A student came out as nonbinary to Barack Obama in central London on Saturday morning and urged the US president to do more to help transgender people around the world.
Maria Munir, whose parents did not know about the 20-year-old's gender identity, stood up at a town hall Q&A hosted by Obama for young people and publicly declared for the first time they identified as nonbinary. Nonbinary identities are those that do not fit within the binary of male or female.
"I'm about to do something terrifying, which is I'm coming out to you as a nonbinary person, which means that I don't fit because I'm from a Pakistani-Muslim background, which inevitably has complications," the student said, fighting back tears.
"I know that in North Carolina with the bathroom bill people are being forced to produce birth certificates in order to go the toilet. In the UK we don't recognise nonbinary people under the Equality Act, so we literally have no rights," the activist said as the crowd – which included actor Benedict Cumberbatch – applauded.
"What could you do to go beyond what is accepted as the LBGTQ rights movement including people who are outside the social norms?"
In response, Obama called Munir "brave" and urged the University of York student to keep pushing for transgender rights in the UK.
Obama, who is on his final visit to the UK as president, insisted David Cameron has been "ahead of the curve" in responding to LGBT issues but admitted change would never come fast enough for campaigners. Despite that he was optimistic as "social attitudes have changed on this issue quicker than I have seen on any other".
Afterwards Munir explained the decision to come out to the leader of the US on live television: "It was something the president said about acting crazy, about how if you need to get a social issue across sometimes you just need to act a little crazy. At that moment I literally felt my pulse intensify and I thought, 'I've been sitting on this issue for such a long time.'
"I haven't come out to my parents – sorry, Mum and Dad – and I just thought if anyone in the world is going to accept me for who I am then it's the president of the United States. If anyone in the world has the power to change the situation for people like myself it is Barack Obama."
The student told BuzzFeed News they expected their parents would be surprised by the news but they didn't want to put a burden on them: "I feel bad because I'm so close to them but unfortunately we live in a society where people who want to make the worst out of you always will, and unfortunately people in my community would never have responded well to this news. I felt that if I told my parents it would almost be a burden on them because they would feel as thought they would have to keep me a secret.
"I think they'll be upset in the sense that I didn't tell them. The emotions that go through your entire mind when you know your existence isn't even recognised by the UK government under the Equality Act is a turmoil that I wouldn't wish on anyone."
Munir, whose family are originally from Pakistan, said the UK was lagging behind other countries in recognising nonbinary individuals on official documents.
The campaigner, who is standing for election to Watford council as a Liberal Democrat, remained worried about how friends back home would react to the announcement. Munir is involved in a Muslim faith group in Watford and is concerned people back home will now believe they are "not a good enough Muslim".
However, for Munir this was a risk worth taking.
"I thought it's now or never. Either I was going to come out now to the president of the United States or I was going to have to stay silent forever. If I can use this one little sacrifice and maybe being ostracised by my community then maybe I'll be able to prevent other young people from being ostracised by their community."
Jim Waterson is a politics editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Jim Waterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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