BY NANDINI KRISHNAN
PHOTOGRAPHS BY SURESH KANNAN
Jovin began to unbutton his shirt, “See, I haven’t yet got my operation done. I tie them up.”
“No, no, there’s no need,” I said and turned away hastily, but caught a flash of the crepe bandage that bound his breasts.
“It’s no big deal,” Jovin said, “Guys sit around shirtless. If I were operated on, I’d be sitting like that, right? I get so bloody frustrated when [Selvam] sits around without a shirt. I want to yell at him and say, ‘Cover up, da!’”
Selvam, who was leaning against the wall, broke into a lopsided grin, like a rock star indulging a groupie.
I had first met Selvam in 2006, while making a documentary on transgender women. At the time, the state had allotted land to create a village for transpeople, called Natarajapuram, and houses were being constructed. Future residents were camping in tents.
When I used the word “aravani” in my piece-to-camera, a transwoman took offence and said she would smash my face to pulp. “You have to walk alone to the bus stop, right?” she said, “By the time I’m done with you, people won’t know whether you were a man or woman.”
I must have looked as terrified as I felt, because one of my interviewees touched my shoulder and said, “Don’t worry. I’ll send Selvam along to protect you.”
Selvam was six inches shorter than I, slighter than the average schoolboy, and biologically female. He had recently moved his family—parents and siblings—into one of the tents. I heard his parents addressing him as da—an endearment used for boys.
“I’ve told them I’ve changed naturally from female to male,” Selvam grinned, in a high-pitched voice, “I ran away from home because I heard that they’d started looking for a groom for me. Enakku kalyaanam ellaam pidikkaadhu (I don’t like stuff like marriage). So I ran away, cropped my hair. By the time they found me, I’d become a guy, and that’s what I told them. They believe me. My entire village does. But then everyone pesters me about marriage now—they want me to get married and prove I’m a guy…you know, produce a child.”
Ten years on, he was waiting for me outside his house, hands in pockets.
“Hello,” he said, in a deep bass. Only his height and smile hadn’t changed.
“I had a super moustache,” he said, with a sigh, “I shaved it because someone told me it would grow better if I shaved regularly. The damn thing hasn’t appeared since.”
He had moved his parents to Kalpakkam, he said, because they didn’t like the way people spoke in Natarajapuram. “You know how they are, swearing and stuff,” he said, with a grin. “I live here with my sister.”
It was a strange house. The women in the house were born men. The men were born women. None is in a romantic relationship with any other. The women are upset that the men cook; the men are upset that women are the breadwinners.
Aarthi, the “sister” to whom Selvam referred, is not biologically related to him or anyone else in the house. But this quasi-family of transpeople has imposed a complex network of relationships on themselves.
“He was staying with people like us in Kuppathurai,” she told me when I met her. “My mother’s sisters are my chithi, periamma and so on. I call them also amma. One of my ammas in that manner adopted him. So he’s my brother. He came with me when I moved to Chennai.” Several transmen whom Selvam knows have also joined the household.
“Avunga ellaarayum naan madikattitten (I’ve adopted them all),” Aarthi said, “So now I have four-five sons, in addition to my daughters. I look out for them, figure out what’s bad for them, what’s good for them, show them the ropes.”
The sons call Selvam “mama” (maternal uncle), while the daughters call him “anna” (older brother), perhaps because “mama” is also popularly used to address one’s husband.
I would visit the house several times over the next few months. Every time I arrived, one of the “sons” would bring me a vat of water to drink. The “daughters” spoke broken Hindi to me. Sometimes, they danced to film songs. At others, they came up with their own dance numbers. They would offer me food and “cool drinks” even when they knew me well enough not to stand on ceremony. The sounds of teasing and laughter constantly rang out—“Sister, has anna told you about anni (sister-in-law)? Tell her not to torture him like this, he can’t sleep nights!”, “Write about us also, we’re prettier than Selvam!”—but there was something transitory about it all, like these were ephemeral bursts of joy in lives that would never get easier.
Unlike transwomen, transmen cannot identify themselves in a historical lineage. In the Middle Ages, transmen appear only as women in disguise, mostly in Shakespearean drama—a ploy that suited actors in an all-male repertory and gave the groundlings cheap laughs at the spectacle of same-sex romance; happily for the characters, a twin of the acceptable sex usually turned up.
But the earliest documented cases of female-to-male gender transition appear in the 1800s and early 1900s, and the details are vague. The first documented gender reassignment surgeries were performed in Germany, chiefly on the patients of sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld.
In America, the first surgery recorded was on Dr. Alan L. Hart (1890–1962), a radiologist and tuberculosis researcher who pioneered the use of X-ray photography to detect TB. In 1917, Hart approached Dr. Joshua Gilbert at the University of Oregon, asking for a hysterectomy, identifying himself as a person with an “abnormal inversion” who should be sterilised. Gilbert evaluated Hart as “extremely intelligent and not mentally ill, but afflicted with a mysterious disorder for which I have no explanation.”
The diagnosis is radical even in the context of today, when the desire for transitioning from female to male is classified as a mental illness according to the manual of the American Psychiatric Association—labelled “gender identity disorder” or “gender dysphoria”.
Indian mythology has the Amba-Shikhandi story, and that of Princess Chitrangada, immortalised in Rabindranath Tagore’s Chitra. But the history of female-to-male (FTM) transition is nebulous.
While there are also possible female-to-male historical, spiritual and cultural figures like Mallintha the 13th Theerthankarta of Jainism and communities like the Sadhins—a group of ‘women’ from Gaddi in Northwest India, who renounce marriage and sexuality and do men’s work and dress as men even if they maintain their female name—the thought of female to male transition remains alien in the Indian cultural imagination.—“Towards Gender Inclusivity: A Study On Contemporary Concerns Around Gender”, Sunil Mohan and Sumathi Murthy
There is no clear enumeration of transmen. The 2011 census claimed the number of people who identified as third gender was 4.9 lakh, but there appears to be some confusion, since 55,000 of those were in the 0-6 years age category.
