Born in Benin, Cléo left her country because of her transsexuality and her activism. After living in Tunisia for several years, she was recently granted asylum there. She tells us about her fight and her odyssey.
Cléo is a tall elegant woman. She smilingly introduces herself in a few calm and controlled words. “My name is Cléo, I’m 28 years old, and I am Beninese. I’ve been living in Tunisia for three years. Six months ago I was granted asylum here because I am a transgender person.”
A hurried departure from Abidjan
Bit by bit, Cléo tells about herself. Since her earliest childhood, she had felt ill at ease with being called a “boy” and refused to “dress like a boy”. During her adolescence, which she spent in Ivory Coast, she was regarded as a “far too effeminate teen”. She was living with her father, who constantly criticized her behavior. The situation was also difficult in her all-boys high school.
“People didn’t really know if I was a boy or a girl because my appearance was rather androgynous,” she explains. “Aside from two or three gay boys, I had no friends and suffered a lot of rejection.” Cléo was also harassed. One day, almost all of the pupils at her boarding school waited for her and a friend to enter. Then “they greeted us, banging on the walls and tables, yelling: ‘Faggots! Faggots!’”
Despite the mockery, Cléo began to defend the rights of LGBT (Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgender) people at her school, holding impromptu meetings to discuss the subject. “During my final year at school, I revealed that I am transgender,” she recalls, “and found some support. That even persuaded other students to come out.’” However, when her father learned, he kicked her out of the house. No one in her family wanted to take her in. For nearly a year, a “great friend” put her up and helped her to pass the baccalaureate. “At the end of the year, my mother decided that it might be better for me to return to her in Benin so she could protect me.” She left Abidjan in 2010.
A “memorable” coming-out
Cléo describes her coming out at her mother’s home as “memorable”. She recalls that one evening her mother came into her room and said, “Listen: I would like to know if you are gay. If you are, I’d rather you tell me than have to learn it elsewhere. Then I’ll know how to protect you.”
At that very moment, Cléo didn’t dare to tell her mother the truth. “I had gotten used to the idea that she’d reject me, too,” Cléo confides. “But finally I decided to talk with her and just get it over.” Half an hour later, she went to her mother and told her that she was not “homosexual”:
“Actually, I love boys and I feel better wearing dresses.”
The young woman emotionally repeats her mother’s response:
“Yeah, I love boys and I love wearing dresses, too.”
“My coming out was as simple as that.” Cléo smiles.“I felt good and very relieved, even if we were a bit awkward in the following weeks. We didn’t really know how to look at each other or how to talk about it.” Once again, her mother took the first step, sweetly saying that Cléo could “dress like a girl” if she wanted. “We talked a lot about it, and she told me that she’d suspected I was transgender since I was very young. She told me that I never liked to wear boys’ clothes and that she used to braid my hair.”
The life of an activist in Benin
Because her mother was the eldest of a “rather well known and noble family” Cléo was more or less protected. “I could stay in Benin quite a long time without having to fear anything because I was sort of ‘untouchable’.” Then Cléo began to campaign for LGBT rights in small, clandestine groups. Like in Tunisia, “Some of them are officially registered – but for something else besides defending LGBTs: preventing AIDS or STDs, for example.”
One day, Cléo met the French ambassador’s advisor who helped her to create a platform for organizations combatting homophobia in the embassy, where homosexual and transgender people could meet to discuss possible field activities. The activists met with Beninese religious dignitaries, government ministers and journalists to discuss LGBT rights, a subject that Cléo describes as “taboo”. They organized discussions and held open house. “Unfortunately, having the support of the French ambassador was not always helpful: It suggested that LGBT rights were something imported and imposed by Europe.”
All these efforts made Cléo a leading activist. She spoke openly and answered questions about her transsexuality. Activism did her good and made her feel as if she was “doing something” for her community. “My mother’s protection und unconditional support encouraged me to speak publicly. My mother even tried to create an association for parents of transgender and homosexual children, which unfortunately was a huge flop!”
But being transsexual in a country like Benin is tricky. Cléo received threats and feared being denounced to the police, who would subject her to the same fate as other transgender people “who are undressed and filmed in public, sometimes by journalists for the ‘scandals section’.”
