts who struggle with mental health challenges, only to hear from the church that they just need to come to church, pray, stop doing certain things or being certain ways. We cannot address the real lived experiences of Copts in the US by pretending we just need to be good Copts. I would also like to see the community unilaterally condemn the Islamophobia in our church; it is incredibly rampant and used to solicit sympathy for our cause in Egypt, which is dangerous and wrong in this very Islamophobic world. One thing we can learn from queer Arab communities (for the record, I do not consider myself ethnically Arab, only politically and partially culturally) is that continuing to tell our stories and claim all of our identities are the best ways to increase our visibility as queer Copts.
What advice would you give to young queer Copts who are looking for support and a community that accepts them for who they are?
I would tell them to know that there are many other queer Copts out there, and to be open when they meet them. Be open to examining their own internalizations (I have had the experience of other queer Copts running away in fear), seek out stories of other queer communities of color who have broken the silence and built cohesive queer identities and communities, join affinity groups that are queer or queer-positive, and never feel that you have to run away from any part of yourself to be accepted.