India’s transman community has articulate representatives successful in their chosen fields—cinematographer Satya Rai Nagpaul, writer-activist Gee Imaan Semmalar, disability rights activist Kiran, among others—but the majority live in hiding for fear of losing their jobs, or even lives. Transmen in the police force were reluctant to talk to me even on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions once the state knew that personnel recruited as women now identified as men. At least one transman said he was unfairly terminated by his employer, an IT major. Another interviewee was threatened with rape-until-impregnation.
In his study Towards Gender Inclusivity: A Study On Contemporary Concerns Around Gender, Sunil Mohan of the community support collective LesBiT says transmen are often expelled from school or college for “gender variant behaviour”.
A community, a support system, is essential, and is beginning to form. Satya Rai Nagpaul, founder and facilitator of Sampoorna, a group for and by trans and intersex Indians, said, “Networks of trans-masculine people are expanding, especially the last two years or so. [They] have found each other in Ahmedabad, Baroda, Delhi, Guwahati, Gurgaon, Hyderabad, Indore, Kolkata, Mumbai, Pune”, apart from Chennai and Bengaluru. In Tamil Nadu, transmen even have an indigenous name, thirunambi, a male equivalent for thirunangai, as transwomen are known.
L. Ramakrishnan, from the public health and human rights NGO SAATHII, said there is an increasing number of private social networks, mainly WhatsApp groups, through which transmen can find support. Through these, people who don’t need chest binders any longer, post-surgery, donate them to others. Purpose-built binders are expensive, and using the wrong material could lead to health issues, from bruising to bone displacement.
The idea of a community is crucial for transmen, who are doubly disadvantaged—aside from the obvious challenge, they face prejudice from the larger community of sexuality minorities. With limited funding for trans-healthcare and schemes, there is community gate-keeping, chiefly by transwomen. Activists speak of the “hierarchies of authenticity”, where post-operative transwomen are considered most genuine and deserving; at the bottom are transmen.
Selvam only attended three days of school. He was bullied, and decided not to go. His parents did not compel him.
“They were always affectionate,” he told me, “But I was not very attached to them then. I think I was angry because they wouldn’t let me cut my hair after I got my period. My hair grew to hip-length. So I said, ‘Let me go to a temple and get a tonsure done’—it seemed a better idea than to tell them straight out. I’d always wear pant-shirt, anyway, or a veshti at home. I would never wear a paavadai (skirt) unless I was going to work. They never objected. When I said I’d get a tonsure, they said ‘Aiyayo, you shouldn’t do all that!’”—he imitated their shocked expressions, drawing both palms to his mouth— “‘You’re a vayasu ponnu (a girl who has come of age, a nubile woman)’! Vayasu ponnu nu sollarappo evvalavu aathiram varum (Imagine how infuriating it would be for someone to call me a ‘vayasu ponnu’)!”
“Yeah, that monthly thing, I hate it,” Jovin chimed in.
“Mine’s stopped now,” Selvam said.
Jovin sighed, “It’s the worst thing.”
Why do I suffer so much, I used to think. I’m a guy. Do guys get periods? They don’t. Why do I? Why has god made us neither this nor that? We’re not able to walk as men on the road. People may find out from our voices. People may try something funny with us.—Jovin, 25
Both Jovin and Selvam grew up hundreds of kilometres apart and are separated by five years in age, but had similar habits in childhood. They wore trousers under their skirts, which they discarded as soon as they were out of sight of family. They joined the boys on the road, first scaling walls and trees as children, eventually checking out—and whistling at—girls in their teen years.
Both started working early—Selvam because he did not want his mother to work and felt guilty staying at home while his father did hard labour; Jovin because of family circumstances.
“My dad was a drunkard,” he said, “A son at home would have got a job and there would have been money. I was the third of three girls. My parents named me Kalaivani. Ten years ago, at 15, as a girl I went to work in a biscuit factory.”
“Not studying was a big mistake,” Selvam rued.
Since he was seven, though, Selvam has been earning money. He accompanied his father, looking for work. He found it mostly in construction, laying roads and loading stones. As he got older, work became harder to come by.
“People hesitate even to give me a watchman’s job because they look at me, think I’m a kid and wonder whether I’ll be responsible. I worked as security at a morgue when I first moved to Chennai. They gave me 100 bucks a day. I spent a chunk on alcohol. You need to down a few to stay there. No one is there. Just corpses.”
But he never held a job for long. He was happiest working with a theatre group exclusively for transgender people, Kannaadi Kalaikuzhu. He met several activists, including Siva Kumar of Nirangal, a Chennai-based non-profit for advancing the rights of individuals with alternate gender and sexual identities. Siva took him to LGBT meetings across cities. Selvam met other transmen, many reluctant to come out.
“I’ve always wanted to do social service. No one has come forward and said ‘I’m a transman’, at least in Chennai. Because all of us think we’re oddballs, one-offs, there is no one like us. If people knew there were others like them, they’d come out. So I’ve spoken on TV, to newspapers, radio, all media. I used to give interviews even when I had a job. I’m not afraid. I’ve never known fear. Of whom should I be afraid? What can they do?”
But sometimes, Selvam felt his colleagues knew he was not what he seemed. Perhaps they had read interviews. Perhaps they sensed he was hiding that he had been born a woman. “Every time I thought there might be a problem, I changed jobs,” he said, “So it was hard to hold on to one job. Also, you can’t keep bunking work to attend meetings and expect them not to replace you.”
He worked at a tailor’s for four years, hoping to learn the craft and start his own business. But they never allowed him to see them cut cloth. He quit and worked in an export factory at a better salary. He made enough money to get his two sisters married off, and put his brother through college.
“See, he bought me this watch,” he said proudly, showing me a shiny, gold-coloured watch. “When I think about how far I’ve come without studying, I feel a sense of pride. There are so many people who have studied a lot and who haven’t done much with it, right?”
Selvam is on the board of Nirangal, but it is not a paid position. He could not work in an NGO, he said. “Set aavaadhu, I’m outspoken,” he said. He had not held a regular job in four years.