The activist was also the victim of physical and psychological violence. One of her maternal uncles locked her in a church for three days with nothing to eat or drink – compulsory fasting intended to “exorcise her terrible evil”. She only got out because her mother used her authority as the eldest to intervene. Some weeks later, Cléo was again locked up – this time at her uncle’s house. “I couldn’t go to the university, and they had confiscated my computer and phone,’” she says. “Sometimes my uncle or a pastor came by to tell me that what I was doing was unnatural, and that as the only son, I couldn’t do that to my mother.” Cléo remained locked up for nearly a month.
The young woman began to increasingly fear for her safety. “One day, I received a police summons for affronting public decency. That was the last straw.” The offense is subject to a fine and many years in prison. Her mother decided that the family name was no longer enough to protect Cléo in Benin. The two decided to leave.
One night, without anyone knowing, Cléo hurriedly left Benin with her mother. They had to make the entire trip by bus because they couldn’t risk taking a plane. Cleo explains that with her father working in “air traffic…he would have learned right away that I was leaving. He had warned me that if he found me, he would me ‘bump me off’ to prevent me from shaming the family.” The two women crossed through Togo and Ghana to Ivory Coast where they settled temporarily. The trip had lasted only two days, but Cléo was at the end of her tether. “I was afraid and very stressed,” she admits.
“In my rush to leave, I was hardly able to bring anything with me. I’m not materialistic, but it seems as if I left everything behind.’”
Despite the ordeal, some anecdotes make her smile, like that of the customs officer at the Benin–Togo border. “He was thrown for a loop, because he thought I was a woman but my passport indicated that I was a man. He kept me for a half hour, asked all his colleagues what they thought and then, calling me ‘My girl/boyfriend!’, he finally let me through,” she recounts with a laugh. “By the way, I’m still in touch with him.”
Once in Abidjan, the two women began to search for a country where they could settle down and where Cléo could start to study fashion. They quickly dismissed the surrounding countries. “Everywhere in West Africa, there’s the same sort of repression of transgender people,” Cléo sighs. “I never would have felt safe.”
For that reason, Cléo applied to a number of fashion schools “located as far as possible” from home. With life in France too expensive, she began to consider North Africa after hearing that the Black gay community there was beginning to develop. Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia all seemed to be good options. “In the end, a Tunisian school responded positively, I got my visa in a week and left for Tunis in early 2012,” she summarizes.
Complicated beginnings in Tunisia
For Cléo, settling in Tunisia was supposed to be her new start in life. “But I was very quickly disillusioned. As soon as I arrived, I had to sign a paper acknowledging that I was not allowed to work on Tunisian territory – contrary to what the school had told me.” In spite of everything, the young woman decided to stay, telling herself that she’d find a way to meet her needs.
For two and a half years, Cleo lived mostly off her own and her mother’s savings. “Between paying for school, transportation and food, I was running short of money and my situation became very precarious.’” Then, when her visa expired, she also found herself in an irregular situation. She was afraid of being sent back to Benin where, since her mother had left the country, she had no help. A single ID check would have been enough for her to be sent home. The young woman felt completely vulnerable and describes that period as “extremely difficult and anguishing”.
On top of her financial and administrative troubles, Cléo also suffered numerous types of discrimination.
“Tunisia is a beautiful country. I feel quite well integrated and I have Tunisian friends… But I also see how some people have negative views of Black women,” she says. “There’s lots of sexual harassment and I wasn’t prepared for that.”
The young woman avoided going home late – taking taxis instead of public transportation – and the Tunisian doctors Cléo visited for hormone therapy insulted her. “If they weren’t moralizing, they were very disdainful. In fact, their manner was very brusque. One of them told me to seek medical help and treated me like a madwoman…well, like a madman.” Others agreed to prescribe her medicine but didn’t want to provide any follow-up care. They told her to just make do – “which is pretty dangerous when you’re undergoing a treatment like that. They didn’t even make an effort to find the right dose!” she roars.
Given all her problems, a Tunisian friend suggested that Cléo apply for asylum. “She’d heard of a procedure for people like me,” said Cléo. “At first, we didn’t know who to contact, or how it worked. Thanks to information I found online, I ended up applying for a tourist visa for France, hoping that when I got there I could apply for asylum.” But Cléo was refused a visa. So she stayed in Tunisia and continued to look for a solution. Finally, in 2013, she made contact with the “House of Migration Rights”, an association that helps people to set up files with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the only organization in Tunisia that can grant asylum. She received asylum in 2015.
