Ilyas Ahmad: 'Nobody takes a second to really think about their gender'
The 28-year old trans man who is making us feel things with his poetry and bravery.
This article is based on an interview with Ilyas originally intended to be part of a video series titled ‘Conversations with…’ which never got published. As part of LGBT History Month, I decided to resurrect Ilyas’ story and share it, with the hope that it inspires someone out there.
"Hey, look! It's a lizard!"
As she turned her head towards the direction I was pointing, I swiftly leaned in and gave her a peck on the cheek. In reciprocation, my shoulder met with her disapproving fist. The look on my face had turned as blank as that space on the wall I had pointed to. Who would’ve thought she could land such a firm punch? I learned two things as an eight-year-old that day—never give unsolicited kisses, and never underestimate anyone’s strength.
Over two decades later, I find my former crush sitting across me on an antiquated, oxblood leather sofa. He has grown into such a handsome lad. Yes—you read that right, and it’s quite understandable if you are confused by the sudden change of pronouns. Between the last paragraph and this is a gulf separating the lives of Ilyas Ahmad: the skirt-wearing one I first met in the now-defunct Qiaonan Primary School—and the courageous, expressive writer who also excels in the art of the spoken word.
Ilyas and I are in a cosy music studio that I had booked at the last minute. I was pleasantly surprised with the interior before my eyes—a stark contrast to the Facebook photos which depicted more of a dingy atmosphere.
We last saw each other when we were 12, and despite that, our conversation at that moment felt to me as though the years apart never happened. We reconnected on our mutual interest of astrology, which led to him revealing: “I do tarot readings. It's fun.” Despite the ease in picking up where we left off, there is no denying that a lot has changed since.
For Ilyas, he had finally shed a skin that never felt like his and embraced a new gender identity—complete with a change of name. “As a child, I never quite adhered to the same typical interests as my other female peers. Dolls, fashion and boybands made way for wrestling, comics and card games,” he says. I could somewhat resonate; having played with Polly Pocket and gushing over Lee Ryan from the English boyband Blue.
It was a journey that took years of self-discovery on his part: “At first, the adults were more than happy to just slap on the tomboy label and call it a day,” he says. His mother on the other hand thought differently. “She was worried about what she saw as an extended phase, but she came to accept it as a part of her then-daughter.” He shrugs. “I too thought it was just that.”
He stared at the wall beside me, his face painted with a pensive brush. “Nobody takes a second to think about their gender, do they?” I never did. Though as a teenager I did attempt to enact myself as female before sleep so I could dream of dating men; the concept of homosexuality hadn’t occurred to me as possible when I was 13. He adds, “Most people just go with what the doctor tells their parents at birth, and live their happy little lives that way.”
A 2015 research had suggested that our experiences early in life can be indicative of our romantic or sexual attachment as an adult. On a gender perspective, Ilyas recounts how he already felt a disconnect to his, as a toddler. “When I was 3, I ran around my house without a shirt on, because my father did so, wearing only a sarong,” he says. “When my mother made me wear my shirt back on, she told me it was because I was a girl and that girls couldn’t do that. I didn’t think I was one.”
When puberty hit and symptoms of womanhood reared its head, Ilyas felt a certain discomfort. “I felt like I was inhabiting a body that was no longer my own,” he says. He adjusted through growing a more masculine identity and presentation in his teenage years—the same time he came to grips with his bisexuality. Being enrolled in an all-girls’ school then, his interest in girls piqued. “This was it, I thought. This was the answer to the strangeness I had been feeling as a child,” he says.
He thought wrong. At 17, he came upon the term “transgender” while browsing the internet and went down a rabbit hole which led to “a dawning sense of familiarity” for him: “It felt like something in my head clicked - that the strangeness in my flesh had a name, that this was all real and not just uncomfortable imaginings.” He met resistance upon broaching the subject with his then-girlfriend, who brushed off the idea, convincing Ilyas that he’s fine the way he was. Ilyas did not take the discussion further. “I tried to be a woman. I tried to push down the knowledge of what I knew of myself and replace it with a more palatable version of myself that everyone preferred,” he says. “I recall one time donning a dress and putting on makeup for work. Everyone complimented me for how good I looked that day, but the moment I got back, I immediately scrubbed off my makeup, feeling thoroughly disgusted with myself.”
