Written by Naya Rajab and translated by Yaaser Al-Zayyat
They say trans people are an exaggerated version of homosexuals. We consider our trans identity the way in which we define our selves and identify.
They say we are masquerading. We see ourselves honoring the diversity of human societies.
Every trans person is vulnerable to harassment, violence, and oppression.
More violations? More stigma. Stigma is a powerful weapon when trying to undermine someone’s psychological well-being and self-esteem.
Trans people are in a constant struggle against social ailments, be it fanaticism, outbursts of rage, or even suicidal ideation.
People with certain gender identities will often find it difficult to express themselves and demand their rights, due to the fanaticism and intolerance vilifying difference in a patriarchal society, a society that refuses to see gender diversity as a legitimate expression of identity and emotions. Changing your gender expression is a basic human right and an integral part of personal freedoms. Society, however, looks at trans people as creatures, or tools, that exist only to allow others to vent their anger and sexual frustration. Inevitably, and with all these dynamics in place, we are lead to dissociate the outcome of the trans struggle from the process that leads to it, obscuring and invisibilizing the role and stereotypes forced upon trans people, as well as patriarchy’s role in reinforcing these stereotypes.
To transition is to take the decision to live your life and express yourself in accordance with the gender you are most comfortable with. It is, however, the most difficult decision you can ever make. Once taken, it can mean that you will be rejected by your family, lose your friends, be forced to interrupt your education and never get a degree, and be excluded from the job market. Now, the street is your home, and harassment and humiliation await you everywhere. Public spaces have become a space of perpetual struggle and suffering. That is not to mention being excluded from social services, as well as sexual and physical assaults. In these words, we can sum up the experience of trans people once they become visible in the public space.
At this point, we must ask ourselves, can social acceptance change anything in our lives? We can confidently say that it would make a huge difference for trans people who have no other choice but to abandon the gender that was imposed on them.
As far as we are concerned, there are other ways to achieve social justice, and the last thing we need is to spend our lives being perceived as abnormal people or as sex machines, a life that we all would agree is, so to speak, worse than death. The problem, however, is that we always manage to hold on to hope against all odds. We then ask ourselves, now what? That is if we assume we can resist the pressure and fight for our social and civil rights without revolting against all our familial and social relationships. We repeatedly tell ourselves that we need nothing and no one, we accept the terrible bargain we have struck, to earn your daily bread, to put a roof over your head, you must accept objectification, violence, and violations. In this article, we will attempt to illustrate how a life in dignity and respect is not only a revolutionary trajectory, it is in fact a revolution that is centered on human rights, personal freedoms, and bodily integrity of all humans, including all trans people.
Once we embark on this personal journey, public spaces become dangerous, we flee our homes and homelands but find no place where we can be safe. We are exploited and called names, but also many are raped and most cannot secure a job or a home.
Sam1 tells us, “I took a room in Nabaa.’2 Most of the time, I left the front door open because it was a shared house. My neighbors would take advantage of that, coming into the house and practicing disgusting forms of harassment and satisfying themselves sexually. In the streets, I am stalked, insulted, and mocked. The worst part is that I can do nothing about it. I can’t even speak up, I must stay silent and give them whatever they want. All this because I am a trans woman and my papers in Lebanon are not in order. One day, two men kidnapped me while I slept on the street, and once they found out I was trans they raped and beat me. After that, I decided to find myself a house even though I had no money. When I found a place, I couldn’t pay rent so the landlord started sleeping with me and raping me for not paying the rent. That is not to speak of taxi drivers, or coming home late at night. Whenever I am checking a place I intend to rent, I have to come up with a hundred story and a hundred strategy to avoid being harassed. When I refuse to sleep with people, they don’t let me rent the place. And that is but a fraction of what trans women face.”
Sam is a transwoman who survived numerous instances of discrimination and violence. Cismen3 see transwomen as deviant or an object to vent their sexual frustration and anger, to mistreat and insult whenever they please. Ciswomen, on the other hand, distrust them, regarding them as men trying to force their way into women spaces, or to claim their identity for sympathy. That is not to speak of homosexuals who regard trans people as their servants, and an exaggerated expression of their own selves, or as people with mental health issues, thereby reproducing the same stigma that they had previously suffered from.
