Modern views. Ancient muse.
An Nyc edit, narrated in indus ink.
BY Ashley Moni | PUBLISHED ON March 08, 2022
My name is Ashley Moni, and I was 15 years old when I stumbled across the webpage that changed the course of my life.
I wasn’t always Ashley - once upon a time I was born as Tarun Moni, and I spent 22 years of my life living out that male identity before finally making a desperate prison break for the land of the feminine. I’ve been asked by Surbhee to help write a blog post that sketches out what that arc of childhood looked like - before, during, and after. Coming out as a transperson is sudden and dramatic to onlookers… but what’s it like when you’re in the driver’s seat?
Well, in one word: it’s confusing.
There are a lot of narratives of the trans experience that have filtered into the public consciousness. The simplest is the mythical “sex change”. You have some kind of change of heart, you go under the knife, boom you come out looking like the opposite sex. This is so incredibly outdated that it’s honestly not something I see people believe anymore.
Instead, the most consistent image people have of a transwoman is a boy who rebelled against his gender from a very early age. The moment they could speak, they called themselves she. The moment they could reach for things, ask for things, those things were dolls and dresses. They pushed and cried for recognition as a girl since they were 5 years old, and transitioning as they grew older was a natural and self-evident inevitability.
I’m sure there are women who’ve had lives like that, but mine was nothing like it. Instead, I just… grew up as a boy. No muss, no fuss. It’s what people told me I was, it’s definitely what I physically was, what was there to doubt?
Picture a child. From ages 1 to 10, he’s functionally identical to every other kid in his peer groups. A bit quieter, a bit more reserved, a bit more bookish and less sporty, but nothing that would raise eyebrows or raise red flags. Nerdy kids exist, and he fits a ready-made mould. When he becomes a teen, he starts to… retreat. As he reaches and pushes through puberty, he becomes quieter, more reserved, retracts away from socialising with his peers. He stops smiling. He doesn’t know why.
I was miserable as I pushed my way through high school, but why I was miserable was a question with a million ready answers. I was being bullied in school. I was failing half my classes (a learning disability, ADHD, it would turn out - something I had to discover on my own in university). Board exams stressed me, I felt like I was trying to climb an academic hill made of sand, I had no friends, I felt wretched and miserable and repulsive to girls my age (not that dating a girl was ever a possibility). I was depressed.
(But in that depression, there were signs. I felt repulsive because I barely took care of my body, I didn’t care about style and the only clothes I owned were ones my parents bought for me. A vicious cycle of dissociation from the physical person I had to see in the mirror every morning. I say I didn’t have any friends, but that wasn’t quite true - I just didn’t have any male friends. I never connected with my peers.)
So I stumbled out of high school into university, so buried in layered mental health problems that I couldn’t begin to untangle my gender issues. After all, where I grew up, mental health didn’t even exist. My school counsellors told me to try harder and be more vegetarian. My parents shouted and scolded me for not applying myself when they knew I had the ability to succeed. Virtue failings - that was my problem. Rebelliousness, laziness, willful insubordination… incomprehensible and unconscionable self-destructive urges. Why wouldn’t I just listen?
… But through this gauntlet, I found a spark of light.
At age 15, I stumbled upon the biography of a transwoman. I’d been roaming the pages of comic book artists I respected, and one of them happened to be trans. Her story captivated me, I devoured her entire website in a day, I had to know more and I had no idea why.
It planted a seed. I had the barest flicker of a picture of what I truly was, what I wanted to be.
And after that seed, nothing happened. Nothing happened for a really long time actually.
Being trans is absolutely terrifying. Rearranging your entire sense of self and facing who you actually are (and how much misery you’ll have to push through to reach it) is absolutely terrifying. If I went back in time and told myself the truth in high school, I would’ve still buried it and denied it for the near decade I did after.
But hey, as a silver lining - I barely had time to face my gender problems because I was too busy facing everything else. I travelled to Canada for higher studies and joined the University of Waterloo. And there, with western friends and western counsellors, I finally started to stitch myself together.
First came the ADHD - what was an incomprehensible virtue failure back home was a really well understood extremely normal mental condition that many of my friends had. Then came working through the trauma triggers I’d gained from my parents - I’d spend most of my childhood terrified of the regular scoldings and interrogations and punishments that they heaped upon me.
But even after all that, it wasn’t enough. I was still depressed, I was still struggling to push myself through my daily routine every day, I was still failing my classes. Nothing was working. I was draining more and more goodwill from my family - Tarun keeps going to all these doctors, and their treatments don’t do anything. Maybe it was all a mistake.
