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Diva Maguy
Diva MaguyPhotography Jade Jackman

Meet the exiled Lebanese performer who’s fighting back

Diva Maguy escaped her home country after being secretly filmed performing in drag – here she tells her story about fleeing on a boat to Berlin and her love of fashion

Diva Maguy is one in a million. The performance artist and fashion designer, known to her friends as “Maggie”, has braved the treacherous waters of the Mediterranean sea, been detained in New York and is now making a name for herself due to the Queens Against Borders party she throws in Berlin. Not only does the multi-talented Maggie design, plan and perform at these parties, she also has a message. She wants the party, thrown by her and Australian drag queen Olympia Bukkakis, to become a space where other LGBT refugees can showcase their talents.

“I don’t know why I was not scared when I was on the boat,” she says. “When I went on the boat, I told myself, I will die in the sea or get my dream.” Now, that dream is to become a fashion designer and use her creative talents and platform to improve transgender visibility (she is herself a trans woman) and show others how the experience of being LGBT and a refugee intersect.

Born in a small town in Lebanon, Maggie always knew she wanted to be a designer and an artist. When she was younger, she would always dress herself up in her sister's clothes until it became frowned upon in her close-knit and conservative community. After receiving multiple threats and forms of harassment, she sought solace in finding a more accepting community in the capital, Beirut.

At 18, her passion for fashion and make-up took off and her hobby developed into a job. Performing in underground clubs at night, she discovered herself and her love for performance. But this wasn’t to last long. A reporter filmed her with a spycam, and made her national news in a report condemning ‘queer culture’. After this, the police kept calling her about the city’s ‘gay problems’ and targeting her. As threats of violence escalated, Maggie decided to leave and begin her journey to Europe. Now, she uses her talents to fight for the rights of others and highlight the many reasons that members of the LGBT community may be forced to flee their country.

When did you get into fashion and start designing your outfits?

Diva Maguy: Well, I have been into fashion for a very long time! Fashion is something in my blood. I’ve loved it since I was little. Actually, it probably was my love for fashion and making my own outfits that started off my troubles. The ones that resulted in me having to flee Lebanon in the first place. Despite difficulties, the violence, the threats, I loved fashion too much to give it up. I am an artist and I need to create to exist. So, I needed to go. I had to find myself in a city that I could be accepted with my parties, my fashion and my art. As a performer, I never really liked it when someone would make me my dance outfit. Therefore, 6 or 7 years ago, I started to make them myself in Beirut. Colours, crystals, different materials… you name it, I can now make it! It is making my clothes that give inspiration for all my performances. For me, fashion is what gives me the inspiration for everything. The main goal is to have a message behind my work which I get from me, Maggie. I get the ideas from my journey from crossing borders, arriving in Berlin, the things I have seen and the discrimination in my life. The danger has given me a lot to express but I choose to put those feelings into my fashion, art and activism now.

“It probably was my love for fashion and making my own outfits that started off my troubles” – Diva Maguy

Recently, it was the day of Transgender Visibility. Did you do anything special in Berlin?

Diva Maguy: Yes, I heard about this! In Germany, I don’t think it was celebrated but it was in the United Kingdom and (the) United States. In the previous week, we threw Queens Against Borders, which is my party, in solidarity with LGBT refugees and we give all the proceeds to support them. On International Women’s Day, I was invited to give a speech and I was talking about the need for more transgender visibility and about the importance of making International Women’s Day inclusive to transgender women. In that speech, I also spoke a lot about the importance of making cities more inclusive for transgender people too. 

As we discussed, your an amazing activist who likes to use partying and creativity as a way to amplify your message. What are the changes you’d actually like to see?

Diva Maguy: I want to make transgender people more visible in cities. Somewhere like Berlin is a gay man’s city, I think it is very accepting of gay men. However, there is still some way to go to make the city as accommodating for trans people, too. I really want to improve our rights in Europe and other places in the world. I want to make more workshops to help empower other transgender people and make sure they feel comfortable in new cities.

