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Gender dysphoria during war: A transgender Yemeni man speaks out

After fleeing Yemen to escape the civil war, Yahyia al-Zandani, a 23-year-old Yemeni transgender male, has faced challenges due to prejudices from family and society.

Yemen is a conservative Arab state where homosexuality is taboo and is condemned under the country’s strong Islamic beliefs. Being transgender is viewed as equivalent to practicing homosexuality under the legal system. The country’s conservative society has no place for gays — the law sees homosexuality as a crime punishable by death. 

Extremists take things into their own hands, killing gays without facing punishment. Article 264 of the 1994 Yemen Penal Code states that for gay sex, “unmarried men shall be punished with 100 lashes of the whip or a maximum of one year of imprisonment, married men with death by stoning. Homosexuality between women is defined as sexual stimulation by rubbing. The penalty for premeditated commission shall be up to three years of imprisonment; where the offense has been committed under duress, the perpetrator shall be punishable with up to seven years detention.” 

Yahyia al-Zandani, a 23-year-old Yemeni transgender male, lived most of his life in the capital Sanaa before being forced to leave in May 2015 because of the ongoing civil war. 

Speaking to Al-Monitor via Skype, Zandani said that while he has felt discomfort with his birth gender since he was a child, it was only in secondary school that he “realized [his] situation.” This made him “revolt,” and he “decided not to be submissive to the family and community will.”

"Government, religion and society are altogether against LGBTQ people, [which] puts me and hundreds of others at risk for their lives," Zandani said.

Zandani was born in Moscow, Russia, in 1997. Three years later, the family moved to Sanaa. For most of his childhood, he was forced to grow up under semi-house arrest — “My family did not like my masculine looks,” he said.

In May 2015, when the war broke out in Yemen and the security situation had deteriorated to the point where the family no longer felt safe, they moved to the nearest, relatively safe haven — Hargeisa, in Somaliland. His father, meanwhile, stayed in Yemen.

It would take three years before he saw Yemen again. In May 2018, he returned to be with his father, thinking that he would protect him.

“In early 2020, I fled Yemen again when some of my friends helped me with some money and activists from the LGBTQ community on Twitter helped me get a passport issued and travel,” Zandani said.

Growing up in a nonsecular society where gender roles are subject to religious bias, one has an even more difficult time coming to terms with life as a transgender person. 

According to Zandani, his parents treated him harshly, abusing him physically and telling him he was crazy. His mother placed him in a clinic in Hargeisa for two months to undergo treatment for “psychosocial disabilities.” During those two months, his parents used his captivity to obtain legal guardianship status from the local courts, which they used to stop him from traveling outside the country.

When he came home unchanged he said that he was severely beaten by his parents in an attempt to coerce him to accept an engagement from a young man. At that time, he was 15 years old and everyone was considering him a girl. His family thought marrying him off was the solution.

He also said his parents forced him to take female hormones to make him appear more feminine. “I was forced to wear women’s clothing in order to fulfill their desires, but I was disappointed when I wore these clothes — it did not reflect my identity,” he added.

Zandani said that life as a transgender man has been full of suffering. “I was forced to live anonymously to complete my education. I reached the fourth year in medical studies in college, but I stopped my education after facing difficulties in the university in Somaliland,” he said, noting that “professors sexually harassed me and students told me that I did not deserve to continue [my] studies.”

Facing this persecution at home and in public nearly drove him to suicide, but “I talked myself out of it. Instead I decided that I would live the life that I deserve.” 

Using social media outlets, in particular Twitter, was the only way to start his journey to depart home. 

“My father refused to think of me as anything but a girl, and I broke the family’s honor by posting photos on social media. This is something that is not allowed for women to do in a conservative country like Yemen,” he noted. 

Zandani’s suffering was not only caused by his family, but also by the Houthi militias, after his father asked the group to find his son.

“I received multiple death threats from the Houthis, making me flee home immediately. Most of the threats I got were from Houthis via WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter — and I knew who they were from their personal profiles, names and their clan names,” he said.

In 1992, the World Health Organization removed homosexuality and gender dysphoria from the International Classification of Diseases.

He added, “Due to the huge doses of antiseptics I was given a part of me died. I do not think I will ever recover — my memory is not the same, I am not the same, my family killed my dream of completing medical study.”

His plan to escape home was very difficult as he did not have resources to cover his travel costs. On Jan. 20, Zandani's friend Layla Picard suggested he use the GoFundMe platform to collect money to accomplish his journey.

“Through Twitter I was able to escape Yemen to an Arab country,” which he asked not be named for security concerns. He said that comments from social media users boosted his confidence, motivating him “to reveal what happened to me and advocate for my rights in other Arab LGBTQ communities in general and in Yemen in particular.”

“Through funding I made around $1,500, which helped me to leave Yemen,” he added.

Despite fleeing his home, Zandani still lives in fear that the Houthis could arrest him at any time, “as my family has good connections abroad.” He said he could never live freely in Yemen, especially as some people still believe LGBTQ people are ill.

“Honor killing cases are a well-known custom in our country and certainly every Yemeni has heard about it,” he noted, but he laments the lack of awareness of the issues facing members of the LGBTQ community.

“The Yemeni government should protect LGBTQ people and stop using the laws to condemn transgender individuals. We are normal, not ill,” he said.

After arriving in his current host country, the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in him being stuck at home, “My plans to relocate to a safer place were delayed until further notice due to the pandemic. I still depend on the GoFundMe website to survive. I face very hard times amid the pandemic.”

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