Opinion

My family denies my identity, but I am determined to be myself

CW: transphobia, deadnaming, eating disorders.

I’ve known I was trans for a bit over two years by now. I’d felt awkward for years before then, and to an extent I still do. It wasn’t until my late teens that I became confident enough to begin playing around with my outward expression, if only by trying to grow my hair longer, trying on some different clothes, and the like. I felt happier then: I was able to hide the person I thought I had been, by disguising them as the person I wanted to be. It was a rewarding process – sort of like building an IKEA shelf, but without any instructions on what to do. I could finally face the music – I was trans. I wish I could say everything has been sunshine and roses since then, but it hasn’t. I’ve had a complicated journey. 

Growing up in a conservative Pakistani household, I was fed a warped view of what was acceptable. The only times anything relating to LGBTQ+ people was ever discussed was when my parents would comment on how disgusting they were. I ‘came out’ (though I wouldn’t describe it that way) sometime in the spring of 2018, at the time to only half a dozen or so of my closest friends – and it would largely stay this way for another year and a half until I started university. I was happy, sure, having accepted who I was, but I was also afraid. I knew exactly what this meant for me then, and still means now: disownment is a best case scenario, but I expect much worse from the comments they’d made about the growing LGBTQ+ movement both in England, and back home – offhanded comments expressing violent thoughts about people just like me.  

The hardest part of my journey so far, besides my dysphoria, has been having to navigate around my family. Every single step of this process so far, I have either used addresses of friends, deadnamed myself, or flat out rejected services simply because there was nothing else I could do. Just last week, I had to hide in a park to get away from home so I could speak to a therapist – a requirement for medically transitioning (getting hormones). I have had to live as a fabrication of who I am out of fear for my own safety. There are so many things I would like to have done – to have been able to have lived as I am – that I just cannot do due to the situation at home.

Soon after I first accepted who I was, I acquired just a few items of clothing that helped me express who I was. I am a woman, yes, but I didn’t look like one. With these clothes I could look like the way I felt. I could be feminine. I could be happy. I would get up at odd hours of the night, wear them and just live my life as Zella for a few hours, before the dawn broke and the spell was up. I would pack them up, hide them underneath my books in my bag and go about my day as best as I could.

Everyday became so much more painful to go through, now that I had a taste of what things could really be like. Nighttimes meant being really me – even if nobody else would know. My room became a little bubble where everything was alright and I could ignore the feelings of self hate, disgust, and general depression. I could actually feel alive during those moments. Things were going well, until one day I came upstairs to see my mother sitting on my bed, with tears in her eyes and those clothes in her hands, asking me what they were. 

At that moment, I genuinely thought my life was over. What I felt then is difficult to explain. I wasn’t upset, scared, or worried. There was almost a sense of tranquility. I had accepted who I was in these last few months of my life, and now that I had been found out, that was it. Surprisingly, I managed to get away from that day – I think now largely because she wasn’t willing to believe that her son would turn out this way. I begged and pleaded for her not to tell anyone, coming up with some pathetic story about being influenced by my friends and how I would cut them off and change. It was cowardice, but I was what I had to do. 

The relationship between my mother and I changed that day, but we never spoke of it again. My father, I think, is not aware. From then on I knew I couldn’t even risk hiding anything to do with being trans. She threw away all those clothes; I threw away my epilator which I had hidden elsewhere, and that was that. I stopped shaving for a while before it became too unbearable, and really just shut down. My eating disorder, which I have since moved past, spiraled further and further downwards out of a desire to at least somehow not look like the hulking man I thought I would be. I never chased up any further NHS resources (although somewhat bleakly, I wouldn’t have gotten onto hormones any faster than I am doing now, privately, despite having only started about 2 weeks ago). From that day on I led two completely separate lives – one as the son my parents wanted, and one as myself. 

