At the age of twelve, I started on a long journey when I first realised, I feel I am gay. For me, this bought up a lot of challenges inside me. I come from Egypt, from a Muslim family and both of these are big challenges for a gay person. The Egyptian culture, and the community do not give any space to the human being to be in that place for being gay.
During my youth, I was struggling hard within myself and emerging sexuality. I was struggling with the community. I was especially struggling with my God. I felt so isolated and I even started hating myself. I was angry and I felt guilty. When I started to judge myself, I found myself struggling so hard to be better in the eyes of my culture and community, but mostly struggling to feel okay in myself.
I wanted to be okay. I really wanted to be accepted. I needed that. The journey I started on at this point was just a journey of oppressing, oppressing, oppressing myself at every turn. When I started at University where I studied education, I met some sort of counsellor who was studying psychology. He was always talking about the psychological effects of education. So, I said to myself, ‘maybe I’ll go and check with him this challenge and struggles I was feeling.’
In the same time, I was trying very hard to be a good Islamic man. I was doing all the Islamic rituals and the pilgrimage. Hajj, fasting and praying every day. I was trying to be a good human being. I met with the counsellor, I want to his clinic and after a couple of meetings, he told me, ‘it’s just an illusion. You just get married and everything will be great.’
I thought this was good news! I was glad! There is a way out.
This was a long time ago in Egypt. We had no internet, and no education about life. I thought, ‘yeah, maybe this guy was really aware of things.’ So I took his advice.
I agreed to a couple of arranged meetings with a woman and I got married at 27 years old. I discovered on the first night that this is not going to work. I decided I wanted to divorce her the second day. I felt I didn’t want to be in the marriage anymore.
This is a big thing in Egypt. She will feel ashamed and the community will condemn and judge her. When I considered this, I said to myself, ‘I will stay with her for one month and then I’ll find another excuse.’
When I was thinking this shortly after the marriage, I went to pray. I was very angry in the mosque. I was trying so hard to do everything I could possibly be doing to satisfy God, and he’s letting me down! It’s not working!
During that month when I was waiting until the divorce came through, I just made my relationship work mechanically. Ten days later, she because pregnant and the whole thing turned in a different direction. I ended up living with her for 12 years, and today I have three sons. During these 12 years, I was on a long journey of understanding who I am, who God is and how I am created. I constantly asked myself, ‘what is the way to be loving myself and accepted by God.’ That journey took me so long.
Three years after I began my marriage, when I was 30 years old, I started being part of Interfaith Dialogue Conferences funded by the United Nations. This meant I started travelling around Europe and many countries, meeting with other believers from other faiths and seeing different perspectives of life. It opened my mind and I got to meet so many different people. It was an open gate for me to study all the different religions. I was traveling and coming back to my family and telling them the stories and showing them the pictures. My sons were so excited. My wife was so worried. She started feeling I was getting lost.
Even though I was representing Islam in this work; I was also questioning my Muslim faith and was not 100% convinced. I felt good to be able to step out of Islam to see if there was another way to understand God. One time I was questioned by Egyptian police about my role, and thankfully, the Egyptian authorities knew this Interfaith Dialogue work was sanctioned by the United Nations.
While I was travelling around Europe, I was exploring more than the different religions. I would take the opportunity to explore myself and my attractions. While I was extremely eager to learn about all the different religions, I was trying to find a way to be accepted and to accept myself. For me, it was still an internal struggle. I knew it was against my Muslim faith and I felt unsure about if it was okay or not. Even now that I was married, and I was still doing all the religious rituals, deep down I still knew it was not working.
I threw myself into studying all the different religions I could find. I started with the Baha’i faith, then Hinduism, Buddhism, and finally Christianity. I was baptised as a Christian. At this time, I started feeling a little relieved. I thought, ‘I have a relationship with God, and now I can tell everyone everything.’
It was 2014. I was feeling seriously ill. Sweating, dizziness, coughing. Looking back, I know now, these are some symptoms of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome or an AIDS-defining illness. At that time, I didn’t know anything about HIV or AIDS. We are not educated about AIDS in Egypt and I knew no one with any awareness about it at that time.
At a certain point, my brother took me and admitted me to hospital. At that time, I was literally dying. The doctor diagnosed me with AIDS and told me, my sister and my brother together at the same moment. The only way to survive was to start medication. I was in a denial phase for a while, and then an angry phase for some time.
Here I was living with a new HIV diagnosis, and I had come out as gay. My mother eventually accepted me being gay, and then for a while she started thinking that HIV is a punishment from God because I am gay. It was even worse for her when I became Christian. She could handle knowing I am gay, but she couldn’t handle me converting to Christianity!
My wife couldn’t stand the idea that I had come out as Christian. She said, ‘you’re not Muslim and you can’t be living with me.’ So now I had to live by myself. Even though I had divorced my wife in 2010, we had a trial to continue but all failed. I understood where she is coming from, so I let her go in peace.
She even started worrying about my sons and the influence my sexuality might have on them. I felt deeply rejected by everyone around me, and at that time in Egypt deeply disrespected by everyone.
I started medication while all these things were happening together around me.
In all the time I was going to the Ministry of Health to get my medication, I met no one living with HIV in Egypt. There would be around 35 to 40 people waiting in a queue, and I knew we were all HIV positive, but no one talked to each other. This was a mixture of women and men and no one reached out to each other. Everyone was so closed up and scared in their struggle of accepting and understanding. The feeling of guilt was very strong. I even saw some people I knew, and we didn’t look into each other’s face or eyes. We just pretended like we didn’t know each other.
