A Bingo Night to look forward to: Facility YBother wants LGBT refugees to play with her

On a Friday afternoon in late November, I knocked on a door in the Jordaan neighborhood in Amsterdam. A few seconds later, the fabulous Facility YBother came to open the door and invited me into her apartment for a chat over coffee. She told me how she was forced to leave her country and apply for refugee status in the Netherlands. We also talked about the new life she has built for herself in Amsterdam, the challenges that refugees face in the LGBT scene and what could be done to improve things.

Tell us about yourself.

I’m 31 years old, I identify as gay and I’m a refugee. I come from Lebanon and I’ve been living in the Netherlands for 6 years. I’m also a DJ and an aspiring belly dancer.

What was your life like in Lebanon?

In my early twenties, I went to study in the US. When I came back to Lebanon a few years later, I started to live a double life. I could not tell my family that I was gay. They are from a very conservative neighborhood in Beirut and my father is a devoted Muslim man. When I started going out to meet other guys, I would pretend to be a Lebanese-American who had recently relocated to Beirut. I needed to keep those two worlds separate.

Things went for the worse when I agreed to talk to a journalist who was writing about the gay scene in Lebanon. I told her how tough life was for people like me. In Lebanon, LGBTs have no rights and cannot even go to the police to report a crime or a homophobic attack for fear of being blackmailed. The article was eventually published in one of the most famous national newspapers. Unfortunately, after a few days, my family found out. On a Sunday, my father asked me to go visit him. When I arrived, together with my brother, he locked me in a room and beat me up. It was brutal. I thought I was going to die. Eventually I managed to escape. But I had to leave everything behind. I had nowhere to go, I was homeless and some nights I even slept on the beach. I lived in constant fear of being found and being killed.

How did you apply for asylum in the Netherlands?

Two months after that incident, I left for Amsterdam. Someone told me about Stichting Secret Garden. Soon after arriving, I called Emir. He advised me to go to the refugee center in Ter Apel, where I applied for asylum.  After that, my journey of self-acceptance and healing started. I was sent to different refugee centers – Veenhuizen, Budel, Gilze Rijn, and Dronten and sepnt there several months. It was not an easy time. At these centers, you experience a lot of homophobia. It can be very scary to share the room with other refugees. As a gay person, you live in constant fear of being harassed. Things got better when I met another gay guy from Syria. We became friends and started hanging out with a group of Kurds. We became a kind of gang. Being together made us stronger and, most importantly, safer. After about a year, I was finally given asylum.

What happened next?

Amsterdam is now my home. I feel happy and safe here. When I finally got a place to live in the city, I started going to gay bars. It is not easy for refugees to go out in the LGBT scene. If you meet someone at the bar, they always ask you the same questions. For me, the drag scene has been really important. I found a community who has supported me; at places like Café Saarein, Spijker and VrankrijK, I made many friends. I’m especially grateful to my drag mama, Sympathy Bucket, and my drag auntie, Dora. They taught me everything – from how to dress to how to apply make-up and walk on high heels. They have been incredibly generous to me and very caring.

We have heard that you are planning an event in partnership with Stitching Secret Garden.

Yes, your true and only Facility YBother will soon host a bingo night for LGBT refugees. There will be music, belly dancing and an Arab-influenced drag theme. This bingo night was supposed to take place in October. But then the covid-related restrictions on indoors gatherings were announced and we had to cancel this event. We are hoping to organize it in January.

I want other refugees like me to feel the sense of community that I have experienced at the many queer bingo nights and drag shows I have been to in Amsterdam. Unless you speak Dutch or English well, it is not easy for refugees to integrate in the LGBT scene. This drag night will help those of us who are struggling to be part of the scene. I also want to show how much fun doing drag can be. Drag has given me confidence and a sense of freedom that I had never experienced before. I want other refugees like me to experience the same.

This bingo night has generated quite a lot of interest.

Yes, a number of Amsterdam-based businesses have decided to sponsor this event. Mister B, Rob, Gays and Gadgets, and the NZ Sauna have been very generous by donating several wonderful prizes and gift cards for the bingo.

Is there anything else that you would like to say?

I feel that all of us are on a journey. My journey is far from over. I hope to get the Dutch citizenship one day and to be able to vote. Hopefully that day is not too far. And of course, I need to find a husband. Just so that you know….

Keep an eye out for the announcement of the date of the bingo night. Soon on this website!

Sergio Rigoletto
4 December, 2020