Anna and Barbie eagerly began to tell me the events that led to the beginning of their friendship. One November evening about two years ago, they happened to be sat down together among mutual friends in a cafe in Prishtina.
They would have met a few days earlier, if it wasn’t for a last minute change of mind.
On the last day of October 2020, for Halloween, Barbie was to perform in a closed drag show that she co-organized and that Anna had signed up to participate in. But Anna didn’t show up. Shortly before the show she changed her mind and decided to go to a public queer event at the Termokiss social center in Prishtina. There, for the first time, Anna appeared publicly dressed as a woman, or as she said, “completely myself.”
“That’s why I always associate Halloween with meeting Barbie, as I met her a few days later,” said Anna one afternoon in April this year when I met her and Barbie. “I remember when we presented each other, I knew what I was, but I still hadn’t found my voice so I just said: ‘I am everything and beyond.'”
Sharing the enthusiasm with which Anna disclosed the beginning of their friendship, Barbie added, “It’s been so easy with Anna. The energy was there,” and that, “Soon enough we started to call each other by our names [Anna and Barbie], like we do now.”
Anna continued the story, “It happened, just like I am telling you now. I introduced myself that night, even though I had not yet publicly identified myself as Anna. But then it was enough. Let my voice be heard a little, because it’s been a long time.”
In the months after their first meeting, the two women opened up to each other and discussed all their life struggles that they had so carefully kept hidden. The pandemic lockdown measures during the had already moved almost all aspects of their life to within the confines of the home, something Anna and Barbie welcomed.
They met in the apartment Anna was renting, after having moved from Prizren to start her studies in sociology. Thus began their long and lively conversations, for which they had waited for a long time.
They switched roles, sometimes the speaker and sometimes the listener, and at the end of the night they found themselves lined up in front of the mirror doing makeup and changing into wigs, heels and dresses. For the first time, none of these activities seemed unusual to them.
The more time they spent together, the more similarities they discovered in each other. The more they untangled the threads of their intertwined experiences, the more they made sense of events that had once seemed inexplicable.
“We saw that we are on the same journey. That we are not alone,” said Anna.
One night, Barbie finally voiced a thought she had had for a long time, which before she had not dared to put into words: “I am transgender.” Anna had already known.
Barbie had met transgender women before, but Anna was the first to accept her as such and to make her want to live as a woman.
“When I met Anna, I saw that it is not impossible, that Anna is willing to go through the transition and that it could be possible for me as well. I can do it too. Through the conversations I had with her, I understood more and this influenced me to accept myself,” said Barbie.
The biological sex assigned to both of them at birth was male. Although they never felt comfortable with their bodies, they thought that what made them queer was sexual orientation and not gender identity. Many young transgender women, especially in countries where the visibility of transgender women is lacking, before self-identifying as women and girls begin their journey identifying as gay or bisexual men.
“When you’re still young and you don’t have any exposure to transgender issues, you don’t even think you can be a woman. In fact, being a gay guy is enough, and for you it’s the worst thing you can do, let alone think about gender identity,” said Barbie. “You push yourself to discover your sexuality and ignore your gender identity,” added Anna.
When they remember their hazy childhood memories, they describe themselves as being associated with toys that are traditionally considered to belong to girls — dolls, especially dolls with long hair or toys where they could experiment with make-up.
Any attempt to express her gender identity was cut short when Anna entered school.
But their desire for such toys was accompanied with the danger of being rejected by those around them. Sometimes they had to make do with any toy, even a small car, which they used as a shield from the prying eyes of others.
“It was way better to have a toy, which is seen as preferable for boys, than without any toy. Even you, as a child, start to notice that you’re making your family unhappy with your demands, and so you stop yourself,” said Barbie.
Barbie counted on her fingers the safe spaces that allowed her to temporarily escape from the everyday demands of fitting in as a boy. For her, visits to her grandparents’ house were a haven of comfort. Her grandfather usually bought her dolls, because he thought they were innocent childish requests.
For Anna, her mother was her best ally. She decorated miniature dresses for her many dolls. In fact, in her house there was some acceptance of the expression of gender identity through longer hair, clothes and even feminine bags and apparel. But any attempt to express her gender identity was cut short when Anna entered school.
“The teacher decided that longer hair was wrong, that the clothes were wrong, and so my family started putting pressure on me,” said Anna.
For Barbie as well — being a child with some noticeable feminine features — school had been no less bitter. There she was constantly the target of bullies. A rare and special occasion when Barbie felt in tune with herself was probably sometime in the fourth or fifth grade of elementary school.
“All of my friends that were girls started dancing to Rihanna’s Rude Boy. I was amazed when they started doing more ‘feminine’ hair and gestures, let’s say it in quotes. And the teacher was nodding at me, as if to confirm that I could join them. It was a good feeling, it felt like I was not judged. And I almost started doing a drag show there. A small act, but one that made me happy for a while,” Barbie recalled.
Anna, meanwhile, wasn’t more than 10 years old when the curiosity to understand why her growing body didn’t look like those of the other girls in her class led her to reading material that explained to her why the strong desire she had to present herself as a woman— her gender identity — differred to her biological sex.
