Season 03: Episode 17: Rayyan Monkey Transcript
Updated: Feb 9
Queer Diagnosis Podcast
Season 03: Episode 17: Rayyan Monkey
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Zarya: Hey, welcome back to Queer Diagnosis. As always, I'm your host Zarya. My pronouns are she/her/hers.
Srihita: Hello, I'm Srihita, your co-host. My pronouns are she/her/hers. Our guest today is Rayyan Monkey. Hello, could you please introduce yourself with your pronouns?
Rayyan: Hi, my name is Rayyan Monkey, I go by the pronouns she/her/they.
Srihita: Let's dive right into it. Can you talk about growing up in Dubai and Mumbai, and how that influenced your relationship with your identity?
Rayyan: I grew up primarily in Dubai. In terms of my identity, I would say that it took me a long time to come into my identity because of the fact that I grew up there. And mainly because there was no representation. There was nobody who was visibly genderqueer around me, as far as I can remember, in all of the city, nobody in my school for sure. I didn't know about them. I read about the transgender community, but not even with that name. I knew them with the name Hijra. That comes from the Indian association with it, which carries a lot of stigma, especially post colonial times, where the Hijra community is seen as almost criminal. At one point, they were categorized as a criminal group. In India, we have this racist history where tribals and other subsects were categorized as criminal groups, because that's how they were seen. The first time I heard about genderqueer folks was through the lens of Hijra community through a very stigmatized viewpoint. That's one reason why I have internalized transphobia and it took me this long to get to this point, around 15 years on top of the time when I first realized I have some genderqueer questions to ask myself.
Zarya: I know that you mentioned the identity Hijra. Do you mind expanding on what Hijra means for our viewers in America?
Rayyan: Hijra is a very interesting word. In Arabic, hijra has a lot of different meanings. It is used as the word for the calendar, like the calendars called hijr, or hijra, or pronounced hijr, the ‘a” at the end would go silent and that's how we measure the years. So it'll be called the hijra calendar, which is a lunar calendar. It is the term used pan-Arabia, for anybody who's done a pilgrimage. Again, they will not say hijra, because in the Arabic language, when "a'' comes at the end, you don't say it and it becomes almost silent and it trails off. It would again be Hijr. And Haji is a derivation from that. Haji is direct, but Hijr comes from that connotation of Haji. Haji is another word for pilgrim which is used more widespread today, especially in Saudi, but that's where this word comes from.
The Hijra community within India originates from the time of the Islamic empire and post Prophet Mohammed Salah Salem’s death to the Ottoman Empire, around the time of the World War. During this time is when we see the Hijra community come into the Indian subcontinent, or this region, which includes places like Persia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, all of these would have been included in that region at that time. The way we talk about them today is different from how they were viewed earlier. Earlier, the Hijra community had a lot of political power, which is the reason why the colonists singled them out. In India, they were also known as the kinnar community. When the British came, they saw that as a threat and that's why they stigmatized it. At that time, they had political power. When we talk about it in today's terms, they consider themselves to be outside of the binary system. Not all considered themselves this way, but a lot of the Hijra community will consider themselves outside the binary world and they consider themselves either to be both or beyond gender. They tend to have a spirituality that is borrowing from Hinduism and Islam, a lot of Islamic influence in there but the God is more Hindu, Hinduistic in its aesthetics and so on.
This is because of the acceptance that comes from being someone who does not traverse the binary world. You are beyond gender. You can see beyond these arbitrary differences of race and religion and things like that. The hijra community, in the Mughal times and in the Islamic Indian culture, were known for being the centers that would allow conversations to take place across faiths. Very often, even today, for that matter, the hijra communities take part in things like Kumbh Mela. Whenever they are present, you'd see a conversation between the Hindu community, and Muslim community. It is beyond religion. It becomes more spiritual and the love for a higher power or being. At the same time today in India, they are seen with a lot of hate, because of what I said about the colony thing. That thing comes through even today, where they are viewed as either criminals, which of course, like everywhere else in the world, at times the transgender and hijra community have embodied that because of the lack of opportunities. They're seen as child snatchers, and a whole lot of other things that are thrown into the mix. Bollywood and politics does not help. But especially the representation is mirroring what used to be in the West, which is either you see comical representations or transphobic representations.
Zarya: I did write a paper in college about hijra, and I wish you were there because there was very limited information about the history of Hijra and the community in general. I think that it would have been great to have you there. I noticed that as you were talking about them, you did mention Islam a little bit. I know in our pre interview, you were talking about coming from a Muslim conservative family. Do you mind speaking to that a little bit?
Rayyan: Yeah. I grew up in a family that, like most of conservative Islamic world, sees the entire queer community as an abomination; some sign of the deterioration of civilization. This is the same biblical transphobia, and queerphobia that exists in, but in a Arabic context. But that meant that I grew up hating queer people, and especially trans people. I didn't realize I was trans. I didn't have the language to formulate that. But about the age, pre puberty, 11/12, is when I first had this experience, where I was reading an article. It was about six Iranian trans women who medically transitioned at the time. It's quite interesting to note that Iran has had this going on since 1976. When I read that article, it moved me and shook me and I remember being there, I don't remember how long. I remember there being quite a few days where I was stuck with this, it was rotating in my mind, I had to figure out what to do with it. What I can remember is me thinking "Hey, there is a procedure, there is a way there is some possible way for me to be a woman and that seems interesting. I want to think about this.” Then my mind would be like “No, you can't, that's haram. If you do something like that, you'd be considered a monster, you'd be considered evil. That's not the route you want to take.” You can't do it. It's not even about want, you can't do it. By the time you're 20/21, you'd get married, and you'd have kids by the time you're 30. Don't worry too much about it, you'll forget all this ever happened." That's an example of the awareness I had about the situation or the exposure I had about the situation.
Today, I'm standing and trying to do the work and trying to tell my story. I got connected, and I worked with the Queer Muslim Project. I got connected with a lot of queer Muslims through them. It's interesting to hear how many people have experienced similar things. It's troubling, because of course, it's not isolated to Islam. I can use that example because it's my life and experience, but this is the same everywhere. Most conservative faiths will embody and instill these ideas into individuals. What that does for people who are queer and haven't come into their identities? It teaches them to hate themselves. Because what they see is, even if they haven't come out to themselves and accepted the identity part of them, is their queerness. They sense it. It puts you into a cycle of self hate and then you try to end the cycle. You then try and cope with it. There's various ways you can cope with it and a lot of them are unhealthy. Some of them are addiction. To cope with the depression, there's all of the routes from shopping to food to all of these paths that you might go down. That's the situation that I feel needs to be addressed. That's what I'm trying to talk about to others, because we need more awareness about this.
Srihita: You mentioned that there's obviously many negative coping mechanisms. But I think one of the healthy coping mechanisms you talked about is sharing your journey and developing this network of other queer Muslims. I was going through Instagram, and you had this cool post about a year of pictures that represented this past year of coming out and going through that journey. How has content creation and sharing your story played a role in this last year of your coming out journey?
Rayyan: It's something I want to talk about with a little bit of care, because it's a unique situation that I am in. Not unique, of course, there are a lot of others with similar experiences, but it is one of privilege. Because of being of a certain age, class, education, and many other things, I was in that position to be able to come out and be visible, and not fear loss of shelter, loss of financial income, etc. It was a position that I found myself in. First I have to acknowledge that, but it has helped tremendously. That's the thing that I'm careful about saying because I don't want to say it in a way that everyone thinks that "Hey, yeah, if I am visible, and I'm going to be on social media, it will help." The transphobia I have, it is going to take me a lot more time to work through that. I am repeatedly reminded about how much transphobia I still live with, and it keeps showing up in my life. The ability to be visible, to be out there on social media, and to find a community was affirming for me. It was affirming to be able to find people who are now my friends, that I can depend on and they support me and help me. I was able to find work by being somebody who was out there and visible. It's amazing, because it was one of the most important things that helped me deal with my own transphobia. At the end of the day, transphobia is something that ends up happening because of your ideas.
The only way to change that is to expose yourself to the same idea. You need more exposure; expose yourself to more people from the queer community, or listen to other people's ideas, and other people's opinions about that topic until the point where your ideas start to change. That's what happened with people telling me that I look beautiful, I can no longer say that I am a monster or I look ugly, which is where I started. The first time I realized that I am trans, one of the first things that I thought about is "Are you going to be one of those ugly people walking on the street with their beard showing?" and that is still in me. That is very real, because that is what internalized transphobia is. But being visible and getting that affirmation from people, whether it was on my content, or even in person, people telling me, "Hey, I related to that piece, or that caption you wrote, and that story, you spoke about how you're still dealing with internalized transphobia. I can highly relate to that. That made me feel normal." We use the word queer because nobody wants to consider us normal. But that's what made me feel like "Hey, there are other people experiencing this." It's powerful. I think one of the most powerful things is being able to find somebody else who's feeling or has experienced a similar thing and that's what it allowed me to do.
