“Trans women are women too.” These words were written across a board carried at the International Women’s Day march in Beirut. It was not the first time that trans women took to the streets demonstrating among feminists, domestic workers and LGBT people. But it was the first time they demanded rights as a group.
In Lebanon, transgender people often walk in the shadows through fear of violence, judgment, or harassment, remaining invisible to the rest of society. But things are changing and step by step, they are beginning to speak up, calling for their rights and recognition. In mid-January 2016, a small but significant victory spurred on activists. A landmark ruling by an appeals court in Beirut decided in favour of a trans man, when a female judge confirmed the rights of the complainant to change his official papers, and granted him access to medical treatment and privacy. Although sex reassignment surgery is legal in Lebanon, this was the first time that a judgement was passed solidifying transgender people’s rights and taking psychological considerations into account.
“But the main problem is that people don’t understand what a trans person is”, Raja Farah, communications manager at the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World (IWSAW), told Euronews. “The society, their parents’ reaction, the police, all of it makes them feel uncomfortable or afraid. LGBT and feminist groups have included them in theory but not so much in practice, and they have no space or environment to really feel safe. Feeling isolated can lead these people to low self-esteem, and they don’t have a community to stand strong.”
Some trans activists are currently trying to change that by starting to organise the community towards demanding their own rights and needs. “We are a group of trans individuals involved in LGBT organisations in Beirut and we decided that we wanted to have our own organisation, led by us”, said Norma, a passionate activist and journalist. Support from LGBT rights organisation Helem, sexual health organisation Marsa, and judicial observatory Legal Agenda, has helped. “[They] helped with training, helping us gain visibility and ability to organise, but we face different daily life struggles. We have our own identity,” she said.
As Norma has only come out to a group of close friends, she mostly goes by her birth name and as male, which she was assigned at birth. “From what I heard and saw from my trans sisters in Lebanon, the struggle is real," she added. “We think about how to look for people not to judge or misgender us, we have to maintain a certain appearance in order to keep on living with our parents, go to university or get a job. We can change our gender, our name and even our sex but all of that is very expensive and barely accessible for most of us. It is very hard to follow a good hormone treatment with a doctor who won’t judge us, and to be able to pay for all of it, so there are a lot of incomplete transitions.” On top of this trans women live in fear of police arrests over article 523 of the Penal Code that criminalises sex work. Even when they are not prostitutes, they say it is still a regular occurrence.
Sasha Elijah is a 21-year-old openly trans woman. She hosts events in clubs, models and campaigns for transgender rights. At the end of last year, she was arrested over false accusations, she said. “I spent two weeks then one month in prison a few weeks apart," Sasha told Euronews. “The police officers strip you down, check your phone, deny you your human rights. You’re worth as much as a floor tile. No wonder why most trans women don’t go out during the day, or end up working in the night business: that’s the only space society leaves us. That’s not really a choice. In the end, we just want to have fun, study and have a life.”
Sasha always felt different, unable to fit into the societal norms that she was being pushed into “as a man”. Her parents arranged a visit to a doctor who agreed to putting her onto hormone replacement therapy and starting her transition.
At 16, she started going to gay clubs only to be rejected as a trans person. Isolated but wanting to make a change, she began modelling and became the first openly trans woman of the MENA region to walk the catwalk on an international TV channel. She was just 17. This attracted both local and then international media, and she saw a way for her to raise awareness of the transgender community in her own country.
“A lot changed in the matter of a few years," Sasha told Euronews. “Clubs became more open to trans people, my parents ended up understanding and accepting me, TV doesn’t mind hosting trans individuals and discuss their issues respectfully. I even have two friends going to university as trans women now and getting a degree! We realise now we can have a normal life, and I do believe greater changes are possible.”
As a performer and a hostess, she likes the glamour and the magic of the night, where she can act out each of her inner goddesses and be applauded for it. “For other trans people, I just want to tell them to go step by step, to create a safe zone of friends and family before coming out, have enough money, your own job and apartment, a strong base to hold you. It’s a process that is impossible to rush.”
For Norma, the road was longer and is still not over. When working at an LGBT organisation, she used to feel scared and disgusted by trans people. “I was 18, it was 2010, and I didn’t have the knowledge then," she told Euronews. “I come from a conservative Christian family where everything different is a sin, and although I knew deep down I was neither cis or gay, it took me a while to realise I was trans.” Her work on creating a community for trans men and women has set visibility as its first goal, through open appearance like during the International Women’s Day march.
Looking ahead she feel confident. “We are stronger now, we have the power and the ability to talk and represent ourselves. We are not victims but survivors, and we will do our best to fight for our rights.”