With the odd exception, every transman I spoke to had a woman in his life who saw him for the man he was. Selvam began to tell me about the only woman with whom he had been in love.
He met her when he was 14, travelling on contract work in and around Theni district, laying roads, for Rs. 110 a day. The contract was for a year. Happily for him, having lived several years in Kerala, his family decided to move to a nearby village, and he could meet her every day. She thought he was a man who wore his hair long. Their relationship was three years old when it met its first hurdle.
“Her family began to speak about marrying her off. She came to me one night and said, ‘Let’s go all the way. Then, no one can separate us, and they’ll have to marry me to you.’ I told her I had some sort of condition that I don’t understand. I’m a guy, but I don’t have a penis. For 2-3 hours, she didn’t understand. Then, she began to cry. But she could not bear the idea of separation. She said she would run away with me. I knew the moment had come to leave home.”
The two of them headed for Kerala. Selvam had spent most of his childhood and youth there, and knew the language and place well. He cut his hair, changed clothes in a “gents’ bathroom”, and for the next six months, they lived a charmed life, staying with friends Selvam had made over the years.
But his father did not give up the search. He borrowed Rs. 2000, and tracked him down. “I didn’t think my dad was that resourceful,” Selvam said.
His father convinced them to return. The girl’s parents beat her to within an inch of her life. But she said, even as the blows rained down, that she would run away with Selvam again.
She left home that very night. Her brother chased her down on his bike, dragged her home, and tried to force poison down her throat. She survived. She then locked herself up in a room for a week, refusing to bathe, eat, or even drink water.
In the meantime, Selvam had convinced the entire village that he had biologically turned into a man during his time away. His parents did not object to his marrying the girl. Her hunger strike had chipped away at her family’s resistance. Her mother, her brother, sister-in-law, and sister tried to convince her father to let her marry Selvam. But the father was worried about what everyone in the village might think.
Selvam promised he would make money and come back for her. He would build a house. No one could make snide remarks about a groom with a house of his own in a big city. He moved to Chennai, with his family.
“She held out for three, maybe four, years,” he said, “Then her father forced her to marry someone. I can’t go to my village anymore. I feel like killing myself there. I’ve never stayed longer than two hours. I go to my sister’s village nearby, to stay if I have a family wedding or something to attend. Every Pongal, and every Deepavali, I used to wear pant-shirt and dance like a maniac with the other boys. We’d tease every single girl. They’d be scared of us. That was the life.” He sighed. “And then there’s this emptiness.”
“Oh, a lot of girls like Mama,” Jovin said, “It’s just that he doesn’t like any of them.”
There is no to very little support for trans-masculine people, right across socio-economic groups. Most transmen run away from home. The tragedy of this is that they are very young at that time, and in all likelihood have abandoned school or college. They invariably fall in the laps of either the unorganised sector or LGBT NGOs, both of which are known for a complete lack of legal protection against exploitation of any kind.—Satya Rai Nagpaul, Sampoorna
“Tell her your story,” Selvam said.
Jovin blushed. “Mama, why, Mama?”
But he didn’t seem to need much encouragement. “This girl in the biscuit factory liked me. So at the time, I found it funny. I thought both of us are ladies, how can we have a relationship, it’s wrong, isn’t it? I didn’t even know that you could do an operation. I didn’t think our relationship could exist.”
But the girl persisted, even attempting suicide because life without Jovin was not worth living.
He told her he had too many commitments to think about a relationship—he had to support his family, build a house, get his sisters married, have an operation done like the friends he had made in Chennai had. If she waited, he would come back. If she couldn’t wait, she could marry whoever her family chose.
“She told me I would only see her corpse if I left her ever again,” Jovin said, “I slapped her. I said don’t talk like an idiot.”
He moved out of Chennai and took up his old job at the biscuit factory. He worked five years. The job wasn’t easy, but he liked it. They were working 12-hour shifts, switching weekly between day and night shifts. In a good month Jovin made Rs. 3,500. The workers went on strike once, demanding eight-hour shifts. The company gave in, and now they had more time on their hands.
“Pay day was like Deepavali for us. We’d run off to the movies, the beach, the park, buy things to eat, I’d check out the girls, the girls from the factory would check out the guys. At the end of the day, we’d see how much money we had left, and figure out what lies to tell at home—how many days’ salary was cut and so on. That girl hated it when I checked out other girls, though. She didn’t even like my talking to other boys, leave alone girls.”
At this point, Selvam held out Jovin’s arm. I saw an initial carved into it.
“I did that for her,” he said.
“Tension party,” Selvam said.
“I got furious when she suspected me of being unfaithful,” said Jovin.
“Veera vilayattu,” Selvam mumbled, “And whose fault was it that she was suspicious?”
“So,” Jovin said, “There was this other girl who liked me. I didn’t know it. She was a lot prettier than my girlfriend. Her skin was so fair that if you pinched it, you could see it redden.”
“You pinched her?” I asked. Selvam grinned.
Jovin looked embarrassed. “Oh, I’d pinch her waist. She used to call me ‘Mama’. She had no thaimaaman (maternal uncle) so I used to tease her like a thaimaaman would have. She had eyes like our Silukku (Silk Smitha). She’d bewitch you with those eyes. And her figure, chance-ey illai, you’d want to grab her if you saw her. Everyone in the company hit on her. But she didn’t fall for anyone except me. And I didn’t even know.”
It came to a head one day. The girls had to wear a shirt with the company logo on top of their clothes. Jovin walked in on ‘Silk Smitha’ removing the shirt one day, and apologised. She told him it was no big deal, she had her clothes on underneath.
“I went about my work. Suddenly, my girlfriend drags me away in front of everyone, takes me to a secluded room, and starts removing her clothes. I said, ‘What the hell is wrong with you?’ She said, ‘If you wanted to see this so badly, why didn’t you ask me? Why ask her?’ I said I promise I did not see anything. Then, this second girl comes in and says, ‘What he’s saying is true, Mama did not see anything’. And then this girl says, ‘How dare you call him Mama?’ And the two of them are fighting. I tried to intervene. Finally, I slapped my girlfriend, twice on each cheek, telling her not to talk such shit when she doesn’t know what happened. I slapped her so hard it left marks. Her mother called me later to ask me what happened at the factory, why did she have bruises, and I told her, ‘You don’t know how to raise a daughter to be a girl, what kind of mother are you, go and die.’”
