Like most transgender people in Iran, 45-year-old Farnaz has a sad story to tell. Due to her own lack of awareness, and the society she lives in, she did not even know the word “trans” until the age of 32 – or indeed, that she was not alone.
A trans woman is someone who was born with a masculine body and sexual organs, but considers her gender to be female. In Farnaz’s case, even the process of recognizing this was an arduous one. “My family was very traditional,” she says. “I was born and raised in a very patriarchal and misogynistic environment, yet I loved all members of my family. It took so long for me to come to know myself.
“I tried to adjust the family atmosphere little by little so that I could reveal this to them. But my brother's hospitalization in a psychiatric hospital, and the situation of my father, who suffered a stroke, then utterly changed the course of my life."
Her father was transferred from Tehran to a hospital abroad for treatment. Farnaz had hoped she might be able to join him and build a more comfortable life overseas. But as the eldest ‘son’ in the family, they had other plans for her.
“I had to take on the responsibility for my mother, sister and brother,” she explains. My sister got married and left, and I was left with a mother who was growing older and less capable disabled day by day, and a brother who was sick and in need of care."
Like thousands of other members of the Iranian LGBT community, Farnaz had also fallen victim to her own ignorance and that of society at large. In a bid to escape a difficult situation, she agreed to be married. “There was a lot of talk and gossip behind my back in family, friends and acquaintances," she says. "People’s taunts bothered my mother. Feeling I have no one but her, I agreed to marry to save her from absolute depression, and perhaps to deny myself
“Less than two months after my unwanted marriage, my mother passed away and I was left with the faulty life I had built for myself. Now I have nothing but regret.”
In despair, Farnaz went to see a well-known specialist, feeling nervous about sharing her experience with a psychologist for the first time. When she got there, she says, “The doctor listened to me, and then told me to take off my clothes.
“I still remember the stupid thing he said: 'If you’d trimmed your body hair, I could have said you were trans, but now I'm sure your feelings are nothing but self-ascribed and I think you have to be married in order to change yourself'!"
In the latest version of the World Health Organization's Disease Classification (ICD-11), gender dysphoria is no longer categorized as an identity disorder but as a feeling of “incongruence”. In Farnaz’s case, this misdiagnosis sent her even further down the wrong path.
“After seeing the doctor,” she says, “I tried to forget everything and live like a man: the man I was not in reality. I threw away all my clothes, and the stuff that belonged to my feminine world, so that I might succeed in suppressing myself. But after a few months everything started up again. My suitcases were once again filled with feminine belongings."
Marrying a woman did not change Farnaz, either. Now she visits her mother’s house once a week in order to be herself. She dresses up, puts on makeup, and lives as Farnaz for a few short hours, unbeknownst to the wider world.
Ever since she reached puberty, she says, she had to imagine herself as a woman in order to achieve any kind of sexual pleasure – even with her spouse. She does not consider this woman to be her wife, but rather, as a “housemate”, where the two have mutual responsibilities toward each other. “Unfortunately, the woman in my life knows nothing about me at all,” she says. “Maybe I played my role too well.
“I hide everything from her. I have tried to separate from her many times on different pretexts, but unfortunately she loves me dearly, and this bothers me the most. Sometimes I think to myself it would be better to leave everything and go, to a place where no one knows me."
After several unsuccessful attempts to see a well-placed psychologist, Farnaz is now finally talking to someone who understands her at the Tehran Psychiatric Institute. But she has to continually reapply to the courts to continue her treatment and, in time, will have to do the same to undergo surgery. She is satisfied that she knows herself, but laments, "Alas, I came to know the truth so late."