The harsh reality is that as a Transgender/ Non-Binary identifying person, you DO NOT have the freedom to travel anywhere in the world. You are denied this privilege/right because your “humanity” is not acknowledged legally in various parts of the world.
The fact that you identify/ express/ are perceived as transgender or Non-binary LEGALLY RESTRICTS YOUR ENTRY FROM A NUMBER OF NATIONS.
As someone who was born and raised in Dubai, UAE before moving to Bombay, I can testify to the total lack of acceptance for the Transgender community there. There is absolutely zero on-ground acceptance, visibility, or tolerance for trans folx in some of the Middle East and GCC countries.
The local queer communities (because of course they are there, just #facts) are usually very discreet and underground if at all. They are persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, abused, and do not receive their rights as full citizens/humans in their own countries.
Unfortunate and deplorable as it might be, we end up putting ourselves in high-risk and low-security situations by entering these nations.
Muscat, Oman – Nin Kala
In the early hours of 24th of February 2023, Model and artist Nin Kala landed in Muscat, Oman with their friends. Nin identifies as Non-binary and has undergone hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and has spoken about the same earlier. Nin has a male marker on their passport and was expressing themself as male when they arrived in Muscat. In a video on their instagram stories they spoke about being stopped at immigration, being asked to be physically inspected (they were asked to take off their shirt) – twice – which they consented to, and upon failing to prove they are a “man” were asked to take the next convenient flight and head back to Mumbai.
Most of the GCC countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.) have similar inherently homophobic and transphobic laws & attitudes by those responsible for enforcing them. But cities like Dubai, Doha and Muscat are actually urban centres that exhibit such progressive attitudes – hosting international celebrities and events – at the same time, even as their laws remain the same, causing this intense confusion. Because of course none of their tourism departments are advertising these in their campaigns with the digital Influencers from India.
Dubai, UAE – Shahzadi Rai and Zehrish
Earlier this year, in January, Shahzadi Rai and Zehrish, two transgender rights activists at the Gender Interactive Alliance, got their air tickets cancelled by Flydubai when they were about to take the flight to Kathmandu via Dubai for their annual meeting there! Yes that happened!
THEY WEREN’T EVEN GOING TO DUBAI! It was just a transit stop.
@surkhina on Twitter said: “Today ShahzadiRai was barred from boarding flydubai flight KHI-DXB-KTM. This is hijraphobia and we urge the Pakistan Foreign Office to look into this matter ASAP.”
“Transgender persons are part of the mainstream in other countries but Flydubai doesn’t allow x-gender cards for travelling, which is transphobic behaviour by the airline. If they don’t allow travel on their planes then why even issue us tickets,” Shahzadi questioned while sharing her ticket issued by the airline.
And here is where the problem lies. Nin Kala actually has an officially recognised transgender ID card. But as you can observe, that would not have worked either, and it would have led to a stronger barrier to their entry. In fact, if Nin had got the third gender marker on their official IDs, they may not be in this situation because their flight would not have been booked to Muscat at all, and that is sad and real.
Me In Nepal – (Never Colonized)
I personally know that NEPAL has no known history of foreign occupation (read they were never actually directly colonized – just like Thailand), I have videos in my Nepal insta stories highlight covering how relaxed the immigration at the airport was. Infact only in December, 2022 I was in Nepal, for a convening held by The Queer Muslim Project. We were a group of queer folks, including trans and non-binary folks like myself from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and India. And because we have the privilege of living in countries that have already recognised genders beyond the binary in some way or the other, we all made it to Nepal and had our convening.
Here’s another example of how this confusion can happen and how easily people can be unaware of the ground realities in these countries. Just look at the purpose for which our sister was trying to go visit Dubai:
Thai model Rachaya Noppakaroon arrived at Dubai International Airport with her team of 14, she was looking forward to putting up a grand performance at Expo 2020, where she was set to appear at a Muay Thai event.
But despite possessing all the necessary travel documents, Noppakaroon never made it to the months-long world fair currently being held in the United Arab Emirates. After being unceremoniously stopped at immigration and interrogated at the airport for nine hours, she was allegedly forced to fly back to Thailand less than a day after she first touched down in Dubai.
Describing the ordeal as a “nightmare during which [she was] fully awake”, she recounted how she was made to sit in the men’s waiting room and subjected to intrusive questions by an airport employee, such as whether she was able to have children, whether she had “done it all” and the size of her breasts.
Noppakaroon tried her best to prove her identity by showing them clips of her work. “But he didn’t really care and was more interested in sex.”
So what can we do right now?
Unfortunately, for now all we can do is increase our own awareness and avoid visiting any of these countries. That is the pragmatic reality of the situation.
In a post-377 and Trans Act established India, we have a burgeoning queer culture that is just taking hold of the mainstream discourse. There are young queer folks in India and the world over, especially in urban centers who are growing up in a much more loving and accepting world. They see a culture that celebrates them, they have local and international queer icons today.
I grew up in Dubai, and honestly, the way it markets itself and portrays itself, I would not blame the international community for mistaking them as tolerant. After Dubai’s success, all the major cities in the region followed suit, called over western advertising and marketing agencies to sell their countries to the world as a lovely tropical paradise for work and play. This is precisely why Doha, Qatar hosted the world cup 2022 despite have homophobic and transphoic laws and abysmal human rights records.
So pragmatically speaking, we can avoid these nations and here are some resources for you to refer as to where you can and can’t go:
The folks at @humandignitytrust have done some incredible work on this, and have put together this useful map which highlights Countries that Criminalise LGBT People. The map also has filters for gender expression.
It has maps and also details out the various legal status in various countries, sharing the penalties as well, and it’s a long list of nations tbh.
Whenever you are making travel plans look these things up and spread this information around.
So what can we do in the long run?
We know that when it is to do with us transgender/ non-binary identifying folks, nothing is going to move immediately. Of all the examples shared above of these incidents taking place, nothing has changed since. In the long run, we need to work with the local communities. Remember that they exist, and they are struggling in these nations living in tyranny.
The lovely folks over at @queeringthemap have put together a community-generated counter mapping platform for digitally archiving LGBTQ2IA+ experience in relation to physical space. You can see on this map that there are queer folks sharing stories even coming in from all the places that Human Rights watch list cautions Queer folks to avoid.
We need to respect their position and struggle and acknowledge our situation and privileges. We can enable and support them in their local movements and struggles. We can apply pressure by talking about this in media, and raising it with our foreign affairs ministry. We could shame those organisations that are Indian, and celebrate us here on PRIDE but also profit from running businesses in these nations.
But honestly beyond that, and there is nothing we can do. I would urge all transgender and enby folks out there, to do as much as you can to avoid these situations and the trauma it can cause you as much as possible.
Resources and Permissions
Human dignity trust map
Queering the map