Some people call it “transgender regret”. When you change from one gender to another and then feel, somehow, you’ve made a mistake. Others call it “detransitioning” or a “reversal”.
Zahra Cooper calls it, simply “going back”.
“It sounds weird so I don’t usually say it. It’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing to go back.”
Under the table she is holding a smooth round stone, gripping it to try to keep from shaking. She looks at the floor, and hunches her shoulders as if trying to hide herself in her black Batman sweater. Talking doesn’t come easy for Zahra, 21, particularly when it’s about the events of the past year – her transition, her suicide attempts, her eventual Asperger’s syndrome diagnosis.”If I’m asked, I just say my voice sounds deep, because it is,” she says. “It’s not a thing to say to someone I used to be a boy and now I’m a girl … again.”
Zahra was born in Kaitaia. As a girl. Or, as they say in the transgender community, she was assigned as female at birth. Photos show a smiling child with an impish grin, dark hair, round cheeks. She was shy, a little naughty. Her family split up, and Zahra moved between Whangarei and Kaitaia.
At school, she struggled to make friends, preferring to spend time with her animals while feeling constantly out of place. “I’ve always struggled with my gender identity, always questioned whether I was a boy or a girl,” she says.
Everyone thought she was a typical tomboy, wanting her hair short, asking her mum if she could wear blue or black clothes. “I knew I was different when I was about 14. I hated my boobs at the time. Everything on the body, I just hated it.”
At first, Zahra thought she was gay. But after searching the internet and watching YouTube videos about transgender people, she realised she felt more like she was trapped in the wrong body.
For four years, she struggled between the genders, being bullied at school and online for being “weird”. At 18, she asked her family to start calling her “Zane” and using male pronouns. She began to think about formally transitioning – taking hormones to become more masculine.Her first doctor, in Whangarei, refused to even discuss the issue. “He was really transphobic,” Zahra says. “He said ‘you’re a female, you were born female, I pulled you out of your mother’.” Afterwards, Zahra began seeing a counsellor. They wrote a referral for a second GP, who arranged an appointment with an endocrinologist, who could prescribe testosterone – a first step on her journey to becoming male.
It took eight months to see the endocrinologist because of long wait-times in the public health service. During the wait, Zahra was required to meet a psychiatrist, who questioned her about her childhood, and how long she’d been dressing like a male. She was diagnosed with gender dysphoria – feeling at odds with one’s biological sex – paving the way for the endocrinologist to go ahead with the hormone treatment when the appointment came.
In December 2015, Zahra began taking testosterone, at first swallowing pills three times a day, and then via injection. After what seemed such a long wait for treatment, she expected to feel elated. But the euphoria many trans people describe at that point never really set in.
“I started getting really angry from the testosterone, which is a side effect,” she says. “But then I started getting depressed. I was like, why am I depressed? I should be happy.”
As the physical changes began, Zahra grew more and more anxious. She fought with family, often storming out of the house.
“I was getting a deeper voice, facial hair and many other changes but I just wasn’t happy with them,” she says. “I didn’t feel like myself.”
Then eight months in, things hit crisis point. Zahra tried to kill herself. Twice.
Her grandfather, Victor Rakich, found her, comatose after an overdose, and helped to save her life.
Zahra had been living with Rakich, a retired farmer, for four years prior to her transition. He “took her in”, he says, and Zahra loved life at his little farmlet north of the township, where she hand-raised a duck named Ducky, and bottle-fed the sheep.
Initially Rakich, who Zahra calls “Poppa”, struggled to accept his granddaughter’s new identity. He refused to call her Zane, despite wanting to support her. “I couldn’t handle it,” he says. “I said I can’t change. If you want to change, you change, but I can’t. But I wasn’t going to kick her out. I love her.”
They puddled along like that, until Zahra began taking testosterone.
“When she went on to those pills and stuff I could see her going downhill, but no one believed me,” Rakich says. He was concerned she hadn’t seen the endocrinologist again, despite the rapid change in her mood and appearance, and was told it was partially because of their remote location.
“I kept saying, why isn’t anyone monitoring her? Why isn’t anyone coming in? If you were in Auckland they’d do it, but since you’re in Kaitaia you can’t do it.”
Rakich says after the suicide attempts he pushed for Zahra to see another mental health specialist. This time, she was diagnosed with borderline Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism.
“That’s when everything clicked,” Zahra says. “And that’s when I started doing some deep thinking.”
On the internet, she learned Asperger’s people commonly struggle with gender identity issues. Experts say this is because of a tendency to think in black and white, to have a very fixed idea of the rules, and therefore look for reasons why they don’t fit in – often landing on gender dysphoria as an answer.