By Heba Kanso
BEIRUT, May 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In a central Beirut cafe, transgender model Sasha Elijah flips open a paper fan and whips out her new ice cream cone-shaped high-heeled shoes for a potential drag costume.
It is a deliberately provocative display of femininity from Sasha, who is on a mission to challenge the stigma and taboo of being transgender in the Middle East through her modelling, drag shows and social media.
The 21-year-old's costumes are as colourful and complex as the journey that led to her coming out as Sasha in Lebanon, a seemingly progressive society that she says remains deeply rooted in religious and political conservatism.
"I created Sasha so I can face society ... I had to elevate myself, not just the physical self, but with my mindset," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in the capital Beirut.
"If I was still the person who I was six years ago, I couldn't survive, and I couldn't walk within the society," said Sasha, who battled low self-confidence and depression before coming out as transgender.
Lebanon will on Saturday launch its second gay pride week in Beirut, after breaking new ground last year by becoming the first Arab country to hold such an event.
While the gay rights movement has steadily grown in Beirut, homosexual acts are still punishable by up to a year in prison under Lebanese law - although a judge last year threw that into question when he said homosexuality was not a crime.
Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people face persecution in many countries in the region, where some risk fines, jail and even death. Social exclusion and abuse are common.
Homosexuality is not explicitly criminalised in Egypt, but LGBT people have long been targeted under laws on debauchery.
Dozens of people were detained in a recent crackdown in Egypt when fans attending a rock concert raised a rainbow flag in a rare show of public support for LGBT rights in the conservative Muslim country.
Ameen Rhayem, representative of the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality (AFE) which campaigns for gender and LGBT rights, said many in Lebanon still struggled to accept difference.
"Lebanon is better than Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. But people think life in Lebanon for the LGBT community is easy, but to be honest it is not," said Rhayem.
"Yes, Lebanon is more visible with the LGBT community than anybody else in the region, but there are still attacks and arrests of trans people in Lebanon."
NO MORE FEAR
Growing up, Sasha says she used to play with her sisters' make-up and dress up in girls' clothes. From an early age, she knew she was different from other children.
She remembers that time fondly, but started to struggle in her early teens when she came out to her devoutly Christian family, who opposed her desire to undergo hormone therapy.
She did so anyway, a decision she says she does not regret, even though it took years to mend the relationship with her parents.
"It was a breakthrough moment for me when I first started to accept myself officially, because I had no more fear from my parents, no more fear from society," she said.
From then on, Sasha went public with her new identity, doing fashion shows, drag performances and television appearances in which she talked about being transgender.
She designs every costume for her performances herself, basing them on her emotions – some are dark coloured with feathers, while others are bright and feature flowers, seashells and sequins.
Her outspokenness is her form of activism, which she hopes will empower transgender people in the Middle East to be who they want to be, and help improve society's understanding of the issues they face.
"Behind all the glamour and glitter of modeling and drag shows is just a person trying to live and survive," said Sasha.
"Sexual harassment, bullying, judgment, prejudice - I have gone through a lot just for walking down the street, just because they know that this person is a transgender."
Campaigners say the false belief that all transgender people are sex workers and difficulties with identification papers add to their daily struggles.
People in Lebanon who undergo gender reassignment surgery can change their sex in legal documents.
But campaigners say that option should also be open to those who have not undergone surgery.
"Somebody should be able to change their gender identity without having to transition fully," said Joseph Aoun, spokesman for Helem, a Lebanese NGO that advocates for LGBT rights.
"A transgender person should have the choice to identify as a woman or man."
Sasha, who wishes to keep the details of her transition private, is not looking to change her identity legally - she says she feels secure with who she is.
"At the end of the day I know who I am and what I am," she said.
"I am at a point where I am very comfortable with myself. I am ready to face anything, and I am ready to do anything and everything that I want - nothing can stand in my way any more."
(Reporting by Heba Kanso @hebakanso, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)
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