“Somewhere like Berlin is a gay man’s city, I think it is very accepting of gay men. However, there is still some way to go to make the city as accommodating for trans people” – Diva Maguy

However, it isn’t just my wish to make others feel comfortable in themselves. This is why I run the parties and other events. Through those, I wish to educate people so that they are respectful of us. Truthfully, it can be hard to work with LGBT refugees. For cultural reasons, some people cannot be as open about their identity. Often, it needs to be a very private process and there is a lot of trust involved. Having said that, I am very dedicated to it because when you empower other transgender refugees, especially when they come from somewhere that they would be killed for their identity, it is very special. I want other people to be able to feel proud of their identity too. I can’t describe how powerful it can be.

In the next few years, I find new and innovative ways to highlight these stories. By raising their visibility and telling my own story, I hope other transgender refugees from the Middle East, like me, Africa and other places where my community faces the constant threat of death, can be inspired to love themselves.

Why do you think events like Queens Against Borders are important?

Diva Maguy: It isn’t just integration and fundraising, it shows the other community who we are. We have just had our fifth party so people obviously enjoy it! It shows our talents. Music is something very beautiful and powerful. Art can give motivation, it can tell stories in new ways. Through this, we can empower and educate other people who come to our events. On a practical level, we use the money we raise to help other LGBT refugees who may be having a hard time with money to buy food and support themselves.

Life can already be difficult as a refugee sometimes people can’t even get shelter. Yet, problems of this nature affect LGBT and especially transgender people more. Unfortunately, the ways in which LGBT refugees experience certain problems are quite hidden for the need for privacy, as I explained. So, through Queens Against Borders, we hope to give them more support. With LGBT refugees, it is important to remember that they may have had to flee a whole family, country, life… just because of their identity. With each party, we also have a cultural discussion and different theme. It really creates a community and dismantles a lot of stereotypes.

Why actual parties as opposed to political parties?

Diva Maguy: It is a platform and stage for people to perform. People can showcase their culture, music and each transgender refugee is showing their story or journey. Partying, dancing, music and singing (are) good for our happiness. We need to sing, dance and fall in love to be free. It brings a very diverse scene of Berlin together and creates a genuine community. It allows people to be seen for their talents and creativity as opposed to how people might label them. Plus, we need other ways to get information these days!

“I really feel something special when I help other trans people – especially refugees” – Diva Maguy

What do you think are the biggest challenges and misconceptions that LGBT refugees face?

Diva Maguy: I think the biggest challenges are how we integrate LGBT refugees in a way to show them it isn’t the Middle East. What I mean by this is that we are safer to express ourselves here, Europe is somewhere we can build our future. You can continue your life, you can study and you can almost be treated as a normal human being. Sure, we have work to do here but you can be safer in a way that you can’t be in your country. Additionally, some other people from these regions may not understand exactly what LGBT, or queer, people are or what these terms mean. This is a problem all over the world. However, I want to be able to show people a good and diverse image of LGBT people so that we can be accepted and valued.

Let's chat about the future… what are your current hopes, dreams and plans?

Diva Maguy: To be honest, I am really happy as a trans-activist. I really feel something special when I help other trans people – especially refugees. So, I want to continue! Personally, I hope that I will finally be able to study fashion design. Actually, I have always dreamt to study fashion in London. I’ve never even been to your city but I’ve heard that the schools there are the best in the world! Fashion gives me something magical.

“I have always dreamt of studying fashion in London. I’ve never even been to your city but I’ve heard that the schools there are the best in the world!” – Diva Maguy

As an activist, I will always keep going to fight for transgender rights. In June, I am actually coming to Brighton and the United Kingdom for the first time. I am on the Advisory Board of the SOGICA project – ‘Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Claims of Asylum Seekers’ - which is funded by the University of Sussex and is funded by the European Research Council. And also, I’ve got plans to make a documentary about my life, my activism and my journey but in something that looks more like a fashion film to reflect my artistic practice. While I want it to be creative, like me, I hope that through creating this project people will learn about transgender refugees and realise the struggles we go through just to exist! I’m not sure if you heard about that plan too? So, yes, more things coming your way from Maggie soon!