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Lebanon: Trans model breaks taboos

Trans model Sasha Elijah is on a mission to challenge the stigma and taboo of being transgender in the Middle East.

Trans model Sasha Elijah (Heba Kanso photo courtesy of Thomson Reuters Foundation)
Lebanese trans model Sasha Elijah (Heba Kanso photo courtesy of Thomson Reuters Foundation)

Thomson Reuters Foundation reports:

Beyond glitz and glamor, Lebanese transgender model breaks taboos

In a central Beirut cafe, transgender model Sasha Elijah flips open a paper fan and whips out her new ice cream cone-shaped high-heeled shoes for a potential drag costume.

It is a deliberately provocative display of femininity from Sasha, who is on a mission to challenge the stigma and taboo of being transgender in the Middle East through her modeling, drag shows and social media.

Click this image to read the story of trans model Veso Oke of Ghana and Nigeria.
Click this image to read the story of trans model Veso Oke of Ghana and Nigeria.

[Editor’s note: Sasha has some similarities to Veso Oke, a trans model in Ghana whose story is told in the article “Trans model: ‘I fight every day to look more feminine’ “]

The 21-year-old’s costumes are as colorful and complex as the journey that led to her coming out as Sasha in Lebanon, a seemingly progressive society that she says remains deeply rooted in religious and political conservatism.

“I created Sasha so I can face society … I had to elevate myself, not just the physical self, but with my mindset,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in the capital Beirut.

“If I was still the person who I was six years ago, I couldn’t survive, and I couldn’t walk within the society,” said Sasha, who battled low self-confidence and depression before coming out as transgender.

Lebanon will on Saturday [May 12] launch its second gay pride week in Beirut, after breaking new ground last year by becoming the first Arab country to hold such an event.

[Editor’s note: In retrospect, that description sounds much too optimistic. Police arrested Hadi Damien, the organizer of Beirut Pride. He canceled future events in exchange for his freedom.]

While the gay rights movement has steadily grown in Beirut, homosexual acts are still punishable by up to a year in prison under Lebanese law – although a judge last year threw that into question when he said homosexuality was not a crime.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people face persecution in many countries in the region, where some risk fines, jail and even death. Social exclusion and abuse are common.

Homosexuality is not explicitly criminalized in Egypt, but LGBT people have long been targeted under laws on debauchery.

Dozens of people were detained in a recent crackdown in Egypt when fans attending a rock concert raised a rainbow flag in a rare show of public support for LGBT rights in the conservative Muslim country.

Ameen Rhayem, representative of the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality (AFE) which campaigns for gender and LGBT rights, said many in Lebanon still struggled to accept difference.

“Lebanon is better than Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. But people think life in Lebanon for the LGBT community is easy, but to be honest it is not,” said Rhayem.

“Yes, Lebanon is more visible with the LGBT community than anybody else in the region, but there are still attacks and arrests of trans people in Lebanon.”

NO MORE FEAR

Growing up, Sasha says she used to play with her sisters’ make-up and dress up in girls’ clothes. From an early age, she knew she was different from other children.

She remembers that time fondly, but started to struggle in her early teens when she came out to her devoutly Christian family, who opposed her desire to undergo hormone therapy.

Scene from a photo shoot for Lebanese trans model Sasha Elijah (Heba Kanso photo courtesy of Thomson Reuters Foundation)
Scene from a photo shoot for Lebanese trans model Sasha Elijah (Heba Kanso photo courtesy of Thomson Reuters Foundation)

She did so anyway, a decision she says she does not regret, even though it took years to mend the relationship with her parents.

“It was a breakthrough moment for me when I first started to accept myself officially, because I had no more fear from my parents, no more fear from society,” she said.

From then on, Sasha went public with her new identity, doing fashion shows, drag performances and television appearances in which she talked about being transgender.

She designs every costume for her performances herself, basing them on her emotions – some are dark colored with feathers, while others are bright and feature flowers, seashells and sequins.

Her outspokenness is her form of activism, which she hopes will empower transgender people in the Middle East to be who they want to be, and help improve society’s understanding of the issues they face.

GOING PUBLIC

“Behind all the glamor and glitter of modeling and drag shows is just a person trying to live and survive,” said Sasha.

“Sexual harassment, bullying, judgment, prejudice – I have gone through a lot just for walking down the street, just because they know that this person is a transgender.”

Campaigners say the false belief that all transgender people are sex workers and difficulties with identification papers add to their daily struggles.

People in Lebanon who undergo gender reassignment surgery can change their sex in legal documents.

But campaigners say that option should also be open to those who have not undergone surgery.

“Somebody should be able to change their gender identity without having to transition fully,” said Joseph Aoun, spokesman for Helem, a Lebanese NGO that advocates for LGBT rights.

“A transgender person should have the choice to identify as a woman or man.”

Sasha, who wishes to keep the details of her transition private, is not looking to change her identity legally – she says she feels secure with who she is.

“At the end of the day I know who I am and what I am,” she said.

“I am at a point where I am very comfortable with myself. I am ready to face anything, and I am ready to do anything and everything that I want – nothing can stand in my way any more.”

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Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. After his retirement from paid newspaper work in 2011, he launched Erasing 76 Crimes and helped with the Spirit of 76 campaign that assembled a multi-national team of 26 LGBTI rights activists to advocate for change during the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., in July 2012. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, including the Erasing 76 Crimes news site and the African Human Rights Media Network. Contact him via Twitter @76crimes or by email at info@76crimes.com. Mailing address: 21 Marseille, Laguna Niguel CA 92677 USA.

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