“I was still a child. A child who had entered puberty too early. I fantasized about turning into a girl. When nothing happened, I started researching why I was not becoming a girl,” said Anna.
But the pressure from everyone around her to conform to gender norms and roles was stronger and more decisive than her lonely efforts to express her true gender identity. Hopeless and emotionally exhausted, Anna embraced extreme masculinity, struggling to find solace from the persistent feeling that something was wrong with her. She introduced herself and dressed as a boy, deepened her voice and tried to eradicate everything feminine in her once and for all.
“I went into toxic masculinity. I acted like macho boys. I even started to exercise to look as muscular and wide as possible. It was either a boy or there’s no going back,” said Anna.
Anna’s reaction to this comes as a result of the ongoing transphobia faced by transgender people in Kosovo and beyond. More than a decade ago, Edona James, a Kosovar transgender woman, came out publicly and revealed that she had undergone gender affirming surgery. For Anna and Barbie, Edona was the first transgender woman they had seen on television, or anywhere.
“I always imagined myself with long, red hair, because at that time it was trendy to dye your hair red. I wanted to be one of the girls, but I didn’t know it was possible and I had lost hope. Up until I saw Edona James,” said Barbie.
When public appearances are accompanied by rejection, hate speech and thousands of threats, as happened in the case of Edona James, transgender visibility also becomes a reminder of the constant dangers. For the two young women, seeing themselves through Edona they had no expectations other than her painful reality.
“I saw all that hatred for Edona. I had already been bullied a bit, both as a girl and as a gay person; called humiliating words for gay people. When Edona came out, then they also associated me with her… and so I tried to change,” said Barbie.
“I also thought that I was the only one and when I saw Edona, I saw that there was someone else like me, living their life as they felt. But then I saw the reactions and I said, I need to stop it, to suppress it,” said Anna.
Anna and Barbie spent their teenage years as two ordinary boys, far away from long hair, make-up, dresses, girls’ school uniforms, and anything that risked feminizing them. The discomfort, disturbance, fear and boredom, which they struggled with in isolation and loneliness, they tried to rationalize as a passing phase of puberty.
At the height of trying to adopt the gender identity of a young man, even becoming a model in the fashion business, the illness and shocking death of her mother sent the then 17-year-old Anna back in time. She questioned her whole existence and re-traced the dreams she had as a little girl.
“I started recognizing myself because it became very tiring. I didn’t know who I was anymore. In fact, I was nothing, until I reconnected with the child within me, with the childish Anna. I suppressed little Anna, she was not feeling comfortable now. I found the girl inside me again and this time I held on to her,” said Anna.
Anna began her social transition — when a transgender person begins to present themself with a name, pronouns, manners and expressions that match their gender identity — with a close group of friends, but she soon became one of the most distinctive faces in drag culture and LGBTQ+ activism in Kosovo. “Slowly, up until I arrived at my identity, where the hardest struggle remained. Little by little, step by step, I learned to love myself for who I am and I have no regrets. It’s been a beautiful journey, all this, reinventing myself,” said Anna.
This was the period when she met Barbie, whose name was beginning to resonate in the lively drag scene.
Performances in drag shows under the guise of deeply feminine costumes and joint commitment with other LGBTQ+ people had helped Barbie realize that she wants to be perceived more as a woman than as a gay man.
“With time, you realize that it’s not about the material components of your body. It is beyond that, because you realize that the body and soul belong to the woman, that I never felt comfortable or beautiful enough as a boy, and that I always made the girl inside me visible, somehow,” said Barbie.
“And when you see girls and other women, it seems that they have something that you want so much, but that you cannot have it because of the society you live in. It seems that they are living your life,” said Anna.
Although drag shows were among the most crucial events for both of them to affirm their gender identity, Anna and Barbie often became angry that they were reduced to being only drag queens.
“Trans and drag are two separate things and should not be mixed up,” said Barbie, referring to the difference between personal gender identity and drag shows, a temporary artistic representation.
“It bothers both of us, when we attend as an audience, a drag show and they still come straight up and ask us: ‘Will you be performing tonight?’ Do I look like a drag? When I’m only perceived as a drag queen, I’m seen as nothing but a drag queen. Like a man in a wig.”
They realized that transgender women experience much more violence.
As Anna and Barbie discovered themselves through each other and their ever-evolving relationship, the two young women simultaneously yet slowly mastered their femininity in the public sphere. When the two tall and beautiful friends went out together in some cafe or night bar, curious heads would stare and gaze in their direction.
“Look how tall these two are,’ we often get compliments,” said Barbie. “As they say in our country, ‘fill the whole door,'” Anna interrupted, laughing.
They said that being perceived as cis women — when gender identity matches the sex assigned at birth — spared them from hate speech during their routine activities.
“This is something that doesn’t happen with transgender women who look more masculine. They get negative comments. But there are many trans girls who do not come out in public because they are afraid of being insulted and feel threatened,” said Barbie.
Insecurity and fear of transphobic attacks accompanied Anna and Barbie for a long time. In addition, they realized that transgender women experience much more violence, as they are perceived as men who want to be women, within an already patriarchal system that favors men and oppresses women.