Two years later in 2016, the last thing that happened to me before I left Egypt was when I was arrested by the police for being Christian. They have spies in the church, and they report. The police arrested me based on carrying Christian books when I am carrying an ID that shows I am Egyptian Muslim. As a Muslim-dominated country, it’s almost impossible to change this ID if you choose to follow another faith. You are born to the Muslim faith, and you stick to it. The funny thing is if you are Christian converting to Islam, then everything is much easier.
Technically under the law, they can’t judge you for becoming Christian. The authorities in Egypt want to be able to say they’re very accepting and loving and all these things. Instead the police told a story that I was a sex worker stopping cars in the street to do sex work. The police will punish someone for doing something they can say is a very shameful thing and God hates, so they will feel justified to hate you as well.
I was blessed to be going to the Court after only two weeks where I was declared innocent. During these two weeks, my body developed resistance to the HIV medication I was taking, because while I was in prison, I didn’t have access to my treatment. After being released from prison, I felt deeply depressed and my mental situation was suffering. I went to the church and the Pastor said they couldn’t guarantee I was safe from being arrested again. After he said this, some people in the church started to help me apply for my Humanitarian Visa.
This process went so fast. My whole application was about being Christian from a Muslim family. The counsellor in the embassy in the interview asked me directly, ‘are you gay’. I answered, ‘where is this coming from?’ She said, ‘because this persecution is severe and it’s not only because you’re Christian’. Again I felt strongly blessed. This very aware and knowledgeable woman gave me approval for the Visa, even though the Embassy knew I was HIV positive. I found out later it is the policy of Australia to test for HIV even for Humanitarian Visas, and this could have gone against me.
Finally, I arrived in Australia in July 2017, knowing no one, and connected to no one. I was treated by medical personal who knew I was living with HIV. As they checked the state of my health and my blood results, they found my CD4 count was 16. I was taken directly to hospital for two weeks and I started a new medication. This combination was really good, and it wasn’t long before my viral load was undetectable, and my CD4 started to climb. Now in 2020, my CD4 is up to 500.
It was very encouraging to me to be in a country that is so welcoming. I felt more optimistic than sad. I wasn’t sad about leaving Egypt. There is no hope for me in Egypt. My main sadness was because I did not want to leave my sons. Even today, this is the main reason why I struggle with depression. To come to Australia, I faced a lot of loss. I faced going to an unknown place, where I didn’t know where I am going, how I will live, educate myself, how I would make money or find work. I had to let go all my money and let go all my family. I also had to let go my Degree in Agriculture, and my post-graduate Diploma in Education, because these certificates are not recognised here. Yet, very quickly I moved forward in my thinking and began to understand this is a big chance and it’s a new life starting.
Respect is something that so important to me. I think it is a basic need for all human beings. Back in Egypt, I didn’t feel okay with being disrespected or judged for things I didn’t choose. I don’t choose to be gay, or HIV positive or anything. It made me so angry to be disrespected or put down for things I didn’t make a choice about. Once I came to Australia, I discovered I am accepted as I am. This is an amazing blessing! With laws and rules that protect me from any disrespect or judgement it is so great!
One of the interesting things I remember when I had an introduction session to the Australia culture, the instructor said ‘here the rules are above culture and religion.’ That is a statement that made me very happy and I thought I will hold onto this. To me, that means rules and laws are respected more than whatever you believe in, or whatever your culture is. Some people are oppressive in believing their culture, religion or their thinking is better and everyone has to follow. So, now that the law is protecting me, I’m happy to be myself.
Another change I notice is in the medical area. Back in Egypt when I was diagnosed with AIDS and I was meeting with the doctors in the Ministry of Health, they were advising me from a judgemental religious standpoint. They said things like, ‘we all do things, and you must have done something terrible and God is not happy, so you need to repent and take the medication.’ It’s definitely different here in Australia. Now I can talk about my sexuality and how I am feeling. My doctors here don’t judge me, they just take the information and try to help me.
When I started treatment in Egypt, it’s was just one medication for everyone. I felt like the doctors didn’t really understand the treatment. I feel that the medication I first started on was too heavy. I had a lot of side-effects from it like sweating and nightmares. Today I have a combination of five medications together because I have this resistance issue with my treatment. I am getting so much better and I am really happy to be treated with respect.
When I first came to Australia, I began studying at TAFE. After that, I got work in a high school for a year. I began a Certificate IV in Youth Work and now I’m studying for my Diploma in Counselling. I’m also volunteering in many places.
Throughout all of my journey I realise I’ve taken huge risks. From a Muslim understanding and a believer’s understanding, thinking about religions outside Islam is a huge risk. It’s a huge risk to come out and say, ‘I’m gay’. It’s a huge risk to be baptised. It’s a huge risk to come to Australia.
My journey from that young Egyptian teenager, trying so hard to fit in and be accepted by his Muslim culture and community to who I am today, a proud Christian gay man living with HIV. I have been on a huge roller coaster ride where now I can finally bring these two aspects of my life, my religious side and my sexuality side, together.
My journey has been double, one out in the world and also inside me. I used to doubt myself so much in the beginning when I was using the strategy of trying to fit in. I followed my passion and my heart and now, I’m confident to go with what’s happening inside me.
Today I don’t feel I need to ‘fit in with anything’ now. I am myself. I am a unique person and I don’t need to be typically belonging to anything. I am free.