Actress, Activist & Trans Woman Maya Jafer On Her Global Journey To Find Her True Self

A still image from Maya’s interview in NQAPIA’s ‘Uncovering Our Stories’ series.

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Every so often, a TV comes along that completely changes the way we think of the world and about people. These are the shows that shift culture in immeasurable ways that remind us why media and entertainment are powerful. When ‘Transparent’ debuted on Amazon in 2014, it became a breakthrough show about the lives of transgender individuals, specifically a parent named Maura played by Jeffrey Tambor, and for the first time offered visibility to the trans community in a way that was humanizing, flawed, realistic and nuanced. Among the show’s many cast members were real trans folks who played recurring or guest roles, all of whom intersected with Maura and her family. In season 1, an episode titled ‘The Letting Go’ featured an trans woman cast member named Maya Jafer, whose own personal story is a reminder of why we need more trans visibility and awareness of the struggles the transgender community faces worldwide

Maya Jafer (front row, second from left) with ‘Transparent’ cast and crew

Maya grew up in India, has lived in a number of different countries, and today resides in Los Angeles. She has a medical background and has had quite a successful career. But growing up in a small, conservative Indian town, she also had aspirations of becoming an actress, having been starstruck by a number of Bollywood icons in her childhood. Maya has been very open about her story, growing up as a boy and young man struggling with her identity within a traditional family setting and a community that adhered to strict gender roles. Her story was the subject of a documentary called ‘Mohammed to Maya’, directed by Jeff Roy, as well as part of the Amazon docu-series ‘This Is Me’ which showcases the difficulties many transgender people face everyday. Each episode features a new set of trans people telling their own personal stories, and the show covers a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives in its attempt to give the viewer a more complete and accurate picture of the trans community. 

Right now we are seeing some encouraging activism and advocacy around the trans community globally, but there is also policy backlash that is threatening to undo the many gains being made. As a trans woman, Maya is part of one of the most severely ostracized & marginalized communities around the world today. She has a very interesting, shocking, inspiring & fun life story to tell. We had the opportunity to speak one-on-one with Maya to learn more about the struggles and challenges she faced growing up, and why she chooses to speak up as an advocate today. 

Tell us about your upbringing in India.

I was born and raised in Madurai, Tamil Nadu south India, and I come from a very religious, Muslim family. I was born as a boy and I was the middle sibling, I have an older brother and younger sister. My upbringing was very strict and religious – we were Muslim and conservative. I remember my brother would make fun of me and he remembers how my parents would beat me up physically and emotionally abuse me when I was very little, especially when I was playing with my mother’s scarfs or doing anything considered feminine. They were constantly discouraging me to be feminine and encouraging me to be more masculine. It was imprinted in my mind that being feminine is wrong. I was naturally very feminine. I was always a female at mind heart and soul. I just was born in the wrong body. But these are things I realized much later in life.

I grew up with a lot of classmates teasing me for how girlish I was. Because we were an Indian traditional Muslim family, it was about making sure the daughter or sister knows how to cook and clean and be a good housewife, be a good girl, be feminine etc, which my sister was none of. She just never really knew what it meant to be feminine, she just was a typical tomboy. Since I was 5 years older than her I took it upon me to make her feminine, telling her how to braid her hair, especially if we went to a wedding or an event. So I lived my femininity through her. My role models have always been beautiful successful Bollywood actresses and dancers such as Hema Malini, Sridevi, Madhuri Dixit. Those were the people I wanted to be like.

I could never really voice my experience or my feelings, and it didn’t even occur to me that I could reason with anyone or try to make a space for myself that I am just naturally feminine. In a few years time, even though I couldn’t really say it out loud to myself because of the brainwashing, it was very clear to me that I was a girl not a boy. In India the culture at that time was the boys stick to the boys and the girls stick to the girls, and you have to maintain that big difference in society.

When did you start coming out to friends and family? 

Coming out to my friends and family didn’t happen until after I transitioned, which began at the age of 39 and I started living as a woman at 40, and actually had my gender reassignment surgery at the age of 41 in the year 2011. 

When did you first know you were transgender?

Initially I thought maybe i’m gay because that was my first experience. I read in a magazine about a gay rights activist in India. I was probably 14 or 15 at the time. In the magazine there was an article about an actor, Deepak Parashar, and people were talking about how he was gay and “out”. In those times it was unacceptable. So that’s when I thought, “maybe I am gay” because I was very attracted to guys. Over time, I met a transgender woman who are considered Hijras in North India. We met on a movie set, a film about a Eunuch. Typically most people would be disgusted by her, but I kind of empathized with her. So that was my first experience. And then after that I met a transgender classical Indian dancer, and that’s when I began to realize that that’s actually me. That was who I am.

