Alia Khannum, LGBTIQ* activist from Pakistan, shares her story as a transwoman and reflects upon her journey to become a trans* activist, engaged for the rights of LGBTIQ* refugees and migrants.
I hail from Pakistan. I don’t know if I should be saying ‘hail’; “I am from Pakistan” sounds better. I was born in 1986 to a couple whose marriage was arranged by their elders.
In my part of the world, you have to get married to become an accepted member of society. The practice is widespread. The few people who are against this notion mainly come from the big cities. My family was never a happy family but my mother loved me very much. She knew much more about who I really was than I did at the time. Even at the age of three and a half I wanted to look like her. I got my ears pierced by a street hawker, to wear earrings just like my mother. Those big gold earrings. It was seen as an act of a child who didn’t understand the difference between a girl and a boy. Nobody took it seriously - other than one of my mother’s aunts, who thought that this would encourage my feminine side. The earrings were taken away from me.
After a few years my mother arranged the marriage of her younger brother. We had a new woman in our big house; we were already a big family, made up of three smaller families living together. My aunt was very kind to me and played with me and my dolls. Once she even dressed me up as a girl. She put lipstick on my lips and put me in lots of jewellery and took photos of me. When I later insisted on dressing up again, she somehow figured out that I wanted to be a girl. One day she became so furious that she burnt all of my dolls. I was not allowed to do anything that might resemble a girl’s life.
This was a phase in my life that I didn’t really understand. I was sad most of the time. I found refuge among the farm animals that we had. Rearing chickens became my new hobby. I was not allowed to let any broody hens hatch at home. So, I would take my hen to an elderly neighbour’s home. When the chicks were at least three months old we would divide them amongst ourselves. When my father came to know, he shouted and beat me, saying I should abstain from womanly activities, and that I should play with boys rather than spend time with old women.
A woman in my heart and soul
During those years, until adolescence, I wore makeup and my mum’s clothes whenever I had the opportunity. I did it only when my parents were out or my mother was sleeping.
As I grew older I realised that I was not a man at all, but a woman in my heart and soul. It had nothing to do with what I did in my spare time or who I played with. I was just a woman. I had been a good observer since childhood; I didn’t like anything manly about me. I wanted to look like a girl from the outside. At the age of 16 puberty hit me hard. Hair grew all over my body - my legs, my arms, my chest, my face. It was everywhere, harder and thicker than before. I started to hate my physical appearance. I wanted to have breasts and less hair. I started to grow my hair to resemble a woman, but it didn’t work. I had a rough voice. I looked like a man that I never wanted to be.
Life is full of surprises, but this was a shock. I was suicidal and I didn’t know where to go. I attempted suicide but was rescued by my family. They thought that I was a fool. Once I told my mother that I didn’t want to be a boy. Nobody, including myself at that time, knew that I was a trans woman. The only thing that was remotely close was the hijras, one of the most marginalized communities in the region. A hijra who I met by chance when I was 18 recognized me - even though I was dressed like a man - and invited me to her place. We had a long chat about how I could be a woman in a society where I was trapped in the body of a man.
After some months another trans woman (who still publicly lives as a man) moved into our neighbourhood; I found a mentor in her. She was older, married to a cis woman and had children. She used to tell me that I would have to marry and pursue a double life; a public one to preserve the honour of my family, and the other in secret among the hijra community, where we could be accepted. I was determined to live an independent life. I didn’t want to become a slave to society. I wanted to be happy in my own skin. It was hard; I could only dress up among hijras. It was constant torture.
To live permanently with the hijra community would have come at a high price. I would have had to quit my studies and beg during the day and become a sex worker by night. The concept of safe sex is missing among the masses in Pakistan. Once you work as a hijra sex worker you have to please your customer the way he wants. Instead, I finished my bachelors degree.
I worked as a secondary school teacher, although the staff would ridicule me for my feminine side. This bullying around my identity has been a constant since childhood. The only resort was to escape, which I had wanted to do since 2006. But I had no money, no skills, and most of all I didn’t know if I would reach a country or die trying. I met Britta Petersen, then CEO of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung in Lahore. I became fast friends with the German interns there. They told me to come to Germany, a country of opportunities and ideas where I would be able to live freely. They advised me not to come as a refugee, but on a student visa.
I was admitted to a few different universities. In 2012 I left my country. Yet even in Germany I saw transphobia and homophobia on the streets and at my workplace. Despite LGBTI rights, society has not evolved with the law. A large part of it still clings to old morals and values based on the teachings of religion. To be gay is still a sin in many parts of the country. The shock was deep. I thought of leaving after my degree. I didn’t see a huge difference back in Pakistan.
