TW: transphobia, gender dysphoria; links to articles that mention transphobia and racism, sometimes relating to violence, abuse, harassment and death

About two years ago, while determining the orbits of asteroids in the middle of the New Mexico desert, I realised that I was nonbinary, and that my pronouns were “she”, “her”, and “hers”. Now, stuck in Washington, DC after a year at Oxford and in the midst of a global pandemic, I am about to start feminising hormone therapy. In the intervening years, I have had to learn a lot about self-acceptance and self-discovery, while receiving a rude awakening to the issues, both internal and external, that trans people such as myself face.

Looking back, I realise that many of my mental health struggles over the past decade were related to not realising that I was trans, and to being in the wrong body. Up until I was eight, I felt it would be right for me to grow breasts, and, despite being an atheist, I prayed for that every night, in the hopes that someone was listening. When I realised that my call was not being answered, I decided to expunge all emotion and vulnerability from myself: I wanted to be like a robot. I even forgot how to cry.

By the time I realised I was trans, I had already been in therapy for two years and was six months sober. My emotionless facade had cracked, and I was slowly learning to identify and accept my emotions. In New Mexico, I met the first nonbinary person (that I know of); in our discussions about gender I noticed that I related to them. When some friends then put me in full drag makeup, I was surprised to realise that I felt freer, more able to express myself. Realising, a little while later, that I was nonbinary, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief: suddenly, the disparate experiences and emotions throughout my life made sense. Discovering, through experimentation, that my pronouns were she/her/hers helped put me back in touch with the emotions that I had felt as an eight-year old: that it would feel more correct if I had breasts. It felt as though I was putting together a puzzle whose full image I had last seen a decade ago. Each individual piece seemed new, but putting them all together made sense, both logically and emotionally.

At the same time, this puzzle was leading to new negative emotions, many of which persist today. Some of them are doubts, fueled by transphobic media discourse: am I just making this up? My experience is so different from “real” trans people, so how can it be valid? Many of these doubts, with continued therapy over the past two years, have faded away. I am lucky to have a broad support system: without that, the ever-present transphobia in the media would surely have led me back down a path of depression, self harm, substance use, and suicidality.

What remains, then, are the emotions related to gender dysphoria—feeling like I am in the wrong body. My experience (and one of the reasons I use the term nonbinary) is that I don’t particularly mind which genitals I have. Either of the two standard options seem like they’d be just fine. However, it is the secondary sex characteristics: facial hair, breasts, hip size, and to some extent voice, where I have my issues.

Stubble on my face feels wrong, like it shouldn’t be there. I feel as though someone has drawn on me with a permanent marker, and it just won’t come off. I pluck or epilate my facial hair daily, despite the pain, in the hopes that one day it won’t grow back (like when people overpluck their eyebrows and then have to draw them on). If hormones don’t get rid of it, I’ll get electrolysis. I work out to try and widen my hips, while also wearing tight trousers and belts to get a more ‘feminine’ shape—again, hormones will help with this.

Before I got breast forms, the most intense dysphoric emotions related to my chest. It was a constant reminder that, while I may be nonbinary, my body disagrees. My own physical self is invalidating my identity. In particularly painful moments, when I would curl up and close my eyes, it felt as though I had phantom breasts—like the phantom limbs that amputees describe. Those moments were painful because they showed me a hint of what I could not have, like giving someone a gift only to snatch it away again.

Wearing breast forms has calmed those feelings but not eliminated them—there is only so much two pieces of silicon will do. Not to mention, they are incredibly impractical—always slipping and falling in bad moments. And doing things like going through airport security while wearing breast forms is unbelievably difficult, from fielding twenty questions about whether I’ve had surgery (I haven’t) to deciding who gets to pat me down (body scanners are based on average male and female bodies, so they invariably flag up either my breast forms or my genitals). Nonetheless, because of the progress I’ve made in therapy and with my prosthetics, the majority of the issues I face at the moment, especially at the cusp of hormone therapy, are not internal, but external.

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Every time I hear someone refer to me as “he” it feels as though someone has driven a needle into my stomach. Usually it comes from people who know me and have slipped up; it hurts, even though I know it’s an accident. Sometimes, after a particularly bad day, I think that I must look like an inverted porcupine, with all the needles pointing inwards instead of out. Each needle seems to inject a small dose of dysphoria, reminding me that people still see me, and think of me, as male.

I dread introductions: I inevitably have to listen to someone try and explain my gender and pronouns, and accidentally misgender me in the process (the most common phrase is: “he is actually a she!”). I never know whether to correct them—shall I cause them embarrassment or just take the pain? I usually choose the latter.

