Tuesday was International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT). Here one Cypriot transgender man speaks out about what it was like for him as a young adult in Cyprus 20 years ago with no support network
I IMAGINE it must be hard for a former convict to remember prison. I have had my own period of confinement, and I have no wish to remember what it felt like. To be honest, my memories have already re-shaped so that those years seem unreal, despite the nearly four decades of my ‘imprisonment’.
My prison was my body. A body that everyone thought meant I must be female, but which was, in fact, an elaborate place of punishment that fate or biology had imposed upon me. My prison went everywhere with me. It was invisible to everyone else, but me. In my heart and in my mind, I was, and have always been, male, but no one then could guess the truth about my identity, although it’s safe to assume people thought me gay, given my masculine body language and the way I dressed.
To be honest, that’s what I thought, too, growing up as a teen in Cyprus in the Nineties, for there was no information at that time about being transgender. There was barely any information about homosexuality – except an occasional medical article in TIME magazine, or a bit of gossip or slander directed at some marginalised individual, who was portrayed as sick, deviant and possibly predatory.
When I allowed myself to think about the implications of what I felt inside – and I tried hard not to think about it at all, but rather bury myself in my school work–I felt only horror and despair. At that time, to escape the turmoil and isolation I felt, I joined a Christian youth group. Their kindness was genuine and compassionate, but the dogma they espoused – at least for people who were gay – was not, and only added to my self-hatred and suffocating sense of being condemned.
But what little I could learn about being gay then –there was no Facebook, no YouTube, no Google, no LGBT celebrities on TV or in films – never seemed to fit me. Although I had always been attracted to girls, I was deeply uncomfortable with the idea that any girl would look at me as a girl.
I longed for the company of males my own age, and the chance to be seen as a man by women, but had no words to articulate these feelings and almost no one in whom to confide. Certainly not my parents or authority figures who had invested so much love and attention in my personal and academic wellbeing. I only knew for certain, deep inside me, that I would never be able to fulfil the expectations of a woman’s life – marriage, children, looking beautiful for society’s gaze – that God and culture had apparently decreed. That would have been like dying – although, if I am honest, I didn’t wish to live anyway.
However, I was in a bit of a fix; I couldn’t commit suicide, because of the fear of eternal damnation, but I also couldn’t imagine any kind of life for myself, which was a shame, because at that point, I should have had everything to live for. I had been a good student, I was generally liked at school – although I allowed very few people to get to know me – and I had secured a place at a prestigious university that, under other circumstances, might have opened so many professional doors.
But the misery continued at university, which was steeped in history and whose social interactions were very traditionally gendered. I would look, with such heartbreak, at the beauty of my surroundings, where, once again, there was no place for me. Only a different landscape of exile. I would yearn for someone to look at me and see me, but almost no one did. People only see what they’ve been taught to see. In the Nineties, even at a British university, no one talked about transsexuals – the term used before ‘transgender’ – the word we use today – and only the more radical, left-wing undergrads talked about homosexuality. And because of my faith and the fact that I couldn’t fully relate to being gay, I never had contact with them.
It was only by chance when a group of students explained what ‘transsexual’ meant – the technical term for people who had had surgery and hormone therapy to change their bodies – that I finally had a word to describe what I felt. I cannot describe the relief I experienced in that moment. Everything changed. The idea that there were others like me – and that, through the miracle of modern medicine and surgery, it was possible to materialise what had always been my unspoken, tormented yearning – came like a breath of salvation.
Of course, that still meant I would have to confess to the people I loved most the truth about myself, and face their possible rejection, not to mention find some way of accessing all those interventions. In Cyprus, it would have been out of the question to bring up such topics with any physician – even psychiatrists knew little about people like me, and in any event, were often more interested in steering me back to a traditional life. I hadn’t the first idea how to start, who to talk to, where to research the information or how I would live after all those strange procedures were over.
In my innocence, while I knew the process would take a long time, I thought, surely by 30 I would have accomplished my physical goals. As it turned out, it would take almost 20 years to navigate the challenges of my transition. There were postgraduate degrees in other countries where I slowly began my research and living full-time as a man, an eventual mastectomy, then a hysterectomy, endless clinical tests and psychological evaluation, hormone therapy (which will last for life), legal fees, bureaucratic and medical dead-ends and years and years of terrible pain in my personal life. But somehow, bit by bit, I found my way.
Today, I am 41. I am one of the very few transgendered individuals on the island who has had their official documents changed from female to male – something that would not have happened without the intervention of ACCEPT, as there is no gender recognition law at present in Cyprus. My male body allows me to navigate social and work situations without the crippling anxiety I used to feel. I can interact in the traditionally-gendered environment of the island without the constant terror of being outed all the time. I can take a phone call without the pitch of my voice betraying me. And my family, who, to their credit, did not cut their ties with me, are now much more accepting.
While I can never escape the irony or detachment from life that this experience has given me, I am nevertheless grateful, as anyone let out of prison, is grateful. Life is not perfect, but it is infinitely better than I could ever have imagined when I was a lost and suffering teenager. What I would now like to see is rapid legal and social progress for the transgendered youth of Cyprus, so that their jail sentence is reduced as much as possible, and they do not have to waste decades like me. I remain hopeful, but much work remains to change the perception of transgendered people – from freaks to simply another aspect of human diversity. I offer a huge ‘thank you’ to ACCEPT and the LGB community for making trans rights one of their priorities and the theme of this year’s Pride celebrations. Together, I hope the journey of trans individuals in Cyprus can be made less onerous and free up more human potential for our country.