On various instances, even transgender men themselves, who are also activists for LGBTQ+ rights, have said that families, society and institutions in general are more accepting of them, who as their biological sex at birth are set as female, but identify as men in all spheres of life.
“Men with feminine characteristics are perceived worse, because society sees women worse, sees them as weak. They see us the same way, as weak. When it comes to a transgender men, it’s easier. But being a transgender girl, you are seen as a weak person,” said Barbie.
“We have to fight because we are trans and because we are women. And when you’re a transgender woman in this society, they say you’re a man who’s gone to waste. Therefore, it is very important for feminists to be activists for transgender girls as well,” said Anna.
Transgender women, as well as transgender men, encounter contempt and discrimination especially in the workplace or when searching for jobs. To cover expenses as a student and new resident in Prishtina, Anna needed a job. She applied to dozens of jobs and in most cases she encountered prejudice, insults and threats of violence.
“There were cases when in the interviews they said ‘get out’ or ‘I don’t want to employ such people.'” All I searched for was a job, but they don’t care how qualified you are or what you study. You are automatically out,” said Anna.
“The problem is that LGBTQ people who work are not visible, you can find ‘closeted’ LGBTQ who work, said Barbie. Closeted refers to people who haven’t made public their sexual orientation or gender identity.
In April, Anna was working as a waitress in a cafe in the center of Prishtina in an effort to have some economic security, which was important for her hormonal transition. Together with Barbie, they decided to start hormone replacement therapy as soon as possible, which meant taking extra estrogen, as a first step for their biological identity to be in line with their gender.
The health system in Kosovo does not provide healthcare for transgender people. Most public and private hospitals do not offer hormone therapy to transgender people, pushing them to seek hormone therapy options abroad. This means a lot of additional expenses.
Through hormone therapy, Anna and Barbie’s voices would gradually change, while their faces would take on more feminine features. Facial feminization would also reduce their gender dysphoria — the condition related to the discomfort and anxiety that accompanies the discrepancy between gender identity and the sex assigned at birth.
Anna and Barbie have often experienced gender dysphoria, particularly when they were aware that they are not perceived as women and that their masculine features were receiving attention from others.
“It’s a struggle that you still have with yourself, when someone comes to you and say ‘are you a lesbian, are you a boy, or what are you?'” said Anna.
“I often felt uncomfortable to present myself as a woman, while having short hair, or wearing clothes that are more masculine,” said Barbie.
At one point Anna and Barbie asked each other a question — If society were more accepting of gender fluidity and being non-binary, would they still have gender dysphoria and need to transition?
“At the end of the day, when you see your body in front of the mirror, you feel sad because it’s a boy’s anatomy. Dresses and makeup are inventions, things made by society. A dress is just a piece of material, but it’s not about a particular clothes but how that clothes fit your body. You still have a boyish build and this affects how comfortable you are with yourself. We are women and we don’t want to grow old as men,” said Barbie.
“We want hormone replacement therapy and the physical changes that come with it, and especially the mental stability that comes with it,” said Anna. “The mental health of transgender people is completely ignored in Kosovo, by the family, society, the state.”
Perpetuating the old debate between sociologists and academics, Anna was convinced that precisely the desire to conform to a gender open up risks of reinforcing regressive stereotypes and problematic social norms. She objected against conventional gender expectations by also adopting androgynous looks, that is, by adopting a physical appearance had both feminine and masculine characteristics.
“It doesn’t define you, the way you look, and for those of us who come out as androgynous, I think we are doing activism, because transgender people who are transitioning feel a lot of confusion and it should be made easier for them to accept themselves. And to other people, we calmly educate them that they are the problem, it’s their insecurity that they try to project onto us. On the streets, you can hear them saying things, but when you are comfortable with yourself, they can’t do anything to you. You are above them,” said Anna.
On the afternoon of July 22, the LGBTQ+ community received the sad news. Anna, 22, committed suicide. She was buried the next day, with the name she had been given at birth — one that she had fought against all her life.
Barbie is trying to find meaning and is looking for answers in the last meetings she had with Anna. She’s thinking about Anna’s facial expressions, about her reaction in one of their last phone calls, when Anna told Barbie that she had chosen a present for her 22nd birthday, which Barbie would celebrate soon. She’s thinking about the sadness Anna showed, and the sadness she had managed to hide so skillfully, and about the things she said and those left unsaid.
It brought to mind the issue of mental health, the burdens of oppression and discrimination, the depression that no one had noticed, the anxiety from gender dysphoria, the overwhelming grief about her mother’s death, the doubtfulness that she could successfully finish her transition, the skepticism that things will get better — the answer may be in all of this, together.
“She leaves many questions unanswered. On the one hand, it makes me want to continue her fight. But how can I continue fighting for someone who is no longer here? Will I be able to continue the fight for myself? I don’t know, all I know is that, being a transgender woman is a struggle in itself. I want to continue this fight, so that those who don’t want our freedom, don’t win. Especially to show girls like Anna, we deserve to continue,” said Barbie.
Feature Image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.