It was only as I was driving home that I realised I had laughed with Selvam and Jovin when they said things that would not have been acceptable from cis-men. There is some criticism of the patriarchal attitudes of transmen. And it is hard for their partners to find sympathy even in cases of physical abuse, because the responses they get are usually either, “But this is a woman you’re talking about, why don’t you hit her back?” or “He’s been through so much, it is only understandable that he’ll take it out on someone.
A woman who requested anonymity told me about her experience with a transman to whom she was introduced by an activist friend, not to set them up, but because the activist was hoping to find the transman, who had recently moved cities, a wider social circle. “My friendly demeanour was mistaken as an open invitation for attention, to the point of being stalked on Facebook,” she said in an email, “Even upon being told that I wasn’t interested, he continued to send me messages, which is when I decided to block him and report his actions to the greater community.”
Bangalore-based Dharini*, 31, met a transman on Tinder. She found him intelligent and articulate. They had similar taste in music and books. The chemistry was great, Dharini said, though they didn’t do much more than kiss.
They had not discussed exclusivity. He assumed they were exclusive; she assumed the relationship was open. He had also assumed she had quit Tinder after they met, as he had. But Dharini has always been in open relationships, with both men and women. He was unpleasantly surprised when Dharini told him she couldn’t meet him one day because she was on a date. She woke up the next morning to more than twenty nasty messages.
“He called me some really ugly things, like ‘cock-sucking whore’ and ‘loose pussy’…I think I was doubly shocked that someone was directing this at me—someone I liked a lot—and this someone had once been a woman. I got really angry. I called him and we had a fight. He said, ‘Well, next time, I’ll just bring a rod to shove in your cunt’, and I thought, okay, this is a threat. Obviously, I haven’t seen him since.”
Delfina, a member of Nirangal, said misogynistic attitudes are a problem in the community. In a meeting s/he—Delfina identifies as non-binary and prefers a gender-neutral pronoun—had attended, s/he heard a group of transmen “bragging about how ‘I can flirt with so many girls, so many girls are in love with me’.” Delfina asked one of them if he had a girlfriend. He did. “I asked him how many boys he thinks his girlfriend should flirt with, and he said, ‘I’m a guy, I can check girls out. Let her look at another guy, and I’ll beat her up.’ That’s the type of attitude they have.” When s/he questioned him about this discrepancy in their flirting rights, he said, “She is a girl, after all. I’m the man, right? That’s how it should be.”
“I think most transmen are inspired by toxic models of masculinity,” Delfina said, “which are very extreme, unrealistic, and harmful—the type of portrayal we see in cinema. You typically have a man who overpowers women, is aggressive, who can do anything and everything he wants to, and women are supposed to implicitly obey him. I’m not saying everyone is like that. I do know transmen who are in committed relationships, who treat women in a very loving and caring manner. [But] we need to do away with special consideration on account of transitioning and call out sexism and misogyny as we would with cis-men.”
Many transmen have faced extreme violence.
Sunil Mohan, in his study, writes, “I played cricket so I thought I could handle my expression of gender identity in terms of my masculinity in the name of sports. But that also came under fire though my father is a sportsperson. He tore my shirt, snatched away my cricket uniform and burnt it in front of me because I was not behaving like a woman. My father would beat me black and blue because of my gender expression.”
“The first time I went out and cut my hair, my sisters and mother stripped me down to my jetti-baniyan (underpants and vest), bound my hands and legs, and hit me. They all kicked me. My father, my grandfather, my mama, and his son were standing around, encouraging them.”
During his first stint in Chennai, Jovin met people from several NGOs, some of whom asked if he was willing to speak on television on account of how articulate he was. “So I went on TV, and said I don’t have a life. We’re not accepted at home. We’re not accepted in society. Don’t we have the right to live as we want, to come out and be who we are? What we’d like is to be open about ourselves. But if we’re being shoved aside for jobs, how can we live?”
A neighbour told Jovin’s family that their daughter had cut her hair and was claiming she was a man on television; that she had said her family had treated her poorly.
“When I went back home, my father stripped me of everything I was wearing, and tied me stark naked to a pole outside the house, siluvaiyile katti podara maadhiri (like one ties someone to a cross), on display. Passersby were staring. He brought a knife and said he would cut me to bits. I said, ‘Do what you want. What is the point in my living anyway after the entire village has seen me naked?’”
His mother rushed out to drape a cloth on him, but Jovin was so traumatised he attempted suicide several times. First, he drank engine oil. Nothing happened. Then, he downed rat poison. His mother took him to the hospital on time and had his stomach pumped. Then, he ground oleander seeds into a paste and ate it.
“They took me to hospital again. It became a police case. The cops asked me why I’d done this. Was it love failure? Had a man cheated me? I said, ‘Go ask my parents. Don’t blame me for my father’s mistake. I like this life, they won’t let me live. If I can’t live, I have to die.’ The policemen praised me for speaking so bravely. They wrote a case against my father, and went off.”
He tried to run away from home, but his family tracked him down every time. Once, they even tried to persuade a friend who had given him shelter into laying a trap. “They asked her to make sure I stayed home that evening—they would come, tie me up and cart me off to the mental hospital. She told me, and I went elsewhere.”
When his family asked him why he was eroding their honour, Jovin snapped that he was putting food on their plates, which was more than their honour did. They couldn’t argue.
“I’ve done so much work. I have all these skills, and if I need money at a pinch, I can use any of them. I know ironing, I know how to string flowers together, I know painting, I know decoration, I know carpentry. In an emergency, I can earn 200 rupees like that!”—and he snapped his fingers—“And now I’m taking driving lessons. I told them I can’t live for the village, for the world, for society. If my family accepts me as I am, I will live for them.”
