The Third Sex

A Middle Eastern Muslim student—born a boy, now a woman—struggles to find her place in the world

Illustration By Jody Brookens

She lives alone in a Chico apartment, just four blocks from campus. We call her Sara, though that’s not her name.

Today Sara sits in front of her computer, comfortable in pink short-shorts and her favorite Victoria’s Secret tank top, her fingers clenched in her shock of black hair. Clothes are strewn about. A Chico State sweatshirt hangs haphazardly from the arm of a sofa she bought at the Salvation Army thrift store. Books and papers cover the floor like an academic carpet.

She’s like most college students. She looks forward to winter break, gets sick to her stomach at the thought of public speaking, loves to shop and says “like” way too often. With her olive skin and trace of an accent, she seems like someone who was born in another country, but it’s impossible to tell where.

The Arabic-music CDs atop a small TV set are a clue. If you get to know her well enough, she’ll tell you she’s from a Middle Eastern country, that she’s Arab and Muslim, though she doesn’t practice her faith these days. There’s another important thing about her that is central to her identity, however, but she’s revealed it to few people. It’s the fundamental fact of her life: Besides being Arab and Muslim, she’s a transsexual. A triple whammy. It’s hard enough to be an Arab Muslim in Chico these days, when so many Americans look upon them with varying degrees of prejudice and distrust. Imagine how hard it is to be a transsexual as well.

“I don’t have any friends here, really,” Sara said. “I don’t know who to trust.”

The only people who seem to acknowledge her are her professors. Her study groups are her social life. In class, she sits in the front, afraid to face the reactions of others. Sometimes she thinks people are staring at her and they can see right through her, not realizing they’re looking because she’s strikingly beautiful.

She has no friends among local Muslims, either. She is registered at the college under her given name because she is not allowed to change it in her native country. Unless she becomes a U.S. citizen, she will always carry a male name.

“My given name is a male name; I cannot change that,” she explained. “People from the Arab community recognize it, and I know that they know, but they never say anything. They just ignore me.”

She is painfully lonely. She has almost nobody with whom she can share the truth about herself. As hard as her life is, however, she chose it, and she is glad she did.

Sara was born into a wealthy, traditionally patriarchal family in an oil-producing Middle Eastern country. The second of four boys, she naturally was expected to grow into a virile, masculine man.

Today she realizes that she began to feel like a girl by the time she was 5 years old. Innocently, she acted like a girl, swaying her hips, mocking a female walk and pretending that she was a beautiful princess, even though she had no sisters and there were no girl’s toys or clothing in the house.

She was closest in age to her older brother and played most often with him, but he was highly masculine and tormented her about her feminine attributes. He punched her and kicked her and even once tried to smother her with a pillow. He told her that he wished she were never born. It was as if he felt robbed of his right to a male playmate, she now says.

Still, she desperately wanted his approval, but she couldn’t feign the characteristics that he adamantly demanded of a younger brother. She didn’t even play soccer.

Her lack of interest in boyish activities sparked glares of disapproval from her father and produced furrowed, worried brows on her mother’s face. Time spent with family was typically painful, with the exception of Fridays, the Muslim Sabbath, because it was the day when the extended family would gather. She looked forward to seeing her girl cousins. She felt connected with them—their presence was comforting.

“I especially miss the family gatherings, the holidays, when we would exchange money and gifts, just for the fun of it. The whole extended family was there. Sometimes I wish I could go back, just for that feeling.”

When Sara was 12, her parents took her to an endocrinologist to find out what was wrong with their son, who by this time was developing breasts. The doctor examined him and then informed the couple that he had abnormally high levels of estrogen.

This was the beginning of a long series of visits to numerous psychologists and psychiatrists.

Illustration By Jody Brookens

“My parents wanted to fix me, what was wrong with me,” Sara explained, “so I began telling them that I felt just like a boy when we would leave the doctor’s offices. That worked for about a month or two, until they saw that I was still the same. Then we would go visit another psychologist or psychiatrist.”

