“Chkoun? [Who is it?]” a voice on the other side of the thick steel security door asks. We identify ourselves and, satisfied, the owner of the voice turns the keys to let my interpreter and me into the dark and cramped second-floor apartment in downtown Tunis. The owner of the voice is Sandra, a young transgender woman who, despite her striking beauty, offers apologetically: “I don’t look like this usually. I’m … tired.”
It has been a harrowing and sleepless few days for the trans rights activist. Following her appearance, a few days earlier, at this year’s Carthage Film Festival, she has been in hiding in her apartment – with curtains drawn despite the sunny weather outside – fearing for her life.
In addition to Article 230 of Tunisia’s Penal Code, which punishes same-sex relations by up to three years’ imprisonment, Tunisian society, generally, also holds highly conservative attitudes towards LGBTQIA+ people. Transgender people are arguably the most marginalised and discriminated against in the country. And Sandra has recently became the unwitting poster child for this level of discrimination.
She took to the red carpet for the screening of Upon the Shadow, a documentary in which she features, which takes an intimate look into the lives of queer people in Tunisia, at this year’s Carthage Film Festival. She was snapped by the paparazzi. Her face was plastered across Tunisian newspapers (“the media of shame,” as she refers to it). In addition to publishing unflattering photographs of her, reports included the male name given to her at birth and details of her past, including her family and their address. The woman that walked the red carpet that night, the reports screamed, was “a man”.
The threats and hate-filled comments came in thick and fast. Grabbing her cellphone, she sighs as she reads one of the online comments: “‘On my mother’,” she reads, exhaling a plume of smoke, “‘if I see this person in the streets, I’m going to fucking rape him; pull out his intestines. And I don’t care if I spend 100 years in jail.’”
The threats soon moved from the virtual into the real world. “Yesterday,” she says, “I went down the road to get a packet of cigarettes. I was wearing a hat, trying to be incognito, but a car full of guys pulled over. They were shouting, ‘We know where you live; we’re going to fucking kill you’.”
Her fear is almost palpable as she lies curled up under a blanket, nervously chain-smoking. This is, however, not her first brush with violence. Picking up her phone again, she shows pictures of her bloodied face, the repeated result of being beaten, at turns, by everyone from ordinary citizens and taxi drivers to security officials.
“I’ve been through a lot of problems, obviously. But the most obvious one is that me, as myself, I am a problem. Because I am living in this patriarchal society. Because me being a woman is a problem,” she says, adding that reporting these incidents to the police is not really an option. “We would just get chased away by the cops, who would just say, ‘You guys are a bunch of fags.’ Now that there are more [queer rights] NGOs, the cops have toned down their harassment. But it is still there. There is a lot of discrimination from both the police and the public.”
The following day, in a coffee shop in downtown Tunis, I meet Yuri, a young transgender man, and his girlfriend, Amina*, as they sit with a group of people reclining lazily on couches, scrolling through their phones and cracking the occasional joke. But the everyday nature of this image is deceptive. Yuri says: “It’s a nightmare for all of us to be in Tunisia, trust me. It’s a big struggle. In our country, this Islamic country, everything for them is haram. So you can’t know who you are. ‘Is it normal to be like this? Am I normal?’ You ask yourself this in front of the mirror many, many times.”
It has been a decade of the 23-year-old staring at his reflection in the mirror, asking himself these questions. “At the age of 13,” he says, “I discovered that I can’t be in this body. In fact, I was feeling like this from around seven or eight [years old], but I wasn’t that sure. There was no internet like these days. But I eventually figured out, yes, I don’t like this body. I am masculine. I am a man. So at the age of 13 or 14, I came to accept that this is who I am. But it was hard. It was so hard. Believe me.”
The harsh realities of being transgender in Tunisia permeates almost every aspect of his daily life, including the simple act of finding comfortable clothes. “You buy clothes for a man and then you have to cut it yourself to fit your body.” Hormone replacement therapy is illegal. “I can’t get hormones here. It is forbidden. And even if I start hormones, but my papers say I am a girl, if the police stop me I will be beaten for a week. And they will fuck me, trust me. ‘So you are a boy and you have a vagina? Ok, we will fuck you.’”