Finally, his sister told his mother, after watching several of his interviews on television, that there was no point in trying to change their Kalai, who thought of herself as a man. Kalai had become Jovin.
Eventually, they came round. When his father passed away, Jovin lit the pyre as his son. His mother’s brother told her to accept what Kalai had become; Jovin was a better son than most natural-born boys. He had, even as a child, defended her against her abusive husband—twice, he had given his father a concussion and told him that real men fought men, not women.
At a talk for the “TransForm: Transgender Rights and Law” conference organised by the Centre for Law and Policy Research (CLPR) in Bengaluru on December 14-15, 2016, transman activist Gee Imaan Semmalar spoke of the severely limited access to healthcare. The prohibitive costs of treatment and paucity of information are factors. But so is prejudice from medical professionals, the red tape involved in government-mandated procedures, and incompetence at hospitals.
“Initially when hormone treatment was not accessible to me, I used to self-medicate,” he said in the talk, a video of which is available on the website Orinam, “And I think that’s one of the wonderful things about the Third World. You can just buy medicines over the counter and nobody’s questioning you.”
But self-medicating can be extremely dangerous. Chennai-based endocrinologist Dr. Sruti Chandrasekaran said she has had at least three patients in the last couple of months who have begun the transition to male. She believes it is imperative for hormone treatment to be administered by a doctor.
“Testosterone has to be given in the right dose, and in the right route—it can go through various routes, as an injection, an oral tablet, a gel—and we need to monitor them constantly. Every three months, we need to check that the levels are within the reference range, because too much testosterone can affect cholesterol, liver function, increase the blood count, chances of a blood clot.”
Excited by the clinical effects of testosterone, such as a deepening of the voice and the appearance of facial hair, those who are self-medicating may end up taking too much testosterone. The side-effects are acne, hairfall, hyper-muscularity, and metabolic problems.
Most transpeople are convinced about their gender in childhood. But hormone treatment cannot begin at puberty, which is when the natural hormonal surge typically occurs.
“If the desire to change one’s sex persists, we will start treatment,” said Dr. Sruti, “But only after they have been certified by at least two psychiatrists, to make sure they don’t have any underlying condition that makes them think [they want to transition], such as depression, anxiety, or psychosis, and that they have mentally grasped what they are going in for with the transition process.
“Hormone treatment can make them transition beautifully, with the right dose and the right duration. But it’s not for two or three years—treatment is for life. Their bodies are not equipped to make testosterone so it has to be given at least until 50-55 years, when natural testosterone begins to wane. But I’ve never followed a patient that old. Most are very young.”
Interestingly, some patients freeze their eggs. “They want biological children in future, either with a partner, or for themselves.” American Thomas Beatie is famous as “the pregnant man”—he had gender reassignment surgery in 2002, and chose to become pregnant through artificial insemination in 2007, because his wife was infertile.
Patients are advised to wait through a year of hormone treatment before they have any kind of surgery, in case they change their minds. When I asked Dr. Sruti if anyone has changed his mind, she shook her head emphatically, “No. They are very clear about what they want.”
However, parents are often not quite convinced. In some cases, they even ask doctors to brainwash their children into believing hormones are harmful. “Obviously, I would never do that.”
Parental support is particularly important because of the costs involved. Testosterone costs between Rs. 100 and Rs. 150 a shot. A blood test is required every three months, at Rs. 1,000-1,200.
Dr. Sruti also spoke of another injection, GnRH [Gonadotropin-Releasing Hormone]. When administered once a month, or even once in three, it removes the oestrogen, so that the effects of the testosterone are more pronounced. Each shot costs approximately Rs. 11,500.
Surgery will set one back by several lakhs. Not many young people have that kind of money.
Most transmen want at least a mastectomy. Experienced surgeons are usually expensive, as is a reputed hospital.
In 2008, the Tamil Nadu government created the Aravani Welfare Board for transgender people, with schemes including free SRS (sex reassignment surgery), free housing, short-stay homes, and pension for destitute transpeople over 40. The scheme most in demand is free SRS. But the waitlist is long. Technically, transmen should also be able to access the surgery, but partly because of community gate-keeping and partly because of lack of expertise in handling female-to-male transition surgeries in government hospitals, they rarely get funding.
“The myth of the Tamil Nadu model has to be broken,” said Gee, in his talk, “The reality is that in 2009, a transwoman friend of mine accessed this in Stanley Medical Hospital, and the surgery is the worst I have seen. She paid Rs. 50,000 in 2009. It is not free. They say hospital charges are free, but the medicine, the bed—they just add [various charges], so the bill comes to a big amount. She was bedridden for six months.”
We are like lab rats; you place us on the table and you dissect us and you see what our bodies look like and how our bodies change and what surgeries are being done—Gee Imaan Semmalar, on the voyeuristic interest in trans-surgeries.
To “transform into a complete man”, Gee said, not without sarcasm, one needs at least five surgeries. If they are botched, corrective surgeries are required. His own mastectomy, in Mumbai, went horribly wrong.
“The nipple graft fell apart and I had craters on both sides of my chest. The ideal recovery period is around two weeks. I was bedridden for six months, and had three more surgeries to correct what was done.”
He considered filing a medical negligence case, but lawyers told him he would be wasting his time—the loopholes are too large.
Selvam was relatively lucky. He found a benefactor—who asked to remain anonymous for this story. In 2014, Selvam travelled to Gujarat in pursuit of a mastectomy.
“I was wearing half-trousers,” he said, “The tight ones. I took my shirt off. I went into the room, and took my vest off. They asked me to lie down. They put some kind of injection. I saw what was happening, but then I think I fell asleep. They did the operation. When I woke up, they brought what they had taken out and showed it to me. I remember seeing a bloodied bandage on my chest. Every time I woke up, I would see dried blood from the scabs I had scratched. It was 15 days before I could leave the bed. They told me I could do whatever I wanted. The doctor said I could lift weights. It would be a good idea to go to the gym. Of course, I can’t afford a gym.”
When he came home, he liked looking in the mirror. He did not have to bind his breasts any longer. He could roam about in a vest, even bare-chested if he wanted to. No one could tell he had been born female. It was the freedom he had wanted for nearly 30 years.