By then, his breaking point was looming. “Eventually, I moved out - and began my transition process. The steps itself were simple enough. Calling up the doctor, arranging appointments, changing my legal name through deed poll and across social media profiles,” he says. Expecting a fallout to follow, he was instead greeted with massive end-to-end support. People celebrated him for embracing his authentic self. “That feeling of relief is something that’s still hard to top to this day.”
Still, society can be quite unforgiving about a lot of things, especially when it comes to topics about gender, sexuality, race and religion. When speaking about “society”, we refer to the groups of people who consider what is normalcy to them, without considering the perspectives, experiences and struggles of other people living in this world. This ignorance is what leads to people like Ilyas, feel like they are marginalised: “I suppose I am part of a marginalised group, being transgender, being Malay, being a part of a minority race,” says Ilyas. “There's a lot of intersectionalities there.” His statement is one that I could resonate with, being a gay, Malay man myself.
As a writer delving in various forms of prose, poetry included, Ilyas actively participates in literary events such as SingPoWriMo—Singapore Poetry Writing Month (SPWM), abbreviated—which is organised by Sing Lit Station. His writing typically surrounds themes of prejudice that are still prevalent in society and acts as an outlet for him. “I have realised my poetry comes after when I get really pissed off about something,” Ilyas adds.
In 2016, he performed a poem on the MRT titled—peppered with sarcasm, no less—Singapore Does Not Have A Race Problem. “It was about race and how we, as human beings, have a bit of a problem when it comes to opening the avenues and discussing how we are pretty racist still and all these prejudices in society and stuff,” Ilyas explains. “I think we got maybe a few dirty looks from people who found us a bit noisy and taking up space.” No physical or verbal abuse, thankfully. Just the typical Singaporean trait of complaining about petty things. Ilyas quips, “It’s public domain!”
Simply criticising and highlighting these types of issues will not help anyone, and Ilyas realises that: “What I do is that for the people that I mix around with, I try to educate them on the subject.” Nor does he only do it when the issue is being thrust upon him. “I do it when I can even in casual conversations and all.” He looks hopeful. “There's always an opportunity for anyone to learn and I am still learning as well about issues that I may not be all that well-read about.” I admire the amount of compassion and empathy this one has. Though I know well enough not to cross my fellow Aquarian. Calming waves can recede quickly from the coast and expose the ocean floor—for the uninitiated, that is a sign of an impending tsunami.
Above: 'Things Scarier than It' performed by Ilyas at Voodoo Slam. Video: Ilyas Ahmad/Youtube
When I asked if he considers himself an activist, he answers: “I wouldn't call myself an activist per se, because I think that kind of demeans the work of actual activists who put in so much of their time, heart, sweat, blood and tears into the work that they do.” Though, I think, he does put that same amount of effort in what he does. Believe what you want Ilyas, you are as respectable as any activist to me.
These days, Ilyas juggles two jobs while racing to attain his insurance license. “It’s so I can get a third job,” he says. I hope he is joking. On top of the demanding commitments, he tries to squeeze in time for side projects and collaborations. “It’s been tough and I had to keep my distance from a lot of people,” he adds. “But I need just some room to breathe.”
It’s been well over four years since Ilyas leapt to embrace his true identity, and he recently started a GoFundMe to fund his ultimate goal of going through a double mastectomy with nipple grafts. “I’m still inching my way towards living in a body that I can truly be at peace with,” he says. Binding his chest is not a long-term solution; as an asthmatic person, it has caused him breathing difficulties in the past.
While his mother still doesn’t approve his transition, he is grateful that she still recognises him as her child. “I am blessed to be surrounded by siblings who accept and love me for the brother I am to them now, and for all the friends who see me as the goofy, chill guy they know.”
The man only has one regret on his journey thus far: “If I have any regrets, it’s that I didn’t take the plunge sooner when I knew who I truly was. That being said, I wouldn’t change this for the world.”
If you like this story, don't send me a tip for the article. Instead, take a minute to fund Ilyas' dream; every little bit counts in helping him reach his $3,000 goal for top surgery. You can donate at gofundme.com
Feel free to also read my coming out story or stalk me: