What Sami Discovered On The Way To Becoming A Man Of Color : Code Switch Sami Younes, a 26-year-old man of Arab and Latino descent, was once a young woman named Mariam. In this photo essay, Erica Yoon explores how Sami's transition affected his experience of the world.
NPR logo What Sami Discovered On The Way To Becoming A Man Of Color

What Sami Discovered On The Way To Becoming A Man Of Color

Not many people can say they've experienced the world both as an Arab-Latino woman and as an Arab-Latino man. Sami Younes can.

Younes, 26, was once a Lebanese and Puerto Rican woman. When he began his physical transition three years ago to become a man, the way people reacted to his change surprised him.

"This never happened to me before my transition," Younes said. "I'll be walking down the street and I'll see someone coming toward me. And if they're alone, they'll just change to the other side of the street. They look at me and they get afraid, and I see the fear in their eyes.

"I'm not going to hurt anybody ... but people walk away from me now."

Younes said he had experienced racial remarks in the past, ranging from someone complimenting his spoken English to a stranger telling him that he was evil because of his race. But as a man, he's gained a new awareness of the stereotypes that people might associate with him, many based on race and sex.

"While I would not regret my transition for a second, I've stepped into a position now where I'm perceived as a terrorist or an Islamic extremist," he said. "I didn't deal with that when I was a woman and now I'm dealing with it."

"People don't outright say anything to me but it's the fear that speaks the loudest. People are suddenly afraid of me and they weren't before."

Transitioning for him is an ongoing process.

"I think everybody loses something when they transition. ... [It can be] their sense of security, their family ... and I think everybody gains something too, or they wouldn't do it," said Mara Keisling, founding executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. Keisling is a transgender woman who transitioned when she was 40 years old. After transitioning, she said, she experienced a new sense of vulnerability that she never felt before as an athletic, 6-foot-2-inch white male.

Younes' sister gives him a kiss during his birthday party. Erica Yoon/NPR hide caption

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Erica Yoon/NPR

Younes' sister gives him a kiss during his birthday party.

Erica Yoon/NPR

For Younes, however, that vulnerability was compounded by being a transgender man of color.

Transgender and gender nonconforming people of color experience higher levels of employment discrimination, economic insecurity, homelessness and housing discrimination in comparison with their white counterparts, according to a nationwide survey of 6,450 people conducted in 2011 by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. (Respondents of Asian descent were the exception to these findings. They reported slightly lower levels of discrimination, except in regard to housing discrimination and homelessness.)

Younes has yet to meet another individual who shares his unique cultural and personal background — a half-Lebanese, half-Puerto Rican transgender man. He has attempted to form social groups for transgender men of color, but they never successfully materialized. Instead, most of the trans spaces he navigates are predominantly white.

Culture At Home

Celebrating his birthday one evening, Younes was surrounded by friends; his roommate, Angelica Martinez; and his sister, Leila. Even his friend from California, Emily Karram, traveled all the way to Maryland to celebrate her birthday with him. The festivities turned to several rounds of the game Cards Against Humanity, along with spontaneous lip syncing from Younes. He balled his fist into an imaginary microphone, mouthing soundlessly while music played in the background.

The second oldest of four children, Younes was born in Silver Spring, Md., to a Puerto Rican/Spanish mother and a Lebanese father. He remembers being surrounded by a culture where femininity was respected and praised. He was encouraged to be beautiful, to grow his hair long and wear dresses.

"Goodness and being an obedient daughter was intrinsically linked to being beautiful," Younes recalled. Younes was nurtured to pursue what he calls traditionally feminine interests — learning how to cook instead of playing sports. While attempting to fit in and be a good daughter, Younes felt the beginnings of a tension within himself.

"All I knew was that I was a girl and I had to be a girl," he said, "and inside, I didn't feel that way."

He primped his hair, did his makeup and took care of his appearance. "I started to fit in more, and it didn't make me any happier with myself. I just didn't like myself ... I never felt like I belonged," he said. "It was really difficult."

The tension continued to build. Younes said he was bullied and picked on when he was a child. He said he tried to kill himself when he was in the sixth grade. Although he began expressing these feelings at a very young age, he said, therapists had reassured him that he was "going through a phase and that medication could help correct [him]."

While attending DePaul University in 2005, Younes began to meet gay people who were "out and happy," as well as transgender people for the first time. He mixed with the drag king crowd, people who identify as female but perform in male character.

"I never fully blended with that ... because it was very ingrained with the lesbian subculture there. And I am not a lesbian so I didn't really fit in," he said. He realized he didn't have to be "ultra-feminine," and that it would be fine to present his gender in a different way.

Younes with his mother, Lina, and father, Badri. "At certain moments, we thought, 'Why us? Why us? You know, God, we didn't need this,' " his father said. "But I say it now, thank God it was us." Erica Yoon/NPR hide caption

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Erica Yoon/NPR

Younes with his mother, Lina, and father, Badri. "At certain moments, we thought, 'Why us? Why us? You know, God, we didn't need this,' " his father said. "But I say it now, thank God it was us."

Erica Yoon/NPR

It was at this point, he said, that he realized that he was, in fact, transgender.

Younes revealed this to his girlfriend at the time, he said, and the relationship turned abusive. Out of money and wanting to exit the relationship after two years, he decided to go back home.

He then started his physical transition to become a transgender man. His parents were not happy.

"At certain moments, we thought, 'Why us? Why us? You know, God, we didn't need this,' " said Younes' father, Badri. Badri is a practicing Muslim who comes from a religious family. "But I say it now, thank God it was us."

Sami's sisters — Nadia, Leila and Alia — were supportive from the beginning. It was this support that eventually led to Badri's change.

Leila, 27, said that Sami was fluid in his gender expression before transitioning. "He didn't conform to our idea of 'feminine,' nor did he conform to our idea of 'masculine,' " she said. "He was somewhere in the middle."

Sami revealed to Leila his attraction to women several years before he finally told her that he was transgender, she said. She immediately accepted him and helped him to figure out a way to come out to his parents.

Sami's parents eventually began to come around. But as a man in his Arab-Puerto Rican family, there was now a different set of expectations for Sami to uphold.

Sami knew that his father had finally accepted him when he asked for help with stuff like rebuilding the deck. "He wanted me to do all this manual labor that a man is typically expected to do. And I'm not a very big guy. It's not sort of my forte ... but he wanted me to do it," he said.

But one of the things that didn't change for Sami was a wish from his father for him to keep up his appearance and eventually marry.

"We feel so bad that he had to go through it for so long, alone. ... At the end we had to assess, what's more important? Our son or others? You have to put things into perspective," Badri said.

Family acceptance of an individual's transgender identity diminishes the risk of homelessness, incarceration, suicide, smoking, drugs or alcohol, doing sex work or underground work for income, and all sorts of adverse outcomes, according to the 2011 survey. Overall, 43 percent of the individuals surveyed had "maintained most of their family bonds, while 57 percent experienced significant family rejection."

It took a little bit longer for Sami's mother, Lina, a Roman Catholic, to accept him and fully lend her support with Badri. "You know in Spanish there's a common expression," Lina said, " 'El qué dirán?' What will people say? What will people think?"

For a while, Lina just thought Sami was a tomboy. She thought it was a phase. She recalls knowing that he never seemed completely happy when he was younger, wanting to forgo dresses or flowery prints and that he kept wanting to cut his hair. There might have been signs of his gender identity, but she says she was blind to them. But once Badri was encouraged by their daughter Nadia to read more about being transgender, he was slowly able to persuade Lina to accept Sami.

Just as the daughters persuaded Badri, Badri was slowly able to persuade his wife.

"I think as a parent you want to be protective," Lina said. "Sometimes you've been overly protective. By keeping him like he was ... we would have been harming him more."

And just as Sami was surprised to discover the new ways people interacted with him in the world, Lina encountered some surprises, too.

She recalls a conversation that her son had with a Puerto Rican neighbor at the grocery store — a neighbor who'd seen Sami grow up female. Younes had just gone through surgery to remove his breasts and was in the store with his sister when the neighbor recognized him. After the initial small talk, she asked quite openly, without missing a beat, when he started hormones.

Several transgender people I spoke with said this kind of questioning would be unwelcome. It's the type of personal detail many would not want to discuss with an acquaintance. But for Sami, the neighbor's reaction was a welcome one.

"I just sort of looked at her," Sami says, smiling, "and she's like, 'Honey, I'm not blind.' And ever since then, she's just been, like, awesome."

Erica Yoon is a staff photographer at the Roanoke Times.