INTERVIEWS | WINTER ’20
IMAN LE CAIRE
INTERVIEWED by JAMES POWELL
PHOTOGRAPHS by KAMOLLIO
In the throes of this global pandemic, travel as we know it has been severely restricted. Our virtual conversations have become digital vessels to far away hemispheres. My mind was determined to go to Egypt but my soul yearned for Kemet, “the land of the Blacks” — and that is where she took me: the indomitable Iman Le Caire. To only envision Le Caire as a trans refugee from a small rural village in Cairo who escaped unimaginable vilurence would be a disservice not only to her but also the community she seeks to uplift. Hers is a story of reincarnation. Le Caire worked as a contemporary dancer and choreographer at the Cairo Opera which ultimately aided her in coming to the United States where she became a LGBTQ performing artist and nightlife fixture in New York City, Fire Island Pines, and Cherry Grove. Through her advocacy work at TransEmigrate managing Arabic Relations, she has become one of the leading activists helping transgender people relocate to safer homes. Our exchange explored stretches of loss and spiritual and mental abuse during her youth but shifted, thanks to her timely wit, to “getting back up.” The tone of the conversation was characterized by the very meaning of Le Caire’s name, “faith”— a spiritual apprehension that has not been physically seen or touched that we are still called to manifest for ourselves and those we love.
JAMES: I think it’s important for us to understand how queer identity is shaped by the landscape we’re in. I’m glad the ancestors connected us. I want to talk about your Egyptian origins. Is that where your name comes from?
IMAN: Yes, the name comes from my sister Iman. She was the best sister to me as a transgender—as somebody who is different in my family. Transgender, where I come from, is something abnormal and shameful. In the village where I come from, they are killing them, and they don’t want to talk about them [the murders] at all. Or some transgender people kill themselves. They get raped by the whole community and then they kill them just like what’s happening to the Black trans here [in the US]. That’s why I have this trauma. I did not just join the movement. The trauma hit me in my head, and that’s why I’ve been in the street [protesting] because of what happens in Egypt to people like me.
But my sister was my guidance. She was always saying, “Get better, change your attitude,” and making me feel better. I get emotional every time I talk about her. My brother was trying to get rid of me by making my life a living hell because everybody was shaming him, so he was always beating me and fighting with me. Where I come from, it’s hard to even move at the market because everything is in front of everybody. Everybody will know that there is a transgender person in the house. You always get attacked by people. But my sister was always protecting me. That’s why I took her name. I don’t think she would be happy that I did this if she finds out. My whole family is very strict Muslims.
JAMES: The story is complicated, but there is so much beauty. When I think about names, I have come to understand that “Egypt” is a name that the Europeans took from the ancient Greek language. The ancient Egyptians actually have another name for Egypt. I think about your story and who gets to decide what your identity is based on the outside world. I know the LGBTQ community has a lot of hardships there—to the point where you have to remain invisible in order to survive. Is there anything that makes you proud of the culture?
IMAN: The pharaohs believed in the third gender. It’s on the walls—the boy and the boy kissing. Ancient Egyptians believed in all of this, and now the current Egyptians try to remove it from the walls…to destroy it so nobody will believe in these things.
JAMES: When did you decide you were going to leave Egypt and come to the United States? What was that defining moment when you’re like enough is enough?
IMAN: When I was with my family I knew I was different because I used to love to do art and stuff—everything that is different, and I didn’t know why they were not doing the same things. I was just wondering, “Why are these people not like me?” So everything that I looked for was in America. All the things on TV about freedom. I’d see all the drag queens and the transgender and say, “Oh my God, one day I will go there. I’ll wear my heels and I’ll walk in the park, and I’ll have my apartment in The Village, and I know I will be accepted everywhere, and I will tell my uncle, FUCK YOU!”
JAMES: Were there any images that inspired you growing up? I was obsessed with Whitney Houston!
IMAN: I was obsessed with Madonna! Back in Egypt, I had this weird dream that I was going to arrive at the airport and she would be waiting for me and I was going to vogue. Actually, I danced “Vogue” in Fire Island Pines, and that was a dream come true. This country is kind of amazing and also weird. They always say the word “freedom,” and then when you come here you just have to figure it out [what that means]. I used to dance at the Cairo Opera House where I was a choreographer and did so many things. I had this idea that I would come here with my CV and I would at least get a little bit of respect. But no, it was rejection. You get confused because you are a refugee and you want to work and to be part of the community. I think people like us bring good to this country. If we can all come together, we can build altogether. I work for an organization called TransEmigrate because they help trans people from other countries to flee, but guess what? The United States of America is blacklisted.
