In April 2015, I moved back home to Hounslow to look after my dad. I’d left seven years previously, after sixth form and years of struggling with both my parents’ divorce and my sexuality. Following a classic gay narrative, I dyed my hair, got facial piercings and moved to Brighton, where I later discovered a word and a world that would change my life – transgender.
But now my dad needed help. He was living with pulmonary fibrosis, a terminal lung disease that was starting to impact his life. I was thrown back into a brown town and confronted with the Muslim culture I left behind.
I started to see a therapist who was also South Asian and my therapy focused heavily on my relationships at the time, but I was sparing with what I shared about my childhood and family. At the time, my family were struggling with my transness and I didn’t need to feel any more cultural rejection, so I kept this part of my identity to myself. I was visibly gender non-conforming and presented as androgynous, but my therapist never asked and I never told. Hidden in plain sight.
I don’t think there was anything she could have done to make me feel comfortable. I’ve spoken to other queer friends of colour who also have the same feelings – white therapists will understand our queerness but not our brownness, and therapists of colour will understand our brownness but not our queerness. I know it doesn’t help me to think this way, but I do carry the fears of being a queer, brown, trans person in society with me into the therapy room. Therapy is not a neutral space and the risk assessment I carry in the world outside is similar to the one I carry with all my therapists. Which part of me is safe and understood here? How much do I need to justify myself before I can express myself?
Two years later, after I started my master’s in psychotherapy, I had to find a therapist from a list of university-approved therapists. Without personal recommendations or much of a choice, I changed tactic and put my cards on the table in an email: ‘I’m looking for a therapist who has worked with trans and gender non-conforming clients before, or who identifies as a feminist.’ I got a reply from a cis, white therapist and, after our first conversation, I was relieved that I could bring this complexity somewhere and didn’t have to question later whether she understood my experience of gender or what trans meant. I was ready to start unpacking this. But what actually became the focus of my therapy was a part of me that was the hardest to accept.
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‘I’m his primary carer,’ I said, reluctantly, in one of our early sessions. Over the last three years of my dad’s life, his health deteriorated quickly. He was diagnosed with dementia and the reality of this added strain to our relationship, as well as the many others I had in my life. I kept a lot to myself, and therapy became the weekly spot where I could drop some of it off. I found myself feeling angry in a way that I haven’t felt before. Every now and then, my therapist would reflect how hard I found it to accept what was happening. I didn’t understand why I would ever accept what was happening – the difficulties, the frustrations and the inevitable.
My therapist gently brought knowledge of caregivers and information that might help me. Looking back, I think her regarding me as a carer was one of the ways in which I accepted myself as one. This new identity gave validity to my experience and made me accept that what I was experiencing was different from my peers and colleagues. I could accept my anger and this new emotional landscape. And I could accept this new role in my dad’s life and his new role in mine.
Speaking about my relationship with my dad actually brought a lot of my identity into the therapeutic room. Through everyday interactions from visiting the mosque with Dad for the first time since transitioning to being treated like a father and son when we were in public, my gender, race, religion and faith were all brought into therapy. The difficult conversations and segmenting parts of my identity felt long behind me, as my therapist and I had a connection where I deeply felt she was on my side and by my side. Part of this meant she would get it wrong or misjudge, but her empathy and presence would never falter. It affected me most when I was least sure of myself. But therapy helped me work with what was present, and that created the space I needed to accept myself.