Growing Up Transgender and Vietnamese in Australia

Dana Pham (pronouns: who/cares)
Empowered Trans Woman
14 min readApr 6, 2019


The following memoir was originally a submission to Black Inc Books for the Growing Up Queer in Australia anthology on 30 August 2018.

Left: photo taken in pre-school. Right: photo taken at a cosplay event a few years ago (

In Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” But if you ask me why do I always insist on taking the hard road, I’ll ask you why do you assume I see two roads.

When I was 3 years old, Mum and Dad took me to a children’s wear shop in Cabramatta, in South-Western Sydney, to try on a white frilly girl’s dress. If only they intended to buy that for me. We’d been invited to a birthday party for the daughter of a family friend, and because I was roughly the same size as her, I was chosen as the model to ensure a good fit.

I felt strangely normal wearing that dress, it looked very different to what I had normally worn. I didn’t give it another thought when we left the shop, but at the back of my mind, I knew I was different to other boys, I just didn’t know what it was.

I never played with girl’s toys; boy’s toys seemed fine. Growing up I was nearly always embarrassing around girls. I struggled to relate to them. I was the nerdy chubby boy that girls loved to hate, and so I hung out with boys. I don’t think I necessarily wanted to, I simply didn’t know any better. I was also awkward around boys, but it was a less pronounced feeling. I was a shy and timid boy, not overly feminine, but enough for other kids to call me Martha instead of Arthur. I was bullied in primary and high school, and when I told a few friends in high school — in confidence — that I was transgender, the rumour mill kicked off. I vividly remember one boy telling me that he refused to believe the rumour because he knew me and it made no sense. I felt safe, but invisible.

I was an easy target at school because I didn’t know how to stand up for myself. I was the boy who cried easily. I hated it whenever an adult, especially my parents, would tell me that ‘boys don’t cry’. The more I tried to stop crying, the more I wanted to cry. My suppressed feelings were channelled into anger and fury.

My parents are conservative Catholics, and I’m their only child. They came to Australia after the Vietnam War, and brought very little with them. For years they struggled to keep a roof over our heads and put food on the table, and they didn’t want to see their only son struggle too. So, with the best of intentions, they sent me to lessons — piano lessons, tennis lessons, Vietnamese language lessons, Vietnamese martial arts lessons, activities with the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement (part Sunday school, part Scout troop), as well as copious amounts of extra tuition after school.

Tennis lessons were meant to teach me to play sports in a gentlemanly manner, like my paternal grandfather. Involvement in the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement was to ensure I grew up to be a good Catholic man. My parents had hoped that I would excel academically and study a respectable undergraduate degree at a prestigious university. They wanted to set me up for a nice white-collar job, marriage and children — grandchildren for my parents to look forward to. But I didn’t follow the path my parents had laid for me. I tried, but my heart said no all the time, and my mind said no most of the time. I laid my own path, and walked the journey of self-discovery.

I started crossdressing during primary school, secretly playing with my mother’s collection of clothes. I didn’t understand why I started, all I knew was that it felt right, but the world saw it as wrong. It became more frequent as years went by and when I was 11 years old, I started to say to myself, ‘I feel like a girl’. No one told me what to do, what to say, or gave me ideas. It just happened. It didn’t matter that I looked weird, or that my Mum’s clothes were too big. It felt right.

One day, my parents caught me red-handed. I can’t remember my parents’ reaction clearly, it’s a painful memory. All I remember was that my parents shamed me for crossdressing, and I was in tears. It didn’t feel like crossdressing, it felt like I was trying to figure out how to dress properly as a girl. Wearing boy’s clothes had started to make me feel like I was crossdressing. That wasn’t the last time I was caught. Every time, I was made to promise that it wouldn’t happen again. My parents eventually sounded like a broken record, and I was breaking records on broken promises.

