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Johannesburg - “Have you ever worn an item of clothing or been in a situation where it just didn’t feel right, and you just wanted to get out?” she asks, brows furrowed.
“Well that’s how I felt in my body.”
Raven El Messaoudi, 15, looks every bit like a regular teenage girl. Dressed in a black T-shirt with pink hearts drawn around the word “cheeky”, she unties her wavy dark hair and her eye-lined eyes gleam at her mother, Diane, sitting next to her in their home east of Joburg.
But Raven isn’t a regular girl – she was born a boy named Sharif.
“Growing up I was very confused, I had four female cousins… my mom says from a very young age I’d wear her make-up, I didn’t know I was doing it. My cousins thought it was weird for a little boy, but used to dress me up and I’d look like a little girl and I used to love it, until my father caught me,” she says, smiling.
In a more serious tone, Diane says Raven’s father was “very old-school” – an Arab Muslim from Morocco.
“He was killed in a hijacking when Raven was four, but before that he once caught her in my shoes and got angry… the fact that he had a son was very important to the family,” Diane says.
After her father’s death, Raven started wanting to wear dresses and play with dolls, and Diane took her to therapy.
“I thought she was looking for attention, that she was angry and acting out… I thought it was related to the trauma of her dad’s death.
“I took her to a psychiatrist, at that stage I think she was about seven or eight. He said he’d put toys on the floor and see which one he [Raven] would go for. At that stage, I suspected he was gay,” she says.
Out of the toys, Raven picked up a Barbie doll and a My Little Pony.
And while her mother’s explanation of what being gay was also didn’t sit comfortably with her, Raven knew one thing for certain: she didn’t want to be a boy, it just didn’t feel “right”.
As Raven entered her teens, she decided to investigate why she was feeling so uncomfortable as a boy.
“I typed in on an internet search: ‘I’m a boy, I like other boys but I don’t feel comfortable in my own body,’” she says.
Several disorders came up, ranging from schizophrenia to bipolar disorder, but when the word and definition of “transgender” came up, Raven says it sounded just like her.
After gathering all the information about being transgender, and shaking in fear, Raven spoke to her mom.
“My mom asked: ‘What do you mean, Raven?’ but I knew she knew what I meant. I told her: ‘Mom, I want to be a girl, I think I’m transgender.’
“If she hadn’t been so shocked, I think she would’ve passed out!”
But not everyone has been as understanding. She was ridiculed for her looks and girl-like behaviour at the private school she attended. She was made to cut her hair short and Diane remembers her daughter sobbing until her voice became hoarse.
The teasing she endured from her peers became so bad that she slit her wrists. But when rumours started doing the rounds at school that she fancied her best friend – a girl – Raven felt it was time to stand up for herself.
“It was during play rehearsals and I went on stage and told everyone that I wasn’t a boy and didn’t like my friend in that way. The moment the words left my mouth I regretted them.
“Everyone looked at me and it was dead quiet. The only thing I could think of doing was to take a bow and leave the stage – and I did.”
Raven has since left the school and is now being home-schooled.
She dresses like a girl every day and doesn’t leave the house without make-up. Diane tried putting her on the Pill to help develop her female hormones, but Raven’s body didn’t take well to them.
Diane can’t afford the hormone blockers Raven needs to stop her development as a boy, and says they desperately need help to get them.
She’s promised her daughter that if she loses 100kg, she’ll pay for her breast implants when she is 21.
But Diane is still wary of the sexual reconstruction surgery her daughter wants to have when she’s old enough. Raven, on the other hand, is scared of growing more into a boy, and her voice breaking by her 16th birthday next year.
“Once I woke up with a stubble and screamed so loud!” she recalled.
Diane, who has been criticised by many for supporting her daughter’s choices, says: “She [Raven] is 100 percent woman, aside from the thing that hangs between her legs, she’s a girl… The advice I always gave her when she was younger was: ‘Don’t worry what anyone says about you because five years from now they won’t even matter.’” - The Star
* Transgender is defined as “relating to or being a person [as a transsexual or a transvestite] who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that differs from the one which corresponds to the person’s sex at birth”.