Raffi Marhaba, Designing social justice

Raffi Marhaba

This week’s Portrait, Raffi Marhaba, is a “trans & queer biracial Arab immigrant designer, artistivist & music dabbler with a focus on social justice,” according to their Instagram bio. Marhaba’s company, “The Dream Creative,” is a one-person design studio with a focus on social justice and branding. I had a chance to speak with the multi-talented artist, who speaks seven languages. Luckily for me, they were kind enough to speak to me in the measly single language that I’ve managed to master (more or less…). 

Where do you hail from and what was life like there?
I was born and raised in Brazil. Half my family is Lebanese. The other half is Italian, so I’m a mix. I grew up in São Paulo, which is one of the biggest cities in Latin America. So it was a big-city environment — lots of people, art, culture, music — and I lived there until I was about 22. I came out pretty early. I was 13 and managed to find a good community of other queer folks who were also artists. 

At 13, how did you find your tribe?
There was a queer magazine that did interviews and I would look up the people profiled in the yellow pages and contact them. “Hey, I hope this isn’t weird but I saw you in the magazine!” and that’s how you made friends! I was profiled a few times because I was heavily involved in activism from a young age, which was another circle that connected me to queer people. 

Also, the age to get into clubs is 18 in Brazil, and at 16, I had a fake ID that I made myself. I was into industrial, electronic music and I found a queer community within that musical community. It was fun to just dance, which is a big part of my self expression. And then came the internet with the AOL chat rooms. 

What is the tolerance temperature there? 
Brazil is not an easy country to grow up in, especially as a queer person. It’s not really safe, so the clubs and bars became sanctuaries for a lot of us. 

It seems like a strange dichotomy. On one hand, you associate Brazil with carnivals and drag. But on the other hand, you have a country heavily affected by that “machismo” mentality fueled even more by the evangelists spreading a homophobic brand of Catholicism. 
One-hundred percent. I think that “acceptance” tends to get romanticized by foreigners, but Brazil has an ugly history of racism and colonization. I mean, Portuguese people basically decimated all the indigenous tribes and a lot of people forget that a lot of the slave trade was out of Brazil. And with that legacy comes a lot of homophobia. So it has a pretty violent history. I’m actually a political-asylum immigrant because of my sexual orientation and the danger faced by LGBTQ people there. 

Tell me a little about your family. I saw a post that you had on Instagram about your grandmother, your Tayta, I think you called her.
Yes, “Tayta” is “grandmother” in Arabic. I don’t really have a strong connection with my biological family. I’m an only child. My parents separated when I was one, and my father never wanted much to do with me. The first time I met him was at his funeral.

My mother always seemed to be accepting of LGBTQ people. I was exposed to queer culture through her. That was until I came out and then she shut down. It was a shock because she used to be cool, but it went terribly and we didn’t speak for some time.

But my grandmother was incredible. She was so supportive. When I came out, she said, “Thank you for trusting me and sharing that with me” and said that she’d always love me. And I had to come out to her twice! First as queer at 13 and then as trans at 33. 

When did you come to the states?
I moved to New York first and was there for about 15, 16 years. During the immigration process, I couldn’t leave and it took about that long to get asylum. 

Yeah, it’s crazy. They’d send letters about my hearings to the wrong address and if I missed a single one, my entire case would have been dismissed. It almost felt like it was done on purpose. Thankfully, my lawyer was always notified and he’d let me know. I’m so glad that it’s over now. It was complicated and dehumanizing and frightening to not know if I was going to be here or not from one day to another. It was hard to make plans or get a long-term job. 

That’s got to be scary to know that all the people and things that were now a part of your life could be taken away on somebody’s whim or mistake. Unsettling is the word that comes to mind.

Was there an inciting incident that allowed you to get asylum?
Yeah, as I mentioned, I was pretty open and outspoken and always insisted on living that way. If I was with someone, I held their hand in public and kissed and wasn’t afraid of expressing myself. I wasn’t toning anything down for anybody. 

Unfortunately, [we] had a lot of skinheads in Brazil and they were very active at the time. They were attacking people for just holding hands, or whatever, and there was a physical altercation when I was out with some friends that really traumatized me. I was able to run away and escape but it really scared me and I wasn’t able to function after that. 

I was always looking over my shoulder, fearful of being attacked. I knew I wasn’t going to change or stop being who I am, so I knew I was going to have to make a change. 

I happened to be visiting in NY having lunch with my mother and we were speaking in Portuguese as I was telling her about the situation. One of the waiters said, “I don’t mean to eavesdrop but I understood what you said and I was in the same situation as you. I had a similar incident and I applied for asylum. Here’s my lawyer’s card. I think you should speak to him.” 

It was like some sort of sign. Out of all the restaurants in NYC, I go to one and get the only Brazilian waiter who gives me a card that could change my life. I called the lawyer the next day and he said I had a strong case but said, “I advise you not to go back. It’ll look suspicious for you to go back to a place that you say puts your life in jeopardy.” 

I made the decision to stay right then and there. And it was messy because I had a girlfriend at the time. All my things were there, but I never regretted it.

That’s amazing. You mentioned Portuguese. I understand that you speak several languages. 
Not all fluently. I speak my mother tongue, Portuguese, and Italian, and I taught myself Spanish and English. I’m terrible with numbers, so I think my brain allocated extra space for language. I went to college and got my bachelor’s in linguistics and translation and there, I studied French. And because I started work doing technical and judicial translations, I took eight years of Latin. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn Arabic as a kid. When my family migrated to Brazil, they tried hard to assimilate, so my grandmother didn’t pass it on. I’m learning a little now but it’s really hard! 

