In this section:

QYLs speak...

Image credit: Farah Abdi

Farah Abdi's blog: The emancipation of "mimi"

Farah Abdi's blog: The emancipation of "mimi"

“Mimi” is Swahili for “me”

Image above: Farah speaking at the US mission in Geneva

In his fourth blog for Leading Change, Farah talks about issues of identity and how he has learnt to become, and accept, himself.

I left my home in Kenya four years ago in search of a place that would not only tolerate what I thought was my sexuality at the time, but also celebrate this part of my identity.

I arrived in Malta after nine months of a difficult and dangerous journey across countries, the Sahara and sea. At this point, I was a wounded warrior masquerading as a survivor. More than a decade of internalised homophobia – stemming from my conservative roots – had done its damage.

Roots

I come from a community – Somalis – that has been emotionally and psychologically traumatised by decades of civil war, mass migration and dislocation.

Four-year-old Farah Abdi stands with his mother

Four-year-old Farah with his mum

In my community, a girl without a headscarf is a harlot-in-training. Such retrogressive taboos become minuscule in comparison to homosexuality. Being gay is not only an amoral form of psychic and sexual corruption, but also an act of perverse, Western mimicry. Any form of sexual difference is considered not only repugnant, but devious.

It took me more than two years of intensive therapy after my arrival in Malta to make peace with my “gay” identity. After this, I was supposed to live the proverbial happy ever after life.

Unfortunately this was not the case. There was a missing link that I could not verbalise. The risk of sinking into depression sent me running to my therapist once again in search for answers.

Months of deep soul-searching brought me to the realisation that I was identifying as gay because I was afraid of exploring my femininity. This again stemmed from my conservative roots.

In Somali culture, hyper-masculinity is the most desired attribute in men. Femininity signifies softness, a lightness of touch – qualities that are aggressively pressed onto young girls and women. When a woman does not possess feminine traits, it is considered an act of mild social resistance.

This applies equally to men who are not overtly masculine but the stakes are considerably amplified. If a Somali man is considered feminine he is deemed weak, helpless, pitiful. The underlying message being that femininity is inherently inferior to masculinity.

Becoming myself

In order for me to embrace who I truly was, I had to go through the painful but fulfilling process of unlearning the toxic pillars that root my culture. This was a painful process because it meant cutting ties with family and community.

It is extremely difficult for a Somali to do this because family and community gave us a home, when our country did not, when our nation state – Somalia – disintegrated. Those we escaped with became our nation with borders that re-collected us in the enormity of loss.

Two boys with two women grouped together for a photograph

Farah at seven years old – with his grandmother, mother and brother – wearing the traditional Somali gown boys wear after circumcision. The gown is supposed to be tied round the waist but Farah tied it round his neck like a dress.

So what do you do when first, the nation, then one’s family and community, reject you?

I had always thought of family and community as a fixed, all-powerful entity. I was raised in a culture where family and community was the most important thing. Rightly so. But in order for me to embrace my transgender identity, I had to learn that nothing in life is fixed, especially family and community.

Embracing this has allowed me the possibility to become my authentic self.

Fitting in

Another challenge I encountered during the process of soul searching was coming to terms with living in a country, continent and world that will readily accept one part of my identity, but force me to discard the other. This is especially true in Malta at a time when it's okay to be transgender, but xenophobia and racism is at an all time high.

The mother of all cures – time – ended up taking care of this. After four years in Malta, I was becoming Maltese through osmosis. Not through naturalisation, integration or registration.

The Maltese government and people could deny our rights as refugees and ignore us all they wanted. But I noticed one minuscule change after the other, like consistently saying "isma" – a Maltese slang commonly used to get someone's attention when trying to start a conversation.

The passage of time continued to affect the change until I appeared another person all together.

Acceptance

Do butterflies and moths suffer this perplexity? This how did I get here and who am I crisis? They seem to just beat their wings twice and then take to the air.

I felt weighed down, burdened, not so much by what I did have but what I didn’t – a dearth that I couldn’t describe. The cloud finally lifted when I looked at myself in the mirror and spoke to my reflection.

“Four years ago when you first arrived in Malta, you were expatriated, diffident, beautiful, full of longing for a home, and yet hopeful that your new home, Malta, would one day make a place for those it rejects, realising that it itself is unhomed – estranged from itself – if it has no place for those like you.”

So clearly I don't have a problem with who I am today. And if my native Somali community or my adoptive Maltese community have a problem with me being me, then so be it.

Delimara Bay, Malta. The items on the image have been washed up to the shore by currents. Their identity is unknown.

"I did not want anything to do with this bloody group that was responsible for the death of my dad and many other innocent civilians. I had to flee, because refusing their request to join them would lead to me being executed."

Abbas, 19-year-old Somali refugee in Malta

A man at Hal-far open refugee centre, Malta, enters his shipping container home

"Before giving up on your dreams, pinch your skin, tug at your hair. Remind yourself that you are alive."

Farah Abdi

Farah is speaking with the Prime Minister of Malta, Joseph Muscat

"The problem with throwing money at the problem is that the money ends up in the wrong hands and does not achieve what it was intended to achieve."

Farah Abdi