The worst misgendering of all comes from complete strangers. I wear breast forms, which means that physically I pass as a woman, but my voice remains stereotypically ‘masculine’. If I am shopping, someone will come up and ask, “Can I help you, ma’am?” So far, so good. But as soon as I speak, and they hear a voice that they code as ‘male’, they immediately apologise profusely and retreat: “I’m so sorry, sir! I just…” I begin to say that I use she/her pronouns and that there is no need to apologise, but they have already run off.

Those situations, which happen weekly, tell me that I am so close to being seen the way I identify. But, because of my voice (and I quite like my voice, if I may say so myself), I shock people, and even seem to provoke a fear reaction. There is also a pervasive societal narrative that being trans is somehow misleading or disingenuous, and these situations make me feel as though I have done something wrong. It seems that I cannot fully be myself while being accepted—it is one or the other.

I am glad to say that the one group of people who have yet, as far as I know, to make a mistake with my pronouns are my professors. Every time I hear them, or students, friends or parents, gender me correctly, I have the opposite reaction to that of misgendering: I feel a little stab of contentment. It shows me that people not only accept me, but care enough to put in the effort. I feel that gendering people correctly should be a minimum requirement for any decent human being, but given the world we live in, I am relieved to take what I can get.

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When I interviewed at Oxford, I made the decision to pass as a man. I felt that I would be discriminated against for showing my gender; I saw the university as a place that would likely be transphobic, and so I decided that until I got an offer, I would hide my identity.

I would like to say that my doing so was unnecessary, and that I believe that I would have been accepted regardless. But if I said that, I’d be lying. In my first month at Oxford, an openly transphobic professor put on a trans exclusionist ‘feminist’ conference in the Exam School: it was on University grounds, with a University-provided security team. I attended that conference openly, to hear the arguments and talk to the attendees. It was rife with misinformation and inflammatory rhetoric, but there were two things especially that stuck out to me. 

Firstly, it seemed as though the University, by giving the conference and professor a platform, was endorsing the transphobic message. Even though I was expecting institutionalised transphobia and lack of sensitivity, I did not quite expect it to be so in-my-face. I count myself lucky that my professors and my college have been open and accepting, but that evidently does not extend to the University as a whole.

Secondly, I realised that what was driving the transphobia was not necessarily hatred: the root of the issue seemed to be fear—fear of the unknown, and of change. I think it is their fear that leads them to be angry and to hate. And I find it sad that my gender—a private detail which is already so difficult to be open about—makes people so afraid that they treat me as subhuman: that people want to ‘debate’ whether I exist or deserve rights.

I have talked mostly about my experiences in the University, but there are so many situations that can be uncomfortable or even dangerous—interactions with strangers on the street, at night, or when they are intoxicated; interactions with the police and other law enforcement; mentioning my gender to my GP (many people in the NHS don’t recognise nonbinary genders, and can be incredibly transphobic); and so on. Being out as a trans person, I am constantly wary of how others might perceive me, because I am constantly reminded of how that perception will affect me, potentially leading to discrimination, abuse, and harassment

I am lucky in many ways—my experiences have been better than most. I am privileged because my family is wealthy; because I am not Black or Indigenous; because I am not undocumented; because I have no physical disability; because I have supportive and accepting friends and parents. The list goes on. However, being a transfemme person of colour means I have some similar experiences to people with the identities I mentioned above. Womxn of all races, classes and abilities talk about feeling unsafe when they walk alone at night: I feel the same. Black and Indigenous people mention their fear and distrust of the police and justice system: I relate. Working class people discuss wanting to keep their class quiet around those they don’t know well: I frequently feel the same about my transness, so around strangers in public I try to ‘pass’ as cis.

But there are also obstacles I face that are unique to being a transfemme person of colour. I am painfully aware that the average life expectancy of trans women in the Americas is 35; the life expectancy of trans women of colour is almost certainly even lower. I fall into that category. It is no exaggeration to say that going to the bathroom can be life-threatening for me. No public space, regardless of the time of day or number of witnesses, is safe. And even in the private sphere, depression- and self-loathing-inducing transphobic discourse in the media haunts me

My very existence—and that of others who, like me, transgress societal norms—is a form of resistance against the white-supremacist cisheteronormative patriarchal world we live in. No matter where I am or what I do, people will actively try to harm me, because they are afraid of my transness. Learning to accept, express, and be proud of my identity is a radical act of protest against our society: one that is designed specifically to put down, remove, and erase certain groups of people—people like myself. But even though I have, with much difficulty and pain, learned to accept myself, society has not. There is no place in the world for me. Yet.

Zaman Keinath-Esmail

Zaman Keinath-Esmail (she/her) is one of the Editors-in-Chief at The Oxford Blue, having previously been Senior Opinions Editor and Senior Columns Editor. She studies Physics, sits on various society and college committees, and generally advocates for equal rights for everyone. When not in Oxford, she can be found in Washington, DC.