I lost one of my friends who wanted to be a transgender, but she could not even make it here. She was the fifth runner up in Mr. Egypt and she was doing good and well-known.
IMAN: The first thing I said was, “You’re going to come to the United States,” and the woman told me, “No, America is blacklisted.” I was like, “What?” They do respect transgender women in Europe. It’s beyond.
JAMES: It’s better in Europe than it is here?
IMAN: France, Germany—so many countries in Europe. I have the list on my TransEmigrate website. They send Black transgender to get asylum in Europe now, because they give you full health insurance, housing, they do all your surgery—they take care of you. They also have gun control so nobody’s going to shoot you. So I wasn’t going to die. I was going to live. I wouldn’t be just 25. I am just going to live until I am old and lazy.
JAMES: Why do you think there is such a stark difference? Americans pride themselves on being a progressive country, but from your viewpoint, and those of many trans people of color I’ve spoken with, that’s not the case.
IMAN: Well, ask the white people. I think it’s our Black culture too. It’s how we shower our mothers and how our Black mothers shower our straight Black brothers. Egypt is Northern Africa. So we’re African and we have the same mentality of transphobia and homophobia. My mom always said “You’re going to go to hell if you sleep with someone like this.” This is why when they sleep with a transgender woman, they want to hide what they did so they kill them—they burn their body. I was arrested and went to jail many times in Eygpt for being a homosexual. A gay brother was an informant to the police. He would say “she’s gay, she’s gay, he’s gay…” It’s so sad to see that and have had that experience all over again here… in New York City [just recently] a Black trans sister in the Bronx got shot, and I got mobbed. The trauma, it’s hard for me. But I’m a good person and I want to live! I love life! Trans people are amazing, but they need a chance. This country is one of the richest countries. If the Europeans take care of trans people, why is it that the US cannot take care of us? I think education is very important. People need to learn—even my gay friends are very defensive about the subject of transgender. “These transgender girls are prostitutes,” but why are they prostitutes? You cannot have the conversation.
JAMES: That happens to so many trans people all over the world—you get a criminal record for trying to survive.
IMAN: Yes, I survived by hiding behind my masculinity. I was a gorgeous boy. I had to hide in my masculinity to get a white American as my husband. Yes, he was my lover, but I was hiding to survive. You think I was going to survive as a woman in this country? No, of course not. You’re always in a refugee camp. There is nobody that’s going to help. I got here with a visa and passport as a man. Once I began to transition, all the gays shamed me. Trans women are not wanted, and this is something that we need to work on. People need to get used to it. We need to talk to our children, our mothers… This person is a normal human being. This is why we’re getting killed by the week like it’s sport.
JAMES: A human life is a human life is a human life. It makes me think about transgender activist Malak el-Kashif who is also from Egypt.
IMAN: She is my friend, she was arrested recently. I love her.
JAMES: Malake’s work is incredible and similar to the work you’re doing. She said when you claim that you’re different, be ready for a war. As a person who was born in the US and whose lineage goes back to people who were brought here on the Atlantic Slave Trade, you have this romantic idea of going back to the Motherland. But for a Black queer person, that’s so different, right? Going to these spaces, unless you’re going to a country like South Africa, maybe we can’t go there and fully be ourselves.
IMAN: I know everybody wants to go to see the pyramids because it’s a beautiful place, and I encourage people to go. But you cannot really express your feelings as a gay person because Eygpt doesn’t accept gay people. My country is a tourist place, and we are seen as a threat to the country sometimes.
That’s why we leave our country and I know Malak el-Kashif. I love her and she’s my hero because she put herself in danger by being in Egypt and doing this work. I cannot do what she does because I’m in America. I am still productive, and I have my husband here with me, and I’m trying to heal from the addiction I had before. It makes me feel ashamed because most transgender people—I don’t say all—but most of us are addicted to drugs. People always use this against us. “You’re a whore, you’re a slut.” But when we try to heal, they go and throw the dirt in our face.
JAMES: What do you say to your Egyptian brothers and sisters who are queer and they are fighting? Do you think it’s worth the fight or should they leave?
IMAN: Leave. Leave them the land. They don’t like you. What are you going to fight for? Fight the government and your family? The old mentality, the Muslim brotherhood, this and that? It’s not worth it. It’s too much death already with COVID-19. It’s hard to see young gays and young trans people suffer for no reason. They are creative and they are scared of that.
JAMES: Could you tell me about how you arrived at the work that you’re doing now in the advocacy space?
