When I fled my country back in 2010 and when I was about to perform in a play about my life in 2017
These were the two most terrifying moments of my life and they have something in common. Me being Trans.
Let me explain.
I was born in Egypt. I was also born and raised a woman. That was the fate society has chosen for me. But I was fine with it; I didn’t know any better. I just wanted to grow up and live life.
I didn’t know I was Trans, I didn’t even know this community existed.
I tried to live my life as best I could, even before I was aware of my identity. Even before I knew what identity meant. Like when I was four and tried to pee standing up. Or when I kicked people in the knees for calling me by my birth name and not Joseph. It was certainly strange behaviour for a little girl, but it was funny, something I would grow out of.
Except that I didn’t. Around the age of 14 when things are changing rapidly, all the girls in high school were interested in makeup, clothes and boys. It wasn’t my idea of fun.
So I made new friends. I quite liked them, and they liked me for who I was, even with my weird laugh and walk. Still, they liked to give me a hard time every now and again. They made fun of the way I walked and talked, and the way I dressed. I never thought about those things before and it really got to me. I thought I was just being an individual but as far as everyone else was concerned, I was a weirdo. A funny weirdo. At that point, society was still kind to me, because I was young. A kid. But that would all change soon.
I didn’t like being different. All I wanted was to be like everyone else! I decided to change the way I dress. I went out and bought some new feminine clothes and, boy, was I smashing it! Everyone was so impressed! Still, they made fun of me. I was still sticking out like a sore thumb. They walked, talked and laughed so different from me. I needed to be like them. I thought being a woman was an instinct, but no, had to learn how to be a woman! Yes, sadly this is the way I thought. I started watching their interactions together and around boys. The way they walked and talked. You know those American movies where someone gets a makeover and it changes everything? I pretty much did that and it worked. I fooled everyone I was a girl.
That’s it. I mastered the art of being a teenage girl. But I wasn’t enjoying any of it. None of it came naturally to me. I was having to work so hard to do what was effortless to them. And then came my period! My aunt always said, “when you get your period, you will feel and act like a woman”. I couldn’t wait for this miraculous act of nature to change my life. And just before I turned 15, I got it. A bit late, but I got it. And then? Nothing changed. Maybe I needed to wait for it to mature or something? Like cheese? I don’t know!
Nope. I am 16 years old and nothing has changed. I’ve even tried kissing boys to see if that unleashes my femininity. It didn’t work. It was kind of gross, but I couldn’t tell that to anyone. They would think I was weird, and weird was last thing I wanted to be.
Then I dreamt of kissing my best friend. No no no no! I can’t be a lesbian. My life would be destroyed. I would bring shame on my family, that’s if the police don’t prison and torture me first. No, I can’t be, I will not be a lesbian, and I wasn’t – obviously. I did think I was for a while but, but it just didn’t seem to fit in with how I felt about my body.
I was getting tired. Tired of being forced to kiss dudes just so they don’t spread rumours about me being a lesbian. Tired of being in the wrong skin and clothes. Tired of pretending I was this cute sensitive girl while in reality, I wanted to play football and wrestle.
So, I went back to my old clothes, and my way of talking and walking. Things got intense. I mean, it really is a man’s world there. Women are harassed on a daily basis, judged on their looks by the hour and mistreated by the second. I was grabbed, cursed, followed and called names on the street every single day.
I still had no clue why I felt so different from everyone else. Alcohol and drugs became my food and water. Sadly, they were the only things that gave me comfort. I thought of suicide daily.
The story gets worse. So does my pain. It was time to leave my home, but before I left, I did something amazing, and crazy. Maybe the craziest thing I have ever done. I typed how I felt on Google:
Can the soul of a man be trapped in the body of a woman?
A wealth of information appeared, and I discovered that I wasn’t the only one feeling this way. I didn’t read much about transition, but I got validation of how I felt. Hope and fear filled my heart.