As I started high school, I became even more awkward around girls. I really wanted to hang around girls, but still didn’t know how to relate to them. Conversations were a struggle at best, and a wreck at worse. I had a few political arguments with a girl I had a crush on, and gave her a nastygram on one occasion and a tasteless critique on another. So I was left with boys. While I related to the boys I hung out with, it didn’t feel natural.

Fights with my parents became more frequent, and I was throwing tantrums in the classroom and getting into fights with other boys, constantly losing control of my temper. My gender dysphoria worsened during high school. The more I lived as a boy, the more my dysphoria ate my mind and time. I wasn’t immediately fond of my changing body, but it made my body dysphoria slightly more bearable. It was my social dysphoria that kept getting worse. I wanted to dress as a girl, change my name, and have the world see me as a girl.

But I felt that the world would frown upon a social transition, and I thought I had no choice. On mufti days and during school camps I dressed androgynously. Some comments about my clothes would be passed around, but it didn’t go much further than that. I was seen as a quirky metrosexual.

Every time I went to shop for clothes, I felt embarrassed walking around in the women’s wear sections. On one occasion, a customer service representative made fun of my taste in clothes, and on another, a random guy laughed at me while I was minding my own business. Inside, I was crying for help. I wanted someone to tell me that they knew I was trans, and that it was okay for me to present as a girl. Invisibility and stigma were tearing me apart.

For a while, I didn’t know about gender identity disorder — as it was called then — and for a long time I thought I was the only person in the world who felt the way I felt. I was almost 15 years old when I first overheard someone yelp the word ‘transsexual’ in the schoolyard. Google was becoming a thing, so I Googled ‘transsexual’, only to be disappointed by the sexually explicit search results. But I persisted, and dug deeper. The standout discovery was Lynn Conway’s ‘Transsexual Women’s Successes’ website. The stories detailed weren’t cruisy, but reading them mesmerised me. They spoke of my struggle, I identified so strongly with them that I finally realised I was a (pre-transition) woman.

This realisation was all good and well, but unfortunately I was gutless. I regret not daring to grow my hair, turn up to school in the girl’s uniform, and hold the line. I regret not dressing in a more feminine manner outside of school. I settled for dressing in female-labelled clothes that looked androgynous. Because my parents disapproved of my crossdressing, I would often leave home wearing boy’s clothes, and then change into girl’s clothes in a public restroom. Once my day out and about was done, I’d have to go back there to change again before heading home.

What I resorted to was humiliating. It shouldn’t have mattered to me what people thought of my crossdressing, or if I placed myself at risk of violence. It would have hurt no one, and it would have made me feel more at peace. But I chickened out. Using social pressure as an excuse doesn’t cut it; progress does not happen by waiting for others to take the lead. But having your mother constantly asking ‘is your head telling you to do this?’ makes you doubt much more than you should.

During the lead-up to my trans realisation, I was sent to the school counsellor because of my behavioural problems. I wasn’t happy about it at first, but it became apparent that I needed an adult I could vent to and seek guidance from, someone away from the classroom and home. I was fortunate that I had someone who was willing to talk with me during tough times. She helped me with referrals to see psychologists, and eventually a psychiatrist, about my gender dysphoria. However, this was a few years before trans children had started to become visible in the media. Despite my pleas for help, I was under 18 and my parents disapproved of my wish to transition.

Counselling and psychotherapy were offered instead, which felt like dancing around the solution. My life prior to transition was incredibly miserable. I was under a lot of pressure to make counselling and psychotherapy work, which only exacerbated my dysphoria and made my sense of worth nosedive. This felt like unbridled psychological abuse; it disrupted my friendships, studies, and social development, not to mention my relationship with my parents.

It came as no surprise that, while I did exceptionally well in Year 7, my academic performance deteriorated year after year, and it was sad to see my parents become less and less proud of their son. I began truanting during school hours, and skipping after-hours tuition lessons. I dreaded parent-teacher interviews — there was usually that one interview where I would be criticised for dropping the ball on homework. Instead of talking about the dysphoria that heavily impacted my performance, and which my father was well aware of, he would berate me for every single criticism I received from my teachers after the interviews. My soul was crushed every time. I felt so ashamed that I had allowed my dysphoria to affect my grades at school.

