The Invisible Lives Of Transmen In India

(L) Aryan Pasha and (R) Vivaan Chakraborty
(L) Aryan Pasha and (R) Vivaan Chakraborty

“The biggest misconception people have when I tell them I am a transman is that they think I am Hijra. But that is not the case. I was assigned female at birth but identify as a male,” says Jamal Siddiqui, a name that he selected for himself. Based in Delhi, he is a writer, trainer and YouTube blogger and works with an NGO called Etasha Society. Jamal is a transman who identifies as queer – terminology a lot of us still don’t fully understand.

The LGBTQ movement of India has many obstacles to overcome but we have taken strides of progress over the years, one being the increasing conversation regarding sexual orientation and gender identity. But there seems to be an imbalance when we look at whose voices are being heard and acknowledged, and others being left behind within the movement itself. Being a country of under-education and countless taboos, a dialogue regarding ‘women’, as they gendered by society, reclaiming agency over their sexuality, sexual and gender identities is often unheard. In many occasions, we have such limited knowledge about just how large the spectrum is, and no case is clearer than the umbrella term of transgender, especially in India. Despite being officially recognized by the law, being transgender comes with stigma and stereotypes, many of which only hold the mental image/visualization of a transwoman – a Hijra, to put it crudely. Meanwhile, transmen become a minority within a minority in a highly patriarchal and largely close-minded society.

“I’m not a lesbian or just a tomboy as I often thought and was told. I’m a man. I wish I knew what this word for my feelings were years ago, it would have made growing up a lot easier for me. I didn’t know what the terminology was, but now I understand myself so much more,” says 26-year-old *Nikhil, who until three years ago would go by Niyati. Born in a traditional household in Nagpur, *Nikhil was only able to explore different notions of gender and sexuality once he moved to Mumbai for work and was introduced to the LGBTQ community by chance. He still hasn’t come out to his family. “My parents always wanted a son, they had 3 daughters until they finally stopped trying. Someday I hope to have the courage to tell them they’ve always had one in me. I will take the family name forward.” It was this conversation with Nikhil* that really drove me to get in touch with others in the community; the position they hold and the insights they can provide through their experiences. But it was the lack of visibility that they have in society that made it difficult for me to find people, more so those willing to share their journeys.

The experiences of transmen provide a unique perspective, a window into the functioning of gender in Indian society. Each of the people I spoke to had varied opinions; they come from different backgrounds, have had different journeys, and yet there are some commonalities that bind this community together.

Vivaan Chakraborty

A 17-year-old student based in Kolkata, Vivaan tells us that from a young age he knew he was different. He thought he was a boy and was simply just a late developer, but when puberty hit, “it was like a slap in the face.”

“I was very depressed and I didn’t know what to call the feeling that I was feeling. Then when I came to know about the term transgender, I was relieved and more stressed at the same time,” he says. Going into deep denial, he kept mulling over how his parents, family members and friends would react – “no one would accept me.” It was at the age of 16 that he started his social transition and started accepting himself. He was done hiding and being someone he wasn’t.

“I remember when I could name the feeling I felt all my life, it was terrifyingly beautiful. I will never forget that moment. I cried for hours, and then never cried about it again. It was the finest taste of freedom...Coming out has been the hardest part of the transition, It was really, really scary.”

Vivaan found acceptance from his parents and his friends, whom he calls his ‘chosen family’, who has become his support system. When all else fails, he knows that coffee will always be his stress buster; “I’m a caffeine addict,” he says lightly.

Vivaan Chakraborty

For Vivaan, the biggest misconception that people have is that this is a choice. But it was something he needed to do, it’s not a choice he made but who he is. Born in the wrong body, he’s not toying around and becoming something or someone else, he explains, but finally making it what it should have always been. It’s not someone else he’s changing into, but finally being who he has always been.

Talking about treatment of gender Vivaan says that sexism has become “clear as water” after he started passing and people have started treating him as a male. The treatment he received, people’s behavior and reactions were a lot different from when he was earlier perceived as female.

“They just have to be eager to learn more about us and be patient as we tell our stories. And stop assuming things about us. We all have different stories. And they should preach this - Why be homophobic, transphobic, biphobic, or anything that discards someone’s identity, or existence, when you could just be quiet?

If they have a mouth to talk or fingers to type, they should use that to be good to us and to stand up for us. Instead of asking us about our genitals, if cis people start asking us about our day, that could give us some hope for a safe environment and a better world,” he signs off.

