Around the World: Yossra, Egypt

Jul 8, 2021 | 2015 Fall - Pick a Side, Around the World

It is hard to believe I have come this far in less than a year. The worst chains I ever endured were inside me, not outside. My real achievement is the change that has occurred inside me.

I abhorred myself. I viewed myself as two-faced and as a liar. I thought that every relationship in my life was a lie. I believed everyone would despise and abandon me once they knew my secret.

It is hard to explain what it is like to be bisexual, transgender, gay or lesbian in Egypt. It means every single social and political construction views you as a criminal by choice, deserving worse than death. You grow up believing that you do not deserve to live.

We might claim that we are free and able to challenge society and religion, but in fact these things affect us deeply. No matter how rebellious we appear to others and/or to ourselves, we remain imprisoned by the concepts instilled in us by society and religion. And that was the reason why I suffered the most.

I appeared counter-cultural in most of my actions, especially in the way I dressed (which is relatively revealing and also different). Yet inside me I was chained by the ideas of society and religion. I hated myself. I rejected my sexuality even though I did not deny it. I have known that I was not heterosexual since I was 13 years old, yet I did not accept it. I did not know what sexuality is. In Egypt, we do not talk about issues related to sex, as they are taboo. I knew that I was physically attracted to women. When I slept I dreamed more often of having sex with women than with men. Yet I was unable to label myself because I knew nothing about bisexuality and not much more about homosexuality (except that it was against my religion).

There are many popular negative conceptions about LGBT people in Egypt. One of the most dominant is the idea that homosexuals harass and rape people. This makes society think of us as dangerous. I believed – inside me – that I was dangerous (and – of course – dirty) and this was the origin of most of my self-harm.

I tried my best to stay away from people and to avoid physical contact, even friendly hugs. This is extremely difficult in Egypt because the culture forces much contact between women. This made it harder for me to take “precautions” to protect other women from me. Whenever I went to a bathroom and saw women taking off their veils, I looked away. Whenever I felt sexually attracted to a woman or watched a provocative clip on the Internet, on television, in advertisements or in movies displaying a woman’s body (which happened many times in a single day), I started beating myself. I tried to defeat desire with pain. I trained myself for about three years to completely stop desire by inflicting pain on myself. At one point, beating myself harshly became a reflexive response to any physical contact with anyone even if I did not feel desire and even if that contact was a mere hug from a female friend or my mother. I was even afraid I would hurt my younger half-sister. Whenever I found myself with her in a closed room, I ran out of the room. I felt that my desire was dangerous and I should protect others from me no matter the cost.

I put up with my pain alone and did not dare to tell anyone. I came out to my mother after six years, to my closest friend a few months later, and to four other friends. But I still despised myself, keeping distance and beating myself. One year after telling my mother, I registered for a sociology course about social class and inequality. I searched for information about my professor and found out that he specialized in Sexuality Studies. After a lot of hesitation, I came out to him. He pressured me to talk about it and when I did, it was the first time I really thought about my suffering. Two days after we talked, I decided to come out to everyone once and for all. I decided to lose whoever does not accept me and to gain true relationships without lies.

I wrote a status on Facebook saying that I am bisexual and that I wished to free myself from the struggle I lived and to lose whoever does not accept me. I was expecting to lose most people around me, especially as I have conservatives, Islamists and Brotherhood members among my friends. My closest friend told me that I would lose very few people because in this hypocritical closed society people have secrets they fear to reveal and they respect those who can face society. She also told me that people would reject the image they have of the other, not the human being. She told me they would accept me because they know Yossra as a human being, not as an image.

And she was right!

Most people accepted me, even the most conservative of them. Some people reacted badly. One of my female friends asked me: “How do you feel towards me?” and I thought: “How sexy you think you are!” One of my Islamist friends jumped over the distance between us and asked me: “Are you willing to have sex with a woman?” And one friend told me: “Return to God and talk to him. He doesn’t accept what you do.” My older sister told me that I am harming myself and that I am bisexual because I want to have sex with a man but I find women in front of me!

Yet, overall people were surprisingly supportive even though some were ignorant and did not know what being bisexual even meant. A lot of people respected my courage and others told me they do not agree with what I do but they love me for who I am. My nightmare was that my father would come to my mother (they are divorced) and accuse her of failing to bring me up well. I am her only child and her only family. She struggled in a male-dominant society with the stigma of being a divorced woman and I did not want anyone to accuse her of being dishonorable or of failing in my upbringing. I loved my mother, but I was unable to suffer any longer with despising myself and feeling myself to be a liar.

At the time I came out (which was last June), the political situation in Egypt was worsening. The military dictatorship was established and there was a crackdown on political opposition (starting with the Brotherhood, then the Left and the Liberals) and on different minorities like LGBT people and atheists. There are over 150 cases of gay and trans people being arrested. The sentences range between one and eight years but what is much worse is the severe violation of their human rights. In one of the famous cases (Ramses Bathhouse), a reporter told the police that there was a bathhouse for gays downtown. The police arrested the men at the bathhouse naked and encouraged other prisoners to rape them. They were also tortured by the soldiers. We now know that any LGBT person caught by the police will at least be beaten, tortured and raped.

I came out and afterwards began openly defending LGBT rights and writing about the real life of the closed community living in the darkness in Egypt. I got a lot of backlash (even from my friends) for what I wrote. Some people warned me of what would happen to me if I were imprisoned for defending LGBT rights. I know what will happen but I cannot bear to see the suffering and the injustice or to remain silent.

A few weeks ago, I confessed (for the first time in my life) to the girl I love: my love. She accepted me and told me she had felt my love for her before I said it. She told me she cannot be close romantically to anyone, yet she has cared for me like no one ever has. Her acceptance made me accept myself more. It was close to the experience of my coming out. Her love made me love myself. I felt her kind emotions towards me trying to return my love, even though she does not love me as I love her. I felt my emotions and hers, and in the kindness of both – for the first time ever – I felt God.

I believed for the first time that God is not a mere concept and certainly not religion. God is not far away. God is with us, within us. God can be inside our emotions, our relationships and our pure souls. And this was a profound change in my relationship with God.

I know I am in danger. I am afraid – more than anything – of causing my mother pain with my imprisonment or the resulting scandal. Yet, I know as well that I love myself. I am true to everyone. I am trying to help others be as free as I am. I see the suffering of LGBT people in Egypt and I wish to help make them at least be able to live in the light rather than in darkness. I wish to make them love themselves. I wish to make people see them as human beings, not as concepts. This is why I fight now, and I believe there are others with me. Far more important, I believe I love God and God loves me.

I am free.

Editor’s note: Thank you, Yossra, for having the courage to BE, for having the courage to find and use your voice. I hear you, and I hope our readers understand the courage it took for you to write this essay. You are a beautiful and strong woman. Readers: please consider supporting the work of organizations such as ILGA and IGLHRC  which advocate for LGBT human rights around the world.

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