By Alvin Dsouza Jul. 12, 2019
The scars across my chest are badges of my victory. They are the marks of my mother’s endless support and my father’s struggle to understand me. After years of self-doubt and breakdowns, unwanted discomfort and dysphoria, and rejection from society for who I was, I could finally learn to love myself and my body. I made it.
“This child has been claimed by The Devil himself!” intoned the priest, looking down on the unfazed girl standing before him in the church. Behind the child stood the parents, clasping their palms together. But it was not The Devil at work that day; it was not the child who was possessed. It was the priest and the parents who had dragged her to church who were possessed… by transphobia.
That girl was me. I was made to see the priest so that he could pray away the thoughts I’d been having – thoughts about the body I was born with and the body in which I felt I truly belonged. Of course, the church visit and all the prayers that followed were ineffective. Today, seven years later, I’m a female-to-male transperson and The Devil never came to claim my soul, which is not to say that I’ve had it easy.
At 16, I came out as a transgender boy to my parents. At the time it seemed impossible for them to wrap their heads around the fact that their daughter, Alisha, thought she was a boy. That soon she would become their son, Alvin. Even if the signs were there for all to see.
From a very young age, I would often try on my brother’s clothes. When I refused to play with girls, I was branded “shy”. My eagerness to be around boys was brushed off as tomboy behaviour at first. No one quite cares about these trivial things when you are a kid. So I felt like I could be whoever I wanted to be. I was happy pretending to be a boy, but as I started nearing my teens, I was constantly chided to “behave like a girl”. It only made me rebel twice as much and I often beat up other kids because I felt that was the only way to prove that I’m a boy. My parents, who didn’t know any better, merely shrugged me off as an angsty teenager who was going through a “phase”. But I felt misunderstood and uncared for. Mostly, I felt alone and confused.
The internet became my safe haven by the time I was 15. On YouTube, I stumbled upon Canadian musician Jeydon Wale. In the comment section of one of his videos, I read, “He is a guy but has a female body.” It resonated with me. I googled to find out if there were other people like me who felt trapped and isolated because of their body. I came across a compilation of Jeydon’s tweets that first introduced me to the term “transgender”. But it was only years later, in 2016, that Jeydon came out as a transgender man. And that’s when I got the courage to pursue my true self.
Most of our early conversations after I came out lingered around one thought: “Are you sure?”
Of course, I could not do this without my family; I wasn’t even an adult yet. Barring the detour to see the priest, once the initial shock waned, they tried to be supportive. Most of our early conversations after I came out lingered around one thought: “Are you sure?” Mum and dad were hesitant; they feared what our neighbours and relatives would say. Would society accept me? Some days were spent in trying to understand me, others in mourning the loss of their daughter. “I just want to be myself,” I’d plead to them. My parents unsure of what to do decided to give me my space. With time, I only grew more confident that I could be the son I was meant to be.
I was fortunate enough to have a family that eventually learned to accept me for who I was, but the reality of being a transgender person does not involve simply starting afresh with a new identity. Coming out is just the beginning, the long road to finding yourself involves a body-transforming surgery. It is fraught with emotional upheaval, medical expenses, and red tape thrown in for good effect. Even though I could change my name at 16, I couldn’t legally change my gender marker because it required a mandatory top surgery – removal of breasts. So I decided to hold back on the name change and embarked on the arduous journey of gender transition.
In 2013, at 16, I met with a clinical psychologist who conducted MMPI-A – a psychological test to assess personality, behavioural, and mental health issues among adolescents. Consisting of 478 true-or-false questions on anxiety, mental health, and family problems, my results indicated that I was high on the Masculinity Domain on the gender spectrum. I wasn’t particularly overjoyed; I always knew who I was. The results were all the proof everyone else needed. Yet it felt like crossing a milestone. Being diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder is the first step toward change for those who suffer from gender dysphoria – distress a person feels when your birth-assigned gender does not match your identity. This was the green signal I needed to pursue hormone therapy. Of course, I had to wait to turn 18, be an adult, according to the Indian law, to proceed with a procedure that would change my life. The two-year wait, only so that I could be who I always knew I was, was painful.
