Coptic Queer Stories is an online magazine covering gender, sexuality, race, and religion that aims to record the experiences of Coptic LGBTQ+ individuals in the diaspora. Our mission is to share and preserve stories, to create a meeting space for queers, and to broaden the notion of Coptic identity.
As a religious institution, the Coptic Church overtly condemns everyone in the LGBTQ+ spectrum. Like with many other Christian denominations, queerness is considered sinful, unnatural, and an abomination to the laws of humanity. This opinion is not that groundbreaking, really. It is consistent with many other conservative religious groups in North Africa, and around the world. In recent years, the political implications of this position were evident in Australia and North America, where the Coptic pope encouraged congregants to vote against same-sex marriage reforms. In Egypt, he supports the government’s (read military’s) anti-gay crackdown. In addition, the Church organized a public conference in 2017 titled “Volcano of Homosexuality,” in the hopes of treating homosexuality like a physical disease. Such actions reflect long-held beliefs that heterosexuality must be the requisite moral choice of all Coptic people, requiring youth who do not conform to undergo harmful conversion therapies, isolation, and even exile.
Culture Informs Culture
Not all Copts agree with such notions. Some risk their lives to voice their opinions against queer discrimination in Egypt. Particularly since the Arab Spring, progressives have been fighting against historical oppression, trying to claw their way out of dated orthodox values and marginalization. It would be inaccurate to say that all Copts (or Egyptians for that matter) are behind the times; that they are all conservative traditionalist who hate queer people. As more LGBTQ+ Copts come forward with their stories, it’s clear that the opposite is true.
Here’s the thing: culture is not static. It is influenced by many factors, including surrounding traditions, histories, geographies, wars, and politics. Many Copts in the U.S. continue to preserve their traditions, perhaps as a direct result of displacement in the West. Based on my upbringing, a clear propensity among family and friends was to choose insularity as a means to preserve traditional values. However, immigrant cultures evolve and are not reproductions of a homeland rooted in memory. As Coptic cultures in Egypt and around the world evolve, new iterations are emerging. For instance, Exodus Youth Worx in Australia helps youth who are facing homelessness, drug and alcohol dependency, exclusion from school, and familial neglect. In addition, Mina Gerges is a model who challenges traditional male beauty standards and candidly explores his struggles with eating disorders. Such examples point to the fact that a relatively new first and second generation in the diaspora is trying to make sense of their fractured ancestral lands, language, and culture.
Through intimate oral histories, Coptic Queer Stories helps uncover how migration affects culture, and how community may be inspired or restrained by tradition. I believe these unheard and unique perspectives only make Coptic cultures richer, and perhaps healthier, as we move toward inclusivity. We host interviews that explore the intersection of identity, to investigate the modes in which individuals navigate religious values, internal conflicts, and social mores. Can they be separated? How do people reconcile their LGBTQ+ identity within the context of Orthodoxy? How do we construct community when some members might be excluded from a physical meeting place? How do we develop meaningful relationships with people who have never met a queer person?
The idea for starting the magazine emerged after several deaths in my Coptic community, including a queer 16-year-old boy’s suicide in late 2017. An auntie that was close to him told me that he was a quiet and sweet kid. She knew how isolated he felt among his peers and family before he ended his life. His immediate family alleged that he died in a car accident, but a coroner’s report found by one of his peers revealed information which conflicted with his family’s account. This peer made the report public, and yet Sunday school teachers, the local priest, and the congregation maintained that his death was accidental. His death, and the events which followed, reminded me of what I went through as a teenager. I remember the pain of navigating strict gender roles, toxic masculinity, social pressure, homophobia, colorism, isolation, shame, and body dysmorphia. It’s a lot to handle on your own!
