Esra'a: Would You Speak Up ... Even If It's Dangerous? Esra'a is an activist who lives in Bahrain and identifies as queer — which puts her at great risk. Despite that, she's speaking out to build community and empathy within the LGBTQ community.

Esra'a: Would You Speak Up ... Even If It's Dangerous?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today ideas about Speaking Up. Can you introduce yourself please?

ESRA'A: Yeah. So my name is Esra'a, and I am from Bahrain.

RAZ: Esra'a asked us not to use her last name because she's a human rights activist who still lives there. And Bahrain - it's the kind of place where people generally do not speak up.

ESRA'A: I mean, the culture definitely advocated that, you know, you finish school, you go to university, you get married, you have a job, you build something, you know, people will support you as long as what you build is not controversial.

RAZ: And in a place like Bahrain, speaking up can be dangerous.

ESRA'A: You know, I hear about my friend who was arrested or someone who was tortured in prison, and I realize this is really not a game. It's a life-and-death situation. A lot of people get persecuted for their tweets alone, so it is very scary.

RAZ: And exactly what Esra'a does? She explained that on the TED stage. But before we get into this, I should mention that to protect her identity as far as - TED talk was not filmed. It's actually not available anywhere online except for here right now. So here she is.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ESRA'A: I was always outspoken throughout my youth particularly in school, but this was an environment in which you couldn't really be heard. You were encouraged to be invisible and silent so as not to interrupt your daily routine. But being silent wasn't for me. I became increasingly involved in the human rights advocacy, not just because it's the obvious thing to do as someone who seeks social justice, but also because I'm queer. This is the part where you clap.

(APPLAUSE)

ESRA'A: But you understand why I mentioned this. But being queer made me understand and experience the trauma of being truly perilous and invisible in our society. I was in denial for a very long time about my sexuality. I was overcome with fear and shame for being queer. And I had to secretly hold onto this burden for the majority of my life because I still live in a society that violently discriminates against us and shames us for who we are.

In Bahrain, homosexuality is a punishable offense. Verbal and physical abuse against the LGBT community is normalized by the government and encouraged by religious leaders. But in my early teens, I came across a powerful weapon, the internet. In a place where all media was state-sponsored, where censorship and surveillance was the norm, the internet offered a unique space for dialogue and self-discovery. Even as the government was deploying technology to censor our voices, at least we had a (unintelligible) to fight back and make our voices heard. And I felt it was imperative for me to be outspoken despite these personal challenges. So I dedicated the last decade of my life using the internet as a crucial tool to advocate for human rights.

RAZ: Who in Bahrain knows this about you? I mean, who among, you know, your family knows that you're queer?

ESRA'A: I mean, I have no idea, you know. I mean, they could find out through this podcast. It's not something I ever talk about at all. And it could be that they know, and they decide not to share it with me that they're aware. And I'm still not very open with it. And, in fact, my TED Talk - it was the very first time I'm public with my identity. I am still concerned about the consequences involved.

It's bad enough that I'm a human rights activist. It's bad enough that I'm doing this, you know, as a woman. Now you add queer to that equation, and it's a cause for concern for my safety.

RAZ: And I guess we should mention here, Esra'a, that you're recording yourself in, like, the privacy of your own apartment.

ESRA'A: Yes.

RAZ: So, I mean, is it important enough for you to be speaking out that you're willing to take that risk?

ESRA'A: I mean, I do think it's important, you know? And if I'm going to preach it, I have to live it. It's not often that I speak out in such a public way again, but I realize that it was also my responsibility to normalize it. I really didn't want to be a part of the generation that doesn't pave the way to be speaking about something like this comfortably.

A lot of the time, the Middle East is seen as just a backwards place where gay people get killed and where we have no aspirations, there is no hope and there's no optimism. But that's why I'm still here. I mean, I could be just going to Canada and get asylum and just be done with it - right? - and live a really open life.

But that's not what I want to do. You know? I want to stay here, and I want to fight for my people. I want to build the society where it's OK for someone like me to speak up and not have to worry about dying.

RAZ: On the show today, Speaking Up, ideas about when and why we do it and stories about different people in different situations who decided that despite the risks, they had no choice. They had to say something. And in Esra'a's case, how she decided to speak up - it wasn't by shouting out in public or confronting hostile officials in person. Instead, she built a website where LGBT youth across the Middle East could connect online and discuss very personal things like identity and sexuality without the threat of violence or harassment.

ESRA'A: We've had so many different people that have come across the platform. And because these people are also, you know, sharing these questions anonymously, they don't care that other people are going to say, oh, look, so-and-so approached this gay person on Twitter and asked - you know, we don't have that problem. They sign up, and they come to us.