But it came at a price. It was three months before sensation returned to his chest. He had not been taught exercises at the hospital, and he made up his own. He massaged his chest, hoping he would one day be able to feel his hand against it.
“When I lifted my arm, it hurt so much, it would feel like someone was tearing my flesh,” he said. He thought of stretches he could do. He ate more than usual, and improvised exercises.
“But all this discomfort was nothing compared to the taunts I have endured in childhood,” he said. Now, the world could see him for the man he was. At the time, he thought it was his last surgery.
The final stage of transition is the most challenging—the uro-genital surgery. Dr. Antony Aravind, who is part of the Plastic Surgery Group at Apollo Speciality Hospital, has personally handled four cases of FTM transition in the last seven years. Because of the nature of the surgery, patients invariably return for alterations, and the period of transition is at least 8-10 months.
The technique is similar to what plastic surgeons use for the treatment of burns and cancer. But there are not too many experts, because the technique used in FTM gender reassignment is relatively new. “We call it micro-vascular transfer,” said Dr. Antony, “We take a piece of tissue from one part of the body, along with its blood supply, and connect the blood supply to another part of the body. If the blood supply does not get established, you lose that bit of tissue.”
His patients are usually well-informed before they approach him. “It is others who need education,” he said. “The support they get is poor even in the US, Donald Trump being against all of this, and you cannot expect people in a developing country like India to accept it so quickly, perhaps. But society must understand this is about making people comfortable with what they want to be.”
Even within the community, those who elect not to have surgery are considered less “complete” than those who have.
Jovin’s tumultuous relationship with his girlfriend ended because he could not sleep with her, he said. She was offended when she said she was ready, and he responded that he wasn’t. “She wanted me to prove I’m a man by sleeping with her. I didn’t want that kind of relationship.”
Then, the other girl, the one with the Silk Smitha eyes, told him she liked him. “I said amma, enna Muruganaa aakkidaadheenga ma, thaikulame (Don’t turn me into Muruga, who has two wives)!” Jovin laughed, “She said she would wait for however long I wanted her to. She said my girlfriend didn’t treat me right and that she would. It didn’t matter if we could never have sex. But I felt I would be ruining her life.”
Selvam now said, “I have two more surgeries to do. First, get my uterus removed. Only then can the penis be made.”
Many transmen have spoken against the humiliating process one has to endure to access healthcare, starting with a psychiatrist’s certificate that one has a “mental disorder”. Gee said in his talk that he met a doctor who believes transitioning is “messing with god”. Ramakrishnan told me of a doctor who refused to remove “the healthy uterus” of someone who has not “experienced the joys of motherhood”—joys to which no cis-man is entitled.
And then, there is offensive curiosity—Satya has written about a producer who asked to compare “dick sizes” after learning of the former’s surgery. When I asked Satya about balancing one’s right to a dignified life against spreading awareness, he answered, “This is a difficult one. My first instinct is to say that the answer definitely does not lie in being present in mainstream media; I am a greater votary of actual life encounters. Let’s not forget that the existence of the hijra identity or expression in the public imagination is not a product of presence on TV! The second is that patriarchy will never allow sex, sexuality, gender identity and expression to be liberated. Third, no amount of NGO-isation is going to do it for us. What we need is to work towards a public culture where these are issues questioned, reconstituted and owned by the public—not the state, not the law, not the media.”
On January 28, I had a voice message from Selvam. He sounded excited. He had just got a job, he said. He liked the work; it was something he might eventually do as the “own business” he had dreamed of for so long—terrace gardening.
The office of Urban Farm Guide (UFG) is an old house, with red oxide flooring, and large windows. Coloured bottles had been used as edging for flower beds. Several plants were standing packed in cases of soil, next to decorated earthen pots.
Selvam was making notes from a class they had conducted. Another transman was arranging pebbles around a flower bed.
UFG is the brainchild of Arthi Devi, 30. She had always been into terrace gardening—an inheritance from her grandmother, a farmer in Malaysia—and when she launched her own start-up, she initially planned to hire only women from self-help groups. While volunteering with Cheer, an NGO that works for the rehabilitation of transpeople, she understood how hard it was for them to find employment. She began to hire transpeople to man stalls which she organised at exhibitions in Chennai, for farmers with whom she worked in villages, as well as for self-help groups. Selvam was a regular. When she heard he was looking for a full-time job, she called him.
“I’m happy when they find higher-paying jobs and quit,” Arthi told me with a smile, “If they’re interested in something particular—Gopika likes making idols from clay—we try and find employment that suits them. We try to get them into the corporate world, as receptionists, places where the public will interact with them and stop seeing them as the other. Selvam tells me he likes to make handicrafts.”
Before I left, I took pictures of Selvam working in the garden. He looked at one of the photographs and smiled. “My dhaadi looks good,” he said, fingering his sideburns, “Chedi valarkka vandhuttom; seyrthu idhuvom valarpom. (We’ve got into this business of growing plants. Might as well grow this also.)”
Ramakrishnan told me of a transman whose employers were initially supportive, but then terminated his employment after his transition, saying they were downsizing. But he was the only one to be let go at the time, and there had never been complaints about his work.
Advocate Poongkhulali Balasubramanian said this could be challenged in court. “I’m sure this can be argued as a case of gender discrimination,” she said, provided the petitioner could prove there was no other likely cause for being singled out for the ‘‘downsizing’’.
The Supreme Court judgment in the National Legal Services Authority vs Union of India case, delivered on April 15, 2014, is considered a landmark in recognising the rights of transpeople. Essentially, it allows one to self-identify with a particular gender, irrespective of what one’s birth certificate, hormones, or surgical history say.
However, there have been problems with implementation, said Ramakrishnan. “Even though the judgment was far reaching in scope, in the popular imagination and, critically, in the imagination of government officials charged with dispensing schemes and identity cards, transgender=hijra. Transmen start with a disadvantage because they have been relatively invisible in terms of national advocacy.”
