June 2014 – Somalian-born Canadian photographer, Abdi Osman, held an exhibition named ‘Labeeb’ at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada.  The project features large photographs and a short double-projection video of Sumaya Dalmar, a trans woman originally from Somalia.

One of the photographs in the exhibition

The double projection, which shows two videos playing simultaneously, underscores the artist’s attempt to engage with taboo topics of gender, culture and religion.

The videos show movement and how bodies can transform in movement or ‘trans-ing’, crossing over from tradition to modern body awareness and motion and in doing so, challenges the claims of some African leaders that there are no queer persons in their countries.  This is a theme usually explored in Abdi Osman’s work.  According to his biography, his work focuses on questions of black masculinity as it intersects with Muslim and queer identities.

A screengrab of the double projection showing two videos simultaneously.

As a Muslim-majority country, Somalia is not tolerant of LGBTIQ people who, when outed, often have to endure public humiliation like lashings. In many cases not being heterosexual is a ‘crime’  punishable by death. This exhibition was, therefore, an essential and powerful part of bringing the existence of trans persons in Somalia into the public eye. 

The model of the project, Sumaya Dalmar, also known as Sumaya Ysl, was an activist, model and speech therapist well-known in the LGBTIQ scene in Toronto.  She was born in Somalia but fled the country during the Somali Civil War with her family at 3.  She started her transition in 2011 at which point her parents disowned her.   The exhibition of the multimedia project in 2014 was also a declaration of ‘coming out’ as a trans woman publicly.  In doing so, Sumaya became the first known Somalian trans person, but it also put her in the spotlight as a short-lived trans activist in Canada.  6 months later, on 22 February 2015, Sumaya died under mysterious circumstances.  She was 26 years old. She was the 9th trans woman of colour who died in a space of 40 days.

The first reports of her death came as a tweet with the heading “Somali trans women murdered in Toronto”. The report received tens of thousands of shares on different social media platforms and the hashtag #SumayaYsl went viral.

Even though there was no direct evidence of a homicide, the public outcry forced the Toronto police to issue a public statement. 

They admitted that it was not usual practice to issue a statement or make public appeals unless they were sure of a homicide.  They responded to the public outrage because of the ongoing violence experienced by the trans community in Canada.

Toronto police also used #SumayaYsl in their posts and updates about her death.

“We certainly are sensitive to the relationship between the Toronto Police Service and the trans communities,” Toronto Police Services spokeswoman Meaghan Gray explained to Canada’s National Post. “We’ve worked very hard over the last little while to improve that relationship. Certainly, our efforts today in putting out this information is part and parcel of that outreach.”

Public response to the police statements about Sumaya’s death.

The family and friends of Sumaya Dalmar never received full closure about how she died. The police concluded that there was no crime but withheld full information about the post due to ‘respect for the victim’s privacy’.

Her friends remember Sumaya as vibrant and fearless.  She was a proud Somali women who believed in expressing her authenticity and inspiring others to do the same.  She was popular and beautiful and a strong force within the tight-knit community of Somalian queers. According to her friend Lali Mohamed, Somaya “lived her life in a very public way and anybody who encountered her was immediately moved by her insistence to be exactly who she wanted to be,”.

“She was one of the brightest lights that ever existed in this world.”

One of the photographs in the exhibition

Her death came during a period in time when a lot of trans women was murdered or died under mysterius circumstances.  A friend, Asam Ahmat, explained:” Death is only tragic if we insist on pretending that violence and suicide isn’t the norm when it comes to the lives of trans women, especially trans women of color. If anything can be called tragic, it is a society that has normalized such disproportionate levels of violence against trans women that self-harm is the only answer many can find. This normalized violence impacts every single aspect of trans women’s lives—from using public bathrooms to accessing healthcare to interacting with law enforcement.”

In one of Sumaya’s last Facebook posts, she expressed disbelief at the violence her community was subject to.  She said she was emotionally fatigued that so many of her trans sisters were dying in front of her eyes.  Little did she know that her fate would be to join them soon.  
When she died, Sumaya was about to start working in the educational department at The 519, Canada’s largest LGBTIQ community centre.   Trans rights and education were something she strongly believed in and she dedicated her life to the cause.  To honour her life and memory, her friends started a scholarship fund which they hoped would immortalize her fearlessness.  The scholarship fund, the Sumaya Dalmar Award,  provides aid to trans students of colour to pursue their educational goals. 

The first recipient of the award, Patrice B*, used the grant to pay for his final year of tuition in his fourth year of Arts and Contemporary Studies. He applied for the $1,000 award after his application for the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) funding was denied.  

“I felt very honoured to receive the award,” said Patrice in his interview for TorontoMet Today. “Especially because Sumaya’s friends pushed for the scholarship to be created, so it felt very personal. I really want to give back now, because this award is a product of her work.”

*Patrice B. asked to be identified only by his first name and initial for this story.