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among U.S. youth, and suicide rates among LGBTQ+ adolescents is three times higher than the general population . Suicidal ideation and mental health issues among LGBTQ+ youth have been attributed to isolation and exclusion, conflict with family or friends, stigma, a thwarted sense of belonging, threats of violence, institutional discrimination, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, high risk sexual behavior, maladaptive coping strategies, and more . Because both suicide and homosexuality are mortal sins in the eyes of the Coptic Church, families of individuals who die by suicide typically bury their loved ones in secrecy and shame. This is not the first denial of suicide in the Coptic LGBTQ+ community that I am aware of. I’m certain that without speaking out against such secrecy and shame, this will continue to negatively affect the lives of more Coptic LGBTQ+ individuals. How can we begin to change the status quo if we don’t confront the repercussions of stigmatization? The magazine’s goal is to provide unabashed and unfiltered representations of Coptic LGBTQ+ sex, sexuality, gender, mental health issues, spirituality, and more.
By late 2018, the urgency and significance of Coptic Queer Stories became unavoidable. Initially, a friend and I were considering developing a platform that would explore these topics through visual art and creative writing, but we ended up going in different directions. I became more interested in amplifying the stories and lives of Coptic LGBTQ+ individuals who are living glorious queer lives every day, whether they’re fighting to dismiss, find, or keep a Coptic community.
What Comes Next
While there has historically been a lot of difficulty in elevating Coptic LGBTQ+ voices due to a number of reasons, social media has played a significant role in how we share our lives and experiences with others in the diaspora. There are so many amazing Coptic queers all around the world doing fantastic work, and their voices offer a counter-narrative to the unfortunate continued anti-gay crackdown in Egypt. Still in full effect, in January 2019 an Egyptian court sentenced TV journalist Mohammed Al-Gheiti to 12 months in jail for “promoting homosexuality and contempt of religion” after he interviewed a gay man on his show. He was fined 3,000 pounds and was sentenced to one year of surveillance after finishing prison time.
I know it’s a luxury to write this article. I know it’s a privilege when someone tells me, “If you don’t like what the church says, forget it.” Sometimes, it can be that simple. Usually, it isn’t. Personally, I know what you give up when you take that route. It’s easy to think that a church is just a building, or a performance that you attend once a week. Anyone raised in an ethno-religious community will tell you that it’s more complicated than that. Coptic Orthodoxy can bleed into every part of your life, and at times the church is our mother, father, uncle, friends, neighbors, and internalized voices.
My hope is that people don’t see Coptic Queer Stories as an opposition to the Church, but merely an additional voice of the Coptic experience. While many LGBTQ+ people feel oppressed by the Coptic community, I know there is hope for meaningful dialogue and mutual respect within certain sub-groups. I know there are many congregants who see past the Orthodox dichotomy of good and evil. The strength of Coptic Queer Stories, and of other budding initiatives, is that LGBTQ+ SWANA voices are finally given a space to exist . We specifically intend to amplify queer voices which continue to expand the idea of what it means to be Coptic because we believe that being Coptic is not explicitly defined by institutional creeds, but that you can have a Coptic identity and culture as it relates to customs, home, family, love, spiritual rituals, atheism, secularism, ancestral foods, folklore, and more. I hope that Coptic Queer Stories helps to break open the idea of Coptic homogeneity, and acts to affirm each and every individual’s experience. We’ve already begun creating an invaluable archive for future Coptic LGBTQ+ generations, and we have so much more to uncover.
Egypt Migrations is always looking for people to contribute to our digital initiatives. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to join or support the organization.
Mena Kamel is a writer and visual artist from the Mojave Desert in Southern California. His work explores identity, sex, mainstream language, codified power relationships, and the notion of home. He’s also an animal behavior consultant and works in applied behavior and animal welfare education. In his spare time, he’s a crisis counselor at a suicide hotline, edits copy for a media company, and interviews people all over the world for Coptic Queer Stories.
 SWANA stands for Southwest Asian and North African; it’s a non-Eurocentric description of the diverse area of the world commonly known as the Middle East and North Africa.
 Marshal, M.P., Dietz, L.J., Friedman, M.S., Stall, R., Smith, H.A., McGinley, J. Thoma, B.C., Murray, P.J., D’Augelli, A.R., & Brent, D.A. (2011). Suicidality and depression disparities between sexual minority and heterosexual youth: a meta-analytic review. Journal of Adolescent Health, 49(2), 115-123 and Johnson, R.J., Oxendine, S., Taub, D.J., & J. Roberston. (2013). Suicide prevention for LGBT students. New Directions for Student Services, 141, 55-69.