When she was 14, she by chance discovered an article in a tabloid magazine that gave her some idea of why and how she was different from other boys. She learned that she fit into a category that, in her country at least, was called the “third sex,” people who were both male and female in their characteristics.

She began looking for information that would help her understand herself. She read an article about transsexuals that included stories about their lives and lifestyles, taking comfort in the realization that there were many others who shared her emotions. She was deeply relieved to discover she wasn’t alone, was not the “island” she felt she had been, but also scared to know she was part of such a vilified minority.

Then she discovered that, even in her tradition-bound, extremely conservative country, there was a small community of transsexuals.

“I found some friends, who were also transsexual, but most of them had to make money by prostituting themselves. I wasn’t that kind of person. But I understood that they must survive somehow.”

From her new friends, Sara learned important information about the hormones they used and where they got them. She carefully observed the doses they took and learned how to ask for the hormones in local pharmacies.

This was the beginning of her metamorphosis from a confused, troubled teenage boy to a blossoming young woman with hope.

Fortunately, pharmacies in her country sold hormones over the counter. She was able to start taking estrogen when she was 15.

“The hormones felt like the magic pill, turning me into the person I was supposed to be,” she said.

The older and more feminized she got, the more her parents rejected her. Her father told her that he thought it would have been better to have a daughter who was a whore than a son who was transsexual. Both her parents beat her regularly with belts, coat hangers and an aygal—the cord used to attach the native headdress—in an attempt to drive out the sin from their child.

Eventually they kicked her out of the house. She worked at McDonald’s to support herself, which was almost as much of a kick in the face to her parents as her transsexuality. People of her family’s status simply did not work menial jobs in her country.

She graduated high school when she was 15 and decided then that she needed to come to the United States. Her family had shunned her. Her society didn’t tolerate her. She thought she might finally be able to live as a girl, in a more liberated, democratic country.

“I had been to America before, with my family, but I barely remembered it. I only had an idea of what America stood for, really—freedom of religion, equal rights, freedom to live without fear, to be yourself.”

She had relatives in Southern California who sponsored her, loved her and accepted her gender change, and she was able to come to the United States under “special circumstances” leading to asylum. Her mother and father were glad to see her go. Now they did not have to endure the embarrassment any longer.

Compared with her native country, America is indeed a liberal society. But it is far from completely tolerant. And its levels of tolerance vary greatly from region to region. Unfortunately, Sara knew nothing about such matters.

Because of that ignorance, when she descended the steps of the plane that flew the last leg of her flight to America, she stepped down onto snowy, Mormon-dominated Utah. She had liked the sound of “Utah” when she was choosing which colleges to apply to. “It sounded exotic, like ‘Hawaii,’ “ she now says, laughing and shaking her head.

She was not made to feel welcome. “In Utah I was called a sand nigger, a girl wannabe and a terrorist. People asked if I lived in a tent, rode camels or exchanged oil for food.”

After a year there, she was ready to try a different college. But once again, her lack of knowledge about America led her astray. Filled with dreams of sandy beaches and surfers riding the waves, she decided to come to California, but instead of choosing Santa Barbara or San Diego, she chose Chico.

Here, she got mountains and valleys and a pleasant little college town, but no Disneyland, no beach—and little support for an Arab Muslim transsexual looking for freedom and acceptance. There aren’t any transgender support groups north of Sacramento. The Stonewall Alliance—an organization in Chico providing support for gay, lesbian and alternative lifestyles—though sympathetic, recommended some groups in San Francisco, she says.

Illustration By Jody Brookens

Sara was 16 years old and alone again.

Today she’s 21 and about ready to graduate. She misses her family, she says. She loves them and wishes that they would love her. But the reality is that if she were to return to the Middle East, she would be in danger of being put to death in an “honor killing,” a practice designed to shield the family from shame.

