“That’s how I’m living… with an umbrella; I hide beneath it when it rains. Don’t mind me, I’m just like Marilyn Monroe.” This is how Suzy, the 45-year-old “first transgender woman in Lebanon,” described her displacement in 2015 in her first screen appearance on Al Jadeed TV’s program, Lel Nasher, with the host Rima Karaki. Her only demand? A house to sleep in at night.
Social media channels reported her passing in the first months of 2020. In her recent videos, she complained about hunting for food in Beirut’s dumpsters, saying “Dogs are living better than us… Have some mercy on me before I die… my life is so hard this way, I want to die… shame on this country. We’re Lebanese and starving!” Suzy left us in a horrible way and died of medical conditions at the age of 66. All of this occurred before the financial crisis, before the pandemic, and before the Beirut Port explosion.
Below, we recount stories of a number of transgender women sex workers in Beirut about their work, their relationship to the health system, and challenges they have faced due to financial factors, the COVID pandemic, and the recent explosion in August 2020.
August 10, 2020
“My family and I parted ways a long time ago, we’re not in contact. My sex work income was sometimes enough to cover rent and food, but it often wasn’t. So I used to borrow money from my friends.”
When asked about her relationship with the health system, Tia responded that, “I never sought a hospital in Lebanon for three reasons. First, I’m not Lebanese, I’m Syrian. Second, because I have no legal papers since I fled my family in Syria. And finally, because I’m scared of going to medical institutions alone.”
Her situation has worsened dramatically since the start of the pandemic.“Work ended for me because I prioritize my health over anything. At the moment, I’m surviving on aid and food some organizations offer. I didn’t try to find a job in a restaurant or coffee shop because I have a painful experience of that in the past. I was sexually harassed and the restaurant’s owner attempted to rape me. The circumstances were so difficult because I was living there, so he was taking advantage of that. Other than that… I’m a ladyboy and can’t find a job easily.”
As if matters couldn’t get any worse, Tia’s home was wrecked in the August 4th explosion, which was very close to her residence. All the doors and windows glass were shattered and no one contacted her to help until the interview took place.
August 9, 2020
“I was involved in sex work since I was young. I was raped when I was 12 years old, and ever since, I started making money in return for sex. Before that, I liked wearing women’s clothes and looked feminine.”
Responding to her relation to the health system in Lebanon, she said, “Whenever we needed to go to the hospital, people, if not the doctors, would ogle at us horribly. Wherever you go, you get disrespected. I’m grateful that I’m healthy, but my mother is ill and I’m taking care of her. Employers disregard us and deem us ‘useless.’”
Like many others, Najla responded that “And sex work was put on hold once Corona took place. ‘I’m walking with a rope around my neck’ as they say. Of course, work would stop. Most of my customers blocked me during the pandemic.”
And then, the explosion happened. “My house was destroyed, my home is gone! Aid workers looked at everyone but me only because I’m trans. LGBT societies called to check up on me but I haven’t received any help from them yet.”
July 30, 2020
Sonya has been a sex worker since she was eighteen.
“They don’t admit trans women to hospitals, you would need to pay and I can’t do that. Once, I had a case of food poisoning and the Red Cross arrived and performed basic first aid. They told me “We can’t take you to the hospital, you have no rights since you’re trans.”
And in light of the Corona pandemic, Sonya added that “I have no finances at all during this time. There is no work and most people would be scared. I had to work for someone but it was humiliating; they didn’t trust me and would fear me because I’m trans.”
Sonya was able to get some financial help from local organizations. “I talked to Helem; they don’t give money, only food boxes. I’m talking to them now and they’re not responding to me, I don’t know why. And Mosaic offered me financial help only once. There are some people who help me out; I met a lot of them during Suzy’s funeral…There is some light work only with the customers I trust.”
In response to the recent explosion, the Lebanese army said they’d distribute money to the poorest families. “They were distributing 400 thousand Lebanese pounds and I registered my name as someone in need. They told me that I don’t deserve it because I’m trans, everyone in need got help except for me.”
August 9, 2020
Ever since I was Seventeen, I was scared of going to the medical sectors because of bullying. With the spreading of Coronavirus, my work opportunities decreased and my living condition worsened because of quarantine. I get aid from some societies.
These interviews with trans women/Ladyboys/Shemales make evident that trans women, especially sex workers who depend on the industry for their livelihood and supporting their families, are excluded from the Lebanese health system and financial aid during both the pandemic and the Beirut explosion. Recent events have compounded their struggles and made them increasingly vulnerable to exploitation, exposing them to violence, and the possibility of alienating them from society. The situation in which they live is in constant deterioration.