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Hayfaa Chalabi

Against the binary: Reclaiming the countryside as a trans person of colour

As our gender columnist longs for Cypriot mountains, they've had to settle for Welsh rolling hills instead.

09 Feb

Welcome back to gal-dem’s monthly gender column ‘Against the binary’, bringing you Yas Necati’s latest reflections on finding gentleness, home and joy as a trans person.

You could say my excitement and terror about outdoor swimming started unconventionally. About seven or eight years ago, one of my friends lived in a commune in the middle of the countryside with a little pool outside – random, I know. They used to cover the pool over the winter months, and one time when I was visiting in November, I happened to be there on the day that it was going to be covered. My friend and I got all excited about doing something a bit wild and jumping in one last time. News spread around the commune, and soon everyone was outside. We dubbed it “the last swim of the season”. As my body hit the water, I literally felt the curl of my toes at how absolutely freezing it was. Before I knew it, I was pulling myself out of the pool – it wasn’t much of a “swim”! But the November air felt gorgeously prickly and warm when I got out and I felt very, very alive.

I wanted to swim more, to watch more wandering animals, to fall asleep outside in nature”

I wanted more of my life to be like this – a bit random, a bit of an adventure, connecting to my body by being outside. That’s what inspired me to move away from London to a 2,000-person town in rural mid-Wales a few months ago. I wanted to swim more, to watch more wandering animals, to fall asleep outside in nature. So in October 2021, my partner and I took several deep breaths and moved from the city to the rolling hills of the Welsh countryside.

It was a scary move for us both. We are both queer, both people of colour, both gender non-conforming. I don’t think we would have moved if we didn’t already know a few local queers. As it happens, there’s a queer brunch crew, and quite a few other queer and trans people nearby. There are still difficult things – a guy who insisted on calling us friends, a woman who asked me lots of strange and invasive questions about Islam after hearing my name. We are both working through what it means to exist as we are here, and anywhere.

“With the way things are right now, there aren’t many queer and trans people of colour living outside of big cities”

I feel like a big part of settling into this move is about reclaiming space. My family comes from such a tiny village in the Cypriot mountains, and when my grandparents relocated to London they were not only separated from their country, but also from the slow, gentle pace of life they were used to. My family were all farmers up until that point, and suddenly they were thrust into hospitality and factory jobs. The Welsh countryside might be a far stretch off from rural Cyprus (I wish it was even half as warm), but being surrounded by trees and rolling hills still feels like a reconnection. The earth beneath our feet might be different here, but it feels so good to spend lots of time with it again – to be surrounded by farmland and mountains. To slow down.

So many have said it before me, but the countryside should be for everyone to enjoy. Unfortunately, with the way things are right now, there aren’t many queer and trans people of colour living outside of big cities, and that means we often experience more discrimination when we are in the countryside. Most established QTIPOC communities are in big cities, and living a ‘slower’ life is scary when I’ve been so used to taking on so much extra work to count the pennies for my rent each month in London. Even just giving myself permission to slow down is scary. I dream of a UK where everyone feels safe enough to live in nature if they want to, and everyone can if they want to. I’m trying to find that safety for myself, trying to thrive out here despite how historically and currently white this town is.

“The countryside should be for everyone to enjoy”

On a visit here last summer, I went for a swim in the river, fell asleep on the hot pebbles and woke up to a herd of cows tilting their heads down at me. They lost interest pretty quickly and had a dip in the water themselves. I remember watching them and marvelling at how something as simple as cool water on a hot day brought gentleness to both the cows and to me. 

I don’t think I’ll be returning to the city any time soon. I had always gone to the countryside to reconnect with this sense of what being alive means and is about, now I’m here, I’m ready to dive deeper into that exploration. I used to regularly leave London looking for an “escape”, now I live in the escape. I’m not sure what that will mean for the future, but I’m excited to find out, to go for more walks in the hills and just be, to wake up to more cows, to get treats from the bakery for picnics on the beach, to roll down the hills, to swim in the rivers and the ocean and to connect to queer community here, and to continue to explore what ‘community’ can be.