Imagine living in a country where your identity is in the hands of the state. She presents herself as a woman but remains labeled as male on her identification card. Changes in her name or gender markers can only be altered via a court ruling. Her sex assigned at birth does not define her gender, but society still judges her based on the genitals she was born with. Worse, these women are abused, shunned, and isolated — be it from authorities or family. 

The transgender community in Lebanon faces systematic discrimination in a country where LGBTIQ+ rights are non-existent in the legal sphere. In a recent report by Human Rights Watch in collaboration with Helem and MOSAIC, the discrimination burdening transgender women in the country has been given the spotlight. 

Titled "Don't Punish Me for Who I Am," the report sheds light on the many obstacles transgender women in Lebanon must deal with in various sectors including education, employment, housing, and health care. It is based on 50 interviews conducted with Lebanese trans women, trans refugees, and asylum seekers — all of whom are based in Lebanon. Also, HRW spoke to an additional five transgender men. 

The discriminatory policies and arrests are not only directed at Lebanese trans women. It's exacerbated when it's a trans refugee at hand as these individuals are marginalized on two ends: refugee status and gender identity. 

"We cannot find employment, we do not have homes, we cannot get an education, we are marginalized, we are shunned from society, we have no life, no connections, no families," Carmen, a 21-year-old Syrian trans woman told HRW.

"We go to look for jobs and the first thing they ask for is ID, and when they see I present as a woman, but my ID says male, they won't hire me." 

"If the government helps us correct our official records, we can go find jobs like any other person and do just fine," she added.

There is no law in Lebanon that explicitly criminalizes trans individuals. However, under the controversial Article 534, which says sexual acts that "contradict the laws of nature" can be punished by up to one year in prison, LGBTIQ+ individuals are sometimes prosecuted in Lebanon. 

The law has been used to arrest transgender women who are "misidentified as 'gay men'," according to HRW's report. Trans individuals are also targeted under other laws including "violating public morality," incitement to debauchery," and "secret prostitution." 

Haphazard implementation of such laws and lack of protection against discrimination of trans women has limited their mobility in the country, as pointed out by several women in the report. Of the 50 women who spoke to HRW, 10 have been detained by the Internal Security Forces (ISF) at least once during their time in Lebanon. Nine of the 10 detainees were placed in an all-male prison. 

This isn't just a commonality in Lebanon. 

Earlier this year, Egyptian authorities arrested a transgender woman - Malak al-Kashef - for taking part in anti-government protests and placed her in a men's jail. This, despite the fact that she had undergone gender reassignment surgery. After spending months in an all-male prison, the activist was released temporarily pending further investigations. 

Now, when it comes to healthcare, sex reassignment surgery is legal. But, is it affordable? Not even in the vicinity of reasonable. 

Legally speaking, physicians in Lebanon can prescribe hormone treatment and surgical procedures for trans individuals. However, considering the hefty price tag associated with such medical practices, trans individuals often cannot access such medical assistance considering insurance companies (public or private) rarely provide financial coverage. 

"This reality, coupled with the stigma that transgender women face in the public and private health sectors due to their gender expression, impede trans women's right to a safe, affordable, and inclusive system of health protection," HRW writes in the report.

The rights group has called on the country to enforce laws that protect against discrimination "on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity." HRW also urged the country to reform its labor law to protect against employment discrimination. 

Aside from all this, HRW urges the country to develop a simple process that would allow trans individuals to change their names and gender markers on documents "based on self-declaration," rather than court rulings.

"Trans women are women too"

In its research report, HRW tells the stories of several trans individuals in Lebanon. The rights group conducted all interviews between October and November 2018. The results were revealed to the public in Sept. 2019.

On Abuse:

"Even though my parents understand my situation and know I can't help it, they don't accept it because of society," Suha, a 24-year-old Lebanese trans woman, told HRW.

"Neighbors and people in the community always gossip about me to my parents and tell them to fix me, so even if my dad would be nice to me one day, the next day he would beat me, because he's afraid if he's nice, he'll be seen as encouraging me and enabling me to be like this," she added. 

On Harassment:

"I avoid being seen in public at all costs. Public transportation is very unsafe. I only go to areas that are more accepting, but even then, I get harassed and it's not just verbal, it's physical," Bella, a 24-year-old trans woman, told HRW.

"Every time I get targeted on the street, I run for my life. Because first, it's just one person, then I find a gang of six or seven men around me and they want my blood," she added.

Read the full report here.