50.50: Feature

‘I’d never seen another African man share his transition on social media’

Ghali Eden founded the Instagram account Moroccan Transgender Community. It’s one way he’s fighting for the rights of other trans Moroccans

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra
25 April 2022, 9.31am
Illustration: Inge Snip. All rights reserved

Ghali Eden was five when he doodled a moustache on a photograph of himself and asked his cousins to call him by a boy’s name. Ghali always knew he was a boy, even if his family, Moroccan society and the law said he was not, because he had been assigned female at birth.

Now 27 and living in Belgium for the past eight years, Ghali says he has never seen another African trans man document their transition publicly. He is an activist for the rights of transgender people in Morocco, and the founder of the Instagram account Moroccan Transgender Community, which has more than 1,000 followers and receives dozens of enquiries every week.

“I spent 19 years in Morocco, so it's my home,” he told openDemocracy. “I don't want trans kids to feel the same way that I felt when I was a kid.”

Ghali was a student at Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium’s largest French-speaking university, when he first saw trans people walking the streets safely and proudly. He started to research transitioning, despite thinking “it was a dream and I would never achieve it”.

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All his life, he had felt the distress of having to present as a girl, wearing skirts to school and then, at the age of 13, having his first period. "I felt like I was forced to be in someone else's body," says Ghali. He suffered from depression even after he moved to Belgium. “In my work, my colleagues and friends accepted me as who I am, but my depression came from Morocco and people who live in Morocco.”

I don’t want trans kids to feel the same way that I felt when I was a kid

Trans Morocco 2.png
Illustration: Inge Snip. All rights reserved

In March 2020, during the first COVID-19 lockdown, Ghali’s mother repeated a negative comment from a family member about the way he looked. They said he had short hair, didn’t wear skirts and brought shame to the family. “That’s when I told my mother: ‘I'm transgender’.”

The combined effects of lockdown and painful phone calls home meant that his depression worsened. “I had two choices: to start my transition or to commit suicide,” Ghali says. He decided to start transitioning – a process that was carefully monitored by private Belgian doctors – and at the same time set up the Moroccan Transgender Community.

Ghali decided to share his transition step by step, from his first testosterone injections in December 2020 to his double mastectomy last August. He shared both the challenges of the hormonal and surgical treatments he was undergoing, and the joy of getting physically closer to the man he always knew he was.

It was a bold and challenging act in Morocco, where the laws do not even mention or acknowledge trans people. As Ghali sees it, for him to exist visibly and proudly as a trans man is an act of resistance in itself.

Being gay is illegal

Homosexuality is illegal in Morocco, according to article 489 of the penal code of 1962, and punishable by up to three years in prison and a fine. NGOs say that nearly 5,000 gay men have been arrested and thrown into prison in Morocco since 1956, when the country won its independence from France. Politicians continue to describe homosexuality as "un-Moroccan" and "un-Islamic".

A 2020 survey of 400 members of Morocco’s LGBTQIA+ community, in Marrakech, Agadir, Tangier and Rabat, found overwhelming agreement that the “social environment […] generally marginalises and rejects them”. At least 70% reported being subject to some form of violence due to their sexual orientation.

The number of Moroccan lesbian women applying for asylum in the Netherlands and Spain is also on the rise.

The coronavirus pandemic had already increased the risks faced by LGBTQIA+ people in Morocco, who were often stuck at home in unsafe situations. In April 2020, a Moroccan student who had returned from France during the lockdown reportedly killed himself after being outed as gay.

The Moroccan state’s denial of legitimacy to LGBTQIA+ people affects him deeply, says Ghali. In Belgium, he has founded an LGBTQIA+ community and has documentation that reflects his identity. “I'm really so sad about it because I’m a male in Belgium. But my papers in Morocco still use my dead name and female gender marker,” he says.

If he returns to Morocco, Ghali could be imprisoned on the charge of homosexuality or “sexual deviancy”. He says he knows of trans people who have been arrested under article 489 of the penal code, even though sexual orientation is not directly linked to gender identity.

Trans Morocco 3.png
Illustration: Inge Snip. All rights reserved

An online safe space

This is where Moroccan Transgender Community comes in. Ghali wanted to provide a supportive and educational online platform that serves even those who are too scared to sign up as followers. He says that he receives 15 to 30 messages a week from people looking for advice and information.

His friend and co-founder of the network, Eyad Eden, who also started his transition while studying abroad, helps with the task of supporting trans Moroccans. It’s about changing people’s mentality through knowledge, says Eyad, and “changing the law so it accepts and supports trans people”.

Both men say it’s important to reach parents of trans people too, because they can be important allies to the cause. Many people approach them for information in case they later have a child who is trans.

Ghali’s mother has herself come a long way: not only does she now accept her son, she celebrates him. Ghali’s mother says parents of trans children “should be supportive, love their kids unconditionally and, most importantly, be up to date with information”.

This includes understanding the risks posed by Morocco’s laws to anyone who openly identifies as trans or has started to transition. Ghali says transitioning in Morocco can be dangerous “without a proper health system that supports them and a legal frame that protects them”.

Your own relatives can also pose a threat, says Ghali, because “in Morocco there are parents and family who could kill you if they know that you are part of the LGBTQIA+ community”.

This is why he often advises trans teens who want to come out to their families to wait, finish their studies and become financially independent – because there is always the chance they might be thrown out of their home. Ghali recalls a trans man telling him that when he came out, his family found a man and “made me marry him”.

Migration as a survival tactic

Many trans Moroccans are forced to apply for asylum in Europe, says Ghali. Often, they started to transition while studying in the West and knew they could face family isolation, violence or imprisonment if they returned to Morocco.

Ghali himself knows the pain of exile, having been unable to visit a dying elderly relative in Morocco because some members of his family refuse to accept his transition. Comments such as ‘you’re going to hell’ and ‘for us, you’re already dead’ have been hurled at him. He wrote on social media: “You know what’s the hardest situation ever? When a very dear person dies and you lost the last occasion to see him/her for the only reason that you were born transgender.”

But things may be changing, albeit slowly. At the start of Ramadan in early April, Ghali’s mother, friends and LGBTQIA+ activists welcomed him back to Tetouan, his home city in northern Morocco. Ghali says it was a very special time for him because he could fast and then “go to the mosque and hang out with other men. All this in the right body. No words could describe the euphoria I felt doing those simple acts.” As a devout Muslim, he emphasises that there is nothing in the Quran against trans people.

Back in Belgium, Ghali reflects on the sad reality that migrating may be the only way a trans Moroccan can live safely. Of course, this is not possible for many people, so Morocco’s trans community remains hopelessly divided, he says: between those who have already left, and those who desperately want to leave.

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