Lebanon Pulse

‘I just want to be me’: Being transgender in Lebanon

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Article Summary
Despite the negativity surrounding the transgender community in Lebanon, social media influencer Gigi tries to use her online fame as a means to help other transgender individuals to express themselves.

Gigi is a 21-year-old transgender woman from Beirut who works as a social media influencer through her YouTube page and other social media accounts. Growing up, she faced many challenges, especially in school because of her more feminine appearance.

“I found it really hard,” she told Al-Monitor, “especially in school because I was bullied, and I was always told that I should act more manly because I was very feminine.”

When she was around 4, she started to realize that she was a woman, but it was not until she was 16 that she knew that she was transgender - and she told her family.

“When I first told them, they were kind of hesitant about it,” Gigi recalled, “They didn’t really understand when I was telling them what it was. But then they got used to it. And they kind of knew because I was very feminine, very flamboyant, so they kind of knew that I was different. But it took them time. They still do not fully understand it, but they’re on their way there. It’s taking them time.”

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A Lebanese family accepting and being supportive of their family member coming out as transgender is not the norm, however. Rasha Younes, Human Rights Watch's LGBT+ researcher for the Middle East and North Africa, said there are many cases in which a family member, usually male, will react violently toward the transgender family member or disown the person altogether.

“Most of the trans women that we interviewed experienced extreme violence,” Younes explained to Al-Monitor, “Physical violence by a male family member. including getting burned, chained, beaten, stabbed, raped. The violence is just extreme.”

Younes, citing Human Rights Watch’s September report on discrimination against transgender women in Lebanon, said transgender women in Lebanon face “systematic discrimination” in all facets of their lives.

“This discrimination often starts at home through violence from a family member, usually a male family member,” Younes explained, “and it usually extends to a trans women being kicked out of the home and, then, facing housing discrimination due to their economic precarity and not being able to find employment opportunities mainly because they lack official ID that matches their gender expression or identity. And that kind of created a problem across the board with housing discrimination, employment discrimination, also discrimination in the health sector, discrimination by landlords, discrimination by ordinary people. And at checkpoints, trans women don’t have the identification documents that match their gender expression and that’s because even though it is legal for them to change their name and gender marker on their ID, it’s very difficult, it’s very expensive.”

While Gigi was fortunate enough to have the support of her family, she was not as lucky when it came to her friends.

“When I first came out, most of my friends left me. They didn’t want to be friends with me anymore," she said, adding that she was very close to a couple of them "and I thought that we would be friends forever.”

Prior to transitioning, Gigi still presented as a male, but she was wearing makeup in an effort to incrementally express who she was. This was something that shocked many of the people in her community as they had never seen anyone like this before.

“I was still presenting as a boy, but I was wearing makeup,” Gigi said, “But, then, I started gradually presenting more feminine and more female. It was my escape. I wanted something to look more feminine about me, but I didn’t know what. I couldn’t dress up feminine. I couldn’t grow my hair out. But the makeup was like my escape and that’s how I got into it."

She said everyone was shocked "because even though I never identified as a boy, I was looking like a boy who was wearing makeup and that wasn’t something people were used to seeing." 

Then, two years later at 18, Gigi made the decision to transition. However, in the buildup to her transition, she faced an internal crisis and began questioning if this was really what she wanted.

In the end, Gigi decided that she wanted to go through with it and she explained that this was a decision that she does not regret for a second.

“I hated myself,” she said, “I would always look in the mirror and pick every single thing about me apart and say ‘I hate that and I hate that and I wish I could change that.’ I was always living in that self-harm, self-pity phase. But when I started to transition, I started looking in the mirror and saying, ‘OK. You’re fine. You’re good.’”

She added that her transition has helped her to have a more positive outlook on life and has helped her to smile more and feel more confident about herself.

Since her transition, she has come to realize how fetishized the transgender community is and how its members are viewed as being sexual objects rather than human beings even though most people in Lebanon avoid conversation about the community.

“People are like, ‘Yeah, it’s there, but we’re not going to talk about it,’” Gigi said. “But at the same time, they view trans, women in particular, as animals and as sex objects. They never view trans women as women; they view them as a man dressing up as a woman or a man pretending to be a woman. I get that a lot. Sometimes people see me and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, that’s a man!’ But I don’t look like a man, so why would you say that?”

Gigi has never been assaulted sexually or physically. However, Younes said those who have been assaulted are hesitant to report it to police because law enforcement officers are the “primary perpetrators of violence against them."

“A lot of the time, they are arrested and detained without a legal basis,” Younes said, “And when they are detained, they don’t have access to their rights. They can’t call a lawyer. They can’t get checked by a doctor. And they end up staying in detention way longer than is legally allowed.”

The mistreatment of transgender women by security forces is not something that is lost on Gigi, who has heard stories about their time in prison.

“If a trans woman goes to jail, first of all, they’re going to put her with the men,” Gigi said. “And, second, they’re going to treat her with disrespect. I hear stories. They’re going to have her get fully undressed. They’re going to assault her and sometimes rape her.”

Sometimes transgender women are arrested for being sex workers; Gigi said transgender women will do this because they are trying to pay for their hormones and surgeries.

“It’s hard if you don’t have the money because for the hormones and surgery and everything, they would never be provided by the government,” she said, “So you have to pay for the insurance companies and stuff like that. If you don’t have the resources, then you can’t do it. That’s why trans women gravitate toward sex work. Because they need to pay their bills. They need to get their hormones and get their surgeries. I’m privileged because I have my family. If I didn’t, then I would be screwed.”

In Lebanon, it is legal to be transgender and to transition from one sex to another. But Younes said that when refugees and asylum seekers come to the country with the hope that they will have the opportunity to express themselves more openly, they quickly discover that things are not much different in Lebanon than at home.

“At present, from the testimonies that we’ve collected and from the research that we’ve done, Lebanon is not any better than the neighboring countries,” Younes said. “In terms of the law, it’s legal to be trans and people should not be persecuted for their identities. But on the ground, a lot of the trans women that we spoke to, specifically the refugees and asylum seekers, said that when they compare their lives here with their lives back home, in Syria, Iraq, Saudi [Arabia], Yemen, they see it as just as bad or even worse.”

Despite the negativity surrounding the transgender community in Lebanon, Gigi is trying to use social media as a means to help other transgender individuals to express themselves. She has already had people thank her for these efforts.

“It means the world to me because I wish that I had someone like that, growing up, to look up to,” she exclaimed enthusiastically, “because I didn’t even know that the trans thing was a thing. I’m [now] able to make a change out there.”

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Found in: Human rights

Nicholas Frakes is a freelance journalist and photojournalist based in Lebanon. He covers the Middle East for multiple outlets, including the New Arab and Public Radio International. On Twitter: @nicfrakesjourno

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