Although Tunisia ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, which means it can grant refugees residence cards and recognizes their right to work and receive health care and education, the country has no law that protects refugees and no national body to study applications for asylum. Until such an institution sees the light of day, the UNHCR works with the Tunisian Red Cross to evaluate asylum applications and grants refugee status according to international law, which assures a certain amount of protection to asylum seekers.
Since receiving refugee status, Cléo can breathe more freely. “The pressure has been lowered,” she says, smiling. For her, being a refugee means that “life goes on”. “I get financial assistance from the UNHCR which allows me to live decently. They provide me with drugs and provisions.” But most important for Cléo is the “stability” that her new statute brings: Her situation is now regular and the 1500 dinar fine she’d received from being irregular was cancelled. A psychologist is also helping her to get over the trauma of being persecuted. “I am making progress, even if there are some dark areas that I still can’t talk about,” she admits with a certain reserve.
Cléo’s new stability allowed her to open her own clothing atelier in the summer of 2015, something she’d long wanted to do. But all beginnings are hard. “In the first two months, I was exploited by a lady who paid me 50 dinars per wedding gown. At the time, I had no other income and that was my only order.” She finally stopped that, following advice from the House of Migration Rights, which began to fund her new project. “Now I’m making dresses in partnership with three Tunisian couturiers, and I also organized a fashion parade,” Cléo says enthusiastically. “I hope to make a name for myself in the business soon.” For now, Cléo is taking all kinds of orders, but plans to train to specialize in haute couture and embroidery.
“Sometimes I have some regrets”
Cléo admits that she could never have imagined making such an odyssey. “When I think about it, I tell myself that my whole future was planned, and if I hadn’t become an activist, none of this would have happened.”
The young woman reflects critically on her activist past and considers that her efforts had no effect on LGBT rights in Benin. “If forcing transgender people to undress in public had bothered people back then, my activism could have had an impact. That is not the case today,” Cléo notes. “Nobody is talking about that now.” According to Cléo, attitudes have to evolve: “Maybe in 10 years?” The former activist is pessimistic with regard to transgender peoples’ rights in West Africa and throughout the continent. She believes the situation for LGBT people is better in Tunisia than in Benin, even if that’s mostly because the subject is concealed. “That’s better than public humiliation. In the end, being hidden is a kind of protection,” she says, disillusioned.
Cléo adds that even if debate is growing with regard to homosexual rights, too often transgender people are still marginalized and forgotten in the fight for LGBT rights, both in the West and in Africa. It will take time for them to be taken into account and socially accepted.
“I’m tired. I’d like to settle down and lead a quiet life. But if I ever start campaigning again, I’ll focus on the rights of transgender people – not on the whole community.”
Cleo is bitter about her own situation. “I think that my fight cost me a whole lot and sometimes I regret that. Because of that, my family is alienated and my mother still gets threats (from some family members). One of my uncles even threatened to burn her if she didn’t tell him where I am.” Knowing that her mother continues to be pressured, the young woman feels guilty, but she sees no way to improve the situation. She considered bringing her mother to Tunisia, but quickly dismissed that option. “Her whole life is there,” says Cléo. “At 58, with frail health, she doesn’t have the strength to start all over. Sometimes I tell myself that if I wasn’t who I am, life would be a lot easier.”
Cléo pauses. She wants to say that, in spite of everything, her fight was not “stupid”.
“I needed to get that all out, and it’s out. But if it came to repeating it all, knowing what I do today …I don’t think I would. Because of that,
I can’t ever go home again.”
Only the protection of another nationality would allow her to return home. But she doesn’t kid herself: “Once you flee your country, you can’t go back.”
Finally, with regard to the family who disowned and threatened her, Cléo calmly says that she doesn’t hold all that much against them. “They live their life, I live mine. To make a clean break, I took my maternal grandmother’s name.” She concludes, “We’ve just taken different paths.”
The young woman doesn’t yet know her long-term plans. The UNHCR considers that Tunisia it is not a safe country for her due to the risk of “racial or sexual discrimination” and listed Cléo for resettlement. She has just learned that she is to leave for Europe very soon. She doesn’t know exactly where she’ll end up, but it should be with a residence permit, an apartment and protection: fresh promise for a future.
Notes by the author:
The Names of the people in this story have been changed for their protection.