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Coming from abroad, falling between the cracks

by Maya Chew

I arrived at the dimly lit Heathrow in the dead of winter.

“You have a good day, sir,” said the immigration officer as I first set foot on the English soil. 

No! Not again. Why? Most of my documents are written in my “preferred” name and gender. In fact, my university was great at accommodating my trans female identity. I was elated when I received my student ID with the name Maya printed on it. The NHS was equally as good. Beyond that, the world legally sees me as a man.

I don’t want my name to just be a ‘preferred name’ nor my gender to be a ‘preferred gender.’ They aren’t just ‘preferred’, it is who I am as a person. Perhaps, I wanted validation, and to stop explaining myself unnecessarily to strangers.

Maya standing outside a Buddhist temple.

I grew up in a mid-sized tropical country in Southeast Asia called Malaysia. It is supposedly one of the most diverse countries in the world. Regarding biodiversity? Yes. Ethnically, somewhat true depending on who you ask. For gender and sexuality? Not at all. So, what if you are physically transitioning? It’s a complicated, almost impossible process. I am glad I will not be persecuted like my Muslim friends. Yet I still encounter legal barriers to the recognition of my name and gender.

So here I am in England, with half-hearted recognition by this country. I knew I wanted to consolidate my identity, so I attempted to change all the documents to reflect my updated name and gender. When I went to NatWest, the customer service officer explained, “your student ID card is not valid as a reference document. We need something official like a government-issued ID.” 

How dare you! You’re making money out of my savings anyway! They insisted that they could not do anything. So, I left, feeling dejected.

I began researching the Home Office website to look at the process of changing my gender and ID on my Biometric Residence Permit (BRP). It seemed possible because there is an exception that allows for transgender individuals from countries with transphobic governments to change their name on BRP even if their passports remained unchanged. Which countries? It’s really open to interpretation.

So, I read the clauses again a few weeks later, and again months later. What was the problem? There were just too many conditions and bureaucratic hoops I was not familiar with. For instance, I didn’t know what a Deed Poll was. Do I get the enrolled or unenrolled version of it? If it is the former, how do I get legal help? How much would it cost? 

All that and more on top of the £180.20 fee. That’s about £16 per letter of my name and for flicking from M to F in the ID. Naturally, I asked for help from some charities, and new friends with access to legal entities, hoping that they’d have some answers. They generally do if one is a British citizen or a refugee or an asylum seeker. I was none of those. I fell through the cracks. I felt like Victor Navorski in The Terminal.

I sat on this for a while until I was misgendered again. This time, I picked myself up and tirelessly spent several days getting my friends to sign my unenrolled deed poll, raised enough money, and gambled with the process. Finally, it’s happening. 

Photo of Maya, who is sitting on a sleeper train.

Like an algorithm gone bad, I knew it wasn’t going to be the easiest process. I had to get biometrics taken. Knowing my luck, I was never going to be able to do the immediate verification through the UKVCAS app. Instead, I had to travel to the nearest UKVCAS center in Cardiff which was quite far from where I lived. The privatized UKCVAS office would charge quite exorbitantly for one to schedule the most immediate appointment. As an income-deprived student, I decided to opt for the free service which would not be for another month. The staff there were nice to me upon learning my situation. 

Finally, I’ve gone through the process. This is it. I got an email that read: 

“…details have not changed on your passport, we cannot replicate your new name and gender onto a new BRP Card.”

I cried a little. This wasn’t the story I was hoping for. It was also a lot of money. I was a little upset because this came from a country that is trying to promote equality. 

So, I wrote a 500-word essay in response to the decline. I was content with the fact that I’ve tried, and I was done with it regardless of the outcome. A few days later, another email came back and this time, it read: “…your new BRP has been delivered by our courier” along with my identified name! 

Finally! I teared up. Everything finally worked out!

Weeks later, I checked my name on National Insurance. Oh no…that was just the beginning of the entire process. No big deal. I’ll just start again.

If I learned anything from my everyday encounter, perseverance is what made me a stronger person inside out. The world will never quite understand what it’s like for me and others like me. However, I think that there is always an opportunity for social and legal acceptance to grow as time passes. Personally, I feel that if I have tried, and tried hard enough, that would have been the best thing I did regardless of the outcome. 

I’d like to think that there is always something or someone looking out for us, as long as we keep trying.


Maya is a SEN educator and a recent MSc graduate from the University of Bristol. She enjoys long walks by the beach and dabbles in music writing in her free time.