Story by Kelly Murray; Video by Madeleine Stix and Matt Gannon
Four years ago, Neo Sandja decided to get drunk and throw himself in front of a speeding car.
“I went out to a bar with my friends,” he says.”When I left, I told them, ‘Goodbye, you’ll never see me again.’ But they were just as drunk as I was and didn’t take me seriously.”
He found himself stumbling along the side of the road in his Georgia college town in the middle of the night. Headlights were speeding by.
“I kept thinking, ‘This is it. I’m going to do this. I just can’t be here anymore. Why did I suffer so long?”
He thrust himself into the road, and a car stopped just shy of his leg. Out stepped a cop.
“Are you trying to kill yourself?” the cop asked.
“Yes,” Neo replied.
“Do you need help?”
Neo explained that he had just realized he was transgender and that his father back in Africa would never accept him as a man.
The officer responded: “My sister is a trans woman.”
From hatred to hope
The prevalence of suicide attempts among transgender and gender-nonconforming people is “exceptionally high,” according to the 2014 National Transgender Discrimination Survey. Forty one percent of respondents said they had attempted suicide in their lifetime — a far cry from the overall U.S. prevalence rate of 4.6 percent. Many in the transgender population face a severe sense of isolation as they struggle to express their own identity, which may go against their community’s idea of gender.
In an effort to encourage transgender people to embrace their bodies, Neo founded “FTM Fitness World” in 2012. FTM is an acronym for “female to male.” The organization hosts the world’s first, and so far only, transgender bodybuilding competition. As CEO, Neo promotes diversity and the idea that there’s strength in vulnerability. The bodybuilding competitors aren’t necessarily the most confident people, he says, but they own their identities.
Growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Neo knew nothing about the LGBT community. But he says he has always known he was a boy.
Neo was born female-bodied, but he says he never identified as such. He never wore dresses or skirts. He wore his hair short and looked to other boys for friendship. He went about his life assuming he was a lesbian, but he was always attracted to straight women.
When Neo hit puberty, he started to look different from his male friends.
“My body was changing. My chest started growing. I got my period, and I thought I hurt myself on a bicycle. I rushed home and I was crying and freaking out.”
The only person who really understood him, he felt, was his sister. She died when Neo was just 16.
“She was the only one who had been calling me her bigger brother,” he says. “I never really thought about what that meant.”
At church, people would ask his mother, “Why is she always dressed like a boy?” It was difficult for his mother to explain it to herself, let alone to other people.
“In the Western world people are becoming more open, even in the religious world,” Neo explains. “In Africa, it’s becoming worse. You can get the death sentence for being LGBT.”
That’s not an exaggeration in some parts of Africa. The human rights advocacy group Amnesty International lists 36 African countries where it’s illegal to be gay. In Mauritania, a Muslim man convicted of homosexual acts can be put to death by stoning, according to the Library of Congress. In Sudan, punishments for homosexual behavior range from lengthy prison terms to flogging. On a third conviction, he can be executed.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, while homosexuality isn’t explicitly illegal, being LGBT is extremely taboo.
While Neo was on a church youth retreat one year, someone brought up homosexuality and the Bible. He could feel everyone’s eyes on him.
“I knew they were bringing it up because of me. It wasn’t difficult to see I was different.”
“Today’s your chance to repent,” the leaders told the children.
The group sent Neo to a counselor. Sitting face-to-face with her in a far corner of the church, he confessed that he liked women.
Soon, he found himself standing in the middle of a group of 15 church elders, shaking with fear. They were praying and trying to “deliver” him of what they thought was homosexuality.
“The whole world was telling me that whoever I was, how I liked to dress, or how I spoke, or how I walked, or who I liked, was wrong,” Neo says.
When Neo got home, he took the counselor’s advice and tried on his sister’s dress.
“I asked my brother, ‘How do I look?’ He responded, ‘Never do that again.'”
No longer believing he had a spiritual problem, he started to think it was a medical one. And he knew that if he went to the United States, they could help him find a cure.
Coming to America
Neo arrived in the Untied States on a student visa. The school, a private Lutheran college, placed him in the female dorms. He feared he would be kicked out if anyone found out he liked girls. The counselor suggested he talk with the school pastor.
“We were all — the counselor, pastor, and I — sitting on different couches, and I was doing all the talking,” Neo recalls.
He studied the pastor’s reaction to what he was saying, afraid that at any moment she would lash out in anger.
Instead she responded: “I just wanted to say thanks, because I know how difficult it must be to open up. I want you to know you’re in a safe space and God has made you the way you are, and there is nothing wrong with you.”
Neo was taken aback. For the first time, someone who was a Christian had suggested he should accept himself. It was a fleeting moment of relief.
Several years later, a college girlfriend bought the film, “Boys Don’t Cry.” The story focuses on a female-to-male transgender teen who leaves his hometown because someone found out his secret.
“For the first time I could really connect with the character, and I said, I think that’s who I am.”
For a week, Neo couldn’t sleep. The more research he did, the more he realized that description fit him. And he knew his father would never accept it. That’s when he decided to take his own life.
After the police officer rescued Neo, he was institutionalized for five days and diagnosed with gender identity disorder (today more commonly called “gender dysphoria”). He spoke with his mother over the phone while in the hospital.
“She told me, ‘I’d rather have a son than another dead daughter,'” Neo recalls.
With a diagnosis in hand and support behind him, he suddenly realized he could start a new life. Later that year, he took his first dose of hormone replacement therapy. And he changed his name to Neo, which in Swahili means “gift,” and in Greek, means “new.”
A business is born
Neo’s body began to change, subtly at first. His mustache grew in. Then his voice started to get raspy.
“I would laugh and it would crack. I remember my mom called me and I answered, and she thought she had called my brother. I gained so much weight. I think 30 pounds in three months — I was like a teenage boy, and I was so hungry all the time. It felt great because I felt better, happier, stronger. … Like OK, now I can shop in the men’s department without anyone judging me.”
His rapid weight gain after starting hormone therapy spurred him to get into shape, and Neo started a blog called “FTM Fitness” to hold himself accountable. In less than two months, he had more than 800 followers on Facebook. He started receiving emails from people all over the world: India, Australia, Mexico, the Philippines. Neo realized how many people were out there who had been born in the “wrong” body.
The blog quickly morphed into a resource for whole-body wellness; not just for physical fitness but for emotional intelligence, too. Neo integrated an online store to help with domain fees, and his business was born. The company held its first annual conference in Atlanta in 2014. The main event was the world’s first transgender bodybuilding competition. More than 120 attended the conference in 2015. In 2016, Neo hopes to expand the conference to include transgender women.
Today Neo is living in Atlanta, Georgia, and is a life coach and motivational speaker. He is also working on writing his first book, “Right Mind, Wrong Body: The Ultimate Trans Guide to be Complete and live a Fulfilled Life.”
Neo says his father still refuses to accept him. The last time they spoke was in 2011, when Neo told him he was proceeding with his transition. But Neo has kept in touch with a few close friends in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who he says understand him, and he talks to his mom at least twice a week.
He says part of the reason the transgender community faces discrimination, hate and violence is because the media often portrays transgender people in a negative light — like a freak show.
“It can be easy in life to just blend in and be a regular guy,” he explains. “For me, it’s important to be visible in the fitness world and the bodybuilding world so you can see you can be a ‘normal’ person, but you can also be proud to be trans.”