Zarya: As part of research that I'm hoping to do in the next year or so, I'm hoping to work with the Queer Muslim community, perhaps in the UK. Fingers crossed that I get that opportunity, but it's okay if not. When I was trying to find research about the queer Muslim community, there's not that much out there. First, a lot of people don't acknowledge that you can be queer and Muslim, they think that you have to choose one or the other. The matter of fact is that there are people who live at that intersection. They need health care, too. Doesn't matter who you are. Everyone needs healthcare in my opinion. That's something that I'm coming up against where I'm like "I need to find the queer Muslim community in order to help them" but because of transphobia and homophobia, it is hard to get queer Muslims who openly identify and are willing to talk about their experiences. Especially within healthcare, there are many chances for there to be miscommunication or feelings of distrust that arise between you and your health care provider. I know that one person that you mentioned was Dr. Trinetra in terms of medical transition, and I was hoping that you could talk more about that.
Rayyan: Dr. Trinetra is one of my biggest role models. I think of her in terms of celebs, I completely geek out when she's around me. There's celebs who you might look up to but then there's somebody who impacts your life and she did. She impacted my decision to transition and explained the doability of it. She made it very practical by putting it out the information you need: HRT stuff, how to go about getting your gender dysphoria certificate, what are the legal procedures and what is it going to cost you, what is the cost of HRT, and surgery because she has chosen to go through with surgery. I myself don't know yet. Everybody has their journey. I can talk about hers because it is out there on YouTube, and it is very public. Because she did that, many of us, including me, found it to be real. It's funny, because up until that time, I'd already been exposed to so much content, she was the last leg, I had my life photo of Danish girl and other films with problematic representation, but still speaking to me, and me being confused, and Transparent on Amazon, Euphoria, and Pose. All of these things spoke to me and got me to that place. But what Trinetra did was make it very real, because she was here in this country, even if she comes from a different background, class, economic status, religion, etc. Even then, she made it very real for me. I could connect with that.
I found that to be powerful. That was one of my turning points in deciding to create content, because I knew that was where I was able to connect with her. I know a lot would not be able to connect with her, because of these same devices of class, race, etc, in this country. One of the big challenges is the Muslim community in which I belong to is there was no representation from anyone in the Muslim community, none. The only representation I found of trans Muslims was after I decided to come out. The algorithms began to show those people. I could not find anyone before. Even internationally there were very few names I found. But it's not like they were talking about it. Maybe they were doing different things with their life, they were not content creators. I found that that was something that I wanted to do because of how much it helped me. Going back to Trinetra, and the work that she does, she tries to create awareness from a medical point of view, which is seriously lacking in India. We still have a whole lot of doctors who will try and convince you that this is a phase or that this can be worked out. Only recently have state governments started to ban conversion therapy. This has still not happened on a central level, not a national level. This has been happening on a state level. We need more folks like Trinetra because she's studying to become a doctor and she's about to finish her MB/BS. She's in her residency. She creates content where she records all of these medical things. It makes that easy and accessible.
I want to talk about something that you spoke about a little earlier, Zarya, which is about the inability to find queer folk in Islamic history. That's something that comes up a lot, especially when I decided that I'm going to try and create content. First, my objective was only to tell my story. Then when I started to get access to the Queer Muslim Project and the work they're doing, it became interesting to try and find this content in our history. I watched the documentary, Disclosure. It changed my life. It's the reason that I'm finally out to myself. It's because it does a good job of detailing how important representation is, for example, the quote that "How can you be something that you cannot see?" comes from someone in that documentary. It's been said several times before, but it's covered in the documentary. It's powerful, being able to see yourself represented. I realized that one of the reasons that I found it hard is because there's no representation in Islam, and that is quite sincerely an issue. When you look at it logically, the numbers show that we were always there since the first civilizations. We exist. Queer folk exist. Genderqueer folk exist because you have a lot of male skeletons wearing the femme clothes of their times, etc, etc. There's no denying that we existed, but we were made invisible.
When I started to look into it, obviously, I was not the first Muslim person to think about it and there are a whole bunch of amazing Muslims, queer and non queer, and non-Muslims who dove into this and found a whole lot of queer history within Islamic civilization and Islamic history. There's some work that I'm doing with the Queer Muslim Project, which is working to showcase that but all of the work we're doing is built on previous work. There's a lot of pre-existing work. One of my most favorite papers that I found is by Sahar Amer, Medieval Arab Lesbian Women and Lesbian-like Women. There is a whole lot of this work, and you can find it. But of course, the same way that when you look into Islamic history, and you can't find any stories about women, it's hard to find queer people, like the women are made invisible in a lot of conservative societies, in the same way queer people are made invisible in different ways. But that's our situation right now. Going in and finding it takes a bit more looking. I think it's powerful to highlight those stories, like we're doing with Queer Muslim Project. It leads people like me who are growing up to know that “Hey, yeah, this exists.” Of course it does. Of course, it did. Of course, we existed.