The biggest challenge, however, lies much closer to home. “My mom … doesn’t know that I am trans. She just sees me like, ‘Ah okay, you’re like that, sporty’. But I get a lot of questions daily. ‘Why are you like that?’ This kind of question is normal to hear sometimes, but not all the time. Not daily from your mom. She is an educated woman, but the mentality of Tunisians is eating her. It’s controlling her … so she lives by other people’s opinions. It hurts, you know. To know that your mom will never accept you. And I can’t tell her because I don’t want to hurt her. And you can’t put the blame on her because it is this society, after all, that makes her treat me this way. It’s not her. So you live in a struggle with society and your mom. And it hurts, believe me. I can’t even go with my mom for coffee or to a family wedding. Because she just tells me, ‘No, don’t go with me. You make me ashamed.’”
Being born into an educated and wealthy family has done little to ease his burden. “My family, they are very rich. You can’t imagine. They are rich as fuck. So my dad says to me, ‘When you become the girl that we want – a feminine girl – we will give you everything you want.’ But I tell him, ‘I don’t fucking need your money. I need my fucking freedom.’”
It is in his relationship with Amina, now in its second year, that Yuri has found some freedom. “She’s the only one who is real in my life,” he says. “I will stand naked in front of her and say, ‘Babes, my boobs don’t look nice on me. I hate them.’ She will just say, ‘I can’t see them, Yuri. I don’t see them.’ So I’m only comfortable with her. Just her. She’s my mother, she’s my wife, she’s my sister, she’s my brother. She is everything to me.”
And while their relationship offers him some solace, it comes with its own dangers. Amina explains: “His mom and dad know me, but as his bestie. I go to his house and he comes to mine, but we pretend to be besties. Because even a little mistake from us and we’ll be busted and our lives will be a nightmare.”
Yuri adds: “When I go to her house, I have to be feminine. And I can’t even look at her. You know the feeling when you love someone but you can’t even look at them? I have to tell myself, ‘No, no, don’t look at her.’ We can’t hold hands. I can’t even touch her. We will be kicked in the streets.”
Both Yuri and Amina have little faith in LGBTQIA+ rights organisations which, they say, “focus mainly on the issues of transgender women”.
Activism in Tunisia
In 2018, in the hopes of addressing the numerous challenges faced by the country’s transgender communities, queer rights activist Dorra Mongalgi established the trans rights organisation Outcasts.
The 27-year-old, who identifies as non-binary, says that, throughout their years as an LGBTQIA+ activist, they “noticed that the ‘T’ is always left behind”.
“Even though trans people are activists just by simply living their lives, the problem is they don’t have the necessary tools to advocate for their rights or the tools to communicate these in the society in which they live. There are a lot of trans people who are denied their basic rights and needs, such as access to education, employment, housing, freedom of movement. Hormones, if accessed at all, are accessed through the black market … [If arrested], trans women are charged with homosexuality, because they are not recognised as women,” Mongalgi adds.
The fledgling organisation has, however, faced difficulties getting off the ground. This Mongalgi puts down largely to the relative newness of the push for trans rights in Tunisia. There is, they add, also the challenge of finding a recognisable figure to serve as the face of the organisation.
“[The community] needs to have an icon; a leader who is visible. So there is a need to have visible persons. But at the same time, visible individuals are … I don’t know… I would say they are not interested in the cause itself. They are interested in caring for themselves for the moment, as long as they are here in Tunisia. And it’s perfectly understandable that they think only for themselves at the moment, because they are in a situation of urgency.”
Back at her flat, safe for now at least behind its heavy security door, Sandra lights another cigarette and concedes that she is making plans to run from this situation by seeking asylum in another country. As to where she is hoping to go, she says, simply: “Anywhere. Any country that is not Islamic. I have to leave. This is a very masculine society, so they will never forget me. They will always be after me.”
Yuri and Amina, too, are desperate to flee. “I’ve contacted so many organisations begging them to help us, but I always get the same response: ‘Sorry, we cannot help you unless you skip the country,’” says Amina. “But that is the main problem: we can’t skip the country because we just don’t have the money.”
“We need asylum,” Yuri adds. “And we don’t need a house. We don’t need anything. Even 300 dollars would help us get us out of here. We’re not asking for too much. Just to live our lives. We need to escape.”
Taking Yuri’s hand in hers, Amina says: “We don’t want to just survive, you know. We want to live.”
After a long pause, Yuri says: “I just hate myself being here.” Then, looking up at me, he adds: “Do me a favour. When you go back to South Africa and you are having coffee or whatever with your partner, think about Yuri and know that I am struggling. That we are struggling here. That every night I cry. Every night. Because the struggle here is so big. It is so, so big.”
* Not her real name