The Art of Living with a Suit of Thorns: reflections of a conversion therapy survivor

Abigail Silversmith Irfan
7 min readOct 13, 2021

originally published at the sangya project

As I am writing this, I share space with two people who are hostile to me. I have been living in situations that resemble this for 25 years now. Shit’s scary… almost always is. If anyone is to read this from here on out, do know that the contents of this piece is probably going to be extremely disturbing to read. Thought I’d give a not-so-nice beginning so that you know that there be demons in the words to come. I will not censor myself here.

Let’s go back 11 years into the past. It’s mid july, mom and dad came to me and said “ hey … we want to take you to a place where they’re going to make your life better” or something along those lines. They took me to a place where I would spend the next three months in a supposed psychiatric institution where they would ignore all my pre-existing psychiatric conditions and subject me to repeated physical, emotional and sexual violence.

They shot me up with high doses of testosterone, electrocuted me and did things to me I do not want to say. Those were the days where I saw a person take their own life right in front of me. What can one do but go on with it, right? I had a guard rape me there. I went on. I had people molest and rape me in almost every single institution I’ve been in before I moved out of my state. But I took it all in and moved on — they put this program in my head, that I deserve all I got, because of the “monster” that I am. My way of existing was monstrous — so what do I deserve but the monstrous monstrosities?

I still am like that… when a person on tinder says something transphobic or transmisogynistic, I kinda feel like I deserve it, while fully knowing that I don’t ( small digression, but I can tell you the brief history of online transphobia of the past 15 years in detail that you might not be comfortable with… 10 points for self harm … what fun! /j). What I am trying to say is that conversion therapy changes people, not in the way that the proponents of it claim, but in a way that will make you want to kill yourself, as I have tried to, multiple times.

I remember reading Leelah Alcorn’s suicide note. I also remember seeing Anjana Harish’s video note. And the press reports that followed both of them. I see how hollow the words of these pieces are, spare a few — how they reduce the act of torture to something along the lines of a bad therapist’s visit. Y’all don’t know how it feels like… and it fucking shows. I saw a video of a guy saying horrifying things about Anjana… this dude, possibly a cisgender heterosexual man, and the people of his ilk, are the reason why our sisters Leelah and Anjana are not with us anymore. I still remember Leelah’s tumblr blog… there is a community archived version that keeps alive. Rest in power lazerprincess and anju… You will be missed.

I do not know if i can begin to say how deeply I have been affected… but I am going to try anyway.

To start, I am scared of sex. Like whenever I think about sex with someone, remanants of what they did to me creep in… like a shards that erupt from a shotgun, they pierce through my body. I am terrified of even saying someone looks attractive, let alone telling them they look hot. The post-torture state of mind, at least as far as my experience goes, is of shame, fear and nightmares, something elegantly shortened to 5 letters — CPTSD.

Also, it doesn’t help that I am a lesbian trans woman. After being called estrogenated heterosexual men who should be morally mandated out of existance by transphobic feminists, it sort of hits you like a truck… makes you think, at least in the beginning that maybe the “doctors” and the priests were right… that I was indeed a monster. I will not go into the nitty gritty of transmisogyny in lesbian spaces… many trans lesbian and bisexual women I admire, including but not limited to Drew Gregory, Sandy Stone, Susan Stryker and Julia Serano, have written about it in elaborate detail. Go read them. Till now, I have only had sex once without having a panic atack… and I have had lots… fuck, I miss my ex. I have had consensual sex a total of 34 times… so doing the math, that means in 97 percent of my consensual sexual experiences, I have been distressed rather than pleasured.

Fucking can be fucking scary sometimes.

I have been blessed with a (ex)girlfriend who was very caring in the bedroom to the extent of making me safe. Fear may always be etched into my mind with respect to sex… it was the first emotion I was made to feel about it, even before I knew what it was. I want to be unashamed, but I am chained to the seventh circle of shame and there be demons I need to fight to get out… and it’s lonely out here. I get that people are sometimes terrified of my past but I wish they’d just say that straightforward and not use euphemisms. I am fully aware of the horrors I contain within, so I won’t judge you for staying away from them. Does it hurt? Hell yeah it does… but I know where you’re coming from.

I am also terrified of using language that has sexual connotation — “sexy”,”hot”…. Me saying these words just stab me with every utterance, like I have committed a cardinal sin. If i find someone hot, I usually revert to words like “cute” and “pretty” although I wanna say “you’re so hot your black body radiation peaks in the gamma region” even when we are on the 5th date. I try to make attempts to get over this, and I realise that how this experience is shared by a lot of other queer women. I am terrified of looking like this monstrous predatory trans woman that the TERFs bring along. I try to mask my terror and shame with performances. I am a decent theatre person, I’d like to believe.

When you kiss me,

Do so gently first

For me, kisses hurt

When you fuck me

Be kind and sweet

For i’ve never had that for most of my life

When you hold be,

Help me with these thorns

It’s hard to take them all by myself

When you love me

Tell me you do

It’s hard to see with the war in my head

Fear is frightening. Tautology is helpful sometimes. I do not know what the world holds for me. I do not know what I hold for myself. I remember Susan Stryker’s words in her essay My words to Victor Frankenstein above the village of Chamounix performing Transgender rage-

“If this is your path, as it is mine, let me offer whatever solace you may find in this monstrous benediction: May you discover the enlivening power of darkness within yourself. May it nourish your rage. May your rage inform your actions, and your actions transform you as you struggle to transform your world.”

I am in rage — that my life is still in flames, but as the lesbian avengers once said when eating fire, I the fire within me, I take it and make it my own. I use it to heal, although that is a project that will take me years. I use it to try to be kind, for I know what lies in the absence of kindness. I will use it to flirt, kiss and make love furiously and with passion.

However they have tried to erase me, they have failed, like with countless others. I extend my love to everyone who has survived violence because of who you are. We deserved better. We live in a country where love is dealt with physical violence — honor killings , conversion therapy and a plethora of other things. Those of us who belong to the margins are forced to hide our love or pay for it. We need to accept this for what it is — torture and medical incarceration. Abolition of prisons require the abolition of those justified by the religious and medical and caste-based fraternities.

Recovery sucks. But still, thank fuck I am not rich enough to drink every time I feel sad. Thank fuck for NIMHANS because I don’t know if I could have afforded any other place. Thank fuck for other queer people, especially the friendly folks in the actuallesbians subreddit — y’all made me comfortable in both my womanhood and my lesbian self (inclusive lesbian spaces can save lives and r/actuallesbians is the proof)… thank you for making me a (mostly) happy raptor. Thank fuck for my queer family. Y’all are the reason I’m alive. Thank fuck for all those who loved me, for your love helped me heal.

To all those on the way to recovery, I send you violets, like Sappho did to the ones she loved. May our journeys from hell be blessed with love.

I end here for now. Maybe I will write more… maybe I won’t…

Now if y’all will excuse me, I’ve got screaming to do.

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