Nevo Zisin, 25, is non-binary and an author and educator on transgender identity. Their mum, Sharon Swiatlo, 63, is an English teacher turned Melbourne tour guide. Despite rock-bottom times, their relationship endures.
Nevo: I was born in Caulfield into a family that was already established, with three siblings from Dad’s first marriage. Mum always wanted a girl, but I just knew my assigned gender at birth wasn’t right and, from four until nine, I presented as a boy. I’d kick and scream to be taken out of the girls’ section of shops. People would call me a drama queen and I’d say, “I’m a drama king!” I think Mum hoped it was a phase. I learnt from a young age that if I wore a dress on special occasions, she’d be happy, despite how uncomfortable I felt.
I went to a private Jewish school where I was constantly bullied for being a tomboy, being chubby, not fitting in, so from year 4 I moved to the local [Caulfield] public primary, where I made friends with some girls I’m still close to today. Once I got to high school [a co-ed Jewish school in Armadale], I tried again to be “a girl”, but having to perform every day of my life was exhausting.
In 2010, when I was 15, my parents divorced. I also came out as lesbian and became severely depressed. Mum wasn’t surprised, but I still decided to spend some time away from her, at Dad’s house, so she could process it. She was disappointed I wasn’t the person she’d hoped I would be, someone who’d get married and have kids. By year 12, I was also experiencing gender dysphoria and my partner suggested maybe I was trans. I started reading about it, things really resonated, but it felt like a tonne of bricks falling on me: I felt so much self-hatred. All I knew about being trans was the film Boys Don’t Cry, based on a true story, which ends in sexual assault and murder. I thought, “Is that my future?”
“I was in such a dark place. I said, ‘I know this is hard for you, but it’s a million times harder for me!’”
Mum didn’t react well. She said being trans was very serious and involved irreversible surgeries. She said she would always love me, I would always be her child, but it was just a lot [to process]. I thought things would get better, but they got much worse: she went through stages of denial, grief, anger and treated me like I was killing her daughter. My partner and friends were fiercely supportive, so I got them to talk to her. I was in such a dark place. I said, “I know this is hard for you, but it’s a million times harder for me! I really need my mum right now.”
Once she realised how serious things were, she came around and then we made quick strides. In 2014, I went on a gap year to Tel Aviv and began taking testosterone. Mum joined me there and it was really nice to reconnect: we had a lot of fun and [my appearance] wasn’t as much of a shock as she’d thought it would be. I’d just chubbed up a bit and got some stubble.
She seemed surprised I was the same person, but she’d also done a lot of research, reading and watching whatever she could. Trans people had so little representation in the media or books then.