As barbaric as that may seem, the United States is not exactly a safe haven for transsexuals. That was a hard lesson for her as she struggled to learn more and complete the transformation from young man to young woman.

From virtually the day she arrived in this country, she began trying to figure out what was going on with her body. Why was it producing so much estrogen? Why were her breasts so developed? Why did she feel like a girl, not a boy?

A doctor of internal medicine in Utah provided her first significant discovery, when he gave her a swab test that revealed she’d been born with Klinefelter Syndrome, meaning she had a rare sexual genotype. Ordinarily, a female will be created by the joining of two X chromosomes into a pair; a male will have an X chromosome and a Y chromosome in the pair. Sara was born with an XXY genotype.

This explained her female-type fat distribution and the gynecomastia—enlarged breasts in males. It is a rare phenomenon, occurring only once in about 700 boys born in the United States.

Not all boys born with Klinefelter Syndrome grow to become transsexual or have the desire to change their sexual identity. Many respond well to testosterone treatments begun in adolescence.

According to a University of Michigan study, about 30,000 to 40,000 postoperative transsexual women live in the United States, and many thousands more are now in the process of gender transition here.

For Sara, learning she had Klinefelter was a glorious revelation, one that solved many mysteries in her life. Though she was relieved that there was a biological explanation, she wondered if God would still accept her if she “died half man and half woman.”

At this point she began the journey toward full physical transformation—toward transgender surgery. She lived as a woman for two years before her operations. She dressed as a woman and grew her hair long. She had facial hair removed by laser and wore makeup.

These steps were in accordance with what are known as the Harry Benjamin Standards of Care, named after the founder of the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association Inc. Under the standards, a person who wants to undergo a sexual-reassignment surgery, or SRS, must live as the desired sex for two years before undergoing surgery in order to have a real life experience of what his or her new life will be like.

By the time she was 19, Sara was both psychologically and physically a woman. “I’m not really comfortable talking about the extent of the surgeries,” she said shyly, but she acknowledged the process was extensive—and expensive. The estimated cost of an SRS and to live on hormones is $80,000 altogether.

The surgeries are much more complicated for women who are transforming to men than for men becoming women—or, as she said, laughing, “It’s easier to dig a hole than build a pole.”

The transformation needs to be total in order to be able to pass as a woman and not be “clocked"—the term used to describe when other people can tell or suspect that they are looking at a transsexual.

“Sex is between your legs; gender is between your ears,” Sara said. “Now I am whole.”

After the painful loss of family who would not or could not accept her and traveling thousands of miles for freedom, Sara does not want to be known simply as a woman. She said a woman born female has not gone through all that she has.

“A woman does not go through the crap that transsexuals do to become a woman. We get murdered because of it.”

She’s right about that. According to “Remembering Our Dead,” a Web site for gender education and advocacy, the number of anti-transgender murder cases is grossly underreported. Many of the cases are dismissed as accidents or suicides.

Though Sara is liberated by her transformation, she perpetually wonders whom she can tell about her transsexuality and when might be the right time to divulge the information.

Illustration By Jody Brookens

New legislation seems to be resulting in a decrease in the number of violent crimes committed against transgendered people. In 1994, San Francisco passed an anti-discrimination ordinance, and since then only one anti-transgender murder has been reported.

A common defense tactic used in murder cases where the victim is gay or transgendered is the so-called “gay-panic strategy.” The tactic is used in cases where the killer finds out by surprise that a woman with whom he is getting intimate is or once was biologically male and becomes enraged enough to commit murder.

Perhaps the most famous murder case involving a transsexual was that of 17-year-old Gwen Araujo, who was brutally killed in Newark, Calif., in 2002. Members of Araujo’s family became active in the effort to end the senseless violence toward the transsexual community, and as a result of their work, Assemblywoman Sally Lieber (D-Mountain View) authored AB 1160.