States such as Karnataka, Odisha, Manipur, and West Bengal are more amenable to changing gender on legal documents, but it is still hard for transpeople to choose a binary status rather than ‘‘Third Gender’’.
“The NALSA judgment got a lot of press as the one that recognised transgender as the third gender,” Ramakrishnan said, “That’s not the complete story. They also recognised the right of people to identify within the binary, male to female or vice versa.”
Some government documents—passports, for instance—require proof of surgery for gender change. And even then, some surgeries are more important than others.
“We know somebody who applied to a regional passport office and submitted proof of breast reduction, hysterectomy and oophorectomy. But the reply came ‘You don’t have a penis, you can’t be a man’ and he got rejected. That’s very, very cruel,” said Ramakrishnan.
Many transpeople also have objections to the Transgender Bill 2016.
Satya said, “The current version is in violation of the NALSA judgment—it asks for a district screening committee with a Chief Medical Officer and other medical professionals to vet trans applications! We are, together with other groups, pushing for this to be addressed in the upcoming version of the Bill. And yes, based on the NALSA judgment, which is now the law of the land, the option of going to court is always there. But we would like to give the government a chance to chisel the Bill in collaboration with our communities, before we consider that route.”
To avoid the run-around for medical records, it is easiest to change one’s name through a gazette notification, and use that to change identity documents. Again, the eagerness of the government to issue the Aadhaar card makes it fairly easy to get this particular proof of identity with the gender of one’s choice.
“But, unlike the name change provision, which you can do once in a single form and it holds for everything, there is no provision for gender change. That has to be done individually on every proof of identity,” said Poongkhulali.
She said the grey areas would be resolved if someone were to file a case. “If a petitioner takes it up in court again saying that despite the judgment, I’m being asked to produce all of this, then a court is sure to clarify that it’s not necessary in reading the judgment in its spirit.”
When transpeople, and even intersex people, have gone to court to fight for their right to self-identify with a particular gender, they have won. In the case of K. Prithika Yashini vs The Chairman, Tamil Nadu Uniformed Services Recruitment Board, 3 November 2015, at the Madras High Court, Prithika Yashini, a male-to-female transperson was granted permission to write the police recruitment examination as a woman. She became the first transwoman in the police force. Another landmark judgment from the Madras High Court is in the I. Jackuline Mary vs The Superintendent Of Police, 17 April, 2014. Justice S. Nagamuthu quoting the NALSA judgment said, “In my considered opinion, in the case of Females to Males (FTMs) also, such fundamental right is available to them and therefore, it is for them to choose and express their identity either as females or males or as transsexuals.”
Ramakrishnan said the rules on recruitment of transpeople to “gendered” fields such as the armed forces, police, or sports teams are not too clear, since cases are yet to present themselves. Poongkhulali said technically, the judgment does make allowances for people to enter fields which are gender-segregated or restricted by gender.
In the US, Schuyler Bailar made history by switching from the women’s category to the men’s category in the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division 1 in November, 2015. As a woman, Bailar competed alongside Katie Ledecky, future five-time Olympic gold medallist. Now, he swims on the Harvard Men’s Swimming and Diving team as a member of the Harvard Class of 2019.
In India, transmen have more immediate concerns. In places like Manipur, said Ramakrishnan, where the CRPF and Army frisk people daily, transmen worry that they may be targeted at security checks on account of their gender.
Reaching out to rural transmen has been a steep learning curve for us. This process has to be very carefully designed. India is too diverse. Also, politically we are against the very idea of what some call ‘collectivisation’, a political-sounding word that camouflages our own imperialist instincts. We favour the various regions building their own networks and for us to come together as and when the need arises.— Satya Rai Nagpaul
I met Keerththan Shiva, an undergraduate engineering student at IIT Madras, outside his hostel. He had the loping walk typical of teen college boys, enviably long eyelashes, large expressive eyes, and a ready smile that woke two light dimples in his as-yet-smooth cheeks.
Keerththan had the ideal start. From a middle-class family in southern Tamil Nadu, he was sent to an exclusive CBSE school—his parents didn’t mind taking loans to give their only child a good education. The school was a liberal one, and Keerththan didn’t notice that he had mostly male friends. Weekends were spent playing at the sports facility in his father’s office. He didn’t like part of his school uniform—the checked pinafore—but loved the white shirt so much he wore it when he went out to play with his friends, until his mother shouted at him for getting it dirty.
She would not let him keep his hair short. “So I did some jugaad (stopgap),” he grinned, “I told her I had some vendudhal (vow) in Tirupathi, and I’d promised to tonsure my hair.”
But one day would change his life forever.
“I was in eighth standard when I attained puberty. That’s the last day I rode my cycle. The next day, they sold it off. I used to win cycle races and all. I used to go swimming, play with the boys. Suddenly, I could not go out, except to school. They didn’t even like me going out with my girlfriends.”
He spent his time on video games instead. He and his father would fight over the computer—he had got his father addicted to Project I.G.I., he said with a laugh. He has one happy memory of puberty: a grand function was held, and the trauma of being forced into a saree, and a half-saree a few days later, was offset by the number of people who turned up just for him.
He did not realise all this while that he was, in fact, a girl. He had had crushes on three girls through school, but so did other boys. Two of these girls became his “best friends”, and he was so close to each that people would tease them for being a “couple”. When I asked how that felt, he grinned, “That was fun!” He asked out his best friend, Nethra*, in Class 12. “She didn’t realise I had proposed. She thought it was a girly thing. You know how girls get emotional and say ‘dear’ and ‘darling’ and all that?” He thought she wasn’t sure of her feelings, and so hadn’t responded.
It was only when he got to the girls’ hostel in IIT that he realised something was not quite right. “I would feel very uncomfortable when they’re changing their clothes or when they’d come out in towels after a bath. I didn’t know whether I should stay or go out of the room. And then all the girly chit-chat began.”
A group of freshers got together and began to ask each other about their crushes. When Keerththan’s turn came, he said, “Nethra.” They impatiently told him Nethra was a friend; who was his crush?
“That’s the first time I realised okay, they’re telling this is a friend? Then I’m supposed to have a crush on a boy?” he said.