From here we move to intimate relationships and finding the right partner. We are witnessing an increase in various forms of emotional, sexual, and financial exploitation under the guise of “love.” Some trans people came to Lebanon to escape repression and marginalization and seek asylum status from the United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This particularly vulnerable population is being exploited by partners, whether for the purpose of securing a travel opportunity, forcing them into sex work, or to even split the $200 stipend provided by the UNHCR, that is not to mention sexual exploitation that they suffer from in bed. According to Bahjat’s4 testimony, “She5 used to love me a lot. We met in Beirut and our relationship developed. I was in dire need for someone to be by my side, to support me. After a while, she proposed that we become partners officially, we dated and lived together. I had applied for refugee status at the UNHCR. In our intimate relationship, she was always cold and distant. I used to feel that she didn’t want to have sex with me, and when she did, it felt like she was raping me. I added her to my file at the UNHCR so that we could travel together. Eventually, the UNHCR called me and told me that my travel request was accepted. We were both ecstatic. Three months later we travelled, and the moment we arrived she slapped me and said: ‘You pervert, you think I actually loved you? I used you to travel and live in Lebanon. Don’t be disgusting.’ She broke up with me then and there, leaving the airport with a man that was waiting for her. She destroyed me and exploited my situation for her own self-interest.”
The question here is: Is this the price we must pay for accepting ourselves? Or is it the punishment for something we were born with?
Our struggle to access social services
We will always say, as loud as we can: No to marginalization, no to discrimination, no to our deprivation of our civil rights. We suffer just like any other person in society, if not more. We struggle for access to the most basic health and legal services, for employment and pension, as we struggle with personal status laws and/or the sponsorship system. And yet we persevere in our pursuit of these right, and to this end, we need the strength and solidarity of all associations, initiatives, and groups whose causes intersect with ours. We sometimes need to adopt radical stances in order to achieve social justice and to demand the services that are ours by right but of which we are deprived to the benefit of corrupt officials. We need to fight all forms of marginalization and violation if we want to ever improve our lives. We need to challenge the conventional wisdom which says that we are weak victims, that we cannot change anything. We must fight the resignation to allow for our social relations, our sexual lives, our existence, and our mental health to be undermined because we think ourselves too weak.
The trans revolution in Lebanon and the region
Once this shift in perspective takes place, we begin to see the future value and potential of creating a movement in which we demand our rights, beyond the limitations of guardianship. Only then can we move beyond our suffering and begin our activism. Every time we confront, raise our voices, and demand, we are stating that we refuse the violations, oppression, assault, and marginalization that we face on a daily basis, thereby rejecting the gender identity that was forced upon us at birth. Every time we demand our social, legal, and health rights, we are undermining the stereotypes that society assumes we conform to.
If we look at our reality now, we find a proliferation of initiatives and committees, local and regional, in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), that aim to work on transgender rights by people with diverse gender identities, thus rejecting guardianship over the trans movement. This movement came after the formation of LGBT organizations. We still remember the International Women's Day March on 11 March 2018 when many transwomen participated, rejecting marginalization and not being accepted as women. They raised their voices against patriarchy, chanting: “We are trans women and we stand against patriarchy.”6 That is not to mention the spaces we have carved up within the movement, and others we created, including the Trans Committee in Helem7 and Transat,8 a website published in Arabic by and for trans people. We can also point out Nedwa’s pre-conference which was dedicated to women and trans people. Finally, we can speak of MINATI,9 a trans- and non-binary-led organization in the MENA region. From this starting point, the movement grows and we find ourselves asking: Will the day ever come where we regret choosing this path or regret even contemplating it? Can we handle the challenges that await us? Are we ready to carry the burden and isolation that will come with it?
Why are these always the only options we find? What needs to change for the movement to take the struggle beyond these limitations?
Naya Rajab is a Palestinian-Syrian feminist writer and journalist who works in the field of gender and sexual diversity in the Middle East and North Africa. Naya was born in Homs, Syria, in 1996 and took part in the feminist coordination units of the Syrian revolution, in addition to her engagement in human right activism in general and the rights of minorities in the MENA region in specific. She graduated from the Faculty of Journalism and Media at the University of Damascus, and currently works for Helem, managing the hotline and emergency response as well as coordinating the Trans* committee. Naya also works with the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality as a project officer.
1 Transwoman living in Lebanon, interviewed on 13/5/2018.
2 Residential and conservative region in Beirut, Lebanon.
3 The term cis refers to individuals whose gender identity conforms to that assigned to them at birth.
4 Transman previously living in Lebanon, interviewed on 7/8/2018, the name was changed to protect the respondent's safety and privacy.
5 Bahjat’s previous partner.
9 MINATI is a group of trans activists from the MENA region, established on 26/9/2018 during the Nedwa conference which was held in Beirut, Lebanon.