Let’s talk about what you do now. When did you start doing graphics? 
I did translation work for about five years but I’ve always been a fan and an explorer of visual arts. I was really into digital images. I had the first photoshop on my computer and loved to mess around with digital art and eventually started thinking about pursuing it as a career. It was probably after I’d been in the US for about five years that I started to get serious about it. I went to the Art Institute in NY to get the paper that officially said I could do it and began to work on it full time. I’ve never been happier. It was something that fed my soul.

What’s the predominant service you provide?
Branding is my main specialty, along with everything that goes with it, including graphic design, website building, logos, ads, illustrations — all of that stuff that comes under the banner of branding. 

Your website stresses “social justice design.” What do you mean by that?
A great question. To me, it’s design that’s rooted in a social-justice lens, which means it’s not just about taking on any project and coming up with a solution, but taking other things into consideration like cultural context, and political context and where these things actually live. To let your values guide the projects that you work on. Design shouldn’t be treated as something in a vacuum. It’s going to go out into the world, so you want it to align with what you believe in. I tend to identify as a radical, so anyone doing that kind of work is my jam. 

I saw that you had some tips on Instagram. Can you go through a couple? 
Sure. Make sure that you’re invested in the community that you’re working with and know their history. I did a project for a group in St. Louis, and I’m not from there, so I sought community input. Work with a diverse group of people to get different perspectives. Design with — not for — your clients. When you adopt that mantra, you get a shift in your mindset. Those are just a few things to start with. 

Cool. You mentioned high-risk activism. What’s the most precarious thing you’ve done?
I’ve had to be careful because of my immigration status, but I’m a big believer in animal rights, as well as human rights, along with environmental causes. And I started a nonprofit with my partner at the time called Collectively Free, and we’d do non-violent direct action. 

One year, we went to St. Peter’s Cathedral in NY. It’s a huge church and they get thousands of people for their Easter Mass. We decided to disrupt the Easter Mass to protest their abuse of animals and their human-rights violations over the years. Half my team was arrested and I was put in handcuffs but thankfully, the cops decided that the folks on the other side of the church were the leaders of the protest and they let us go. 

It was all over the news, you can still look up the videos. It was a close call because I didn’t even have a permanent green card at the time. After that, I was like, “OK Raffi, you need to take more of a backseat in the future.” I concentrated on doing graphics and videos behind the scenes. 

Raffi Marhaba

And now, not only do you do the digital work, you’ve also branched into physical art pieces as well. 
Yes, I started out making things just for myself — wallets and T-shirts mainly — and then friends pressured me to make things for them as well. I was also inspired by my spouse who makes cool gay earrings and things. We both like doing things with our hands, so I took a shot and started creating goods that I hoped would start conversations. Things that would be a little provocative especially in my apparel line. 

It’s especially needed now with all the anti-trans backlash happening around the country. Can you talk about your experience? What was the most difficult part, aside from dealing with the family?
You nailed it that the family was the hardest part. The second-most difficult part was getting everything that I needed to affirm myself as a trans person and in my case, that meant medically.

Obviously, not all trans people want to medically transition. I want to make that clear. But I did, and there was a LOT to navigate. Luckily, the universe was very generous to me and I set myself up for success by working for an LGBTQ nonprofit, GLSEN. I never had a full-time job because my immigration stuff was all fucked up, but it had somewhat stabilized and I got a job with them that had full benefits. 

The HR person was trans, so they made sure that we had the best coverage. But even with the best package, you still have to jump through hoops. I had to have letters from mental-health professionals that you have to see for at least a year. You have to be on testosterone for over a year and the insurance companies do strange billing things like they’ll cover top surgery, but then refuse to cover nipple replacement because it’s “cosmetic.” 

What!?! How do you leave those off? 
[Laughing] I know! I was like, uh, wait… What? How? I think most people would like their nipples put back in place. Yeah, they tried to get out-of-pocket money from you any way they could. So we had to fight them and of course, the whole process takes years for what are life-saving procedures. 

By the time we were midway through my surgeries, the pandemic hit and my department was laid off. So I had to pay for COBRA to continue the insurance, which was about $2,000 a month. A lot of money, but still cheaper than paying for surgery on my own, which would amount to about the price of a house! 

So it was difficult. But I had community and my chosen family to help me and they did fundraisers to help, so that I was able to get everything done, which I’m so thankful for because not everybody gets the opportunity to make it happen. 

That’s great, and yay GLSEN! I was on the board here in Philadelphia awhile back. OK, let’s wrap with a few random questions. What’s your earliest memory?
Riding my bike everywhere. I loved my bike, and rode it all over São Paulo. I had an all-chrome silver bike, which was very in at the time. I still love to ride. 

What is the best gay bar you’ve been in?
It’s in São Paulo and it’s called “Loca,” which means “crazy” or “mad.” It had this cool dungeon, underground vibe with different music styles playing on different floors. The people that worked there were soooo nice and the music was always on point. 

In general, Brazilian people tend to be warm, expressive and open. Back then, I didn’t have a car, and the last public train was at midnight, so at 11:30, you had a choice. Go home, or stay until 6 a.m. when the buses started running again. I was in the 6 a.m. crowd! I’ve fallen asleep at the club waiting, but it was a lot of fun.

Ha! I used to do the same thing waiting for the train back to Philly. It was a good night when you came out and the sun was up! 
[Laughing] Those were the days.

For more information on Raffi Marhaba’s work, visit www.thedreamcreative.com