I could see a visibly upset passport officer dialling somebody, wiping the sweat on his forehead and gulping water. He had the bundle of documents I had submitted for a new passport as I sat in a waiting room that was separated from his cabin by a glass door. It was an application to re-issue my passport with both my name and gender changed. I was ‘F’ in the old one, but had now become ‘M’ legally and socially after a sex re-assignment surgery. He might have seen many applications for name and address changes, but this was probably the first one for him in which someone was asking for a switch of gender.
The officer did not ask too many questions and just told me that he would process the application. A few days later, a policeman came home on a verification call. His confusion was palpable. He wanted to ask me about the gender change but could not. He had no vocabulary to express his transphobia (a fear-driven prejudice against transgenders and transsexuals). Later, I got a call from the policeman. “In the previous passport, the gender is female. In this application for a new one, it is changed. Is it a mistake or are you an impotent man?” he asked.
I could not resist laughing. “I am perfectly fine; I have submitted all the supporting medical records.”
He was not satisfied. “Okay, so can you have children?”
It was an entirely irrevelant question. India is not a country that issues passports only to people who can have children. No one else would have had to answer a question on impotence for a travel document. Later, I found out that he had sent an adverse report and now my application is stuck.
Even in my childhood, I knew that I was a transperson. For a long time, I used to wear my brother’s clothes and express myself as a boy. Scientific studies show that children become aware of their gender by the time they are three years old. Whenever I was given clothes that were too girly, I would refuse to wear them. I used to play only with my brother’s friends. At the age of 15, my body started changing. I could not deal with the onset of puberty. I had intense dysphoria. I would feel attracted to women, so for a long time I thought I was a lesbian. Transphobia is strong even in lesbian circles, so I was unable to express myself as a transman (female to male transsexual) for a long time.
Gender is not private, it is a public thing. I don’t subscribe to the narrative of ‘coming out’ that has been articulated by gay and lesbian activists. When has this ‘coming out’ happened for me? I have always been ‘out’. The moment you saw me, you’d know that this person asserts a different gender. However, in the case of a cisgender (the opposite of transgender, literally, with one’s gender identity remaining the same as one’s biological sex by birth) lesbian woman or a gay man, more often than not, you will not know her or his sexual identity unless told. There are multiple problems and a diverse range of issues faced by those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transmen, transwomen and so on. The media clubs them together as ‘the LGBT family’ although their experiences of social oppression differ.
Lesbian and gay activists have welcomed the recent Supreme Court ruling that granted transgender people official recognition as a third gender. However, I think there are many questions to be raised along with it. One issue is that this third gender category practically keeps hijras or transwomen outside the purview of India’s existing laws, which are highly gender specific. To take an example, how does a third gender person file charges of rape? According to current rape laws, only women can be raped. The Supreme Court should have issued some directives on this matter, taking into account the high rate of crimes against transgenders.
Many transgenders would not like to go through the legal process of a gender change. In any case, India’s hijra community suffers such social exclusion that its members have almost no access to state-run medical facilities. Sex-altering surgeries within this community of transwomen are usually conducted by a person in the family, a so-called ‘thaayamma’ who depends on traditional knowledge systems. In such cases, there are no medical records of gender change. Transwomen, however, are far more visible than transmen, and so they find it easier to get voter identity cards issued with their chosen gender. Of transmen, awareness levels are so low that even our existence is doubted by many.
I went to Lady Shri Ram College in New Delhi. It was an all-women’s college and I don’t regret going there because it gave me the space and freedom to explore my sexuality. I am probably the only man in the history of LSR to have stayed in the hostel and enjoyed several relationships. When I later joined Jawaharlal Nehru University, I stayed in Godavari Hostel, which was meant only for women. The guard would stop me every night at the gate and say, “Sir, this is a ladies hostel.” And every night I would reply, “Yes, I know. I live here.” But never once could I bring myself to say, “Yes, I know. I am a woman.”
Once I had a bitter experience on a train trip from Bangalore to Kerala. The TTR checked my identity card, an old one. He looked at the photograph and then at me. His expression changed from suspicious to mocking as the interrogation proceeded. He called all the passengers in the compartment, showed them the identity card and said, “Look, this is not his card. This is the identity card of some woman. He is a man. How can he travel on another person’s ID?” Passengers came one by one and looked at me and the photograph. They added their own two bits to his mockery. You might never have gone through such an indignity in your life. This is what people like us go through every day— a constant policing of our gender expression, mocking disbelief, and dehumanising attitudes that strip us of our dignity in public.
Right now, I am an undocumented citizen of this country. This is a struggle, a very lonely journey. You ask me what I feel when I meet another transman? Imagine meeting another woman only after you’ve turned 24; can you imagine the isolation of that experience? It takes years, sometimes even a lifetime, for some transmen to find another like them. My mother has been my greatest support through all these years. It might be because she walked out of an abusive marriage with her young kids and struggled to raise us that she understands the struggle against heteropatriarchy. Or maybe it is the unconditional love of a mother.
After the surgery, I find a lot more male-dominated spaces opening up for me. I find it safer to travel at night, but, as someone who looks like an underage boy, I also feel some vulnerability. I am often grappling with questions of patriarchy. Boys my age crack sexist jokes and expect me to laugh. If I object, then I am a bore who doesn’t know how to have fun. I have in many ways learnt how not to be a man through my father, who was a negative role model for me. Everything he was, I try not to be.
I also feel my exclusion from certain spaces more starkly. For instance, a few years ago, a close friend of mine, another transman, was not allowed to be part of an e-group called Feminist India. This is an email list dominated by cisgender suvarna feminists. The reason they cited was that the group was exclusively meant for women, but they don’t have any transwomen on the list either. I don’t want to associate with such reductionist and biologically determinist feminism. I have also faced exclusion from civil society groups. I was kept out of a fact-finding body set up to look at displacement caused by a road project in Bangalore; one activist said others would be confused by my presence. I didn’t feel so bad because I think such groups are the least civil and do nothing but find facts anyway.
There is no natural solidarity between oppressed groups. On one hand, NGOs use our identities to get more funds, making hijras dependent on them for jobs that give them some sense of dignity. But at the same time, they work to control, police and discipline us through their projects and programmes. NGOs are, in that sense, government organisations. They display a benevolent face and deceive us. In the absence of any other job opportunities, we find more and more transpeople working for NGOs.
In my view, transpeople should not look for solidarity or support elsewhere. Instead, we must work tirelessly ourselves to make our political point, forge bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood, offer one another care and support, and fight systems of oppression together.
(As told to Shahina KK)