And that’s when I left for London. I didn’t really have a plan. At the time, I didn’t know seeking asylum was possible. I became homeless before being advised to go to the Home Office and I did.
That’s when my love affair began with the Home Office. I told them I am transgender, and my life was in danger. Over the next two years, my case was opened and rejected three times. They didn’t believe anything I said, not even the transgender part. I asked if I could start hormones to prove I wasn’t lying, but they refused. It was what you would call a catch 22. I lived alone for those two years. Very isolated. Not allowed to work to even afford my own treatment. Life had no meaning, no purpose. I had lost everything I have ever had in the hopes of gaining myself.
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Every day I would wake up wondering if this would be the day, I decided to end my life. But I n ever went through with it. Deep down, I wanted to live. To try out what it feels to look in the mirror and see myself looking back. So, I decided not to wait on anyone to help me and help myself instead. I stopped buying food to save money and bought unprescribed cheap testosterone from a dodgy website. I knew what I bought could be potentially life-threatening, but it was either this or suicide.
Luckily, it was really testosterone, but it made me sick. I would inject every week with an insulin syringe because that’s all I had. I got a fever and my thigh swelled and changed colour. As soon as I started to feel better, it was time to inject again. Every week. I was consistently sick for four months, but I was also seeing small changes. Changes that kept me going.
Four months later, the doctor decided it was time for me to stop these injections and get prescriptions. Two weeks after that, the Home Office got back to me and I was granted asylum.
I am thankful to the home office for giving me a place here while I figure out how to survive but I am disappointed with how I was treated. Having their representative tear me a new one without being allowed to say a word to defend myself in the court room was cruel. The rejection letters were also harsh and very disrespectful. They never called me or referred to me with my proper pronouns.
The second most terrifying (and exciting) moment of my life
In 2017, I starred in a play about myself and had a virtual choir on stage that included 150 trans people sharing their experiences. I can’t tell you how it all happened because it is a long story, but I can give you some of the facts.
1. In 2012, I volunteered in a community theatre project called “Here we stay”. My piece was about 5 minutes long.
2. I met Cora Bisset, an amazing director, who was interested in raising awareness of trans and asylum issues.
3. I donated my life story to the National Theatre of Scotland.
4. In 2017, there was a serious lack of Trans ethnic-looking actors in the UK, so I auditioned for “ADAM” and got in!
5. I had to learn everything about acting and the play during a 6-week rehearsal.
6. We received some awesome nominations and awards, but most importantly; we raised much-needed awareness on both topics.
And you know what I realised there and then? That theatre is one of the most powerful tools of education and raising awareness. I fell in love with it and decided to pursue my career in theatre and Trans activism.
When I look back on my life so far, I can see so much tragedy but also so much luck and determination. Sadly, not everyone has my luck.
I am currently in touch with seven trans men in Egypt who are unable to transition because of the lack of support from everyone around them. While there is only so much I can do from so far away, I know they look up to me as someone who made it to the other side.
The current plan is for them to leave their homes and head to Cairo, a city the size of London with twice as many people. Once there, they will need to give up their current careers for jobs that pay cash in hand. This is because once they start transitioning, they will no longer match the picture on their ID cards. And you can’t change your ID until two surgeries are performed. These men can’t share their trans identity because that would compromise their safety. They will be paid very little in a city as expensive as London. They will have to survive with no money, identification or family. It is not easy to seek asylum from Egypt as most border countries have stopped taking applications from Egyptians, so they are stuck there.
And those are the ones who managed to find out they are trans. Imagine what the other ones are going through.
I do what I can now, but I hope in the future to start a charity that can help people transition safely, and give them the opportunity to work with employers who understand their situation, and treat them as the person they are until they are able to officially change their identity.
The sad truth is being Trans in this world is hard, but what is even harder is not knowing you are part of an invisible community.
See more of Michelle’s work on her instagram here