North Africa, West Asia

Meet the Tunisian drag queen defying the odds

On the frontline of the LGBTQIA movement in Tunisia, a trans non-binary drag queen is revolutionizing and leading the fight for equal rights. 

Chouaib ElHajjaji
26 February 2018
Khoukha. All rights reserved.

Khoukha. All rights reserved.It is 1 PM and Khoukha is one hour late. The doorbell rings, she is here. Something electrifies the air; she is the center of attention. Khoukha starts her performance, a true artist, she brings the stage and her creative aesthetic with her.

Khoukha did not come to disappoint. And like her performances, the perfection was real. She takes off her glasses and starts greeting us. Her eyebrows are totally shaven.

The word ‘drag queen’ brings the stereotypical image of someone with a lot of make-up, extravagant fashion and a personality larger than life to mind. Even though this is true, being a drag queen is not all fun and games.

To create this persona, this alter ego, drag queens usually carry a story that is often ignored by society and mainstream media.

With her unique style of a glamorous model, her hyper effeminate manner and open body language, Khoukha starts telling her story: “I grew up in conservative family that tried its best to maintain a perfect image to the outside world, even though we were far from perfection. My eldest brother was very abusive and this affected us all. To survive, I created my own world in my small room.”

It did not get easier for Khoukha as she got older. She takes a deep breath to gather her thoughts before continuing, “I first came out as a gay man. This was in my first year of college. But the more I got in touch with fellow gay activists, the more I felt excluded from my own community. This was especially hard for me. I thought that I would never belong.”

Burdened by her own demons and faced with rejection, Khoukha suffered from major depression for almost a year. She was unable to leave her bed and had limited interaction with the outside world.

“Even in my darkest moments, I never stopped writing. I used social media to reveal parts of my life with reservations.” She never thought that her fight against depression is what would help her find herself.

“I am a feminist”, she states with a sense of pride, “When I first started my activism, which was focused on gay men’s rights, I was invited for an interview with an academic who identifies herself as a feminist.”

Khoukha stops for a few seconds and with a more enthusiastic tone she continues, “Little did I know that this would be the moment I would start discovering my real identity. It all began with a simple question about feminism. Sadly I had limited knowledge at the time, but the interviewer was more than willing to share feminist literature with me. She guided me and I am really grateful to her for that.”

There was no coming back. Khoukha drowned herself in reading, discovering all the different aspects of feminism. This coincided with the birth of “Khoukha” and “Noun”, a moment she documented on her left hand with an Aramaic tattoo.

Khoukha is an artist who wears her art. She showed her tattoo with excitement. Like ancient text on a pyramid, her tattoo graces her hand and immortalizes a defining moment in her life.

“Khoukha and Noun are two alter egos that I identify with. During my depression, they would fight and make out, disagree and agree. Noun represents my “Sufi” side, a yearning for the afterlife with a full commitment to abstinence and praying; while Khoukha cherishes life and pleasure, she is rebellious.”

Two years ago, Khoukha finally came out with a name she picked herself, giving homage to her given name, both names share the first letter “Kh”/”خ”. The choice of this name is a statement in and of itself against “a deep-rooted sexism even in languages.” Khoukha is singular and feminine and means peach. The noun and plural in Arabic are masculine. Her use of these words shows an intellectual side that people may dismiss.

The excitement builds up in her delicate voice "With the birth of Khoukha, I have finally made peace with myself; I have finally accepted who I was born to be.” She continues with some unease, “at that moment, I knew that much of my existence would revolve around activism.”

Khoukha’s voice is soft and effeminate but her words are loud and clear. “The first time I socialised after coming out, an activist at an LGBT meeting was urging us to become more heteronormative and less effeminate. I was really frustrated and called him out, somehow in an improvised but emotional speech. People were clapping and others shouting. It was a life-changing moment.”

Khoukha, who had never asked to be crowned as the queen of the LGBTQIA community, is loved and appreciated by her counterparts. Even though she does not know if it is out of fear or respect, she is well-aware of the responsibility given to her.

“I am honored to be in such a position, but it can sometimes be exhausting. I am being used as a reference and asked about what’s right and wrong; what’s appropriate and inappropriate, and that’s a heavy responsibility. I am afraid that I may disappoint people. I am not always strong. I break and full of imperfections.”

As for the future, Khoukha said “I live in the moment, I always try to learn from the past. I don’t like overthinking the future.”

When she is not doing drag, Khoukha works as a freelance graphic designer. But she has been unemployed for some time. An unfortunate reality that 30 year-old Khoukha has to face, but she is not the only one and she is aware of that. Her community is disproportionally affected by unemployment. Even though Tunisia's unemployment rate did reach 15.3 percent in 2017, there are still no laws to protect sexual minorities in the workplace.

Khoukha believes there have been some changes with regards to LGBT perceptions, but more still needs to be done: “In addition to homophobia, there are other issues that affect us such as hierarchies. Masculine upper middle class gay men are at the top of this hierarchy, while the transgender community and the non-binary are at the bottom, and often forgotten.”

This may explain why she doesn’t trim her beard. Khoukha makes sure that her identity is visible, “My art is all about crossing gender lines, questioning the system.”

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