Srihita: I think that's an important point. Because I think a lot of transphobic or homophobic narratives hinge on this idea that "This is some new thing that people are coming up with." By doing that, they can better differentiate it or villainize it, and I think making the point of "No, this has always been here” and it's been buried or erased is a very powerful counter argument to that.
Rayyan: Especially where you all are, the conversation ends up concentrating on medical transition, and it ends up almost staying there. Of course washrooms are another conversation. But this becomes a central conversation. The interesting thing is, although I am medically transitioning in that I take HRT, I don't know about surgery, but this is a little piece of history where this has been happening. HRT has been available for 200 years which is a significant amount of time, most of our drugs don't have 200 years of experience. For the other 10,000...70,000... 50,000 years, however old our history is, we have not done it with HRT. They have existed, trans people have always existed. It's interesting that the conversation ends up being stuck there when for most of history, that was not even a part of the genderqueer experience. The ability to transition using synthetic hormones, there is some new evidence in Europe of herbs that could play around with your hormones, as most midwives do for pregnant women. Spirulina is a modern one, but these kinds of herbs with your hormones. There is some anecdotal evidence of that. Even then, that would not have given the transitions we see today. When we go back to that, we put perspective and give context on the fact that for the longest time we've existed, and people have accepted it. It's not always been in all of history. It's been accepted for certain times. But that's for most things. When you take any conversation, any topic that we discussed in politics or social relations, they have not been viewed the same throughout history, and the same for the queer community, but they have always existed.
Zarya: That's interesting. I don't think I recognized it until you literally said it, and sometimes I think it takes an outsider's perspective to make you realize something. I know that we were talking a little bit about your journey throughout this. I wanted to ask you, if you could go back in time, and talk to your 15 year old self, what would you tell them?
Rayyan: Interestingly, I thought about this a lot last year and this year, I wouldn't tell them anything, I would probably hug them tightly, and not even say everything's gonna be alright. The reason being I recently realized that I've started to accept and frame it, that I am not socialized as an AFAB, assigned female at birth, person would be. If I was, I would not be the woman I am today. I have my sibling as an example. We were raised to be different people because of how we were socialized. If I were to go back in time and tell that Rayyan anything, I don't think I would have this journey. Even though this journey has been painful, very painful, and very long and keeps making me think like “Oh my god, so much time lost, I lost my entire 20s,” the only way I have as Rayyan is to go forward. To go forward I have to create these sentences and the sentence that I create is “everything happened the way it happened because it would have taken me this long to deal with it, if I was born in that house.” Going back to my 15 year old self, I want to hug them and be like "Oh, fuck, it's gonna be painful." I have this tattoo and it says “no regrets.” and it's not that I think that life needs to be lived without regrets. It’s that that's how my life worked out. The only way I can move forward is if I do not have any regrets about anything that happened. A lot of trans people ended up getting stuck in regret and that's their way of dealing with it. That's how we cope with it. That's why we need therapy, and I have the privilege of access to therapy, and I won't get caught in it. I don't want to be stuck in it. Everything that happened happened. I wish that in the future, because of the work that we do and all of the many trans activists are doing, others don't have the same experience as I do. I wouldn't wish that on anyone else. But yeah, that's what I would say.
Zarya: I think that was well articulated. We've asked this question at the end of every episode, and I don't think anybody ever said that they would hug them. The simplicity of that, I think it's lovely. I've never answered this question for myself. I like to ask other people and then not think about it. I hope that my answer is something similar to that. You can’t tell your younger self that it's gonna get easier if it's not and that it gets better. But I do like what you said about no regrets. I think I'm going to carry that energy in my every day. I appreciate that. At this point, we're gonna wrap up, but it has been very lovely talking with you. We appreciate you making time. For our listeners, we're in different time zones. We had some work around that. Shout out to you for making that work with us. I know that it's been crazy. You're doing great things. I'm looking forward to everything else that you're doing, because it is important and representation wise I do value you as a person.
Rayyan: Thank you so much. That's sweet, this was a lovely chat. I enjoyed it.
Srihita: Thank you so much.
Zarya: Thanks for listening. Please consider making a donation to the Queer Diagnosis Scholarship Fund to connect students with much-needed financial support as a means of guaranteeing their academic success, particularly those students who identify as members or advocates of the LGBTQ+ community. Read the transcript for this episode at QueerDiagnosis.com. Queer Diagnosis is
Srihita: Srihita Mediboina.
Katya: Katya Shemelyak
Jameson: Jameson Coleman.
Zarya: And me, Zarya Shaikh. Music is composed and provided by Cara Dugan and Adam Fredette. This podcast is supported by listeners like yourself. Our Patreon is patreon.com/QueerDiagnosis. Rate and subscribe to Queer Diagnosis wherever you like to listen.
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This transcript has been edited for clarity. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future.