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Spotlight: From Feroz to Feroza: A Journey of Courage, Vindication, and Triumph

By Franklin Abbott Email By Franklin Abbott
September 2018
Spotlight: From Feroz to Feroza: A Journey of Courage, Vindication, and Triumph

Transgender people are routinely stigmatized and shunned in society. Sadly, that is much more the case in the South Asian community, which doesn’t handle variant sexual identities well. In such a landscape of depressing odds, Feroza Syed’s story of rising from the depths of despair to the peak of a successful life of acceptance and belonging is a refreshing oasis—one that can inspire many in her boat—while compelling the rest of us to be less judgmental about nature’s variances of sexuality and sexual identities.

(Left) Besides being a successful realtor, she is now also a leading activist and advocate for those who are marginalized based on their sexual orientation or identities.

Feroza was born as Feroz, hails from Hyderabad, India, grew up in Atlanta, and like many transgender individuals, had a hellish adolescence. She fought with her family, was ostracized by peers, and even attempted suicide multiple times.

Today, Feroza Syed is a successful Associate Broker at Atlanta Fine Homes Sotheby’s International Realty and one of their Top Producers. She is a confidant activist and spokesperson for the LGBTQ community, has been tapped to emcee headliner events at this year’s Stonewall Atlanta Pride Celebrations, and has been appointed to Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms historic LGBT Advisory Board.

Her journey from the dreadful depths of her earlier years to success of today has not been an easy one. After several bleak years and suicide attempts, she first came out to her mother at age 14. Later, at 18, during the transition phase, when word spread in the family, the fallout was traumatic, if predictable. The majority of her extended family stopped talking to her. “I lost more than 45 family members in the Atlanta area when I first came out. Cousins, aunts, uncles, people I’d been around my whole life spending weekends at one another’s homes, eating, laughing, singing, playing games, helping raise the little ones,” says Feroza with sadness. To this day, her father has difficulty accepting her for who she is.

However, once she accepted who she was, she made a plan for her transition. Feroza did not want to completely alienate her family. She needed to get an education to launch herself into the world of business. She needed to make money for the expensive process of transitioning from a male to a female body. Once her transition was complete and she began to pass as a woman, she grew in her life, fell in love, and began a career that led to real estate. Today she is an astute businesswoman and has helped hundreds of residential and commercial buyers and sellers, assisting them with resale, new construction, and lease transactions.

Her second, public coming out, earlier this year, came out of a mounting depression she experienced after the last presidential election. Being brown, Muslim, woman, and transgender—she says that her identities were all under fire by the far right, and that she could no longer remain silent. So she came out as transgender publicly on Facebook, on February 1st, 2018, after nearly 18 years living in anonymity. Her posting had 50,000 likes and numerous comments on Pantsuit Nation’s Facebook Page alone, and ultimately had over 65,000 likes in different groups, and thousands of shares. Some were shocked, but she received overwhelming support. Feroza says, until recently, she had never met a transgender woman like herself and wanted to reach out to others, especially South Asian youth who are also transgender. She wanted to show them that there is a way and a community. She knows from her own life experience that an example like hers can be not only life affirming but also lifesaving.

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Since her second coming out, Feroza’s profile as a spokesperson, activist, and advocate has risen, and she has been featured in articles in the AJC (​right) and Project Q.

Since her second coming out, her profile as an activist and spokesperson for the LGBT community has risen, and she has been featured in articles in the AJC and Project Q. Feroza’s transition was so successful that she had what she calls “passing privilege”: no one could tell she had ever been anything but a woman—even her in-laws.

Feroza spoke with Khabar about her decision to go public and her journey as a trans person.

What were some of the significant things that happened in your early life where you knew you were different?
It’s hard to narrow this down to just a few significant things. We’re so often made to feel abnormal on a daily basis, and many of those things can impact us in very real ways for a long time. One of my earliest memories was in India, where I had gone for my Bismillah. At my grandmother’s home, I was wrapping my mom’s dupatta around me, sashaying my hips while sweeping like my girl cousin, only to be scolded by my mom. She didn’t want me to be doing “these things” there in India. She knew my gender identity was forming, she had seen it before. However by telling me not to do it, she also was telling me that though she saw who I was, I shouldn’t be who I am. For years after, this set the tone for the shame, anxiety, and difficulty of me processing who I was and how to be.

I also remember early on through my teens, my aunts, many who live in Atlanta and don’t speak with me still, would often say “Feroz tho Naheed ki beti ki jaisa hai.” Feroz (my dead name) is just like Naheed’s daughter. They’d go on and on about how wonderful I was. How I helped cook and clean, how I helped cut all the fresh vegetables, and how lucky my mother was to have me. When I finally changed genders, it was shocking to see the lack of acceptance, the hate, the rejection from the very same people.

