When 16-year-old Kerolos Saleib confided in his church’s priest that he was gay, he didn’t expect that it would set off a chain of events that would leave him homeless.
Saleib (who formerly worked for Pink Triangle Press, Xtra’s publisher) knew he was gay from childhood; his family had moved to Canada from Egypt when he was three years old, and he lived in Montreal and Burlington as a child. It wasn’t until his early teens that he learned, from Sunday school in his new home city of Mississauga, that there was a word for it, and that being this word was an abomination that went against the religion that he relied on for sanctuary from his peers. The Coptic Orthodox Christian church that he attended with his family was Saleib’s safe haven; it was a place he visited every day.
During confession, Saleib told the priest he was gay in the hopes that he would get some clarity and validation that he was doing nothing wrong. Instead, the priest told him that he was no longer welcome at activities, events or services at the church, despite his devotion. He ordered Saleib to tell his parents about his sexuality but he delayed, fearful of their reaction. While Saleib was on a trip to Niagara Falls, the priest visited his family home and told his parents that he was gay, then encouraged them to kick their son out of the house — and they did.
“I got bullied in high school, elementary school — my whole life has been bullied and the only safe places for me were church and home, and all of a sudden those places were not safe for me so I felt rejected, unwanted, unloved,” Saleib says. “Like, I felt really gross like I didn’t know who I am anymore. I had no one so that turned into self-destructive behaviour.”
Saleib had fast-tracked through high school, and had started at York University by the time he got kicked out. He moved onto the school’s residence, and after finishing his degree, he started working for The Walrus magazine doing advertising sales. He then found a job with a company in Calgary that needed an advertising sales agent in Montreal, and in 2008, he made the move.
It was there that he discovered a version of the gay scene by way of circuit parties and designer drugs. He was purchasing hundreds of dollars’ worth of drugs — everything from ketamine to cocaine every weekend — to share with new people he met, hoping to fit in.
“I was escaping,” he says. “I hated anything religion-related. I refused to go to church . . . I started hating the concept of a God.”
His spending got out of control and in order to keep up, Saleib began escorting. He was eventually evicted because he couldn’t make the rent. He finally ended up homeless on the streets of Montreal.
“[Drug addiction is] a very common story; it’s repetitive behaviour that I’m noticing amongst others as well, that are coming in for help or reaching out within the LGBTQ community,” he says. “Especially with gay men and the transgender community.”
Saleib knew he had hit rock bottom, and wanted to turn his life around. In 2010, he left Montreal and spent three months in a monastery in Kenya with his cousin’s support, who was practising in the country as a priest. While in the monastery, Saleib reflected on the root of the self-destructive behaviour that got him there in the first place. “I learned it was because of rejection — that loneliness, that craving to be wanted and needed — that I had to overcome and be happy just being with myself and accepting who I am.”
He ended up staying in Africa (he lived in both Kenya and Tanzania) for two and a half years before moving to Washington, DC, where he was ordained as an Old Catholic priest. It was a milestone event: he had reconciled his sexuality as a gay man with religion.
“I have my own relationship with my religion,” he says. “Not the one that was dictated to me at the pulpits, because what’s been dictated to me at the pulpits is based on their interpretation.”
Upon returning to Ontario in 2013, he decided not to practice under any church because he didn’t want to be restricted in helping people based on religious background. He had a bigger calling.
“Priests who do proper work, and so on, don’t necessarily have to wear the collar; don’t necessary have to be under a church to make a difference in the world,” he says. “And that’s when Arabian Knights was born.”
Founded in February 2016, Arabian Knights LGBTQ is a not-for-profit organization in Toronto that offers a safe space for queer Middle Eastern folks to be themselves and experience their culture through monthly parties held at places like Club 120 and Black Eagle.
The goal is to help people who are in the process of finding themselves — a support he wish had been offered to him when he was younger. The parties are a celebration of culture with a mix of Middle Eastern-infused house music and dance pop and a variety of shows such as drag and belly dancing. Some parties have themes, like Sultan’s Servant, with oil wrestling–inspired activities and a monthly attendance of up to 300 people.
More than a monthly party, the events are also fundraisers for Arabian Knights LGBTQ’s other work. The organization provides counselling support for LGBT Middle Eastern people, whether they need financial assistance for English courses, references for lawyers, particularly for refugees, or help accepting their faith and sexuality, being honest with themselves and their families, and integrating within the Toronto community. The organization also offers HIV/AIDS education and prevention resources.
Saleib says it’s possible for queer Middle Eastern people to reconcile with their religious identity, even when their community may reject them because of their sexuality.
“For somebody to do that, first of all, they need to find out who they are and accept who they are — the first step — and accept the fact that not everyone you meet is going to love you or care for you but you need to live your life for yourself,” he says.
For Arab and Middle Eastern queers, shame and isolation can come from many of the communities they are a part of — religious, cultural, and even from fellow LGBT people. With the refugee crisis in Syria, President Donald Trump’s ban on countries with Muslim-majority populations and ongoing terrorist attacks by radical groups who claim it’s in the name of Islam, queer Middle Easterners bear the brunt of many societal anxieties. Saleib tells me that xenophobia and Islamophobia are on the rise in the LGBT community and the result is a subset of people running away from the negative image of Arabs and Muslims that is propagated through stereotypes reproduced in the media. As a result, he says, many will attempt to be something they’re not in an effort to fit in.
“The important thing that I always remind people is living your life in honesty is better than dishonesty because at the end of the day it always reveals itself,” he says.
Saleib has since forgiven his family for everything that happened. He says he understands that that their beliefs are all they know. He recently re-connected with them again, calling the experience “amazing.”
“Sometimes we go through a dark side of our lives but there’s the light at the end of the tunnel as cliché as this is,” Saleib says. “But the dark side that we go through is part of who we are; part of what made us who we are. So once you overcome that, you could be a leader. You could be a role model.”