Aryan Pasha

Aryan wanted to stop going to school when he was in the second grade because he’d have to wear a skirt. His three younger sisters’ toys never attracted him – “I knew they were not for me.” His school was changed and he was allowed to attend wearing pants, or what we’d call the boys’ uniform. Even with a feminine name, he was accepted here for who he was.

He never lived as a girl, as far back as he can recall. Always wore clothes meant for boys, played outside with his brothers and would react unhappily when someone addressed him as a girl. “Nobody knew about my documents. I dropped my class 12th board, as I realized, even though I do everything like a boy, my name was still a female name, and that meant I needed to take admission in college as a female. I went into depression and decided not to go to school anymore. I was then taken for counselling and I got my documents for GID when I was 18, and when I become 19, I had my surgery.”

He’s always had people around him who he can turn to support for and as the 26-year-old currently prepares himself for bodybuilding competitions, the gym has been a safe haven and outlet. Among the hurdles of his transition has been his journey as a national level skater. He was always a part of the boy’s teams through practice sessions, however, when nationals were coming up his coach went through his documents and came to know of his birth-assigned gender. “ When I was asked to play from the girls category I was shattered, I refused,” says Aryan. It was after some discussions and counselling that he finally participated.

This was a wake-up call for him. He realised that as long as he doesn’t have his documents changed he will always be required to participate as a girl, something that was painful for him to do, even though he loved skating, and ultimately left the sport. Even after the changes were to his paperwork he was denied admission to Delhi University. “Although I already changed my documents to male we can’t change our educational documents, so they refused to give me admission as a male. This was in 2010 before NALSA judgment. So we explained to the authorities but the college revealed my story and breached confidentiality. That was bit hurtful and difficult,” he shares.

Aryan Pasha

Everyone has a different journey, survival strategies and only the individual knows what’s best for him/her/them. That’s what he wishes people would understand about him and his experience. “Transition is not easy at all, it has various phases, social, medical and legal, so just be patient about it,” he says. “Whatever said and done, it’s liberating and very comforting. If you know what you are, and who you are, you need to just go for it.”

When asked how people can be better LGBTQ allies, create safe spaces and aid in trans visibility, Aryan said, “The societal acceptance is the key. We accept ourselves much better when we get support from society.”

“As LGBT allies, people need to treat us like us. We are no different, just treat us like any other friend, and we can express ourselves much better and the transition will be easier for us. Spreading awareness on the issue and treating us like any other person is needed.” Aryan talks about the necessity of good role models within the community to motivate others who are still transitioning and those struggling to come out. The most important thing he says is to talk to your parents and involve them in your journey. “The first discrimination members of the community fear, and can face, is from the family itself. We also need to spread awareness in schools to support gender non-conforming students to help them lead a better life, one they deserve.”

Mann Chawla

“What differentiates me from most people around me is that I was born as a girl but I am transitioning into a man now. I identify as a transman and have always felt like a guy, despite being born in a girl’s body,” says 31-year-old Mann. Like many in his position, he always knew he was ‘different’ but didn’t know what the term for it was. Growing up he would be asked by his mother to wear girls’ clothes but was never comfortable in it. “Even when I was in school, I had to wear girls’ uniform, which was a shirt and skirt in my school, all day I would just wait to go back home to change into jeans and be comfortable again.”

Maan waited till May 2017, till he was 30, to start his transition and has been taking male hormones for the last 8 months. Currently based in Singapore, he shares that the idea was to be financially independent and secure beforehand so as to not burden anyone else with the expenses of transitioning medically. Talking to his family about his identity has been the hardest part so far for him. He came out when he was 25 and was “a bit too ambitious and thought they would accept it right away, however, that wasn’t the case.” His mistake, he explains, is that assuming they would be in the same mental space as he was at that moment. Since he was 23 he had been watching videos of other transmen for hours on end every day trying to educate himself on the problems, solutions and process of transitioning. His family, on the other hand, had no prior exposure to this topic. “So, obviously, they were taken aback and had a million concerns for me, like any other parent would,” he shares. It took them a while and they are finally on board now. And I applaud the courage and sensitivity that they have shown.”

