©Design: Boshra Jallali

A quest for oneself

Meeting with “Leil”, non-binary (He/She), freelance writer

By Haithem Haouel

English translation by Yasmine Ben Salah

One is not born oneself, one becomes one! or one persists in becoming one. Aspiring to a more just community life and having brandished the banner of individual freedoms at an early age, “Leil” soon came up against the hazards of a turbulent, often hostile existence, but one that continues to be lived to the fullest. Fights, dodging and a perpetual search for peace and reconciliation (un)shape his path.

Kissing oneself

His words sink into our heads! All welcoming, “Leil” reveals himself to us without concessions and ends up taking us very quickly into an existential headlong rush.. Listening to him, it is as if, since his birth the questions have never stopped flooding in. 

It all began in Tetouan, Morocco: “Leil” is an only child of civil servants. He grew up in a North African society, governed by its codes, its heavy patriarchy, its stultifying conformism: the child that he is was already asking himself elementary questions… far too early. As a child, he is already entangled in permanent questioning, linked to sexuality, to the relationship with body and appearance. A vague childhood… the precursor of a stormier adult life.

For him, the boundary between the genders is still elusive. Male/female, man or woman… Questions arise in the midst of puberty, which was full of physiological and emotional changes. A sometimes unpleasant, often blurred feeling hovers and goes hand in hand with weight gain and weight loss, shrinkage of clothing, or rejection of one’s appearance.

It was an awkward time where I hid and did not assume myself … until the stage where being a ‘boy’, where feeling masculine with all its attributes was more and more attractive, even amusing. Wearing a tie, and some of my father’s loose clothes, playing a role, stimulated me and slowly and surely broke the ice around my gender identity. “Leil” blissfully confides to us.

“Leil” was this introverted pre-adolescent… He was not yet able to cultivate his difference until he gradually but surely understood his being. His self-discovery was precocious: groping the other’s body was done in furtive gestures. Touching with people of the same sex became a flirtation and crystallised his physical, emotional, and sexual emotions… and this since the age of 7. This stammering is the culmination of a transition to adulthood, announcing various adventures.


Discovering oneself did not prevent “Leil” from studying English literature at university, and then, much later, journalism… which he did not pursue. The university facilitated the detachment from family, put distance with his parents and the environment in which he grew up. Nothing could be more abnormal… Leaving “Tetouan” meant maintaining his independence, going out to meet people who are similar to him and establishing friendships and love relationships, no matter how deep or fortuitous they may be.

An almost ordinary student life that immediately merged with LGBTQI+ activism, its members and its activities, often carried out in the shadows. “In 2008, I got caught up in the associative life by joining a feminist association through a gathering: the latter introduced me to volunteering, taught me team spirit, and made me discover committed events. A gentle but sure integration, which led me to the pure and hard militancy that was about to take shape: it was only a question of time.” Leil tells us about the creation of the Aswat Collective against gender and sexuality based discrimination, or more commonly known as the Aswat Collective.

Created in 2013 with other activists, “the Aswat collective” shakes up the very framework of his existence: it will echo on a collective and community scale, but also individually. He comments “This step was crucial: it changed my life and I have good memories of it… In spite of everything”.

He quotes calmly. “Aswat” is a fierce advocate for the rights of queer/LGBTQI+ people. The collective allowed him to fully integrate the community… to discover its ups and downs. He declares: “The collective answered my questions, made me think, forged me, made it easier for me to question myself and refine my community existence… With the activists, there were many moments of exchange, we were complementary, united, supportive, and close. Life stories crossed, profiles and life paths merged, multiplied… and many battles became intersectional and were just waiting to be fought”. He recounts nostalgically.

