Transgender in Lebanon: 'A story of courage and determination'
BEIRUT - Ivy was born a boy, but dreamed of growing up to be a “beautiful woman”. Just like caterpillars turn into butterflies, her childish mind did not see why her dream should be an impossible one.
Her conservative family did not appreciate her craving for jewellery, shoes and purses. Every time she spent her pocket money on yet another female accessory, her father - or the “dictator,” - as she refers to him - cursed God and burst out in rage.
“He never let me be who I really was, so I spent my childhood pretending to be something else,” she says. Only when her parents divorced and Ivy was sent to live with her grandmother was she able to lower her guard.
The real breakthrough, though, came when she entered university. “I became friends with a group of gay people and we went clubbing,” she remembers. “They treated me like a woman and for the first time I could be who I really was, I could show my true colours.”
Today, Ivy avoids people’s eyes in the streets of one of Beirut’s Muslim quarters, where she lives. Her masculine features, hidden under layers of makeup and female clothes, sometimes attract unwanted attention. Her looks did not do her any favours when attempting to find a job in the business field she graduated in. “I stopped trying two years ago, no one takes me seriously,” she says.
At night, amidst the crowds of Beirut’s gay nightclub scene, she finds momentary solace.
But even there, she does not feel welcome within the gay community, composed typically of people who prefer to be discrete and conform to social norms – at least during the day.
While she hides her face behind long hair, reality still catches up with her every time she looks at herself in the mirror. “I can’t accept my body as a male and I don’t want to feel lost forever,” she says, “I want to be a full woman.”
Money buys (almost) anything in Lebanon
Sex reassignment surgery is available in Lebanon for those who can afford to pay its price – usually in the range of $20,000. Like many others, Ivy does not have the money to pay for the surgery and lacks the support network she would need to get through the difficult recovery period.
Those who are able to complete the painstaking operation can undertake legal proceedings to change their gender on their documentation. In mid-January this year, judge Janet Hanna of the Court of Appeals in Beirut granted a man the right to change gender and then proceed with the sex reassignment surgery.
Other court rulings have been more stringent, asking for proof that sexual realignment is complete and irreversible. However, obtaining a favourable ruling in Lebanon is often a matter of luck and money, rather than law.
“In Lebanon, court rulings do not set a precedent,” says Bertho Makso, executive director of the LGBT rights organisation Proud Lebanon. “It all depends on your luck with the judge or how much money you can spend to file an appeal.”
Once the transition process begins and the altered features do not match the picture on the documents anymore, people are often stuck in limbo and travelling or crossing Lebanon’s many checkpoints becomes a dangerous task.
“When the army suspects a person is gay, they go through their phones in search of pictures or dating apps,” says Makso. “Once they are taken to the police station they are often intimidated and forced to admit their sexual identity.”
Article 534 of the Lebanese constitution prohibits having sexual relations that “contradict the laws of nature”. As explained by Hasna Abd el-Rida, a lawyer with the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, no one should be arrested unless caught in the act, but this rule is not respected. “A confession is enough to charge a person under Article 534, and this is often extorted by policemen who ask aggressive personal questions they have no right to ask,” says Rida.
Alongside Proud Lebanon, she works on raising the awareness of their rights among the LGBT community. “Those who know the right thing to say are released within hours, others are kept there for days or weeks in arbitrary detention,” says Rida. Their release is also dependent on their ability to pay a fine – ranging from 200 to 400 Lebanese pounds (approximately $125 -$250) – which is particularly difficult for Syrian refugees.
Ivy remembers this experience with mixed feelings of pride and shame. “They tried to cut my hair as a way to deprive me of my female identity, but I told them that if they laid a finger on me I would sue them,” she grins. “Before leaving, one of them gave me his number. Ironic, uh?”
Lebanon is like Swiss cheese
While Lebanese society is still struggling to create an equal society – be it for gays, women, foreign workers or different religious groups – it is better off than many of its neighbours.
“Lebanon is not a uniform block,” says Proud Lebanon’s Bertho Makso, “it is more like Swiss cheese, with areas that are more open minded and others that are more conservative.”
But Lebanon’s government proved to be relatively forward thinking already in 1997, when it covered the full cost of the first sex reassignment surgery. Now its beneficiary, the belly dancer Antonella, is an internationally acclaimed celebrity. Alongside belly-dance shows, drag queen parties – less common nowadays – have long been a custom in Lebanon’s central district of downtown.
Gay pubs and discos are permitted and tolerated by the authorities, even though their location is kept a secret within the LGBT community to protect the identity of its guests. When a place is “outed” – meaning its location becomes known to the general public – it is closed and another one seems to mushroom somewhere else in the city.
Sasha Elijah, a Lebanese transgender model, says that for her it has been relatively easy to be accepted in Beirut’s show business industry. “I was with a friend who worked in TV and he told me I should be a model,” she remembers. “I told him it was impossible because I am transgender, but he insisted I pose wearing a bridal dress…can you imagine that?” she giggles.
She admits, however, that her life is easier than others because her transformation was natural rather than surgical. “I was born as a boy but then I developed breasts when I was a teenager,” she says. “My teachers did not know what to make of it. I used to be a boy and then I became a girl. My parents were concerned about what the neighbours would think and we ended up moving to another town.”
Her chromosomal disorder allowed her to grow up to match the gender she felt she was born to, but this did not come free of challenges. She was victim of cyber bullying by members of the gay community who – jealous of her femininity, as she explains it – drew moustaches on her Instagram pictures.
High suicide rate
Some gay men choose to take contraceptive pills to help them acquire female features through hormone intake, despite the fact that this is now known to trigger severe depression. However, transfeminine individuals are those facing the highest suicide risk, as highlighted by a study published in the International Journal of Transgenderism in April 2016.
According to Elijah, the problem behind this destructive behaviour is the feeling of rejection. “Transgender and transsexual people face the stigma of prostitution,” she says, adding that she was often asked how much she wanted in exchange for intercourse once she revealed her sexuality. “It is not my fault if people put on a wig and pretend to be a woman to hook up more clients. They are the ones who are sick, not me.”
Those who turn to Proud Lebanon for help cite the lack of self worth - caused by stigma and lack of job opportunities - as the reason for which they fulfilled the prophecy and turned to prostitution.
In her TV appearances, Elijah tries to use her relatively accepted position to sensitise public opinion as to the challenges faced by transgender and transsexual individuals, but she refuses to be portrayed as a victim. “It is true that we struggle, but I don’t want our story to be a sad one,” she says. “It is a story of courage and determination.”