Whenever someone asked about the way I dressed, my mom would joke: “Oh yeah, I’m totally saving money for her sex-reassignment surgery.” Little did she know, this was not a joke for me. I still laugh at it though and play it off, because I am not ready to bring disgrace and risk losing my family.
In typical Chinese culture, people of my age are taught gender ideals that they are expected to live up to. Rebelling against these ideals would have been a disgrace to their family.
Fortunately, I was raised in a household where my parents did not focus on how to behave properly according to my gender, but more on how a good person should behave. They were open-minded enough to allow me to participate in activities that most girls would have been denied the chance of.
In most cultures around the world, girls are expected to grow long hair, wear dresses, be more interested in certain colors, and act elegant. I grew up being the opposite of that. I have been shopping in the boys’ section ever since I could choose my own clothes. I had interests that are considered to be more masculine, and hobbies that girls following gender norms would not usually participate in, such as martial arts and sports.
I was lucky enough to have experienced the open and welcoming culture of Taiwan, which is known to be one of the most LGBTQ+ friendly places in Asia. The people that I’ve met in Taiwan have shown nothing but love, compassion, and acceptance towards people like me. In recent years, I had learned so much about the LGBTQ+ community in Asia, such as the different terminology for identities that I could relate to; for example, I learned that tomboys are girls that dressed masculine but are not at the point of identifying themselves as a transgender. Here, it’s not surprising to come across one tomboy in every five person at a night market.
As progressive as Taiwan sounds, it was also the place where I experienced the rigidities of gender norms. The school that I attended in Taiwan had a rule that forbade girls from wearing pants for formal days. As someone who is used to dressing based on personal preferences, I felt completely uncomfortable, and kept asking myself throughout the year if I must come out as transgender for the school administration to allow me to wear pants. Despite that my peers were friendly and accepting, I was disappointed at the institutions that I expected to be open-minded.
These experiences led to my long struggle with this dilemma: Is it better to come out and be true to who you are? Or to find comfort in your current position, and sacrifice the freedom of self-expression? Is it better to seek acceptance from your family? Or choose to not say anything because you don’t want to risk losing them?
Personally, I have not publicly come out yet. Although I’m not as happy as I could be, I am more afraid of the consequences that may ensue.
Depression is one of the most common mental disorders that members of the LGBTQ+ community experience, along with anxiety, suicidal thoughts, self-harm, and alcohol and substance abuse. While I am not clinically diagnosed with depression, I have been through the lows in life -- self-esteem issues, gender dysphoria, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts -- as a result of my struggles with interpersonal relationships and “mind games”.
Societal and cultural values make people like me question whether or not I’m normal. If I’m not normal based on the definition of cultural ideals, society tells me to fix myself. Cultural standards that I have been taking notice of since I was young has established this mold that I’m expected to fit in, yet I’m breaking almost every rule there is. When interacting with others, I always felt insecure about how people saw me. To myself, I always criticized how I was neither fitting in the mold, nor moving on to be my true self.
My self-esteem constantly reminded myself that I was never going to be better than my peers because I made the question of coming out such a priority without having an actual approach towards how I could solve it. When you live in a culture that constantly criticizes and excludes people like you, it becomes difficult to not judge yourself. Societal values have made me believe that everyone is judging me for not conforming to the roles I have been assigned to at birth. Sometimes, I feel people staring at me even when they are just minding their own business.
On top of this, I struggled with gender dysphoria, which is the distress most transgender individuals experiences before realizing what gender they identify with. I am constantly criticizing my appearance, and it can be mentally and physically exhausting. The way my body appears does not align with the way I hope I could be seen as. It is mentally exhausting to be needing to remind myself that the way that I look is not correct. It is also physically exhausting because I take the effort to make myself look “better” (hoping it could lessen me from the dysphoria) such as by wearing a binder, which can be compared to the saying “beauty is pain.” I don’t even remember when it started, but nowadays, it has become such a habit that I even unconsciously tug down my shirt whenever I feel wind blowing towards me because I am afraid of my body outline. I am not comfortable with the way I look, but there’s not much that I can do at the moment. Even if I overcame the fear of coming out to my family, there are not many options for supportive resources.
I don’t think there is anyone more afraid of my true self than me. However, I coped with these feelings mainly through sports and music, and tried keep myself as occupied as possible. I joined as many sports teams as I could to avoid thinking about my problems, even though they are mostly single-gendered sports teams and sometimes built onto the problem. I have also been dying my hair frequently for the past two years, because it makes me feel better about my appearance, and gives me the reassurance that I can change the way I look but still stay the same as a person. I use fashion as a way to cover up the dysphoria and to express myself at the same time.
These are all only temporary solutions, of course. Eventually, I will have to confront my problems. I am making progress as to coming to terms with who I am, but it will take time. I continue to remind myself to stay positive, and to be proud of how far I’ve come along.