An effervescent community life

8 active and committed members formed henceforth “The Aswat collective”. This core group has grown to about fifteen people. The commitment radiated the community existence, already lived and conducted in Morocco, in silence, in secret…

Their work made sense, and so did their activities: ‘Aswat’ took many LGBTQI+ people under its wing despite the lack of resources. The members did fieldwork, managed to provide social and legal assistance, and also focused on arrests. The struggle with the authorities was becoming more and more intense…

The collective nourished and enriched personal aspects. Members asserted themselves through group activities and their experiences. The alternative movement that was already based on individual freedoms is boosted by the existence of this core group, which focuses its fight more on sexual freedoms. This activism was by then approaching the political and legal spheres and confronting the community with its real context. Indeed, it should be recalled that the Moroccan law criminalises homosexual relations: Article 489 of the Moroccan penal code criminalises “licentious or unnatural acts with an individual of the same sex”. Homosexuality is illegal in Morocco and is punishable by 6 months to 3 years imprisonment and a fine of 120 to 1,200 dirhams.

However, Aswat also shook up “Leil”s’ personal life. He explains: “I have been designated as a ‘woman’ and my physical change did not go unnoticed. Being harassed, assaulted, and made fun of for my appearance was intrinsic to my existence. For a long time, I have lived on the defensive. “Aswat” has remedied this violence. It has protected me and allowed me to come more to terms with myself. Dealing with social violence as a group is much more bearable. The collective became my family, a protective shield. We faced discrimination, oppression, and injustice as a group, creating defence mechanisms for ourselves. In addition to his queer identity, “Leil” is assigned female at birth: discrimination was and is felt on many levels. Being with “Aswat” has protected him symbolically. He quotes: “I don’t feel I have to face society alone anymore”.

This shelter that is the collective therefore favoured self-assertion… and disturbed his relationship with his parents, especially his mother. With resignation, “Leil” looks back on these facts: “My relationship with my parents was already distant. They found it difficult to accept me as I was. At a certain point, I came out. My mother’s shock gave way to total denial. For her, acceptance was impossible.” After this announcement, there was a long break in contact. In order to overcome this difficult situation, the collective substituted itself for his family of origin… at least before its slow yet certain dissolution.

The beginning of the end

In 2014, the collective was able to gain visibility despite the pressure and the prevailing danger. “Aswat” celebrated the international day against Transphobia, with the support of the Dutch embassy. The struggles then continued to grow, to the point of expanding within Morocco and beyond its borders.

The visit of “Aswat” to Tunis, at the occasion of the World Social Forum (WSF), is still present in the mind of “Leil”. He remembers it with a smile. “We were able to participate in the World Social Forum in Tunis (2015). I was invited by Ali Bousselmi (President / founder of Mawjoudin – We exist). My attendance at this important event was the result of a collective collaboration with several participating organisations in Morocco and Tunisia. During this global event, a stand was set up at El Manar campus, to present ‘Aswat’ to the present audience. This activity ended in an argument with some very homophobic people from the Tunisian left. This did not prevent us from waving the LGBTQI+ flag for the first time in the street during the human rights march. A first! It was a beautiful gesture. Both memorable and symbolic.”

As the collective gained visibility through its actions, hostility and violence became more and more prevalent and had a negative impact on the members, who started to disassociate themselves. “Aswat” was intimidated by the authorities and suffered arrests and harassment based on gender identity. Oppression increasingly strangled the collective when they met journalists – especially foreign ones – who came to cover their activities. Families or relatives of members were contacted by the police to denounce their actions. Danger lurked increasingly…

The atmosphere was getting heavier, enmities arose within the very core group, which became exhausted.  A different dynamic began to take hold and relationships began to crumble. Departures to other lands followed shortly: at least two members have applied for asylum. The psychological exhaustion was in full swing, and the end of a common dream was looming on the horizon. “Leil”, on his part, was at a decisive crossroads in his life.

Leaving … or dying

Mentally fragilized and vulnerable, Leil’s desire to leave became more and more pressing. Chronic depression raged, suicidal thoughts crossed his mind. The alchemy that was once present thanks to ‘Aswat’ has dissipated. It was as if a whole existence was disintegrating in his homeland… He had to leave and find a destination quickly. The destination that comes to mind first? It was the Netherlands. He explains: ‘I already had my visa. I had just returned from a gay pride event and the collective had already worked with the embassy before. My heart-breaking and difficult departure is planned: at the right moment, I announced it to close friends, making it clear from the start that I would apply for asylum once I was there. On the other hand, I told my family that I was going for a period. I arrived one weekend at the home of my best friend, a former Aswat member, who was waiting for me on the other side. On a Monday morning, I decided to go to an asylum seekers’ centre or ‘camp’.”