Coming to Oxford has been both a blessing and a curse. I come from an economically disadvantaged background, and only through the financial support given to me have I been able to even consider privately transitioning. The people I have met here have been amazing and everything I could have wished for. The feelings I had when I first came out to people here were so incredibly intense. It was a rush of euphoria, validation, excitement – and initially, also fear of rejection. I was being seen as myself. It was so incredibly difficult to make the decision to come out: I had debated doing so for weeks into term time, and I knew the longer I put things off the harder it would get, but I was worried the people around me (friends and tutors primarily; those I spoke with regularly) wouldn’t like me once they knew who I was. Thankfully, none of that happened. Their reactions were complete acceptance, and I can’t thank everyone around me enough. Oxford was the first time I could be myself, be called what I wanted, and even dress how I wanted. 

It was in the second term when I finally felt comfortable enough to start presenting femme. At the moment, my wardrobe – if you want to call it that – consists of enough clothing to be able to pack into a small backpack, and a handful of accessories. Still, I was happy. I was me. 

But every vacation, I have to awkwardly go back to my life as it used to be. I have to put everything that allows me to express myself away, hide it, and go back to living like before. It’s suffocating. I cope by drowning myself in work, because there’s almost nothing else I can do. I can’t speak with friends because I can’t have them calling out ‘Zella’. Home for me is a place of loneliness, where the days would blend one day into the next. I’ve had countless arguments with my parents over my apparent lack of engagement with the rest of the family, and overall dejectedness. How do I explain that our entire relationship rests upon a bed of lies that will come undone in the years to come?

Lockdown has amplified these feelings tenfold. For months, the only validation I have received is via text or, when my parents are either asleep or away, by voice. I have to get up in the early hours of the morning just to be able to shave my body, not being able to do so anytime when my parents are awake. The only professional help I have been able to receive has been through the university’s counseling services, which I have had to stop since coming home.

Everything being virtual is so much less than ideal. I remember before Trinity began, one of my tutors emailed me worried about the tutorials – she didn’t want to out me. Every time I introduce myself over Zoom, I panic, wondering if anyone has heard me at home. Half the time I awkwardly try and avoid saying my name altogether, hoping people can just pick it up under my name tag. I didn’t attend my JCR husts at all; I wasn’t in a position to speak about anything I wrote about in my manifesto. And while it’s nothing compared to all the other baggage, it’s embarrassing and awkward to have to do this little song and dance whenever I meet someone new.

Now, I could have easily cut my family off much earlier. I have had the support networks around me to be able to move out almost anytime for the past few years, but the reason I don’t is because that would mean losing my family. I have two siblings; both of them are younger than me, one much more so. The older one knows about my situation and accepts me, while the younger is not aware at all. Coming out to my parents – inadvertently through the physical changes that will inevitably arise or through deliberate means – means that I won’t get to see either of them again for the foreseeable future. And, while it feels illogical to bring up, I’d also lose my parents. 

I hate having to face the fact that they would despise the real me. These past two decades I’ve spent with them would mean nothing to them – when for me it has quite literally been everything. As warped as it is, I don’t want to hurt my mother. But what can I do, when my very existence hurts her? I love my family, to whatever degree. And maybe I shouldn’t, at least not my parents. I don’t want to lose my family. But I have to face the fact that I will lose them all, at least until my siblings both are independent. 

I’m tired of living a lie. I don’t want to have to constantly see the wrong name under my ID cards. I don’t want to lie to cover up visiting the doctor to get blood tests done. I don’t want any of this. The loathing I feel towards myself has to stop, because I just can’t take it anymore. If I could press a button and have my life reset to have been born a cis woman, I would press it without any hesitation. But I can’t, so I have to live on in a world that isn’t really accepting of people like me, and do the best I can. The only consolation I have at this point is that I have overcome the worst of it. Everyday I mark off the calendar until I am able to move out and begin my life anew – surrounded by people who accept me, and those around whom I can be myself.