He always surrounds himself with positivity and friends that treat him the way he perceives himself. He’s been lucky, he says, that the people around him have been pretty great at understanding who he is, even though “it is difficult to see a person as a guy, who looks like a girl – my friends try to use male pronouns for me and treat me like their guy friend.” Mann says that this has become easier since he started transitioning because, finally, his outer appearance matches his gender identity. He only wishes that people were more inclusive and would stop looking at the LGBTQ community as something different from themselves, and this would solve most of the problems, including, but not limited to, staring, discrimination, insensitive comments, and such.

Mann Chawla

“One of my concerns for transitioning was that even though I have always felt like a guy, but the world perceived me as a girl and girls are given a certain level of respect in our society. For example, men are more rough with each other but do not use abusive language in front of women and refrain from saying certain things in front of women. Even though I was a guy from inside all this while, I was in a very protected world of women. My concern was that I might not be able to deal well when that layer of protection is gone. However, the difference in the treatment that happened was very interesting. Yes, people did indeed start treating me differently and not refrain from using abusive language- however, I kind of felt that I have entered this ‘men’s club’ and they now treat me as one of their own. Now I am their ‘bro’ and ‘yaar’ and the feeling is amazing!”

Talking about his YouTube videos, he says, “I think more of us need to come out and share with the public that it’s more common than they think it is. We need to help each other with resources and experiences as there is a still lack of it. After adding my videos on YouTube, I am so surprised that at least 10 new people contact me a week sharing their experiences and seeking advice. We need to form more such safer places where people can open up and help each other.”

Check out Mann’s YouTube videos here.

Jamal Siddiqui

When Jamal was five years old he thought that he would grow a penis, that it would something that would eventually happen as he got older. It was when he went to school that he understood he was a female and was forced to behave and dress in accordance. When he was 23, he called a helpline and it was then that he was introduced to the term ‘transman’. There was never any confusion for him regarding his gender identity. He always felt like a boy, and now he had the words for it.

Like Mann, Jamal too has a YouTube channel as well as a blog about his transition, to create visibility for transmen in India, to legitimise their experience and let others know (those who are feeling the same way) that there is an entire community of people they can speak to.

Jamal started transitioning in 2015 but had to stop. He started again last year, saying that the hardest part was the pain it caused if the injections were not given properly, on one hand, and financial aid on the other. He started working at the age of 18 to collect funds for the procedures. Another challenge when it comes to the medical process, Jamal shares, is emotional distress and sudden mood changes (side effects and dealing with a ‘new self’, so to speak).

Jamal now gets tremendous support from the community, more so his girlfriend, and uses cooking and writing as an outlet to vent. His sister has been positive, but his family still has a long way to go. Talking about gender Jamal shares his experiences with bullying during his childhood; he would wear pants to school even though it wasn’t allowed and teachers would make him stand on the bench and forcefully admit that he was a girl. “They would beat me too. Students would call me names, no one played with me or ate with me. That I was a tomboy was something that I would get a lot. But I was always clear about the fact that I was a man,” he says.

[You can read more about his experience in an article he wrote here.]

Jamal Siddiqui

Jamal wishes that people would understand the existence of transmen and how different they are from cisgender men. He writes, “anyone who is different from the prescribed norms of the society always creates a lot of anxieties in society as they challenge the basic norms that have been created for a man or a woman. Most of the time people do not know whether to treat a particular person as a man or woman. Rather than dealing with that anxiety and dealing with it. Most of the people blame the person who is different and take it out on that person. I wish people could think before reacting and look deep inside and recognise this anxiety.”

“We should as a society develop a habit of asking preferred pronoun, name and gender identity to everyone in a way that they feel comfortable in sharing and we could respect it. We should not only ask these question to someone who is “Different” but to everyone. People should start understanding and learning about transgenders people. In common parlance where transgenders are brought up, people mean only Hijra due to their high visibility. People often do not understand or recognise that we exist. I somehow blame that on media representation of trans people too. I wish people could not only understand that transgender is an umbrella term which comprises of many different identities just not only hijra people.

People should also understand what we go through every second of our lives due to gender dysphoria and that it is not a mental disease. It is just discomfort which arises due to a mismatch in our gender identity and our bodies in which we are born. Due to gender dysphoria, we not only suffer from discomfort however many trans people have anxieties, they are under confident and suicidal also. What challenges we face in our mental health as well as in different part of our lives from washrooms to our educations. We didn’t choose to be a transgender person we are just the way we are. I am proud to be a transman. I am not mentally ill, I was a normal delivery and I am a human just like anyone else who deserve respect and dignity.”

Find Jamal on YouTube here.

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