A page is being turned, a new one is being started… We are in April 2017.

Due to a lack of direction, or to a misdirection, “Leil” gets the wrong address before finally arriving at his destination. The asylum seekers’ centre is located on the German borders, far away from the city or all the urban cacophony… Its very existence was unknown. “I only had 300 euros with me. It was urgent to be able to enter the camp. Once there, I went to a cop, who gave me an information sheet to fill in. Coldness, placidity, rigour, and lack of empathy characterised the general behaviour of the agents. A monstrous queue stood in front of the asylum”. he describes.

“Leil” recalls the arrival and his feelings. Shock! Shock at the sight of so many refugees/asylum seekers pouring in from all sides. A heavy police presence was constantly there. The waiting time stretched on for hours and hours in a full room. The vertigo of the unknown and the fear were present: “These were the images that marked me the most when I arrived. Then came my turn! I felt like I was being interrogated in detail, photographed like a criminal. Then they take your fingerprints. The treatment of the policemen was neutral, hard, cold, mechanical. Then begins the detailed police investigation that will be used to create a file that will justify the flight, the asylum application. A file that summarises the experience, with evidence that attests to our activism. All invitations, documents, certificates, photos, papers are requested. A translator was present: every word counted. A third-party organisation ensures that the procedure runs smoothly.” The activist bitterly recalls. Appointments with lawyers and interviews punctuated his waiting time in this “camp””.  The torment continued, but this time in a new setting.

“Leil” was placed in a room, which he had demanded. The risk of running into queer or transphobic people was high. He has not been spared: within the camp, an individual has not stopped harassing him. In order to blur the lines, he had to be discreet. The pressure was permanent, and the solitude and isolation were suffocating. This is what he will remember about this “arrest station”.””You could go out into town, but you had to walk for kilometres to get there. Over 45 minutes of walking! A route that could be done by bike. We were entitled to per diems, meals. Our most basic needs were always accessible: a roof over our heads, hygiene and food, but I was self-sufficient.” 

The asylum centre is like a giant waiting room. People will decide the fate of “Leil” and others… when they deem it necessary. “They will choose a life for us, they will find where to put us, and we will be given a card that is specific to us”. he says.

During this time at the centre, “Leil” formed friendships with queer people, including a trans person from Malaysia and a gay man from Somalia. Bonds that periodically soften the heaviness of daily life before they are out of sight. The critical stage finally came to an end after 6 months. Others may live with this uncertainty for years. A light at the end of the tunnel was finally shining…

A challenging integration

“Leil” gets his refugee card and manages to rent cheaply… far away from the “Camp”. He receives a small amount of money to support himself and is treated by a therapist. The therapist diagnosed him with PTSD, leading to major depression and a form of social anxiety, which subsequently prevented him from getting a job. So he started to write, in the belief that writing is already a form of activism in itself. He soon made connections with queer people and together they formed another queer collective in the Netherlands.

Focusing on his passions and stimulating his artistic spirit were also crucial for him. Learning the local language, giving back to the host country, and having a good status are some of the steps to take to integrate well. “Leil” wants to have his passport so that he could return to Morocco. The distance is eating away at him. He misses his land. His father died and he was unable to attend his funeral… A lot that he had to go through! More than 5 years have passed, and “Leil” wants to return. It is time for reconciliation, with himself and with his native land.

With hindsight, and after so much heartbreak, the notion of militancy is changing for him. He says: “We used to forget ourselves in militancy. Now I am more focused on myself. I don’t ignore myself and I will militate in other ways, but taking care of oneself remains essential.  In North Africa, it’s still very complex to be an activist. The context has to change, so that it becomes less dangerous to resist there.” In the end, “Leil” pinpoints the use of the term “refugee” and would opt for “Nomad” instead.

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