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Untangling the roots of my mother’s shame; finding acceptance as a trans man

Illustration by Shika (@shikasketchbook)

By Faris Saad | 2 July 2024

“Just be yourself.”

Three words could never be more loaded for a transgender person. For 30 years of my life, I had to hide who I was. What made it harder was the fact that I couldn’t be surer of who I wasn’t – a girl/woman. For all those years, I lived a lie. It didn’t help that every part of my existence depended on that lie. Who I was to my parents, friends, co-workers, and even random strangers like the bank teller was built on this idea of what society thought I should be. My IC, with my birth name and assigned gender imprinted in capitals, felt fake to me (it still does, by the way.) 

Every time I tried to express my true self, it was shoved right back at me, suppressed by shame, guilt, and fear. I lived with that burden. I couldn’t truly give myself to anyone. What I gave felt like a carefully curated fake version of myself, made up of rules and roles in society’s “approved” list. I became angry at myself, at the world, at God. I was filled with a self-hatred that could have been any villain’s backstory. How could I love myself if I was led to believe I was wrong and broken? 

I believed that my parents and God would only accept me if I obeyed and faked it until I died. That’s why I wanted to die (and although I tried, I’m glad I didn’t succeed). If I was erased from existence, no one would feel shame. I was very, very tired. 

It’s very hard to explain what it felt like. I tell people that they can only truly understand if they’ve gone through it themselves, although in some ways, many of us live multiple lives. We have many selves that we present to each part of our world. Sometimes they can be vastly different. Fearing rejection and ridicule, we put on our public faces, hoping that someday we won’t have to wear so many masks. 

Shame is powerful. In trying to come to terms with my true self, I had to understand the root of my shame. Where did it come from?

As a kid, I was called a tomboy. I hated wearing dresses. I didn’t relate to any toys or clothing marketed to girls. I wrestled with my brother and boy cousins. When I played house with the girls, I would be assigned the dad role and given a briefcase and tie (gender roles in the early 90s). At school, the boys regarded me as one of them. When I was 9, a girl classmate grabbed my hand and cheerfully informed me that I was now her boyfriend. I don’t know how, but they just knew. There was no shame. 

I only understood what shame was when I got older and outgrew my WWF/WWE obsession. My body changed, and so did the way I saw the world. I recognized the shame and embarrassment in my mum’s eyes when people commented on my appearance, and that broke my heart as much as it did hers. I would cry at night when I thought no one could hear me. I would pray that I would wake up a boy and go downstairs for breakfast and everything would be ok, just like in the 1986 film Willy/Milly. 

I was helpless against the torrent of hormones that were slowly transforming me into something alien. I felt trapped in my body. I became more aware of what others thought of me. Disapproval and snide comments were everyday occurrences. I was suddenly experiencing all these emotions that I couldn’t explain. I buried the real me deeper and deeper inside, hoping it would disappear altogether. 

The shame wasn’t mine – it was imposed on me, and on my mother. It built a wall between us. I felt she could never love me for who I really was. 

I started transitioning shortly after my 30th birthday in 2014. The day I told my parents was probably the day my mum felt that she had lost me forever. I didn’t have the words or the maturity to reassure her. 

I know my mum loved me, but she just couldn’t understand. The shame she felt wasn’t hers, so how could she? She had grown up in a very different time when things were black and white for women. You did as you were expected and maybe it was easier to just conform. She dedicated her life to her family, putting her kids’ needs above her own, so why was I so difficult? What did she do to deserve this?  

Looking back, I know now that she was afraid for me. She probably saw how hurt I was growing up and wanted to shield me from further judgement and rejection. She knew the dangers and wanted me to be safe. As I embraced my true self, I hid more and more of it from my mum. I remembered the shame in her eyes. In trying to protect each other, we grew further apart. I couldn’t reconcile the two parts of me that were so at odds with each other. My dad accepted me in his own way, and that helped ease the struggle. 

Illustration by Shika (@shikasketchbook)
Breaking free from shame

Years later, I sat my parents down for another talk. I wanted to be 100% myself with them. I wanted to share the best parts of me with the people I loved most – to hell with gossipy folks and discriminatory laws. Pergi mampus lah. Enough is enough. 

I explained to my parents that I was happier now, as a man, than I had ever been in my whole life. Wasn’t that what they wanted for me – to be happy and healthy? All the risk was worth it, if it meant they would know the real me. I told my mum that if she openly accepted me, no one else would have the power to say otherwise. I think that convinced her I was going to be ok. Maybe it even empowered her to decide for herself. Mum’s love crushes everything else. 

From that moment, we started anew, slowly rebuilding what years of shame had destroyed. I think she was relieved, and maybe even proud of me for being true to myself in a world designed to hate folks like me. There was no more shame in her eyes, only love. She saw and accepted my partner for who she was to me. She embraced my friends who were disowned by their own families for being themselves. In her last years, I was free to love her from the truest part of me, and for that I’m forever grateful. I know not many queer people here are lucky enough to have that.  

In March, I buried her as myself – a man. No one said I was wrong. No one whispered or made comments. No one told me to dress like a woman. My friends came to pay their respects to my mum and support me. I felt their love for my mum, and for me, too. The kampung had probably never seen a more muhibbah funeral, so queer, vibrant and colourful.

She had touched so many lives from her little kitchen, and that was truly apparent in the many messages I received from friends who couldn’t make it to the funeral. Everyone had a funny anecdote or fond memory to share. 

Today, for me, there is no more shame, because my mother’s acceptance and love are far greater than that. I will live the rest of my life with her love in everything I do, and I will share that love with others, just as she did. I want for them what she gave to me, and I will do everything I can to make sure that happens. 

And maybe God really did answer my Willy/Milly prayers, just not in the way I expected.

Faris Saad is a writer and member of the queer band Shh…Diam! He wants everyone to feel they are sexy and rich. Love yourself! Delete the shame!