Gay and Arab: the struggle for rights & visibility

Mina Gerges (MG), originally from Egypt, talks to us about reconciling both his gay and Arab identities

London, UK – 13 March 2019


PTF: Being gay and Arab places you in two sometimes conflicting cultures. What was that like, and how did it affect your sexual identity journey?

MG: I was born in Egypt and grew up in Abu Dhabi, and I emigrated to Canada when I was 11. 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, so 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 mirror without hating myself after failing to “fix” myself.

PTF: Tell us a little bit about how you came out

MG: Coming out was a process that took years, with every time feeling like a huge milestone that got harder each time. I came out to myself first, which in itself 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 I was 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.

PTF: What sort of reception have you received from the Arab community? Given your public profile, I imagine you have to deal with criticism from time to time. How do you respond to negative online comments?

MG: I receive a lot of hate from the Arab community for publicly and unapologetically embracing my Middle Eastern, Coptic, and queer identities. It meant that growing up, I was actively alienated by non-queer members of the Arab community and the subject of homophobic jokes and bigoted, hate-fuelled slurs.

Online, it meant that receiving death threats via comments or DMs was my norm, and as recently as two weeks ago, being told to 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 that 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. I’ve been receiving growing support from both queer and non-queer members of the Arab community both online and in real-life, which make me optimistic for change.

PTF: You have used Instagram to speak about LGBT and other important issues. What role do you think social media plays in helping win LGBT+ acceptance within the Arab community?

MG: Social media has made me understand just how important it is to embrace my Middle Eastern, Coptic, and Queer identities. For so many of us, it’s become a tool of survival – the only way some of can feel safe to be ourselves or find others like us, and it’s become a vital tool to build our diaspora. The reality is, the representation of Middle Eastern and North African queer people has been lacking for too long; our stories have been drowned out by the bigotry and erasure we experience within our communities every day. Our stories are only told in the news within the context of the violence or government crackdowns that impact the most vulnerable people in our communities. So many of us never come out because it’s just easier for our families to not know, while those who do come out deal with violence and insurmountable alienation.

And that’s why our visibility and unapologetic self-expression is so essential – because loneliness, silence, hopelessness, and hiding have been part of our story for too long. So many of us will never be able to safely experience a sense of community unless it’s online, which makes our visibility online that much more essential – if not to create acceptance, at least to offer a sense of hope to younger queer Arabs all over the world.

PTF: Has your experience made you more cynical or hopeful regarding the state of LGBT rights in the Arab world?

MG: So far, my story has made me hopeful regarding the progress of LGBT rights in the Middle East and North Africa. 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 their authentic selves  when there isn’t any semblance of widespread understanding and when the default is bigotry, persecution, and misunderstanding. My community tells me I’m brave for being so open and unapologetically queer, but the reality is comparably I have it easy because I live in Canada – 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 we face that aren’t talked about enough, and in the process, elevate our voices, create more access, openness, and space for our community within the larger context of LGBT issues, and ultimately create social and legislative change for our community in the Middle East.

PTF: And finally, what do you feel should be the next step in advocating for LGBT visibility and acceptance within the Arab communities?

MG: I think the first step for us would be increasing our visibility, elevating and amplifying our voices and our experiences, and ensuring 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. That’s why providing platforms to elevate these voices and allow us to find a sense of community is crucial to bring awareness to the obstacles and complex realities we face.