"I selfishly thought why would he do this to the family"
Although much progress has been made in regard to gay and lesbian individuals in South Asian communities, coming out as transgender has been less accepted.
The wider spectrum of LBGTQ+ is still foreign to many families. Some still see the traditional parameters of gender, relationships and marriage surrounding just a man and woman.
However, times are changing, and have been changing. Western countries led from the front in terms of legal proceedings to protect transgender people.
Whilst South Asian countries such as India have only started to accept this community within society.
The 2019 Transgender Persons Act protected the rights of transgender people and their welfare. But, even this is in large parts inconsistent.
Besides the law, the cultural standpoint is much stricter. Many parents and families aren’t welcoming to such news and would feel ‘ashamed’ or ‘embarrassed’. But, to what extent?
We spoke to Ravi and Pimujeet (Pimu) Gill, whose son Sunny (now Seema), broke the news that she wanted to transition.
Brought up with the typical Desi ideals and values, they share their thoughts and feelings about having to deal with such an experience.
Early Reflection on Behaviour
Understandably, Ravi and Pimujeet explain their life with Seema and how it was growing up.
They reflect now on some instances and wonder if the early signs of Seema’s identity were overlooked.
They hope that other parents could look out for such clues and could aid their children better if such a situation was to arise:
“Sunny was a wonderful son growing up, a typical Indian boy who loved cricket, playing with friends and was a tad cheeky.
“He always wanted to play and was such a kind child. No matter whose house we went to, if there were boys or girls, he’d always be messing around and having fun.
“He loved going to Pimu’s sister’s house because she has two kids – a boy who’s a few years older but her daughter is the same age as Sunny.
“So, when they were both 7 or 8, they’d love spending time together. Obviously, there were a lot of girls’ toys – dolls, houses, animals etc.
“But Sunny didn’t mind, if anything he enjoyed it quite a lot.
“There was one time I walked into the room and they were playing doctor. Sunny screamed out ‘I’m the nurse, I’m the nurse’.
“At the time, I literally didn’t take notice, but then I wonder what their conversation was like for him to be the nurse.
“There are male nurses of course, but at that time, a nurse would be a woman. I don’t know, little things like that, we always look back on and think.
“As Sunny got older, he started to change.
“He grew his hair out when he got into year 7 – we thought it’s just a teenager thing – secondary school and new friends, new influences kind of thing.
“He wore much tighter clothing and hated going to weddings because he’d have to wear a suit.”
“There was a party we went to and he asked Pimu for her foundation to ‘cover up’ some spots. I’m an old-school type of person so I was annoyed at him for wanting to wear make-up.
“There wasn’t even any spots or acne for him to cover up. I thought he was just being silly.
“Now I don’t know, these may seem like small things and they were at the time.
“But given how the situation is now, you think to yourself, maybe he was trying to show or tell us something but didn’t know how to.
“Even things like getting his eyebrows threaded were a bit off-putting to me.
“I was raised in a different time so even though things are different now, and I have nothing against it, it was weird seeing it on my own son.”
Ravi brings up some interesting aspects of Sunny’s transgender journey.
Children are very diverse when growing up and their interests aren’t always universal.
But, the avid change in Sunny’s interests and behaviour was noted by her parents. Likewise, it shows the type of mentality that most Desi parents have stereotyping gender.
Things like dolls, make-up, and beauty standards aren’t associated with boys – even in modern society.
However, looking back, Ravi admits these may have been displays of Sunny’s internal feelings.
Coming out as Transgender
Pimu comes forward to speak about her son’s confession.
As a mother, she felt it was best to express her reaction and emotions when her son came out as transgender or rather wanted to transition:
“In all honesty, we didn’t have any suspicions or worries about Sunny’s behaviour or emotions.
“He was the same person but yes dressed very differently, would take great pride in his appearance and wouldn’t wear anything too manly.
“He’d started to wear more flowy type tops that looked like blouses but we just took this as his fashion sense.
“He started wearing a lot of accessories too and Ravi said to him at one point to calm down with it all, that it was getting a bit much.
“I think they went suit shopping once as well and Sunny wanted bright colours like yellow or orange, but of course, Ravi said no.
