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World, I'm a Woman with a Beard and Mustache

I decided to tell my family at the meal that breaks the Ramadan fast what I had been hiding for 20 years; that their son Hamza was really their daughter Mala.
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Morocco, A traditional transvestite dancer performs in the Djemaa el Fna, Marrakech, Morocco.
Morocco, A traditional transvestite dancer performs in the Djemaa el Fna, Marrakech, Morocco.

I decided to tell my family at the meal that breaks the Ramadan fast what I had been hiding for 20 years; that their son Hamza was really their daughter Mala. I thought they would give me a chance to explain, but the joyful meal became like a gloomy funeral ceremony. The terrible silence was broken when my father picked up a pot of boiling coffee and threw it on me.

My brother hit me and broke my teeth, then jumped onto the table to start raining punches down on me. My mother started screaming, but it seemed like she had already known that I was really her daughter, and she tried to hold off their punches. But I have not touched her hands since. My father kicked me out of the house, saying there was no place in his family for faggots.

I have come a long way since that moment, but getting there was a struggle in the socially conservative atmosphere in Morocco, where I live.

When I was 15 and first found a group of gay and transgender friends, I was swept away by a deep feeling of joy, and was finally able to accept myself for who I was. There in a private house, away from my classmates and even from God, I no longer thought I was the only "deviant" in the world. I could wear women's clothes and dance like Ruby, the seductive Egyptian singer.

It was the first place I had put on lipstick since I was a little girl and went rummaging secretly through my mother's make-up box and the clothes she kept for special occasions. I would put on the dress she wore to weddings and some red lipstick, then promenade around the house like a princess for a few minutes before taking off her clothes and rubbing my lips with water, knowing that she was going to return very soon.

With my new friends, when the party ended, we altered our appearances to look masculine and set off, but I still felt like dancing through the streets of Casablanca. I started strutting like a model, taking advantage of an empty alley in the fancy Maarif neighborhood, when suddenly a gang of young men appeared. My companion Ayoub, or Carol as she liked me to call her, said, "jra girl! There are rouair coming. They're going to beat you up if you don't start acting like a guy."

I hadn't known those words and asked her to teach me more so I could find my way in this new world. She said, "You need to learn that language of louaba (queers) so that you can avoid trouble and beatings. I'm worried about what the rouair (homophobes) might do to you because they don't have any mercy."

She introduced me to Zbiba, who taught me the secret words they said I needed to keep me safe and get by in the world. She taught me how to protect myself from the rouair, how to put on a condom, and how I could run away from home if my secret was found out. She taught me how to look for sexual partners, and how to split my personality between one me and another.

I became more careful, wearing my man mask every morning to school, in my neighborhood, and at home. But at night, during the hours when the only people in the parks of Casablanca were those searching for young men, I became a queer. The parks were a hidden corner where sexual encounters took place and relationships developed.

I started to feel as if I carried a responsibility or had a military rank printed on my sleeve, as by then the world of the louaba no longer seemed new to me. It had been passed down since the French colonists left in 1956 -- a new queer lifestyle full of adventures, oppression, and hiding behind a mask.

Our life as gay and trans people revolved around a few minutes of sex between the oak trees that line the highways of our cities, or in abandoned houses, or in rooftop rooms of sexual partners, where we would make sure to take off our shoes before climbing the stairs so that no one would find out what we were up to.

"Homosexuality is a romantic and sexual preference for people of the same gender," I read on Wikipedia. From this starting point I began to read gay magazines and became familiar with Kif-Kif and Helem, Moroccan and Lebanese gay rights movements, and the meaning of pride.

This was different from what Zbiba taught me--that the only way to survive as a queer was to live a double life. Instead I began to gain an understanding of LGBT rights and of the need for activism to defend those rights in the open. It was a major transformation in my life, and I started to pass on this information to the other louaba. They would gather excitedly around me as I talked about love, nature, and gay rights in Europe, using the term mithli (gay) rather than shadh (deviant). I concluded that I was not made from the same mold as Carol and Zbiba so I left them and the world of the louaba.

Then the Arab Spring hit our shores. On February 20, 2011, I found myself in the street alongside thousands of other young Moroccans, chanting "freedom, justice, dignity, equality!" out loud, for the first time. I felt as if I had been born again. At gatherings with other activists I sensed that I was among people I didn't need to fear, because we had shouted "no more fear from today on!" together in front of government buildings and at marches of thousands of people.

So I gradually revealed my sexual orientation, and nervously wrote on placards "No to Article 489" (the part of the penal code that criminalizes same sex activity) and "Don't Criminalize Love." By May, I raised a rainbow flag at a demonstration, which infuriated the Islamists there. I stood up, my body quivering, and said: "Gay rights are human rights, we need to accept the fact that many people shouting 'long live the people!' with us here are queer, and they are of the people!"

During that time, I was busy thinking about revolution and liberation. I noticed other gays also taking part in the marches, some whom I had seen secretly in the parks--some of whom I had even slept with. I was proud of them as they were fighting for change and embodied the "natural gay" as I imagined it, through their appearances and their commitment to political change.

Philosophical, economic and political books became my daily nourishment, and I counted them off like prayer beads. I immersed myself in Marx and Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and Mahdi Amel and Mehdi Ben Barka, Middle East activists who had been killed for their political beliefs. I found this in Michel Foucault's" The History of Madness:" "The lepers, queers and the rebellious were gradually removed by society to the farthest margins and then banished, cast away and pushed into the realm of madness."

Was I really the "natural gay" I imagined myself to be or had I just built a wall around me? Was it my duty to please my comrades, to convince them that I had the right to live?

I knew about Harvey Milk, about the Homosexual Front for Revolutionary Action -- French Marxists who carried the slogan "we're a social plague, and now we're in the streets!" and about the gay liberation activists in Catalonia who had held their first meetings in the days of Franco in Moroccan Tangier. They were people who had declared their pride.

That is when I decided to declare myself to my family. And so I did, before finding myself sleeping on damp pieces of cardboard with only the sky as a blanket. I would start my day singing the songs of the spellbinding singer Fairuz and reading a book by transgender advocate Sylvia Rivera I had just found in a rubbish dump. Rivera, who in her inflammatory 1973 Liberation Day speech in New York city, berated the crowd about "YOUR gay brothers and your gay sisters IN JAIL! That write me letters every motherfucking week and you all don't do a goddamn thing for them." And she continued:" I have been beaten, I have lost my job, I have lost my apartment for gay liberation: and you all treat me this way?"

Her words gave me hope and brought me back to life. She had lost everything just like as I had and had to wander the streets of New York. The only difference was that I was wandering the streets of Rabat. She inspired me and gave me confidence. And I said, World, I am a woman with a moustache and a beard."

Six months ago I put on lipstick, painted my nails black, and went out into the crowded streets, making zero effort to conceal the real me. But this time, even though transgender acceptance is by no means complete in Morocco, I wasn't beaten, and they didn't strip me or drag me along the ground. What changed since the time when I was studiously heeding Zbiba's advice? I don't know. Probably not the society, or not much. Something in me had changed. In the crowd, a queer person caught my eye and hissed at me "jrahime!" I turned to her and said "no more jrahime from today on, darling," and reminded her of feminists and queers who were imprisoned to carve a path for us from the gloomy darkness of prison cells toward the bright sunlight of gender freedom.
Mala Badi is a transgender activist in Morocco.

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