Accepting myself as a trans woman and becoming a trans* activist
I visited Pakistan in October 2015, which was a turning point in my life. I had already decided to live as a trans woman and I wanted my family on this journey. I have their support now. My mum and my sister are happy that I am not a depressed human being anymore. But I have lost childhood friends and relatives. One of my uncles, the younger brother of my mother, has sworn to kill me if I ever come back. He even filed blasphemy charges against me at a local police station, saying that I have brought shame to the family and he will never forgive me. The police didn’t log the complaint because I live in Germany and do not fall under the jurisdiction of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
Once I outed myself and came back to Germany the following month, I started to volunteer for a local organisation called Rubicon e.V. in Cologne, which has a meeting every Friday for LGBTI refugees and migrants from all over the world. I became the spokesperson of Queer Refugees for Pride, a local and self-organized initiative working to make LGBTI refugees visible in Germany, and to highlight the problems faced in the entire asylum-seeking process.
After getting my master's degree from the University of Cologne, I started applying for jobs all over Germany. I didn’t get any positive responses. I was heartbroken and thought that it was because my resume clearly stated that I was a trans woman. My adviser at the employment agency thought otherwise. I still believe that my transsexuality is the reason for the rejections.
I placed my transsexuality on my resume because I didn’t want to go through workplace discrimination from the very beginning. I had already experienced that at my part-time job as a student. The anti-discrimination office of the federal government (Antidiskriminierungsstelle des Bundes) had even sent a legal notice to my employer to stop harassing me because of my identity. It took six months (between November 2016 and April 2017) for them to understand that I had equal rights in Germany as a trans woman.
This incident gave me more power to fight for LGBTI rights (especially for trans people). I got a part-time job at Schwules Netzwerk NRW, a state-wide self-help network for LGBTQI people. I have been working at the Lesbian and Gay Federation of Germany, the largest NGO in the country, since November 2017.
My journey as a transsexual activist did not happen overnight. I had to accept myself as a trans woman first. There are few cases like mine, where a kind, close family understands enough to let go of their son. It’s rare. Families disown you, disinherit you, and in many cases can be killed for expressing yourself openly. Some societies, like those in South Asia, tolerate you but at the same time marginalize you, reducing you being forced to make a living out of entertaining others.
Sensitise the population beyond its laws
Trans people throughout the world are treated as second class citizens. Even if Germany didn’t have the General Act on Equal Treatment (Allgemeines Gleichbehandlungsgesetz, AGG from 2006), society would not be that different.
The process of transition, even in a country like Germany, involves a lot of bureaucracy. Plus, social prejudice is rife. Trans people who don’t have a good ‘cis-appearance’ are ridiculed publicly. Many people fail to report such hate crimes, and proving such hatred in court is not easy. Trans people often have to fight to get a job, and to make others understand that they are not a threat to society, but a part of it.
People have even less of an idea of what sex reassignment actually means. Many people stop the process prematurely. Others commit suicide; I wish it were not the case, but even I tried again in 2016. I was rescued by my friends; police and doctors intervened.
Whilst German law is impressive, still more laws are required to safeguard migrant and refugee rights. We are not accepted and safe in our home countries but are we accepted and safe in our adopted countries? Forget about the bad migrants. How many good Germans do we have, who are ready to stand with us, other than during gayparades? If I am being bullied on a train because of my transsexuality, how many people sitting beside me will try to intervene? Maybe one? Maybe none!
Are the politicians to be blamed? Or the education system? Or the far right? Is German history somehow responsible for it all?
I think that Germans never got the chance to decide upon the decriminalisation of same sex activity democratically in 1968 and 1969. Similarly, the decision of equal marriage was initiated in parliament; again, the German citizens didn’t take part in the decision making. Whilst both decisions liberated LGBTI people, the masses needed educating, in creating a movement to sensitise the population beyond its lawmakers; for example, by coming up with a syllabus on sexuality and gender identities. We need a law that assists LGBTI people to settle in Germany smoothly. At the moment we have so many people (including myself) who are at the risk of being sent back, because they fail to meet certain criteria.
“One claps with two hands, not one” is a saying in my mother tongue. If we have to work on such issues, we have to include all concerned parties, and not just the government. I wish to see a Germany where a trans woman with a migrant background could become the chancellor, for the higher welfare of all.
*Alia Khannum identifies as a transsexual woman; ‘transgender’ is an umbrella term which includes other identities, such as transvestites and transgender people without genital dysphoria.