It wasn’t just academic underperformance that lessened my sense of worth. I lost my will to play tennis in early high school. When my father felt my coach wasn’t tough enough he took over, berating me as my tennis got worse and worse. I could see in my father’s eyes that I had failed him. I was never that good at tennis and deep down, I didn’t want to play. Eventually, he took the hint. While he probably saw a son who failed to meet his expectations of a man, I saw in myself the daughter that he didn’t have, and will probably never truly have.

Dysphoria dominated nearly every waking moment of my teenage years. I needed a form of escape to deal with it, and became addicted to computer games, playing for hours on end almost every day. On the surface it felt like it was easing my pain and suffering, but this easing felt fake. I chose a female avatar whenever I could, and while I felt better, I hated it at the same time — it felt like a caricature. With a sense of desperation I played a virtual dress-up game, where I could drag and drop clothes onto paper doll-like images, but it was agonising — I longed to be as pretty as the dolls.

My parents discouraged me from transitioning, telling me that I had to wait until I was 18 before I could start hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and general gender transition. Then they argued that I would get bullied at university, and that I should wait until afterwards. I could tell they were disappointed that I had only made the cut for University of Western Sydney, but their new priority seemed to be to delay my transition. I had started on testosterone blockers two years before full transition, and they tried to tamper with my blockers so that my daily dosage would be lower without me knowing. They also tried to make contact with my endocrinologist to abuse him for prescribing blockers for me, even though by then I was 20 years old.

At university I was learning to interact with women, and I found my first best female friend. I wasn’t bullied at university, before or after transition.

With the blockers and my apparent metrosexuality in full swing, I felt at peace every time I was mistaken for a woman with short hair. People remarked that the vibe I gave in social interaction was increasingly female, which was effortless on my part.

At the age of 21, I was desperate, I had had enough of being miserable, and I ended my gender incarceration. I started full HRT, grew my hair, changed my name, and dressed the way I wanted to dress. I received nothing but support from those around me, but only little support from my parents. They didn’t kick me out of the family home, but the fights between us became more frequent and uglier. While transition allowed me to start finally being me, a twenty-one-year developmental delay didn’t just mean getting on with life — I had lots of catching up to do — to find out who I was as a woman now that my inside and outside matched.

I assumed that I was a straight woman, because most women are more or less straight, and I looked like a straight woman. I must be part of the majority, I thought to myself. I had never dated anyone prior to transition, and I thought I was attracted to women when I was trying to live the male gender. I also assumed that I was just envious of women, which was what all that attraction was, or so I thought. I tried online dating, and before long I met Myles and quickly fell in love. He is my first boyfriend, and probably my last.

My gender dysphoria was easing, and I happily committed myself to a supportive relationship, leaving me with more time and energy. I became a volunteer at my local NSW State Emergency Service unit. Very early in my transition, I was afraid of giving sports a try, for fear of being found out and then excluded from women’s sports, more so because of my initial lack of confidence in my new gender presentation. Slowly, but surely, I steeled myself to give it a crack, and I’m happy that I did. I’ve tried and played a number of different sports since transition including windsurfing, European handball, and badminton. When I was playing Euro handball, nearly all of the women I played with were rougher, faster and stronger than I was. I didn’t mind, it wasn’t as if I was playing professionally.

In a weird way, my mediocre sporting ability compared to other female players gave me a sense of validation about my gender, and assurance that my HRT was working well. Still, when I play sports with women, the debate surrounding transwomen’s participation in women’s sports is always in the back of my mind. The irony between my mediocre ability and the debate never ceases to amaze me. I wish I had the courage to be openly trans in the sporting scene but because of these complex circumstances I am not. Maybe one day I can completely overcome my fear of ostracisation. Or perhaps I’m so far down my transition, that my medical history is of little relevance anyway.

