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One UI student ‘country-less’ but free, for now

BY SARAH BULMER | MAY 05, 2014 5:00 AM

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Once or twice every year, Coco Moreno braces herself for a full 24 hours of travel over the Atlantic Ocean, a layover at Heathrow Airport, and sometimes Schiphol, Amsterdam, then on to the Persian Gulf, where she touches down in her homeland of Kuwait.

On the rare occasions Coco returns home, she faces the grueling process of reapplying what she calls her “mask” of maleness.  She dreads when she must leave her bras, lacy underwear, and makeup at her apartment in Iowa City, where she is a junior at the University of Iowa, in order to live up to her parents’ — and her society’s — standards of masculinity.

During one of these long journeys back home, she was stopped by a uniformed Kuwaiti customs agent who wanted to know if she was carrying any illegal hormones. Even though she wasn’t and told the agent so, the man in the uniform told her he needed to search her bag. He unzipped her small suitcase and sifted through the few articles of clothing she had brought, including a couple pairs of skinny jeans, which Coco said she never leaves behind, despite the ridicule she might face in Kuwait. 

Amid her T-shirts and socks was a copy of the Koran.  The agent stammered apologetically and sent Coco on her way.

Now, the process of returning home for Coco, a Kuwaiti citizen on a student visa in the United States, will only become more difficult, she said, since she has begun taking hormones — costing thousands of dollars out of her own pocket — that will soon supplement her gender-confirmation surgery. 

“I’ve gone through so many layers of transition,” said Coco, now 21, but who once upon a time was a young boy by the name Abdullah living in an affluent small suburb in Kuwait City.

Although, for the most part, the Kuwaiti government operates under a somewhat similar legal system as countries as Italy and France, Sharia law weighs in on certain matters, including gender roles. 

In Kuwait, male homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment of anywhere from seven to 10 years, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association.  In Saudi Arabia, which shares a border with Kuwait, homosexuality is punishable by death by stoning.

In May 2007, Kuwait’s National Assembly voted to amend an article in the country’s penal code that anyone “imitating the opposite sex in any way” would face one year in prison and a 1,000 Kuwaiti dinar fine (approximately $3,600). The amendment “doesn’t penalize any specific behavior or act but rather physical appearance, the acceptable parameters of which [are] to be arbitrarily defined by individual police,” said Human Rights Watch.

And now, because of the ancient laws set in place in her home country, Coco considers herself “country-less.” One of her options is to seek asylum in order to avoid almost ensured persecution in her home country.  However, the United States — her home away from home — holds a very high bar for immigrants seeking asylum.

Refugees need what experts call a personal and unique “credible fear” in order to be granted asylum.

“If everyone [in that country] is facing persecution, not everyone can be granted asylum,” said Michael Jarecki, an immigration attorney based in Chicago.  “If these people are just in the cross hairs of violence, that’s not grounds for asylum.”

While being transgender doesn’t guarantee that a person will be granted asylum, Jarecki said a case like Coco’s will probably go forward in the courts.

“To me, [it] sounds like a very strong asylum case,” Jarecki said. “If you’re going to face imprisonment for being who you are, to me, that’s an injustice.”

Coco remembers growing up next to the coastal Al Sha’ab amusement park in her grandmother’s house in Salmiya, a neighborhood largely considered to be the social center of Kuwait City. It’s the same house where her father was raised with his 17 siblings.

Her parents were never very religious, but Coco is now in the process of taking estrogen and progesterone hormones, one of the first steps of gender confirmation. 

“It’s weird because I still believe in God. God was such a big part of my life,” Coco said. “I used to pray five times a day and fast during Ramadan. But, did I honestly believe in it?”

She paused to reflect on this for several seconds as she thought about her family in Kuwait.

As for Coco’s mother and father — who refer to Coco only as Abdullah — religion is important, but they are considerably less religious than many of their neighbors in a country that is 85 percent Muslim.

“I was used to hearing the call to prayer. Everyone around me was doing it,” she said. “I still talk to God almost every day.”

Maybe that’s why the woman her parents still call “Abdullah” was allowed to come to the United States to attend high school and college in order to get an American education — and what better way to beat one’s chest with collegiate pride than to attend the University of Iowa, home of the Hawkeyes, right in America’s Heartland?  However, moving to Iowa, and gaining the freedom of any American college student only reaffirmed what she had known along: that she was more comfortable wearing 4-inch heels and a tight black dress than donning baggy pants and boxer briefs.

And she isn’t alone. An estimated 2 to 5 percent of the population is transgender, according to the Transgender Law and Policy Institute. The report said the number of transsexuals is smaller.

Long ago, during a pilgrimage to Mecca with her mother at the age of 11, Coco remembers herself as Abdullah, praying to Allah and desperately begging for help.

“Dear God, is there something wrong with me? Please fix me,” the girl cried from inside her boyish body.