Soon, his hostel-mates began to lose interest in him. He had no interest in discussing clothes or makeup. They could not persuade him to go to the salon. Within eight months, he had no friends, though he shared a room with two girls. So complete was the isolation that when he was burning up with fever for three days, neither his roommates nor their friends noticed he was shivering and crying on his bed. After three days, he called his parents and said he was too ill to move and needed help.
“Didn’t your professors ask why you weren’t in class for three days?” I asked.
He laughed. “The professors don’t really care about you. They come, they teach the class, and they leave. We go to the website to check their names, because some of them don’t even introduce themselves. If you have less than 85 per cent attendance, they fail you with a ‘W’ grade, and then you have to repeat the course.”
But along with the isolation came time to browse the free Internet the college provided. For the first time, he could look up things about which he was curious—his mother would sit beside him when he was browsing at home.
Now he typed little phrases to see what Google turned up: “I like girls”.
“Slowly I got to know about lesbians. At first I found it very awkward, to tell the truth—girl and girl? How is that possible? Even then I didn’t realise I’m a girl,” he said, with a sudden giggle at a younger, naïve self.
One day, he stumbled upon an article about a transman. “He describes how he hates his breasts, and he wears loose shirts to look like what he likes. That’s when I realised oh-kay, this is what I have been doing for some time.” He began to search for stories of transmen. “I realised many things after that. And I thought ‘Oh my god, I can possibly grow a beard’…and I felt very happy.” One of his favourite hobbies, growing up, was to secretly shave with his father’s kit in the bathroom.
He called up Nethra—they spoke almost every day, for at least an hour—and told her what he had found; he also told her that she hadn’t understood he was in love with her.
“She doesn’t feel that way about me, at least not yet,” he said, a note of hope in his voice, “But we still hang out as friends.”
When the excitement over the discovery waned, though, he sank into depression. He knew he was a transman, but could he ever have the life people in the videos from the US and Europe did?
This time, he missed classes for two weeks, and failed five of seven subjects. His parents were worried. They took him on vacation, to try and cheer him up. He could not speak; he could not even smile. Finally, he came out to his parents. His mother’s response was denial—“You’re just imagining things,” she said. His father’s was to buy expensive “girly” clothes.
For three months, he tried being a girl—he wore the clothes, tried to be affected by compliments from his hostel-mates, tried looking at the mirror and feeling good about himself. But the person looking back was a girl who was miserable in these uncomfortable clothes and this uncomfortable body.
“I couldn’t. I stopped trying. I said this is what I am, I have to accept myself.”
He put his efforts into something else—networking. He found the LGBT group on campus. He attended meetings, and then one of the members put him on to Orinam.
“I have friends now.” He smiled, paused, and then said, “I actually just turned 20. On February 11. And for the first time, I celebrated my birthday here. My friends made a surprise visit. I used to get very jealous when [other hostel residents] would celebrate their birthdays. I’ll be the photographer. This time, it was like…‘My god, this is so nice!’”
Satya acknowledges that these networks “have been life-giving to our communities, especially in the light of the absolute lack of familial and social support, state apathy.”
However, he warns, “These networks may not sustain their independence for long, as their NGO-isation seems to be round the corner. Just as what happened with the women’s movement, the radical potential of such spaces will be diluted, career activists will be installed and the community divided against each other. It will be crucial to see whether these spaces will finally hold out or be sold out, in the sense, will they remain political at the core, or be reduced to just service provision, again, something that in my opinion took the steam out of a potential gay movement in the wake of the HIV-AIDS crisis.
“I hope we are not going to be reduced to sponsored pride marches, coming out on TV, subjects of sensational ‘before and after’ stories for print and online media, and that the trans discourse can be brought into a life-world of its own and is part of a reality we call ‘everyday life’.”
Vijay, 19, was asked to leave home by his mother because his “perverse behaviour” was affecting the prospects of his sister’s marriage. He misses the ‘wife’ he left behind. “She is two years junior to me in school. I tied a thaali around her neck. Will the government let us live together?” he asks.
“That girl who liked me, she’s married and she has a child now,” Jovin told me, “I bought clothes for the baby before it was born. I wanted that dress to be the first the baby wore. This girl told me she would tell the baby, ‘Your father gave you this’. I said I’d kill her.”
“You should have given me her number,” Selvam said, “Naanaavadhu correct panneeruppen (I’d have got her). I’d have given the kid my initial and your name.”
“Look at him,” said Jovin, with a shake of his head. “If I’d married that girl, she wouldn’t have the baby, right? I need to think before I marry someone. I need a house of my own. If a girl puts her faith in me, I need to be able to protect her. A hut where the rain could seep in won’t do. She must be happier with me than she was with her parents. I will do everything for her. I won’t let her lift a finger. I’ll work, I’ll earn money. That will be enough to run our household. I’ll cook for her. I’ll feed her with my hands. I’ll make coffee for her.”
“And what will she do?” I asked.
“Avunga jolly-aa kaalaattittu kudippaanga (She will put one leg over the other and drink it),” Selvam teased.
Jovin wasn’t rattled. “That’s enough for me. Every woman who leaves her family for a man does so only because she wants a child. What can I give her, what wealth, what love, that could make up for that sacrifice? I wouldn’t want a single tear to spill from her eyes. I can’t give her a child. But she’ll be my child, and I’ll be hers.”
“I don’t think I’m going to make all that much money,” Selvam, ever-pragmatic, said, “I can’t give a girl the queen’s life our hero’s promising. She needs to work too. Everyone has to work today. But then, I like poor girls more than I like rich girls.” He smiled, contemplating his past and future at once. “It’s hard to curtail so much—my desires, my anger, my emotions. I can’t help but want a girl in my life again, the kind with whom I can settle down. I have so much love to give. It makes me sad that I don’t have a partner. Guys who want to live an honest life don’t get the girls. It’s only the cheats who will ditch them who get the girls.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities
Suresh Kannan is a Chennai-based photojournalist.
(Published in the March 2017 edition of Fountain Ink.)