These were trying times – puberty was doing more damage than good. It was exhausting to be constantly disappointed in a body that didn’t feel like my own. After dropping out of college to enroll into a private one so that I could run away from those who knew me as a girl, I tried to create a boy-like identity for myself. For starters, I cut my hair really short. I befriended a classmate, who on hearing my story insisted others call me by Alvin. Though I appreciated it, this acceptance, like my short hair, could only help me for so long. My menstrual cycle and blooming breasts only heightened my dysphoria, bringing me crippling anxiety. The thought of flattening my breasts using duct tape crossed my mind, but the internet raised a red flag – my ribs, lungs could suffer permanent damage. The sports bra hack, popular among transmen, seemed to be tailored for those with smaller bosoms. I tried that and put on three to four layers of clothing to hide my breasts. But it didn’t make me feel any better. My year-long efforts were just trial and error, with lots of error.
At 16, I was convinced I wouldn’t even make it to my 20s. By 17, I had already attempted suicide thrice. The next three years I struggled to carry on. Hope came to me in the form of chest binders, and the aches and bruises that they would leave behind helped me cope.
At 16, I was convinced I wouldn’t even make it to my 20s.
Finally at 19, I started hormone therapy – the next big stage of transitioning. Each of my T-shots cost me ₹ 230 and initially I had to take one a month. But the thing about hormone therapy is that there’s no preparing for what’s to come. Hormone therapy is similar to puberty: The changes don’t appear overnight but your body slowly modifies. It took about six months for my menstruation to stop. Within a year my body showed more notable changes – I got broader, my breasts dropped down a size. My 250 mg monthly doses of testosterone brought along some more positive changes – my voice had steadily started to change and I grew a baby moustache. The facial hair, although faint, evidently made me feel confident and, more importantly, manly.
But I’d be lying if I said that the transformation was without its side-effects. The mood swings were drastic. I found myself taking out all my frustration on my family, more so than usual. My parents knew the hormonal changes were to be blamed, but my father and I often found ourselves bickering. He felt I belittled their efforts; I felt wronged for not being given an easier life. Through it all, my mother was the pillar who tried to placate both my dad and me. There came a time when I couldn’t even glance at my bare chest. All I saw was a body that I knew wasn’t mine. I was losing patience.
It didn’t help that my estrogen levels spiked. I started bleeding again, and along with period pain came more self-hate. This struggle to get through each day with my body sporadically giving up on me made my mother realise how much I needed the top surgery. She went out of her way to set up a meeting with my doctor to understand what they could do to help ease my dysphoria. On learning of the surgical policy and its benefits to my mental health, my mother, who had grown less apprehensive over time, encouraged me to take the next step. I had already been on testosterone for over a year by then and was finally eligible for double mastectomy.
After consulting a plastic surgeon, I found myself back at the hospital with my mother in tow. I was a little nervous, but who isn’t right before surgery? But my euphoria had taken over my nerves. “This is it! This is the moment you’ve been waiting for all your life,” I told myself. On May 16, 2017, at the age of 20, I finally got my top surgery successfully done. The surgery that cost ₹ 1.5 lakh lasted for 12 long hours. I was sent home the same day, my chest bandaged. I felt at ease for the first time in 20 years. I didn’t need to hide myself anymore.
My name at last seemed to align with my body; people had no choice but to call me by my name now.
Twenty days later, when I was back at the clinic to take off my bandages, I cried when they held the mirror in front of me. For the first time, I saw a body I knew I was meant to be in. The scars across my chest were symbolic of my victory, my perseverance. They were the marks of my mother’s endless support and my father’s struggle to understand me. After years of self-doubt and breakdowns, the unwanted discomfort and dysphoria, the rejection from society for who I was, I finally felt liberated.
I was now eligible to change my gender marker from female to male. Without further delay, I went ahead and officiated my prolonged identity as well. At 20, I had officially gone from Alisha D’Souza, F to Alvin D’Souza, M and the sense of freedom, of belongingness was surreal.
My name at last seemed to align with my body; people had no choice but to call me by my name now. Even those who had initially shunned me, were now opening up to the new identity. However, some older aunties insist on calling me Alisha. It’s jarring but I’ve learned to tune them out. A few relatives have cut off all ties with my family and me. To them, we are an abomination. But their biases only made it easier for us to let go. I could finally learn to love myself, my body. I had made it.
Transitioning is more than a physical journey, it’s an emotional one too. It affects more lives than one. Yes, I got what I wanted, but the real winners were my friends and family who did not cease to love me, even when uncertain of the changes to come.
It’s been two years since my surgery, since the last time I looked in the mirror and asked, “Why me?” Today, I look at the world in the eye and say, “This is me.”
As told to Mavis D’Silva