IMAN: I was on Fire Island with my husband where we had a store. I started doing a visual show. I did a movie called Shuroo Process directed by Emrhys Cooper a year ago. I acted a lot and from there I started meeting activists while I was doing my transition. I wasn’t reading social media a lot. I was not really involved. My husband and I were in a bubble. I had my people that protected me because I just came from Egypt. I was trying to build that trust with myself to get out and to talk. I started with the Anti-Violence project. I had a workshop with Chanel Lopez, LaLa Zanell and Virginia Goggins, she was the Legal Director—they helped me learn how to speak in public. I said I would like to do that and then we start talking to everybody who was a transgender person. I started to know about non-binary, I never knew about the binary. I was like my name is Iman and I’m a Egyptian woman from Egypt, I didn’t know the terms. I wanted to be light. Then I heard all these awful stories from everybody and I started getting involved more. And then I had a wrongful arrest on Fire Island and that broke me.
JAMES: Can you tell me about that experience?
IMAN: In 2013, my husband called me while I was on my way to Fire Island Pines from New York City telling me there are two NYPD detectives looking for me. In my head, I said, “Oh my God, Immigration! Why?” I’m traumatized. This is why I left Egypt—because I’m always “wanted” by my community and under attack by the police. I’m walking from the ferry to our store and I can see the police walking by me one by one. There are a lot of them. I could feel my knees shaking. They made a circle around me and said, “Open your suitcase!” and they have their hands on their guns. I opened the bag slowly and I said “Here you go.” I don’t know what’s happening and nobody’s telling me what’s going on and then the two detectives take me to the side and say there is a crime that happened in New York City—an assault with a deadly weapon at a bar called Billymark’s West on Ninth Avenue.
They were confused… they were like, “It was a girl and a boy.” I asked them when this happened, and they said March 11, 2013. I told them “Oh my God. I was in L.A. Sir… I had a fashion show… I have that video… I have that picture … I have the plane ticket… you’re making a mistake!” They said, “No, you’re coming with us.” Everyone was watching—my community, my husband. They said, “Let’s talk on the mainland.” and then [they] handcuffed me. The officer asked, “Is that a wig or that a weave?” I ask, “How is that relevant?” and tell them I’m on political asylum here. They don’t understand what that means. I tell them “You are supposed to protect me.” I was treated like garbage. People thought I was guilty.
When I was a gorgeous boy on the island, and doing all the drugs, I would never get arrested or anything. Once I transitioned and I was happy, people were like “Oh my God, she’s going to bump the city or “The FEDS are looking for her.”
They wanted to put me in a cell with 50 men. So I fainted on the floor, acting, and it worked—they put me in a private cell. But the officer made me strip to show him my boobs and my ass.
IMAN: Yes. And after six months of going back and forth to the court, my case was dismissed. Then when Leticia James became Attorney General in New York, she told me, “Your case was transphobia—we’re sorry.” What? I lost everything—my money, immigration [status]—and I’m sorry? This is what the police do to trans women in this country. I’m a walking crime.
JAMES: You were in Egypt and you were escaping these situations. Then you come to this country that prides itself on being an asylum for people who are facing homophobia and transphobia and this happens. What does that do to the spirit? And how do you reconcile that? How do you move forward?
IMAN: It’s funny, that happened to me when I was very young. It gave me strength and made me work harder. It let me give hope to other people. Let me save a life. Let me choose myself. Let me focus. Let me do stuff that helps my community. My trans sisters… when they fall down I tell them, “Don’t be angry, they want to see you broken.” Every time I go to the court I say, “Hi judge! I’m here!” And you want glam? I will give it to you.”
JAMES: Do you feel America is home?
IMAN: It feels like home. I’m trying to get back to normal because no one knows what happened to me. Everybody was shocked when I started speaking out about it. I started to be an advocate because I want to save people’s lives, and I don’t want my sisters to be killed for no reason. And I don’t want people to be arrested. I have been stabbed by my brother. I’ve been harassed and raped by my cousin on my street. Then to come here! I can deal with having a conversation with the community or with a Black brother, but when the government and the law are against you, how are you going to deal with this?
JAMES: How can we, in the queer community, be effective in standing beside you, and also helping to lift you up at the same time?
IMAN: You have to keep telling our stories. Even if no one listens, you have to keep telling them. You also have to have transgender people around you—invite them and let them tell their own stories. It’s also good to have a trans friend and let them be family. Talk to them and know their story and let them be your sister because they need family. Give them lots of love. Sometimes trans are hard on themselves because they don’t have any love. I have a supportive community that finally gave me enough. I feel better all the time. I get to my dark side, but also my friends lift me up. Even if you don’t like her attitude, keep trying, and keep pushing her to be better.