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A 21-year-old trans woman's journey reflects shrinking social tolerance in Lebanon

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Lebanon is considered one of the most socially tolerant Arab nations and has long been a haven for LGBTQ people from elsewhere in the region. But its deep into an economic and political crisis now, and that makes it more difficult place to find refuge. NPR's Jane Arraf spoke to one transgender woman in Beirut about her harrowing journey there and onward.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZIPPING ZIPPER)

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Christine is packing for a new life in Australia. She isn't taking much. A few folded clothes in a battered suitcase.

CHRISTINE: And we're ready to go.

ARRAF: She's 21, a Kurdish Iraqi, and she says this reminds her of when she fled home. She hopes eventually she'll be able to come to grips with the last two years.

CHRISTINE: A 19-year-old being under so much pressure that decides to run away from their homeland and hide it from her family to a whole new, different country.

ARRAF: Christine says Lebanon opened its doors when she needed it most. She'd never been here before. A Kurdish speaker, she didn't even know Arabic.

CHRISTINE: When I asked myself, why am I here, I always get, like, super sad because it's all because I'm trans. I'm an individual born in the wrong body.

ARRAF: Christine is not using her birth name to avoid repercussions for her family in Iraq, where the LGBTQ community faces attacks from militias and even their own relatives. She has a slight build, delicate features and short, black, tousled hair. Her near-perfect English? She learned it from watching movies. She makes coffee over a hot plate in a kitchen with peeling white paint. Christine says when she was born, her father was thrilled at the thought his firstborn child was a boy. But then...

CHRISTINE: As a kid, I was always attracted to my mom's makeup, and I was attracted to, like, dolls and Barbie dolls and stuff.

ARRAF: She says because of that, her father, and sometimes her mother, would beat her. At school, she had no friends.

CHRISTINE: I couldn't, like, find anyone to talk to and feel safe and open up and tell them that I don't feel like a boy; I feel like a girl.

ARRAF: In college, Christine passed as a man. But after her mother suspected she had worn a dress to a private pride party...

CHRISTINE: She was like, because if that was the case, I would have either poisoned you myself, or I would have let your uncles take care of you, meaning that - my uncles killing me.

ARRAF: So she ran away to Lebanon, one of the few countries where Iraqis can go without a visa. But even here, the space is narrowing.

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HASSAN NASRALLAH: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, recently told followers that under Islamic law, gay people are killed.

DOUMIT AZZI: Lately we are facing a huge anti-queer, anti-gender campaign in Lebanon triggered by lots of religious figures.

ARRAF: Doumit Azzi is with Helem, an LGBTQ advocacy group in Lebanon.

AZZI: And this has very, very, very dangerous consequences on the queer individuals here.

ARRAF: He says trans individuals are the most vulnerable. In Beirut, Christine couldn't get a job. She became a sex worker so she wouldn't end up in the street. She says she wants to talk about it because it happens to a lot of trans people.

CHRISTINE: Always so scared. (Crying) It was just so painful and so traumatizing, so scary. And you're so disgusted, and you just want it to end so bad.

ARRAF: But after two years in Beirut, another door has opened - to Australia, where she's been given entry because of persecution due to her gender identity. In Australia, she wants to go back to college and save money for gender-affirming surgery. Two days after we meet, Christine leaves me a voice message from an airport stopover.

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CHRISTINE: It's a weird experience to, like, finally just see everyone and, you know, just feel like any other human being. Oh, my God, is this what I have missed for, like, 21 years?

ARRAF: Unlike so many, she's on her way to a new life, so far in so many ways from her old one, a life where she will finally feel safe to be who she is.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, Beirut.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.
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