"I have no roof over my head. I don’t know where I can go. I do not have a place to call home. I have appealed to everybody: the police, the emergency services, and the Welfare Organization. But none of them responded. They said this has nothing to do with them; they do not have a center or a dormitory for trans people. The situation is very difficult for me. My friends temporarily paid for me to say at a hotel so that I could have a place to sleep at night, but how long can I stay here?"
These are the words of Mahsa, a trans woman living in Tehran.
Mahsa was born a man, but she identifies as and considers herself to be a woman. She is 38 years old, but hers is a thousand-year-old story. I listened to her for hours and felt her familiar pain: The pain she experienced from childhood, when she says she did not even know herself properly. She told me she did not know where to start her life story. I said: tell me about your childhood.
"I spent my childhood in regret. I longed to play with dolls, longed to play with girls of the same age, longed to "play aunt" like other children. I spent my childhood in the 1980s in a village near the city of Rudbar in Gilan province. In those days, like today, there were no facilities and no freedom. The atmosphere was very closed and I did not dare express my innermost feelings. I was harassed by my family, at school and in the community — verbally and even through physical violence and aggression. School was not a safe place for me. I was studying with teenage boys who I did not resemble. They made me shy and isolated, and I had no friends. In sports, they all played football and I sat in a corner and cried. I did not have anyone at home that understood me. I was always a cause of shame in my family. All of these pressures led me to drop out of high school and stop studying.”
She began thinking that if she took on a profession, the situation might improve. "I tried different things, from heavy industrial work to working in cafes and restaurants. But I failed in all of them. Either my employer noticed I was different and fired me, or I was so abused that I had to leave. I was under so much stress from the outside that I suffered on the inside as well. I told myself I was delusional: I was a boy and I had to behave like a boy. Why do I think I am a girl? I did everything to change myself but failed. I wanted my body and appearance to be a woman like I was inside. I wanted everyone to know me as a woman. Even if someone called me a girl jokingly or mockingly, I would be happy."
Mahsa describes her feelings as intense "gender boredom,” but what she has been through is far from boring. She tried to cut her genitals with a razor to make the horrible way she felt go away, but of course, this did not change anything.
She says at the age of 30 she thought that maybe if she got married, she would get rid of her illusions, a mistake that many people in the LGBT community make to escape internal and external pressures. "I got married without even one percent interest in my partner. I just got married hoping to get over my feelings and get out of the situation. I regretted it. I had no way back and no way forward. I was looking for an excuse to separate from her. My wife used to say, 'Why don't you spend time with men? Why do you cry as soon as I say anything? She did not know that I was not really a man, I was just trying to play at being a good man. Our marriage ended after two or three months and we separated.
“My family, and especially my father, who had gone to great lengths to change me, became frustrated and kicked me out of the house. All I had was 20,000 tomans [less than one US dollar] in my pocket. I went to Tehran. I spent my days in Daneshjou Park finding someone who I could at least spend a night with at his house. It took me a few months to find a place in a women's dormitory. They agreed to keep me, but when they gave me medical checks, I found out I was HIV positive. I never thought I would be sick, but it appeared that the days I spent in the park and the nights I spent at various people's homes made me sick. I have been taking medicine for several years now and I have been able to control it."
The dormitory was not a good place for Mahsa and she was harassed by both residents and officials. Everyone knew she had HIV, and she was badly treated. She was eventually evicted from the dormitory and now has no place to live.
At the same time, she is hopeful. "I lost a lot of things because of revealing my gender identity: home, family. But today I am happier because I am my real self. I do not deceive myself. Although my life is very hard, I live for myself, not others. In 2017, I got my license from the court to have surgery, but I have not been able to have it due to my illness. They constantly say that Iran is a paradise for trans people, but this is hell. Many trans people like me do not have a roof over their head either because they are excluded by their family. Society has no refuge for them. I want to have surgery and, even if I have just one day left in my life, I want to live like a woman with a body that belongs to me."
In theory, the Social Crisis Intervention Center, part of the Welfare Organization, offers help to trans people, but in practice it does very little. It is inefficient and underfunded, especially since there are large numbers of people wanting and needing gender reassignment surgery, many of whom apply for grants to make it possible. This surgery is legal in Iran, and grants are possible. But realistically, there is no support available, and society rejects trans people. As a result, Mahsa and others like her continue to suffer.