The bill states that panicking is not an excuse for murder and that a murder so committed must be treated as a hate crime.

On Sept. 28, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed AB 1160, which became the nation’s first bill addressing the use of panic strategies.

“Murder is murder, no matter how you look at it,” Sara explained. “Someone who is capable of taking the life of another human being is a criminal….

“Gwen’s case really shed light on younger transsexuals, and her family loved her and supported her enough to make her life count.”

Becoming a woman is obviously the biggest change Sara has made since coming to America, but there have been others, too. For one thing, her relationship with Islamic traditions that are taken very seriously in her homeland has relaxed here. Food is a good example.

“I’ve really changed,” she exclaimed. “I can’t believe I am eating bagels, a Jewish food, in the middle of the day during Ramadan.”

Some things she can’t change, though. Her school transcripts, driver’s license and passport all say she is male. The passport causes her real problems when she travels.

“The last time I was in London,” she said, “they stopped me at the gate in the airport. The woman said, ‘Oops honey, I think you accidentally grabbed your brother’s passport or something.’ I had to wait for eight hours, until I could explain to someone what happened and why my passport said I am male.”

Her biggest hurdle in Chico was attempting to find a doctor who would see her and prescribe the hormones she needed so her surgery wouldn’t be compromised. She contacted more than 150 doctors from Redding to Sacramento, to no avail, before finding an understanding physician close to home—at the university’s Student Health Center.

Many of the doctors said they didn’t feel they knew enough about transsexuality and its needs to treat Sara confidently, and at least one was concerned that the high levels of estrogen required were too dangerous to prescribe. The side effects associated with taking high levels of estrogen include blood clots and high blood pressure.

“The last doctor that I called before finding the doctor at Chico State, the receptionist giggled when I asked if they treat transsexuals. She said, ‘Oh my goodness, I don’t think so.’ And then the office manager referred to me as a man wanting female hormones, even after my SRS.”

In contrast, the reception staff at the Student Health Center treated her with the standards that are discussed in medical-ethics books regarding the vocabulary and treatment of transsexuals. The doctor at the Student Health Center ran numerous tests and was able to prescribe the hormones that she needed. Sara will have to take the hormones for the rest of her life to remain a woman.

“This is the nicest, most professional doctor I have met since my transformation. They actually referred to me as a female. I can’t believe the university health center is so much ahead of the times compared to the rest of the community.”

Because of the way she was treated at the health center, she finally has a feeling of acceptance and validity about her surgery. It is important, she says, for those in the medical field to exercise compassion and professionalism when dealing with transsexuals.

Sara is a woman now, but she doesn’t participate much in the social aspects of womanhood. She is asked out, but she declines. For a while she had a boyfriend who knew everything about her and gladly accepted her. But it became difficult to maintain the relationship when he left Chico State to attend graduate school. She still talks to him on the phone often. He has been a tremendous support to her. He provides some feelings of validation for her about her womanhood.

These days she spends the majority of her time hunched over a computer in the library or at home. She admits her little apartment is a lonely place on weekends and holidays. She remains torn between her love for her family and her allegiance to herself.

She dreams of modeling, singing, acting or practicing law. Her fantasy is to be the subject of the show Transgeneration, a documentary on the Sundance channel that follows young transsexual college students through daily life. According to the Sundance Web site, Transgeneration is about “four college students switching more than their majors.” She aligns herself with the students in the show and wishes the producers would come to Chico to follow her around, too.

Each day between classes, she goes online and does research, looking for organizations, support groups and people who will embrace her just as she is. For now she is preparing for another transition, applying to graduate schools in more metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York. She hopes to find a community to be a part of.

She knows she’s lived a life that is utterly unique and filled with struggles that few 21-year-olds will experience. Telling her story, she says, is a way to begin freeing herself of the layers of pain in her life. She hopes that the story of the challenges she’s faced and her ability to endure them will reach someone who needs the strand of hope that she once sought.