“But again, he never acted out of character so we didn’t think anything was wrong. But, on his last day of sixth form, he was quite sad and cried on the way home.
“We got back and I thought he was sad about leaving his school, friends or starting university. But, he told me in the car that it was bigger than that.
“He actually told me first before Ravi – I think he knew he was stricter than I. He said he’d had feelings about himself, how he didn’t feel comfortable in who he was.
“At that point, I thought he was going to say he was gay and that’s it.
“Sunny said that the body he was in made him feel disgusting and he doesn’t want to carry on living a lie.”
“So he told me ‘I feel like I was meant to be a woman’ and ‘I want to transition’. Immediately, I’m not going to lie, I was distraught.
“I selfishly thought why would he do this to the family? At that moment, I was thinking about the family and what they would think.
“One day they’d see Sunny and then the next time, he’d be in a dress. I just sat there trying to come to terms with what was happening.
“Sunny tried to reassure me but I didn’t want to hear him speak.
“As a mother, I thought of the day he was born, all those times as a kid, his personality, his attitude, how the family loved him.
“But now, that was all going to suddenly change? I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I went inside and knew Ravi had to know straight away, I mean I couldn’t hide it.
“We were all in the kitchen, both me and Sunny were in tears and Ravi straight away thought someone had died.
“But, Sunny repeated himself and Ravi had the saddest look on his face. He said he was so disappointed. We were lost for words.
“No one in our family had gone through anything like this and our parenting would be questioned.
“Ravi actually blamed porn and said Sunny had been meeting stupid people who have influenced him. Sunny was obviously upset but we left it at that. We could bear to speak to him.”
The utter devastation Sunny must have felt coming out as transgender is unexplainable.
Whilst her parents were understandably caught off guard, their reaction is similar to those of many Desi families across the UK and the world.
There is a sense of disappointment and shame associated with transitioning and the lack of compassion stems from the stigma attached to LGBTQ.
Acceptance or Rejection?
As the news settled within the Gill household, Pimu admits that Ravi took a while to even speak to Sunny again.
But she spoke with Sunny the day after once she had calmed down:
“Well, Sunny told me first that he’s had these feelings since he was very young.
“He said he knew that he was meant to be a woman before he even knew about puberty, sex or anything else.
“For a person so young to feel like that and have no one to turn to broke my heart.
“Although I still felt ashamed at this point and could barely look at Sunny, as a mother, I wanted to understand.
“Sunny said that he wanted his new name to be ‘Seema’. The name ‘Sunny’ reminded him of a lifetime of sadness, depression, and guilt – but we’re still working around this.
“I asked him why he felt guilt and he told me because he’d been lying to everyone.
“For years, he tried to force himself to be a man, a son, a person we would be proud of. Hearing all of this was heartbreaking.
“When he mentioned transgender to me, all I thought of was a guy dressed up as a woman.”
“But that’s not right.
“It’s what our culture needs to understand. It’s not just the clothes you wear, it’s the feelings you have, the way you live your life.
“At the time I couldn’t think like that. I was too cross. I told Seema how are you supposed to have kids? Have a family?
“She said there is a way around those things. Even things like friends, how would they accept you I asked, or, more importantly, the family. She said that would take time and understanding.
“Seema actually told me that she thought about killing herself to make life easier. She said all she thought about every day is about how no one would accept her.
“But, as a mother, no matter what, you never want to hear your kid say that. So, I knew how serious Seema felt.
“I knew I had to change. If I didn’t accept it – that’s fine but I had to be there for my child so she wasn’t alone.
“These are the sacrifices you make.”
Pimu bravely tells us how distraught she was at the news. She also reveals that Ravi is still coming to terms with his child’s transgender confession and he is still not able to accept it.
This is a worrying moment for the family but Pimu admits that Seema feels better about coming clean.
However, their family are yet to respond to the news and they haven’t been able to talk openly about their situation, at least to their community.
They feel that the shame the culture feels towards the transgender society plays a big part in this.
But, they hope sharing their experience pushes a more open discussion.
Pimu and Ravi both say that “more awareness about different things like this should be made clearer in the culture”.
Hopefully, there will be progress for future generations and for those wanting to come out as transgender.