How many of us don’t get to leave our home countries to seek asylum before our lives are taken from us?
When you think of an asylum seeker or refugee, you most likely think of someone being displaced by war or famine or similarly extreme circumstances, but that is not why I had to flee my home. You never know when or how your life is going to change, and it could change in the blink of an eye. One minute, you’re attending the biggest night of your life, arm in arm with your best friend, dressed to the nines in a now infamous blue suit, then you’re waking up the next morning with your photos circulated in a smear campaign. One bad day turns into a week. Several days pass by of people taking you down little by little, calling you all sorts of queerphobic slurs, and resorting finally to attacking your workplace.
I am aware that I used to turn more than a few heads just walking the streets of Male´, the capital of Maldives, where I made people uncomfortable because they could not easily fit me into either of their binary boxes. But I have always dissociated from the horrific realities of living as a queer-presenting person in the Maldives—the religious extremism that prevails, and of all the blood that gets shed.
On 15th November 2019, I attended the Dhivehi Film Awards 9—the biggest Maldivian film awards that is nationally televised—as the youngest judge on the jury panel. My best friend, a well-known social media influencer, was with me. Over the years, the both of us have received a lot of online harassment for looking like a couple, even though our friendship was/is platonic.
Attending the awards together felt empowering. I wore a suit, as I always have and always would to any formal event, and she wore a dress and heels. In a place where people did not understand anything outside of the patriarchal, cis-hetereonormative, strictly homogenous society, that was enough to signify us a queer couple. What space was there then for a transmasculine, non-binary person like me in a country that, by constitution, prohibits my very existence?
I did not choose to come out as queer. I was publicly outed. Prior to that, I never made any public claims about my sexuality or my gender identity because I knew I could lose my life over it. To have myself thrown into the center of attention and discussion in any way was not a reality I was ready to face. None of that mattered though, because as long as I was merely perceived as queer, I was never really going to be safe in the Maldives. And so, I was forced to flee, not only out of concern for my own safety, but for those around me as well. I had to throw away a life I had worked hard for years to attain, and start from nothing.
I was lucky in many ways: my case was a matter of public debate, and I had people who ensured my immediate safe travel to Thailand with just enough financial backing and time to obtain a tourist visa to another nation. Being a public figure and political activist gave me a platform influential enough to get noticed when I needed it the most, and it saved my life. How many LGBTQIA+ folk who are forcibly displaced have the liberty of having such a platform? How many don’t get to leave their countries before their lives are taken from them?
I had always known that leaving home might become a reality for me someday. Even so, I was completely unprepared to start from scratch in a whole new country, during a worldwide pandemic, and with months of built up emotions bubbling to the surface, ready to hit like a ton of bricks—all within the span of just half a year.
My first three months in the new country were spent applying for my protection visa. I was in a constant state of fear of a temporary bridging visa, which would allow me to stay indefinitely, not being approved. Just as that came through, the pandemic was declared and restrictions were put into place. I have spent many months applying for job after job. I fumble with things I once used to do with ease, and I have lost confidence in my abilities altogether. In a culture that looks for “outgoing” and “assertive” as the criteria, and as a complete stranger to this country, I struggle to stand out. Despite the four years of experience in hospitality reflected on my resume, I am also conscious that my identities as a queer-presenting person of colour and an asylum seeker may be vulnerable to internal biases people may hold.
I left home almost eight months ago, and since then, I have publicly come out on Twitter on Twitter as trans and non-binary. Every tweet I send out, be it political or completely trivial, is met with a barrage of hateful tweets in response from Maldivians telling me that I have no right to comment on Maldivian society, and that LGBTQIA+ people have no space to exist there. The past few months have been a constant battle of navigating the in-betweens of feeling like I don’t belong in either society; as an outcast, I am not Maldivian enough to comment on the society I grew up in. Here in this new place, as an asylum seeker, I am not yet entitled to the privileges of citizenship or permanent residence.
It is difficult to find comfort in fully settling down, starting a life here, knowing that this life that I now have could just be temporary. I am in limbo, uncertain of any future, but with the glimpse of hope that I might at the very least get to live and have a chance at a future.
I grew up bilingual; even so, being fluent in both English and Dhivehi had not offered me the language to describe or navigate the complexities of my own identity politics. It is strange how being in a new country, with no job or financial security, and living through a pandemic has allowed me more space than ever to realise parts of my identities. And it is certainly the least apt timing, but the trauma and pressure of seeking asylum has put my identities, and how I present myself to the world, under a microscope; by both the society back home and here.
But I am not a marginalised hero to idolise when it suits a narrative. I don’t want my voice to exist only when it’s an anecdote of success when the playing field for many of us isn’t even remotely close to being level. I am hurt and I am angry, tired of fighting a system that continues to erase the identities of LGBTQIA+ asylum seekers and refugees.. The life I have led, of constantly walking on eggshells, of having to hide and constrain myself, and struggling to simply survive is barely a life. I, like many of us, dream of the simple freedom to exist without having to apologise for every second of it.
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