Things got pretty bad.
It’s a common story - young Asian children who shoulder a world of academic obligations. Succeed isn’t just desirable, it’s mandatory. It’s your entire purpose in life and if you aren’t meeting that purpose, if you keep floundering, if your options shrink and your paths dry up… what are you even good for? I considered suicide. It was a dark arc in my life and not worth detailing. What’s important is: I reached rock bottom.
So the only way to go was up.
As I cleared problems off my mental stack, as I explored myself and untied all the knots in my brain, the big knot became harder and harder to ignore. While I could force it out of the conscious parts of my brain, it consumed my subconscious.
I’d pretend to be a girl on the internet, I’d set up secret websites and computer accounts covered in pink and hide them from my friends and pointedly not think about what that said about me. When things hit rock bottom… I knew I couldn’t keep pretending.
Hiding was easy, honesty was terrifying. It wasn’t just a question of being honest with myself - it was a question of being honest with the rest of the world. I had to face the possibility that my medical procedures would fail me, that people would hurt me, that my parents would disown me.
I deliberated over long, painful days. And then, finally, I walked into my counsellor’s office and told her (the very first person I’d ever told in real life, face to face, in person) that I wanted to be a woman.
The game was on. Suddenly the floodgates opened. Both for the emotions in my head, and the events in my life.
Suddenly, it was all… so very real? I’d opened a Pandora's box and I couldn’t put everything I’d said back inside. I started seeing more doctors, I started seeking extra therapy, I had so many questions to answer and not enough time to ask them all.
In one whirlwind year, the direction of my life changed completely. I told a therapist who I really was, I moved to a new university, in a new city, and gained new friends. I’d found a new therapist who worked amazingly with me, and with her help I got my hands on my first pills. I visited my family in my childhood home one last time (Dubai is not a safe place for the transgender), said goodbye in my head, and flew home.
Then I took my first pill and never looked back.
The rest of this story is one that’s probably a lot more familiar. I came out to my family, and over the years I transitioned. This was a saga unto itself, full of infinite memorable moments, but I don’t have to. You’ve probably heard this part before, or may have even seen it yourself.
Some families disown their child. Some families embrace them. Mine was a happy ending, though I had to earn that happiness - my parents took a long year of loud, loud convincing. But convince them I did. They flew to Canada, met my doctors, and when the reality of what had to be done sunk in, they jumped to work and helped in every way they could. They helped sell the new me to the rest of my family, the mother who used to beat me bought me sarees and earrings (she even helped me get in contact with Surbhee <3), and now I’m Ashley.
I’ve been Ashley for a while now, actually - 8 years. Practically a quarter of my life. And I’m so, so very happy. In 2014, I started smiling again. And I’m still smiling.
From the perspective of a parent: what’s the big picture? Let’s recap.
Being transgender is a lifelong process. It’s not really something someone stumbles into - it can look very sudden from the outside, but it takes a looot of time and sleepless nights and grinding self examination to face the truth. You can’t rush it. No-one can trick your child into it. Nobody wants to be trans - it’s not trendy, it’s not fun, nobody wants to roll the dice on whether their family will ever love them again.
Noticing the signs can honestly be very hard. Human beings are complicated - there’s so much to each and every one of us that we’re simply not defined by just one story. Can you really tell if your child is depressed because of gender dysphoria, or a death in the family, or one of any other countless reasons? Probably not.
So what do you do? Well. That one’s easy: you create a supportive environment.
I spent a lot of time hiding. Hiding from myself, hiding from all my physical friends and counsellors, hiding as long as I possibly could from my family. You probably won’t be able to tell if your child is gay or trans or any number of other countless queer identites before they will - but what you can do is create an environment where they won’t have to fear you, and fear themselves, and spend large chunks of their life stewing in their own misery. It’ll help them figure out who they are faster, and help them tell you sooner.
In some ways, being transgender isn’t that different from the many lifelong arcs of self discovery and self acceptance that everyone else goes through every day. It’s just more extreme, more painful, and more unpredictable. The stakes are higher, but they don’t have to be. The destination is more dramatic, but it’s a drama that grows more normal every day.
Beauty's something we do for ourselves. It's about being able to look in the mirror and see someone who looks right back. It’s about being comfortable in your own skin, laughing at your own jokes, and singing when no-one can hear you.
I found my own beauty. For anyone still searching - I hope you find yours too.