But it was a sad fact and reality to me, because I had seen the plight of the transgender woman – the were looked down upon, they were considered disgusting, they were shunned, mocked, they were seen as monstrous and evil. That’s why I kept it hidden for so long. Not only did I come from a strict muslim area where it was completely unacceptable, where people wouldn’t consider such things let alone say it out loud, society in general was very anti-gay, anti-trans. As I grew up I went to Bombay and on my way I saw some Hijras and they were begging and being very aggressive as those in Bombay are – they force passengers to pay them or they curse them or show their genitals. These were my initial exposures of what it meant to be trans. And so obviously I was completely dead against the idea, even though I knew deep inside that is exactly how I feel. It scared the shit out of me that I would be one of them. 

How did you keep it hidden for so long? Was it tough?

Yes. But it was such a part of me because ever since I could remember I was brainwashed to think that anything feminine was wrong, so it was kind of a habit.

When did you first find a trans community you could feel comfortable with being yourself around?

Never inIndia. I moved to the United States on a student visa to do my second doctorate in natural medicine at the age of 30 which was in 2000. By 2003 I had made some friends in Seattle Washington. A few of them were transgender and one of them was a lesbian and she recognized the feminine in me. By this time I knew that I was transgender.

Maya Jafer on the set of the ‘Only One’ project

Was there a lot of acceptance for the trans community in 2003, even in Seattle?

Yes. Seattle was very trans positive and even has a larger trans community than any other city outside of California. The second biggest would be New York or Los Angeles. I made friends with the lesbian and was able to share with her that maybe I’m transgender, but I don’t want to do anything about it, I’m too scared. She took me to a transgender support group, which was my first time seeing a bunch of primarily caucasian trans women. They were very supportive and nice. At that point I decided that at some point I’m going to transition. I met with a trans man, we became friends, he supported me. I asked a lot of questions. He also let me know very clearly that it is not an easy thing to do, meaning to transition or even come out as transgender. Because it requires hormone therapy and your life changes in every way.

Even though you grew up having aspirations of being an actor, you ended up studying medicine? 

Yes. The only way I could be taken seriously or be respected was through education, which I learned very quickly. My brother and sister were bad students. But was the nerd. I went to a school which was known to bring about professional doctors and engineers etc. When I graduated from there at the age of 18, I then got admission into a homeopathic medical college in Tamil Nadu. I desperately wanted to be a doctor because by then it was imprinted in my mind just through my school surroundings, that was the ticket to a better life, more respect etc and be taken more seriously. To be seen as someone who is noble and worthy. I started attending the college in Seattle in the year 2000.

Maya Jafer is featured in the ‘Born Human’ documentary

How did you first get recognition from others, being a trans woman?

After graduating I was volunteering and teaching in a buddhist organization which primarily helps poor people, giving them free treatment. Over there the chief guru, from the moment he saw me he recognized the feminine in me, and of course I was still living very much as a straight guy. But he gave me the name Maya. And Maya is Buddha’s mother’s name, which is Maya Devi. And Maya has different meanings in different cultures and religions. In buddhism it means love and nurturing. I of course never came out or did anything with the name until much later in my life. So that was the first recognition that I got as a woman. He didn’t even call me trans, he called me a girl. I never saw myself as “trans”, I always saw myself as a girl, I just happened to be trans.

How did the gender reassignment surgery come about?   

After I graduated from my second doctorate in natural medicine, I moved to San Francisco for a year but I didn’t really like it. Then I eventually moved to Los Angeles in 2005. LA was the place for me because aside from being a doctor I was an actor, in fact my main passion was always to be a successful actor. As the years passed by, my depression had now become severe and clinical. Although I was working full-time, I felt I was just going through life with no hope. In 2008, when I was 38, the financial crisis hit, and many people lost their jobs including me. Now I had a lot more time on my hand to deal with my depression.

Image of Maya from the ‘Mohammed to Maya’ documentary

I reached a point where I was going to commit suicide. I was so unhappy. I decided I need to see a therapist. So I went to the Los Angeles LGBT center, which by the way is the biggest of its kind in the world. The first day I met my therapist I let her know that I’m transgender but we’re not going to talk about that and I’m not going to transition so don’t even bring that up. What we are going to talk about is how much I hate my father and how he abused me and how depressed I am. Those were my conditions. Eventually she somehow convinced me to at least go and attend a transgender support group which was a free group in the same center. 

Eventually Maya found the resources and information to get the gender reassignment surgery she had decided on, in Thailand. Her procedure was documented in the now award-winning film ‘Mohammed To Maya’, which showcases not just her surgery but how Maya decided to start sharing her story as a way to break down stigma, especially in her native country of India. Despite the struggles she has faced throughout her life, Maya’s journey is a testament and inspiration to what can happen when you embrace your journey and lean in to the power it may have in the world. You can watch an interview with Maya and filmmaker Jeff Roy below where they talk about their partnership on this film and the message they hope to share with audiences.

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