Feroza Syed stared at the words on her Facebook page for a long time.
She had been thinking about this moment for days. She knew that once she hit the word “post,” her life would change. The four words were empowering, but they could also make her a target.
Would it affect friendships? Her job? Her safety?
She took a deep breath.
I’m A Trans Woman.
“The only way to heal this country is to push back with visibility and acceptance,” said Syed, 36, an associate broker with Atlanta Fine Homes, Sotheby’s International Realty.
She wasn’t ashamed of being a transgender woman, but because of her small stature — 5 feet 4 inches and 130 pounds — Syed enjoyed what she called “passing privilege.” She could enter a room and few, if anyone, would think twice about her gender.
Why say something now?
“This year has felt like it’s been an open assault on me,” said Syed, who lives in DeKalb County with her husband, two English bulldogs and a cat.
“I check every box,” she said.
Syed is a Muslim. A woman. A person of color. Transgender. The daughter of immigrants.
“At times I feel as though half of this country voted against me directly and that this past election was a referendum on me personally,” she wrote in the Facebook post. “I became very depressed, and realized that I would only be able to dig myself out of this sunken place by speaking my truth and being confident in me, all of me. In order to re-assert myself, my existence, and my strength, I have to speak those words out loud and into existence.”
The Feb. 1 post went viral with more than 660 shares. She has gotten messages from strangers from as far away as England and India, where she still has family.
If she was worried about reaction from her co-workers, she need not have been.
Rather than giving her the cold shoulder, Syed’s co-workers showered her with hugs and words of support. She said she lost one client because of the post and had others who have “disappeared from my Facebook.” Most people, though, have been positive.
“I’m a functioning member of society,” she said during an interview at her home. “I pay a lot of money in taxes. I own two homes. Why shouldn’t I be viewed and accepted with my transness exposed? We are not, not a small segment.”
One woman wrote on Syed’s Facebook page about her 15-year-old daughter, who came out two years ago.
“We are totally ok w/it but still learning about what this means for her in terms of how her life may be different from mine. She struggles so much w/finding others she can relate to yet needs that so much.”
There are 1.4 million transgender adults in the United States, according to one estimate.
However, Jay H. Wu, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based National Center for Transgender Equality, believes that number, which doesn’t include people under the age of 18, is low.
Wu applauds Syed’s decision but says the reaction can vary.
“Trans people tend to face disproportionately high levels of discrimination and harassment,” Wu said. “When folks see what happens to folks like them, it can lead them to not want to come out.”
In Georgia, for instance, 33 percent of those who held or applied for a job during the previous year reported being fired, being denied a promotion or not being hired for a job they applied for because of their gender identity or expression, according to a 2015 National Center for Transgender Equality report.
At the same time, Wu said, for those who want to “lead an authentic life, it can outweigh their desire to avoid that danger.”
The reaction was much different when Syed, who was born Feroz Syed, in Chicago, first came out to her conservative family.
Syed said she always knew that while born a boy, she was a girl inside.
She remembers as a child going with her parents to their native India. She draped fabric around her like a sari and happily grabbed a broom to sweep the floor. Her mother was shocked and admonished her that was not something boys do.
She tried to commit suicide four or five times when she was a teen.
In high school, she tried to hang out with the popular girls, which provided her some safety from bullying. When she tried to wear a dress to the prom, the school turned her down.
Her senior year in high school was when Syed really began to transition. She started wearing tighter clothes and letting her hair grow long. She wore her eyebrows thinner.
It became even more apparent while one day in college she started wearing heels and women’s clothing “and I never went back.”
At the time, she had a beard. She would go home between classes to shave twice a day. “It was hard.”
In 2007 and 2008, she traveled to Thailand for gender reassignment surgery.
Today, she enjoys a close relationship with her immediate family, although it took years of actively working through issues. Still it hasn’t always been “a cakewalk.”
Arif Mohammed Syed was 16 when he found out the brother he grew up with was a sister.
“It was the most galvanizing moment of my life,” said Arif Mohammed Syed. “I didn’t grow up with the most open minds at the time. I was beyond shocked, but it was an opportunity to learn something about myself and realize my best friend in the whole world was trans. … This hit close to home, certainly.”
Syed said she and her parents have been shunned by extended family.
“Of course, it’s hurtful,” she said. “There’s a lot of loss here, but I don’t hold it against anyone anymore. For a long time, I was angry and upset. It was hard for me to reconcile with someone saying they love you but don’t accept you. It’s not necessarily their fault but society, their upbringing and cultural norms.”
She spent years reconciling being Muslim and transgender. She realized God made her who she is today and gave her the choices to make.
Aparna Bhattacharyya, executive director of Raksha, a Georgia-based nonprofit that works in the South Asian community, has known Syed for several years.
“This was extremely courageous of her, especially because of the potential impact on her family, her religion and cultural community and from a professional standpoint,” she said. “I know she was grappling with how this was going to impact her work and family.”
Bhattacharyya said just like in other communities, there is growing acceptance of the LGBTQ community, but there are also conservative elements who are less open.
“This is a real struggle with South Asian youth who are grappling with if their community will accept and love them for who they are,” Bhattacharyya said. “I hope that Syed’s coming out will be an inspiration for other youth looking who feel isolated and needing support.”
In Georgia and nationally, the LGBTQ community is feeling pressure after big victories like recognition of gay marriage under the Obama administration.
Last week, the Georgia Senate approved a bill that allows adoption agencies to use their religion as a justification to deny gay couples seeking to adopt children from foster care.
And President Donald Trump in 2017 announced that transgender recruits would no longer be allowed to serve in the military. A federal judge later ruled that the military must accept transgender recruits.
Stephen Croft, who married Syed in 2011, is not surprised that his wife would speak out.
“I thought it was about time,” he said. “It was never an issue for me. I thought the family should have known a long time ago. It was courageous and something she didn’t really have to do.”
Perhaps one of her most anxious moments came when she told Margie Diller, her mother-in-law, that she was transgender.
A few days before posting on Facebook, Syed called Diller and asked to meet at a LongHorn Steakhouse in Dublin.
Over steak and seafood dinners, Syed shared her story.
It didn’t matter to Diller.
Syed said she had wanted to tell the family years ago, but didn’t know how they would react. When questions arose about starting a family, Syed said she was in early menopause.
Diller assured Syed that her late husband wouldn’t have had a problem either.
“It doesn’t change things at all,” said Diller. “I feel closer to her now than before. She’s like a daughter to me. I knew from the first time I met her that she was someone special. She has this aura. When she walks into a room, her soul is so bright.”
Syed’s brother said Feroza Syed’s coming out a second time was “equally invigorating. … She has a voice and it needs to be heard.”