Alberto Mucci

Lebanon's first transgender festival

A marginalized community speaks up

The crowd gathered for the opening speech of the Transfocus festival at Minus 1
Organizers of the TransFocus festival preparing the space.
Art work at the TransFocus festival showing the crimes the Transgender community is subject to.

TransFocus is the first festival in Lebanon that explores the sub-culture, the challenges, and the hopes of the transgender community of the country. Yesterday at Minus 1, a new art space perched right in the middle of Ashrafieh, two movies – TransAmerica and Tomboy – were screened and a series of heated debates and workshops were organized with AUB’s Faysal al-Kak. What came out of an otherwise rich and successful afternoon was a portrait of a difficult situation for a minority too often abused and pushed to the margins of society.


The topic is complex, so before divulging more details, a few clarifications on terminology are needed. Bekhsoos, a “feminist and queer Arab magazine,” offers a useful dictionary:


Sex: Assigned at birth, either male or female (“the binary system”), based on bodily characteristics like chromosomes, hormones, and internal and external reproductive organs.


Gender (gender identity): The sex that one identifies with internally. Transgender individuals usually are of a different bodily sex.


Sexual orientation: An individual’s attraction (physical, emotional, romantic, spiritual) to another. Gender identity and sexual orientation are separate; a male-to-female or female-to-male person could be gay, lesbian, or bisexual.


Transgender: Umbrella term for individuals whose gender identity differs from that assigned to them at birth. It spans from transsexuals to cross-dressers, bi-genders, and other gender-variant people. Transgender individuals may or may not choose to surgically and/or hormonally alter their bodies.


Transsexual: This is not an umbrella term, and usually refers to individuals who plan to transition, or are in the process of transitioning, through surgery or hormone therapy.


If what each word means is now somewhat clear (read again if you are confused), a number of other issues surrounding the situation of the Transgender community are much less so.


The most difficult challenge is probably the lack of statistics regarding Lebanese transgender people. At the moment, no major organizations seem to have the intention to map the situation. And if for some this might seem like a minor problem, one should consider that numbers and facts are a pivotal point for any minority group demanding guarantees and rights from a government whose will to intervene and address the problem on such a politically unpopular topic is very close to zero.


But before even talking about reform at the top, a radical change at the base is also necessary. As Dr. Kak puts it in a conversation with NOW, “the family, social and cultural factors constitute a major additional handicap to intervene in this [the transgender] matter.”


Take Trans-America, the 2005 movie directed by Duncan Tucker screened at Trans-Focus. The protagonist, “Bree,” a transsexual woman about to undergo surgery, is frozen in fear as she arrives in front of the door of her parents’ house in Phoenix, Arizona. She knows that her family, especially her mother, has yet to accept her new identity: “For me, you will always be Stanley,” the mother says on more than one occasion. Arizona is of course not the most liberal of American States, but one can only start to imagine how conditions for transgender people may be in Lebanon if they are far from normalized and accepted in the US.


Lebanese families that openly accept having a transgender son or daughter can probably be counted on one hand. The most common consequences of “coming out” go from being shunned from the family to being beaten, forced to see a psychologist, and/or abused. And all of this in order to be “corrected,” to change what is perceived as something that can and should be cured because it is “not natural." 


As Michel Kalach al-Khoury, a psychotherapist with the Beirut-based Balsam Center, says in a conversation with NOW, Many of them are mistreated by the police and/or other formal authorities. Another issue is what some authors term ‘exclusion via inclusion,’ meaning that even though in Lebanon there are services within NGOs that protect the LGBTIQ community, individuals who identify themselves as transgender do not find a place for them because they are discriminated against even inside such communities.”


Despite all these difficulties, a few people are starting to speak up and report the abuses received. One of these stories was reported by NOW earlier this year. A transgender person was abused by a policeman in a Dekwaneh club for no apparent reason. After all the media attention on the case, Antoine Chakhtoura, the head of the municipality, had to admit that the detained was “undressed” (read: abused with no reason for doing so).


Minus 1 is also trying to do its part to change the attitude toward this community. As Fady Mansour, the organizer of the space, puts it to NOW, "Having worked in queer spaces before, I am aware of the frustration that comes with finding a venue that is willing to host events like TransFocus without absurd conditions. Unlike other venues that hosted TransFocus, Minus 1 allowed screening of films without any form of censorship or any type of pressure."


Currently, Lebanese law only accepts what academia calls a binary view of sex: you are either male or female. For this reason, transgenders’ major problems with the law occur when they try to change their identification. But this can only happen through the long and difficult process of being diagnosed by a psychiatrist with Gender Identity Disorder.


What to do to improve the future? Kak proposes something of a road-map for the Lebanese transgender community.


1. Adequate and competent training of health providers on identifying or suspecting transgender cases at birth.


2. Raising awareness among parents, families, and the community on transgender issues and the proper and rights-based approach in this regard. This includes advocacy at policy and legal levels to ease change of sex (gender identity).


3. Forming a professional multidisciplinary team of physicians capable of handling the medical, health, psychological, and surgical aspects of transgender status.

The crowd gathered for the opening speech of the Transfocus festival at Minus 1. (Image courtesy of Fady Mansour)

"Currently, Lebanese law only accepts what academia calls a binary view of sex: you are either male or female."