It was Myles who introduced me to anime and manga, which ignited my interest in cosplay. Anime and manga allow the relatively free exploration of gender and gender expressions. Sometimes it’s tasteless, but sometimes the creativity brings a smile to my face. To complement this treat, I cosplayed passionately for a few years, at one point it was borderline obsession. It was never really about cosplaying my favourite anime characters. It was always about cosplaying female and crossdressing male characters whose costumes I fell in love with. Some of my cosplay outfits were cool, some were lovely, but they always gave me an opportunity to express my femininity in a creative way.

In 2010, the Australian Defence Force cancelled its policy governing the management of transgender personnel. The year after, I contacted Defence Force Recruiting (DFR). Applying to join so soon after the policy change meant that DFR and I put in considerable work to ascertain my suitability to join Defence, and rightly so. It challenged my resolve and patience, but I have no regrets. Three years after putting in my first application, I joined the Royal Australian Air Force as a Personnel Capability Officer.

Prior to joining, I was working in accounting, which naturally, I found to be just as uninspiring as working for ultimately, the bottom line. I wanted to be a small part of an organisation that does important things that the Australian people could be proud of. I thought that if I proved my merit in that small way, my trans status wouldn’t matter. And it didn’t matter to Defence, but just before I left home for initial training, I stopped being open about being trans. I more or less kept quiet about my trans status for most of my first year in Defence. I was afraid of what people would think of me if they found out. I was so used to being openly trans, the new silence was suffocating.

It turned out that my silence was unnecessary. Slowly, but surely, I steeled myself to come out to a handful of people, then another handful, then some more. Then eventually, I was openly trans again, with zero consequences in the workplace, or socially. I vowed to never to be so irrational again.

Choosing Defence life is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and I don’t intend to leave soon. I haven’t done anything extraordinary during my time, but Defence has put me through trials, which were necessary and worth going through, and which I wouldn’t have experienced anywhere else. This has made me a very different person, and for the better. I’ve been afforded plenty of opportunities to push my leadership ability and resolve to new limits. I’ve formed friendships in Defence that have made me the woman I am today.

You’d think that at this rate, I would have stopped growing up queer a while ago — that the queer question was answered once I settled down with Myles. I thought the same, until recently. At time of writing, I have been with Myles for over 7 years. It’s been a wonderful and life-changing 7 years, and I don’t regret one moment of it. I think I’ve always known that I’m attracted to feminine women, but have always managed to find an excuse not to explore my sexuality properly. First was my pre-transition thinking that it was envy, then it was my simplistic assumption about who I am post-transition.

I did some unintentional self-exploring this year before it became blatantly obvious to me — I am a femme lesbian, and I’ve been a lesbian (at least at heart) for a very long time. With everything that’s happened in my life, it was easy to overlook the sexuality closet I was in. I eventually came out to Myles, and as a result, the nature of our relationship is changing. It’s been emotionally difficult for the both of us, after all, it’s been a very good 7 years. At time of writing, Myles and I are still navigating this change in circumstance together.

Perhaps if I had been assigned female at birth, I would have started out life as a tomboy before growing out of it, and perhaps I would have discovered my lesbian orientation by my teenage years. I’ve learned that self-exploration is a lifelong process that’s important even after gender transition. What I was interested in five years ago isn’t the same as my interests now. It’s the sort of personal growth I wished I had experienced in my previous male life, but obviously couldn’t.

I’m still growing up queer in Australia, in my early thirties. Being queer doesn’t define me, but it’s shaped the kind of woman I am today. The trials, followed by tribulations, were unpleasant, but I endured. Hopefully I am the most humble I can be because of my life experience, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. I don’t know for sure what the future holds, but I know that there will always be light at the end of the tunnel, even if I don’t see it yet.

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Dana Pham (pronouns: who/cares)
Empowered Trans Woman

Trans-inclusionary radical feminist (TIRF) | Liberal Arts phenomenologist from @notredameaus | Anglo-catholic | all opinions expressed here are my own