And they say I'm curious. Tell me what is this LGBT thing? What does the T stand for? Is this a Western plot so that we all stop having babies and eventually we are, you know, completely taken over? You know, that's a conversation that we have all the time. And the other thing is we have so many siblings of gay people that come and say I suspect my brother is gay. How do I tell him I'm OK with it? Or my sister is a lesbian, and she has a girlfriend. And I'm disgusted by it, and I want to know should I tell my parents because I think they might harm her? Or how do I, you know, commit to conversion therapy and get her fixed? And so other people start speaking to that person without attacking them and letting them know, look, it's not a question about that. And they start having really deep and meaningful and friendly conversations. And I think that's really important to have. It's not just about advocacy. Advocacy is important.

But, I mean, gay pride is not going to change anybody's mind. It's not going to create a discussion. It's really sometimes even considered provocative where people say you're pushing it, you know, onto our faces. And we - it's not - we don't want to see that. And so that kind of provocation - and I have absolutely nothing against gay parades, but I just want to have a different conversation that actually involves the people who are likely to harm us, you know? And I want them to know what we're going through.

RAZ: It seems like for you speaking out isn't about confrontation, but about persuasion.

ESRA'A: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ESRA'A: And it started out being confrontation and then I saw that it was making very little impact. It works for some societies. Don't get me wrong. I've seen it work in India. I've seen it work in Mexico. It's not necessarily working in the Middle East. There are so many people that are sitting on the fence, and these people are not going to be persuaded necessarily with a deadly protest, for example. It's not just about regime change and let's overthrow the regime and let's - it's not about that. It's something a lot deeper. And there are certain governments that, you know, there's just no reasoning with them at all.

But there's still a lot of structural challenges that you can tackle, you know, by taking that second approach. At this point in my life, I'm tired of living in the shadows of what my society and even the world expects of me. Cree women in the Arab and Muslim world are not a charity case. We're not just sitting around accepting this abuse against our community.

We're taking a stance and highlighting the impact we have in our societies. And we're not just building tools for ourselves. We're building them for all marginalized members of our communities and our countries, so that we can all live a life of justice and dignity. And is there a risk? Absolutely. Just by me standing here expressing this, I risk a whole lot of [expletive], so you better be worth it.

(LAUGHTER)

ESRA'A: And I used to be so apologetic for being queer, but I'm done with that. I don't owe anyone an apology for who I am, for who I love and what I believe. Cree women of the Middle East are building groundbreaking tools against incredible odds and a world where so many people want us to fail while we insist on winning. Being a Cree woman in a society that violently rejects it is empowering, not weakening. It makes us fight harder and louder to make a mark in our world to show everyone else that we're present and we matter.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Do you think of yourself as a courageous person?

ESRA'A: No.

RAZ: Wow. Because I'm sure everybody listening to this conversation right now would totally disagree with you.

ESRA'A: Maybe if they listen to my heartbeat, they will understand. It's - I'm - I get so scared talking about this. I get scared. Every email I send, I get scared. I mean, I cannot tell you how many times I write a tweet, and I delete it within five minutes because I run back to my room, and I think to myself, I can't do that.

I'm not filmed. You know, a courageous person would be all over ted.com. My photos are nowhere to be found online if you Google me, even though I've spoken at many different places. If I'm going to speak up, I have to do it on my terms. And my terms was I don't want to be seen. I don't want to be that public figure.

RAZ: You know, doing this and taking a stand and speaking out is hard. It's really hard, especially where you are. Are there ever moments where you wish you could just curl up in bed and give it all up?

ESRA'A: Oh, every day, every single day.

RAZ: So what keeps you doing it? What - why do you keep doing it?

ESRA'A: Because of that grave sense of responsibility that I have that it keeps coming back to me, you know? Living in Bahrain, there is no distraction. The injustices surround you, and you can choose to ignore it. But it's going to haunt you. I think every decade I get older, I really do believe that you start caring less and less about the consequences because you really want to have a meaningful life where you've left an imprint on society where you made it OK.

And for me growing up, I looked up to the people who spoke before me, and there were many of them who died, who were tortured, who were burned alive for speaking up. And these are the people who have touched me and gave me the strength to continue. And they - it came at a price to them. Of course, it's going to come at a price to me. But I think somehow even if, you know, a couple of people in the next generation, they're going to think it's OK because there was someone who did it. And so I think if you become that person that somebody else can look up to, you've made the right choice in speaking up Regardless of the consequences.

RAZ: Esra'a lives in Bahrain. She also speaks up for the rights of migrant workers in the Middle East. You can find her website at majal.org. That's M-A-J-A-L - .org. On the show today, ideas about Speaking Up. And in a moment, what happens when the fate of the world - the entire planet - depends on your voice? Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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