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But The Most Important Thing Is To Be Free To Be Ourselves

Posted: June 23, 2021

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The author, who teaches in the Netherlands, spends time with people seeking asylum as part of his volunteer work. This is one of his notes from those meetings.

We are sitting in a circle, even though it is not a Dutch birthday party. I am at the refugee processing camp, talking with five new people who have signed up for a new programme that resembles an AMA (Ask Me Anything) as a way of addressing their anxieties and knowledge gap.

The conversations have been stilted. Largely because the procedural questions that they might have had have been answered by the gods of google. The answers they might want, do not yet have questions that are fully formed.

One hour in, I am thinking that maybe it is time to wrap up, when a tentative hand rises up. I nod at the hand.

The question of the rainbow

“What is the rainbow flag I see everywhere?” They ask. There is sudden tension in the group. I can feel people bristle. I feel like I am on unsure grounds. The history of pride is not something I know off the top of my head. Also, where I come from, the experience of pride in south and east Asia was very different from its western counterparts; more protest than pride, if you will.

I do a very general explanation of pride, but particularly about gender and sexual fluidity and inclusivity. They listen with quiet attention. Another hand shoots up.

“So you are saying that you will have no problem if a man calls himself woman?” The tone is not confrontational, but there is an edge there.

“Not at all. And if a person who has been identified as a man, recognises themselves as a woman, I would want to respect their identity and stop calling them a man. Because if such a person transitions their gender and sexual identity, then it means that they were identified as a ‘man’ by society, and not by themselves. So we don’t use their assigned name but the one that they choose for themselves. And we do not call them man who is a woman. We call them woman or any other identity that they have for themselves.”

‘So you won’t feel bad if I started calling you a woman?’

The hand is persistent and agitated now. “So you won’t feel bad if I started calling you a woman? You are ok if people think you are less of a man?” Two or three people in the group are uncomfortable with this questioning. One person mumbles something in a language I don’t speak. The hand gives them a look and waits for my answer.

‘People have called me all kinds of things. But if you call me a woman, and you mean it as an insult, I would just laugh about it. But it is not the same as a trans person. When I was born, I was identified as a man, and I’m ok with that identity. So if you call me a woman, that is as much of a wrong identification as calling a trans person who has told you they’re a woman, as a man.” I am trying to explain, though clumsily.

“That’s just all bullshit. You are either a man or woman. You can’t be both. You can’t be everything you want. Why complicate this?”

I am not sure if this is coming from ignorance or hatred. Probably both. I am trying to come up with an answer. When another hand raises itself. I pause mid-thought, preparing for another question.

‘We fled from home because we no longer felt safe’

The hand has a question but not for me. “Do you remember why you left home?” It asks.

Everybody nods. Including the angry hand.

“We all do,” the hand continued. “We left. We ran. We fled because we were no longer happy. No longer safe. No longer able to live life the way we wanted. No longer belonging to where we were born.” There is a different kind of silence. Tinged with pain. But it is a shared silence.

“And so we ran. We did not want to become a victim. Or a militant. Or a soldier. Or anything. We wanted to be ourselves. We put everything at risk. We had so much violence. We did things we should not have. We left families back home. And we came here. We thought, if we leave the country which was forcing us to be somebody we are not, we will be happy. We will look for country where we can be safe, and we can be free to be ourselves.’ The hand is going strong and there are many nods.

To be free to be ourselves

“Now imagine our country was our body. Imagine you are caught in a body that is at war. Somebody is forcing you to be somebody else. Somebody is telling you what your body has to be. Somebody is forcing your body to be redrawn. Or separated. Or parted. Somebody is drawing borders on your body and giving it names that are not your own. You want to run. But you can’t. You can run from a country. You cannot run from your body. And so you do the only thing you can. You change your body and fight back to own it. Someone who is saying they are a woman is not ‘choosing’. It is a war. And they are taking refuge in this new body that they are making their own so that they feel they are themselves.” The hand breaks down for a while. And there is silence. A deep one.

“They are not very different from you and me. We break. We build again. We leave a country and build ourselves. They leave body and build themselves. It is not about man or woman. It is not about Arab or European. It is about freedom to be who we want to be.”

We all just got a masterclass in intersectional politics from a 22 year old woman, who probably has never taken courses in identity politics, but has a visceral, embodied, empathetic understanding of what it means to yearn for freedom and joy. I can’t think of a more telling story to celebrate Pride Month, and to remind ourselves that it is not a choice, it is war.

Image source: Ike louie Natividad on pexels and Gustavo Tabosa on pexels

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Nishant Shah is a feminist, humanist, technologist working on intersections of digital cultures, social justice,

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