My freshman year in high school I was thrown against a locker, choked up a bit and called a “faggot.” I knew then I’d have a horrible experience in high school and strategized on how to become popular. Becoming friends with all the beautiful girls, cheerleaders, and popular people helped me because no one wanted to mess with me. They soon were asking me how to hang out with all the girls. By sophomore year, I was student council president.

There was another time before the 1996 Olympics that I remember walking around Centennial Park with our family, uncles, aunts, cousins. A group of gay men walked by in short shorts. I remember the commentary from my family including things like “If we were in Saudi, they’d be stoned to death, an abomination, disgusting.” Things like this created lots of self-hate, guilt, suicidal tendencies in me. It was around this age that I had tried to kill myself multiple times, eventually coming out to my mother, during one of those attempts.

One of the most difficult memories I have was right after transitioning, around 19 or 20, still young in college and learning how to deal with my transition. My cousin had invited us to his wedding. I specifically was invited. My mom even got excited about this invitation. She spent the weekend with me shopping for ghagra cholis, looking at jewelry. We got dressed together and went to the party. I walked in and everyone just stared at me. People wouldn’t respond to my “salaam,” and at one point one of my aunts grabbed her child who ran up to me, as if I was diseased, and ran to the other side of the room with her child. I ran out of the event crying, my beautifully applied makeup running everywhere, not understanding why I was invited only to be mistreated, laughed at, and shunned. This took me quite a bit of time to get over.

Even as recently as a couple of months back, my cousin invited me to an Eid party. After years of not having been to one I got a bit excited. I posted in the what’s app group what I would bring and looked forward to seeing everyone. As soon as I posted, some family members began posting they couldn’t come or something came up. In my naivety, I really didn’t connect the two until my cousin called me, explaining my aunts were cancelling because I was coming. She cried and said, “Do you just want to do Eid together you and me”? I replied, no, I’ll do something with my immediate family.

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At a family event, with her sisters-in-law and friend. Acceptance has come from some quarters, if not all of her extended family. (Photo: Erik Bello)

Even after 18 years after my transition, seeing me at multiple events, my extended family still doesn’t accept me, and that hurts. I’m no different than I was when I was an adolescent, the same jovial personality and the same outgoing loving person. It’s very difficult to have a relationship with your faith and culture when you’re shunned. Both religion and culture are taught by our families and so many of our traditions are carried on as a familial unit. For this reason I think I have struggled quite a bit with my faith, as I feel many LGBTQ people do. We often have to choose between our religions and families versus our right to exist. Still, I am blessed to have the support of my mother, brothers and their wives, and my many nieces and nephews, along with my many friends.

How did you manage to be true to yourself while you were still living under your parents’ roof?
This is a question for my little brother! LOL. He can attest to the many times I would dance to Bollywood dance numbers when mom and dad weren’t at home or were at work. These brief moments of joy, dancing, laughing, and being myself were all I had to help me get through my youth. I remember often my parents getting on to me early in middle school and high school about locking my room door. At the time my hair wasn’t long, and I’d turn one of my black tee-shirts inside out and put it on my head and dress up, or dance. I was always scared they’d find out and send me to another country, or I’d be stoned to death. Maybe this was an irrational fear based on some of the things I heard my family and extended family say about the LGBT community growing up, but to me it was real. I lived a double life, one by myself or in front of my little brother, and one in front of everyone else.

You faced violence and rejection as you transitioned. Can you talk about what kept you resilient?
The overwhelming feeling of hope for something better. My mom pulled me aside when I was younger, after attempting suicide, and told me that I have a choice. I can look at the cup as half empty or half full. We had a deep conversation about positivity and negativity, how it takes work to be positive, it’s easier to be negative. I think that innately I’ve always been a positive person, and people often tell me I’m funny and that I make them happy. However, I’ve realized that there are and will continue to be moments throughout my life where I’ll have to cry it out, pull myself together, and say, “Keep it moving, Feroza.” There have been times in my life that I’ve struggled to be the better person, to be strong and happy and positive.

You talk about “passing privilege.” What is that for you, and how did that impact your experience after you transitioned?
I cannot acknowledge my privilege enough. Though I’ve worked hard in my life to get to where I am, I owe so very much of my success in my life, transition, and career to passing privilege. Honestly, I doubt this article would be being written on me if I weren’t “conventionally” beautiful and able to pass. Passing privilege is the ability to pass in the cis-gendered or “straight” community as the gender you transitioned into. For me, this benefit has led to safety, security, the ability to work in corporate America, and ultimately to be accepted now as I am. I am so vocal and visible now because the more I can normalize transness, the more I can help my trans siblings who don’t pass as well. I’d love to see a world in which all trans people are accepted as they are, regardless of passing or not.

