My brother would lock me outside the house: Alina Khan on growing up as a trans person in Pakistan

Actor is proud that her character Biba, who shares the same identity as her, won her an award at Cannes


Entertainment Desk October 05, 2022

The Cannes honour was just the beginning for Saim Sadiq’s Joyland. The film, which is all set to release in Pakistan on October 18, has won several standing ovations and awards since and is now officially Pakistan’s entry for Oscars 2023. Joyland explores the journey of a middle-class patriarch desiring a grandson from his youngest child Haider, who ends up becoming a background dancer for a transgender performer, Biba, played by Alina Khan, and eventually falls in love.

While the film won critical acclaim from across the world, its main character Alina’s journey to stardom has been anything but easy – the case with most transgenders in Pakistan. With conversations surrounding The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act of 2018, an old interview of Alina with The Pakistan Experience has now resurfaced, in which she details how traumatic and insulting it was to grow up in a transphobic society. From her family to neighbours, she faced discrimination and humiliation for who she was; something she had no control over.

Alina, who was raised as a boy at home, shared how she felt when a passerby first called her a “khusra” and the family remained silent about it. “When I was 16 years old, I didn’t really know who I was. I knew I had feminine traits, I liked dressing up as a girl and I liked playing with them instead of boys but by this time, people started noticing,” she said. “One night, we were all watching TV and a guy walked past our house and yelled ‘Oye khusre’ [Aye, transgender] and it was very loud. My mom, my brother and my sister all looked at me. I knew it was targeted at me and I felt so embarrassed. It upset me a lot that I’m insulted at home already but now people outside will do the same. ”

Another instance she shared was how her family slowly started to isolate her and became ashamed of being seen with her in public. “I used to always accompany my sister to get groceries but when I got a little mature, things changed. This one time my sister told my mom that she wants to go to the market and my mom asked her to take her brother [Alina] along. She said, ‘No, why would I take him with me? People will not only watch him but also me.’ At that time, I understood what she meant by that.”

Alina went on to add how it was initially very hurtful to deal with all the negative comments, slurs and discrimination against her but she decided to ignore what people said and embrace who she was because frankly, she had no other choice. “I asked myself to stop pretending. I am who I am, I can’t change it, can I? For how long will I keep dealing with it? I can at least be who I am openly when everyone knows anyway.”

Fond of dancing as a kid, Alina went on to add how she lied her way into getting into a dance academy. She would have two hours to spare after school and other routine activities and she chose to dance during that time without telling her family. The Darlings actor, who had a curfew time of 9 pm at home, would sometimes get late because of the time slots at her academy.

“Sometimes it would get to 10 pm or 10:30 pm and when I’d knock on the door, my sister would yell from inside, ‘agaya khusra tawda puttar, kholo darwaza’ [your transgender son is here, open the door] and so our neighbours would also hear and know that a transgender lives in the house. Sometimes it was also the case where I’d spend the whole night pulling the doors and banging on them for someone to open it,” she said, holding back her tears.

Alina shared that this is just one of the major tragedies in her life. “My brother slept near the door while my parent's room was a little further in the house and he would not open the door on purpose. I’d spend the whole night outside, walking on the streets, confused as to why this was happening to me.”

Despite all that society did to her, she remained hopeful and wanted to have an identity that speaks more than her gender — and she did. Alina is now an international star starring in Darling and Joyland, movies that have won awards all over the world.

But even when she was reaching heights for her work, she was skeptical of telling her family about the characters she played in the films she won internal praise for. “When Joyland got selected for Cannes, that was the first time I told my mom about the film, and she was happy.  I even put up a WhatsApp status and the first thing my brother asked me was what I’m playing. I said I’m the main lead but I hesitated and was embarrassed to tell him that I’m playing a trans dancer because I was afraid they’ll make fun of me like old times.”

The last message she had was how important acceptance is, especially from parents — and she wishes her film, Joyland, brings some change in mentality regarding trans people across Pakistan.

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