Never have I had such mixed feelings about a place. Never have I wanted to leave a city more, but never have I wanted to stay so much.
I was captivated by the uniqueness of this city filled with skyscrapers far as the eye could see with deserts taking up the empty space in between, and the merging of cultures that has occurred as a result of over 80% of the population being expats. I loved getting to catch up with my friend who now lives there, meeting her friends, and spending the day smoking shisha and soaking up the sun.
But it was also the most challenging – and not in a good way – place I’ve travelled to.
I was more aware of my gender precarity in Dubai than I have been anywhere else. People stared (and not the curious or confused stares that I’m used to) and looked at me with disgust. I felt anger and resentment behind their eyes and I was more scared than I have felt in a long time. This might have been compounded by the recent sexual assault I faced in Moldova, but even with that aside, it was two and a half days filled with everything from subtle to blatant transphobia.
It all started when I got off the plane and went to passport control. The agent kept looking back and forth between my passport and me, clearly confused or uncertain about something. Without saying anything to me, he called over who I presumed to be a supervisor. Though it has been nearly five years since I took Arabic at university, I was surprised when in this stressful situation I actually realised I could understand small pieces of what they were saying. I gathered that they were trying to decipher my gender to determine if the passport was really mine or not, and if it was even real. They asked me if I was a man or woman, because – as they put it – my passport says female, but the picture and I look male. Knowing that being trans in the UAE is illegal, I just made my go-to joke about how I got a bad haircut that made me look like a boy right before getting my new passport a few months ago, and it’s still growing out. It took them the time the agent next to us took to get through seven people and two families to finally decide they were satisfied and let me go.
The next day and a half I spent with my friend, and while I had the comfort of knowing I had someone on my side, I still felt an immense weight from the way people looked at me. Never have I felt so out of place and so unsafe. Public bathrooms were more out of the question than they normally are, visiting a mosque seemed stupid, and anything else that involved gendered spaces was a far-fetched dream because the weight of my gender ambiguity was so heavy, leaving me vulnerable and scared. But I was also having a great time experiencing the city. It was a tension that I cannot describe, feeling both terrified and joyful, fearful and happy. When my friend had to return to work my final day in Dubai, I got to go out on my own which I both loved and hated because solo travel is my general preference, but I was also losing my one sense of safety that having her by my side provided.
I decided to go to the Burj Khalifa – the world’s tallest building with the world’s tallest outdoor observation deck. Afterwards, I went to get lunch at the adjacent Dubai Mall. As I was leaving, a man came up to me to ask me where I got my tattoo. I tried to explain that I got it at home in the US, but he didn’t seem to understand so I just started walking away. But he followed and kept asking me about my tattoo. I repeated myself again, and this time he asked if I was on Tinder. I said no and continued walking away, trying to ignore him. Soon it escalated and he started to ask me if I was a man or a woman, and wanted to know if I was a “transsexual.” I started walking faster to get away, and soon he started shouting at me wanting to know if I’ve had “the surgery.” He kept following me and shouting at me until I spotted a security guard to go up to. As soon as he noticed me approaching the guard, he turned and walked away. I know it could have been worse – ”cross-dressing” is illegal in Dubai and tourists have been arrested for it in the past – but it was extremely unsettling nonetheless and I immediately got an Uber to go back to my friend’s apartment to burn time until my flight that evening.
Soon it was time to say goodbye to my friend, and I made my way to DXB. Airport security is always a nightmare for me, and after everything that had happened in Dubai thus far, I was preparing for the worst. But there was little that could truly prepare me for what was coming. I dumped my bags in the security trays with all the necessary items such as liquids and my laptop out, took my belt off and I walked through the metal detector. There was no beep or anything that I heard or saw to indicate I had set it off so I was momentarily relieved. I was about to scurry to grab my things and leave to find some food when the guard told me to stop. I asked if there was a problem, and he said it was just a “random inspection” and asked for my passport. I went to my things and pulled it out to hand over to him. He looked inside and at me, and then called another guard over who also visually examined me and my passport, obviously trying to decide what to do. They yelled across the room in Arabic to a few woman guards who were staring at me, looking disgusted. They responded with something along the lines of “I don’t want to.” Soon I was being told to grab my things and follow the two men into one of the police rooms off to the side.
I felt sick because I knew what was likely coming, and there was nothing I could do. As we were walking, one of the guards asked if I’ve had an “operation,” gesturing to my chest, and smirked when I answered no. We got into the room where there were two other guards sitting and talking. The guards I was with explained the situation to the others, all while laughing to one another, thinking I had no idea what they were saying. I was told to strip down. I asked if I could just have a pat down instead, and they said no, I had to remove all my clothing. Reluctantly I did, because getting out of this airport and this country was the only thing on my mind at that point, and the only way to do that was to cooperate, no matter how degrading. Without using gloves or any kind of barrier the first guard started to pat down and feel every part of my body while the other three sat and watched with smiles on their faces. He ran his hand over my genitals multiple times, clearly not concerned about me hiding something and only interested in violating my body for his own personal pleasure. When he got to my chest, he fondled my breasts and I could see a look of pure glee on his face whilst doing it. It felt like hours that he was playing with them until finally he told me to put my clothes back on and I was free to go.
I wanted to go to the bathroom to cry and throw up, but I was afraid to enter a gendered space after the past few days. I felt dirty and I wanted a shower to wash away the smell and feeling of his dirty hands on my body. But I had to pull myself together and sit surrounded by people, trying not to burst into tears or start visibly shaking from the anxiety attack I was going through.
I’m now safe and comfortable in the Maldives where the sun is warm, people are friendly and hospitable, and the culture is vibrant. I’ve had time to reflect back on my time in the UAE and larger considerations of travelling while trans. I’m constantly sacrificing parts of my identity so I can travel safely. I don’t like having to make that decision, but I’m privileged enough to travel at this point in time so I’m willing to compromise parts of myself to do what I love. But in Dubai, I felt like there was nothing I could do to sacrifice my identity in order to blend in – leaving my safety in constant question. In some ways, this has turned me off from travelling to other places in the Middle East. But in other ways, I now more than ever want to see what it’s like because despite the horrible challenges I faced, I did love Dubai. Even though I did face more transphobia in the UAE than I have anywhere else, I also met some incredible kind and wonderful people there and I am trying to remind myself not to let these incidents dictate my view of the country as a whole or the rest of the Middle East. But I now understand – to a degree – what it means to travel as a transgender person in this region of the world so I can now be prepared for future trips here because I’m not going to let the bad spoil the good.