What was the impetus for your “second coming out”—the public one?
I had felt I wanted to come out for years, but the safety, security, and concern for the impact on my business had led me to be quiet. I enjoyed living in anonymity and I think that for some time I needed that; it helped me build my confidence, grow as a businesswoman, and was something I had wanted my entire life. However, I had begun to realize something was missing. Another concern was the sheer amount of people who didn’t know. I had nieces and nephews, in-laws, associates, clients, and friends in my life who didn’t know. Coming out a second time after such a bad experience the first time was anxiety ridden. As Trump won the 2016 election on a platform of fear-mongering, hatefulness towards immigrants, Muslims, and the LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, and asexual or allied) community, I realized I no longer had the luxury of sitting by while others did the work. I remember trying to deal with the consistent attacks on minorities, the white supremacists gathering in Charlottesville (where I first presented to my parents as a woman), the attacks on Muslims and talks of databases, the trans bans, the Muslim bans. I could go on and on. At some point, the fear had become paralyzing, but in true Feroza fashion, I busted back through on February 1, 2018 via my Facebook post.

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Feroza (second from left), appearing with fellow appointees of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ historic LGBTQ Advisory Board.

What are some of the forms that your activism takes?
My activism looks like many things. It looks like visibility on social media, magazines, and in person. I’m sitting on the first ever LGBTQ Advisory Board for Atlanta. I met Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms just a few weeks ago! I am the 2018 AIDS Walk Atlanta Ambassador and will be speaking in front of thousands of people at the walk planned in October. I sit on the board for Georgia Safe Schools Coalition and am speaking at schools around Atlanta and Georgia regarding acceptance and safety. I volunteer to facilitate a group of parents and LGBTQIA kids every two weeks at the PFLAG Johns Creek and Sandy Springs location. A group of local aunties and I have created an amazing new organization called Asian Q & A (Queer and Adolescent); we’re working on trying to create a safe space for young queer Asian Pacific Islander folks, as it’s currently needed. I’m working on getting myself onto and active with committees at both HRC Atlanta and wanting to work with Atlanta’s Pride Committee. I recently hosted a comedy special at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta and opened up for and got to meet comedians Wanda Sykes and Tig Notaro. My activism is literally anything I can do for anyone, at any time currently! LOL

Advice for young people who may be trans? How to stay safe and be the true you?
My advice to young trans people: First, you matter, you’re beautiful, you are seen. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that what you are and who you are isn’t enough. Though there may be tough times, trying to get through coming out, transitioning, and getting your family on board, don’t give up—you will be happy. At times, especially during youth, everything seems so overwhelming—don’t let it get the best of you. There are others out there. Last month, at 37 years old, I met dozens of other South Asian and Asian folks from around the country at the NQAPIA conference. I met other South Asian trans women for the first time in my life this month. So as you can see, we continue to grow throughout our lives.

To be safe and true to you? Be true to yourself but be smart. Think about your safety when coming out to your families, friends, and others. Sometimes we have to be quiet and lead our lives in the closet to get to a place where we feel we can come out. That’s ok. Don’t put unrealistic pressure on yourself. Keep in mind that on the spectrum of TGNC (Transgender and Gender NonConforming) people, a lot of people never come out, never transition. That doesn’t make your experience less difficult or valid. When it comes to dating, always disclose your trans status in a safe way, online or in well-lit public places; nondisclosure or the want to be accepted by others often led me to be in very unsafe situations in my youth. Make friends with other LGBTQIA South Asians. It helped me get through some of the toughest times of my life.

What are some of the support organizations for the trans community?
Khush, Trikone, NQAPIA, Satrang, Asian Q & A, PFLAG, GAPA, MASGD, Muslims for Progressive Values, SALGA NYC, DEQH-Helpline, Queer South Asian Collective (QSAC).

What would you like to see come out of this article?
One child or a parent of an LGBTQIA child to feel better. Quite honestly, I struggled quite a bit on whether to do this article or not. Knowing I may be stared at while out shopping at desi stores, getting dinner, or losing my Indian real estate clients. I’ve already lost two since coming out. However, I can’t recall at any point in my early life prior to moving out, feeling like there were other people like me. It’s still so important in 2018 to increase visibility for LGBTQIA South Asians. If nothing else I want people to know there are others like us. I want parents to know that they don’t have to be afraid. So much of our cultural and religious beliefs create a space of oppression, opposition, and fear for our community and their parents. There are many of us who are happy, married, and immensely successful in life.

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Franklin Abbott is an Atlanta psychotherapist, musician and writer. For more on his work, see www.tenminutemuse.wordpress.com



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