From an even young age, Coco knew she was different from the neighborhood boys.  She had no interest in playing cards or soccer on the team for which her father, an ex-professional soccer player turned firefighter, was the coach.

She always knew how to talk to girls but dreaded the days when she’d have to lace up her cleats for soccer practice as “the coach’s son” and the “older brother” of four sisters, who range from the age of 6 to 18. For her father and her Muslim family, she was the token child: the “only son.”

Abdullah, which means “to submit peacefully to God,” in Arabic, would rather play house.  Unlike other boys, she kept to herself.

“Sometimes my parents kept me in the same clothes for three days because I was so clean,” Coco said. “I didn’t like getting dirty.”

But despite how timid and docile she appeared to be as boy, she was never in tune with “his self.” She was, and still is, uncomfortable with her penis. 

“In America, we live in a very individualistic society,” Coco said. “In Kuwait, it’s the opposite. I don’t represent myself. I represent my entire family.”

Now, she fears for her own safety but also that of her entire family.

“I don’t know who’d be more in danger,” she said, as she gently placed her roughly manicured hands to her cheeks, and gazed upward at the one incandescent light bulb that illuminated the living room of her Iowa City apartment.

In Kuwait, Coco grew up privileged; maids folded her laundry and she never had to learn how to drive. If she were to keep the masculinity she was assigned at birth, under certain social welfare programs that the Kuwaiti government sponsors, she said, she would most likely marry young, have guaranteed employment and be granted helpful housing loans.

But when it comes to her own happiness and the expression of her true identity, money is the last thing on her mind.

“I’d rather be dirt poor and free than comfortable and miserable,” she said.

She said most of her gay friends in Kuwait don’t support her decision to transition as they themselves have accepted that one day, they will have to succumb to the social pressures to marry someone of the opposite sex and have children.

The turbulent road to gender-confirmation surgery can be emotionally and physically exhausting, but for Coco, it’s worth it.

“I think of it like, I have a f**ked up vagina, for now,” she said. “One day it’ll be perfect. Right now it just has a few… kinks.”

She rested her hands lightly on her cheeks and rolled her eyes, laughing.

When one talks to Coco, the inner battle she must face hardly surfaces past her rosy smile and full-bodied laughter.  On the weekends, she lives a similar life to that of many college women at the UI: she gets ready while listening to Rihanna’s Unapologetic album and goes out dancing, sometimes at Studio 13 or one of the numerous Iowa City basement keggers that happen every weekend.

UI senior Helen Miller met Coco about two years ago during a game of spin the bottle in the dorms. They’ve been best friends ever since. Since then, Miller said she’s learned a lot about transsexual and transgender issues.

“I felt very connected to Coco right away,” Miller said. “She knows who she is, and all I can do as her friend is help her become that person in every way that she wants to be.”

As Coco’s roommate, Miller watched Coco dye her hair back to its natural black spiral on a regular basis from her preferred fuschia coloring for when she would Skype her parents in Kuwait.

And even with the different colored hair, Coco said her parents know about it, but are largely in denial and won’t support her transition. She knows that eventually she will have to either reconcile this with her parents or ultimately be disowned from her family.

“I’m OK with them not being OK with it for a while,” Coco said.

But even Stateside, Miller said, Coco still faces discrimination and confused stares.

“I’ve talked to a lot of straight guys — to avoid using the term ‘frat bros’ — who have just approached [Coco] initially with such deep discomfort,” Miller said. “I don’t know if that’s partially thinking about the physiological process of what that surgery is or the idea that, in this society, someone would voluntarily renounce being a man.”

Regardless, it’s here, in the United States, where Coco is making the majority of her transsexual journey.

“Here, I have the resources to be myself,” she said.

She plans on postponing the surgery until after she graduates, as well as legally changing her name to Amirah, meaning princess in Arabic.

In the meantime, she must bite her lip or flinch at every classroom icebreaker in which she’s called upon as Abdullah, or every time someone recognizes her as the dark-skinned boy with red hair that lived on their dormitory floor freshman year.

“I don’t like the idea of people thinking I’m a man,” Coco said. “Even someone saying, ‘Have a good day, sir,’ ruins my day.”

Even though Coco often wears a corset to help shape her feminine physique and is still sometimes referred to as a man, soon, she won’t have to take testosterone blockers anymore, making the full switch to hormone intake.

 Miller said the change is noticeable and exciting.

“We always say that Coco is my surrogate ‘feelings-feeler,’” Miller said. “She’s not truly sad. She’s just feeling all the feels right now.”

She paused and laughed. “It’s been such a positive experience for her. It’s really only affected other people in that way, too. We see her smile more. We feel different energy from her.”

And many of her friends in Iowa City said they’re lucky to have her.  Coco said she’s lucky to have them, even though it’s been a chaotic ride.

“Coming to America has been bittersweet,” she said. “It’s been bitter because I haven’t been able to have a regular college life, but sweet, because the bottle finally popped open, and everything came out.”


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