Rainbow Street is proud to present the second installment of Queer In Context, an ongoing series that highlights the multitude of unique stories and experiences of LGBT people across the Arab World. Rainbow Street envisions a world in which our mission of supporting queer and trans* people living in crisis in the Arab World becomes obsolete. Until that time, sharing stories, like the one to follow, is among the most powerful tools for creating a global community of support.
Gender dysphoria is a psychiatric diagnosis given to those who identify with a gender other than the one assigned to them at birth. People with gender dysphoria experience a myriad of discomforts due to societal conditions that can alight with the transgender experience, though being transgender does not mean one has gender dysphoria. The classification of gender dysphoria in the DSM is controversial amongst cis and trans folks alike.
Trigger warning: The term transsexual is used in this article. It has varying connotations, and is not considered to be an encompassing descriptor (unlike trans*). Many individuals who identify as transgender are not comfortable with the term. However, Sarah identifies as transsexual, and it is important to respect how she identifies. As quoted in the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, “Everyone has the right to self identify.”
Sarah is a twenty-seven year old transsexual woman living in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. She has lived there for most of her life – hiding her true gender identity. In Saudi Arabia she is not seen as a woman, but as a “third sex.” “Third sex” is a term used in Saudi Arabia to insult those who don’t fit into the typical gender binary or identify with a gender other than assigned at birth.
“In the West, you would call me a transitioning woman. In Saudi Arabia, I am a third sex.” she says.
Trans people in Saudi Arabia have much difficulty living a normal life. The media within Saudi Arabia does not help with the negative perception of trans and transitioning people.
“Every couple of years we get a program that talks about [transgender issues] and that’s it. The media shows it as something that can be cured by therapy, which is not true. They put [trans people and trans issues] in a negative light most of the time. I’ve seen only six programs in eight years, and those were about an hour long each – six hours of coverage only. This does nothing to help.”
In Saudi Arabia, people who identify outside of typical perceptions of gender are in two categories: transgender and intersex.
Intersexuality is a much more visible part of the spectrum in Saudi Arabia than it is in the Western world. This visibility comes with misunderstanding, but it also comes with a small amount of privilege that trans people do not have. They undergo a lot of struggle, but have more options available to them through medical professionals.
“[Intersex people] are treated differently than trans people because of two reasons: society and religion. People simply do not believe surgery is a viable option for trans people. They think it’s just a mental thing and can be fixed by [therapy]. Religion says that people should not alter ‘god’s creation.’”
Transitioning is against the law in Saudi Arabia. Some people, however, believe the law can be circumvented in cases where physical change must be made for medical reasons. A popular view is that physical change is medically necessary for intersex people – not trans people.
Sarah outlines the physical differences between intersex and trans people clearly. The same distinction is taken as a concrete wall between trans people and the medical world.
“I’ve seen all kinds of doctors and they were mostly horrible. Doctors who do not believe in gender dysphoria go as far as giving trans people pills for mental disorders. A psychologist tried to give me pills for schizophrenia. He said [my] gender identity was just an illusion.”
While surgery is allowed for intersex people in Saudi Arabia, it is still not easy to obtain.
“He or she would need to get a letter from a doctor and also from a religious authority [authorizing the surgery.]”
Sarah is currently on hormones obtained from outside the medical world and hopes to get surgery one day. She says her dad will pay for the surgery if she reads religious text for a year. He hopes this will change her mind. If it doesn’t, Sarah says her dad will recognize that “god wants her this way.”
“These prayers won’t change who I am, but my dad has hope. Four months have passed – eight are left.” She hopes to have transitioned in a year.
This is no small feat. Sarah believes a lack of knowledge about gender identity and gender dysphoria is a cause for the unavailability of surgery for most trans people. If her dad ultimately agrees to pay for surgery, she will have to leave Saudi Arabia to receive it.
“[In Saudi Arabia], you get two different types of doctors. The first type [doesn’t] believe in gender dysphoria at all and will try to change a trans person mentally. The other type does believe in gender dysphoria, but they will never give a prescription for hormones or surgery. A trans person can spend thousands for these sessions for months, and in the end they will get a diagnosis that says gender dysphoria and that’s it. They never mention hormones or surgery in their diagnosis. They fear for their jobs.”
The patriarchy of the Arab world also continues into the non-cis spectrum of gender. “Doctors are usually more judgemental towards MTF patients than FTM ones.” Sarah explains. “A man becoming a woman is frowned upon. The opposite is a bit better in society’s eyes.”
Daily life is often depressing for her. “I finished college years ago, so I sit in my room most of the time. Going out is hard sometimes because of my looks. This can be dangerous, [especially] because of the religious police.”
Sarah has found an outlet and support in the online community. She finds connections from all over the world – though it’s lacking from those closer to her.
“I’ve got my online friends and that’s it. Whenever I try to talk to my dad he gets angry and starts yelling and basically blames me for feeling this way. My mother is the same thing – my brothers don’t really want to hear it at all.”
Sarah wants a different life in Saudi Arabia. “The law needs to be changed to help us. Doctors need to help us, the media needs to change.”
Perception needs to change.
“It took my family years to just entertain the idea of surgery. During those years they've said and done a lot of very harsh things to make me give up transitioning. There have been times where my mother said ‘I don’t want to look at you.’ Times where my dad called me a disaster. I feel like the first important thing [for a trans person] is their family’s acceptance. Once that happens, everything else becomes easier.”