Trans Men Are More Invisible In Indian Society Than Trans Women. Why?

Posted: June 30, 2017
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Kinners. Have you heard the term? Not as often as you may have heard of the word hijra or trans women, and that’s discriminatory in itself.

The term trans men refers to people born as women in terms of ascribed sex, and transition to men in terms of their gender identity. Kinners are a community of trans men.

Often times ignored in mainstream rhetoric around gender, the exclusion of transgender people is not news. However, despite falling within the subsect of the excluded communities, trans men face a greater degree of exclusion and marginalization – with their transitioning and gender identity itself being either called in question, or brutally rubbished.

Now you see me

I go looking for them, but it’s hard to find them easily if I only just skimmed around, looking at the world around me like a bystander. For most that identify as trans women, gender performance seems to kick in – as their dressing and behavioural sense represents anything from muted to flamboyant manifestations of their gender identity. But the search for trans men is tougher: it’s almost like trying to find where the sea ends and the sky begins, far into the horizon.

And so, when I meet Manoj, a commerce graduate who is now working at a marketing agency as a project manager, I find myself brimming with questions. Manoj has a bright smile: his laughter is salve for the balmy afternoon. He is sure of himself, unperturbed by anything – or so it seems.

I start by asking Manoj about his story, if he is so willing to share. He bows his head down, and I’m almost sure I’ve touched a raw nerve, when he looks up with a wide grin and asks me, “Ready ah?” The nonchalant charm is reminiscent of theatrics one sees on stage before a character reveals something incredibly momentous. And his story is no less. “I was born a girl, and was named Manasvini. But the signs of my gender identity being the opposite of my anatomical sex were something my mother caught on rather early. We have this social system where a girl who is seen playing with boys is labelled as a ‘tomboy’ and that tendency is labelled as a ‘phase.’ Which is probably true or not true – I don’t know because I haven’t studied all these things. But, I know that it is a way to dismiss what is very real and true.

Thankfully, though, my mother was nothing short of supportive of me despite opposition at home. My father took a very long time to accept it – he comes from an orthodox school of thought that involved looking at a daughter as a burden – and now, a daughter who transitioned was a complex bag of emotions for him.”

But Manoj’s real challenge remains dealing with the hormones – especially around menstruation dates. “I declared my identity at seventeen. By then, I had menstruated for six years while dressing and functioning like a boy. I take medication that is typically hormone replacement therapy. It suppresses the oestrogen production, and it can be particularly difficult during the time of the month that marks when my menses are around the corner. I have to be on birth control pills for the suppression of menstruation for a while.”

The transition process involves hormone replacement therapy, such as taking testosterone shots. In a couple of months after the treatment begins, bodily changes from the influx of male hormones are visible: the voice begins to deepen, body hair begins to become more prominent, and in some cases, there is a weight gain. Birth control is prescribed for the continuous suppression of menstrual periods.

Community

I ask Manoj a question that leaves us both stumped for a while: but it’s only later that I realize that the silence from his side is not one of puzzlement, but rather one of melancholy. Is there a social support group of sorts for trans men? “See, the thing is, trans women are visible to the eye. Have you seen trans men around?” I look back at him, my eyes perhaps a picture of helplessness. “That’s the thing. Trans men are a minority. If you look at the gender spectrum, patriarchy plays a role there, too. Think about it. The transition of men to women is given greater precedence. You have doctors who are better equipped, you have therapists who specifically focus on the needs of a male-to-female transition process. But the contrary is not so easily true.”

A few days after meeting Manoj and checking in with friends, I was pointed to Barack, a twenty-six year old trans man. The interesting name was a charming ice breaker for us. “I transitioned, and chose Barack as my name, undoubtedly after Barack Obama. For me, he was the symbol of inclusion. Besides, what’s in a name?” Barack tells me that there is a tremendous amount of exclusionism of the trans men community. “Trans men are not even considered a subset of the transgender community in the way it operates. The exclusionism is heavier. On the one hand, you have a whole denial movement in place where people think trans men don’t exist, or that a female-to-male transition is a fallacy. Some drub it as being tomboys, some drub it as lesbianism. But there’s a world of a difference. Lesbianism is a sexual orientation. Trans men is a gender identity.”

In reality, the transgender community is dominated by trans women, and by itself is a community that has faced historical stigmatization and discrimination. But, they barely accept the trans men community. “They even go so far as to say that it is just a case of women trying to act like men. They look at it as a threat to their identity – they see their struggle as one against the grain, and see the converse transition as counterintuitive to their identity struggle!” explains Manoj. A. Revathi, an activist, wrote in her book called A Life in Trans Activism,’ that “Trans men are highly invisibilized and marginalized as a gender minority.”

I ask Barack why he thinks this could be so, and he gives me an answer that leaves me ruminating for hours at end. “Patriarchy. That’s why. Just think about it. Society is obsessed with masculinity and male identities – even transitioning is a privilege ascribed-at-birth males enjoy over ascribed-at-birth females. Oh, the irony…”

Who’s the boss?

Manoj and Barack both testify to the fact that the element of personal agency and freedoms for a trans man are severely stunted. “Let me take you through something really simple,” says Manoj. “When I transitioned, I wanted to change all my official documents to reflect my true identity. I was able to effect the change a few years after declaring my identity, but all my educational documents are in my earlier name and record my identity as female. So, when I applied for a job before the current position I hold, as a client service associate in web designing and digital media companies, this became a bit of an issue. Companies weren’t willing to take me on – it was just so strange for them. Then, one company was especially hard on me, appearing to be sensitive but hurting me by poking fun at the fact that I was a menstruating man. It was traumatic. My personal agency to choose a job that suited my merits and skills was completely eroded.”

For Barack, personal agency took on a different shade. “Since I was a girl by sex ascribed at birth, the choice to transition itself was a huge problem for me to exercise. My parents were dead set against the idea, and thought that I was going to create greater complications for them with respect to our extended family and all the social mores associated with gender identity. My parents beat me, took me to temples – and once even to someone who practiced some tantric yoga or something to get my ‘adverse kundalini’ out of me. I was made to wear rings in all colours because they thought it was an astrological alignment that decided how my gender identity would function. I can’t say I was steadfast in a way that would make me seem like the hero – because I crumbled under pressure too, did some stupid things and even conformed to their requests for peace of mind, but all in vain.

Eventually, after seeing that a change was not just going to unfold, they realized and let me be. Today, we are civil with each other, but my mother and I are slowly becoming closer.”

Law and Order

Trans men are by and large invisible to the law, too. The 2016 Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, barely attends to the intersectional and wide-ranging diversity in gender identities. In fact, the Bill defines a transgender as “one who is partly female and male, or neither female nor male. In addition, the person’s gender must not match the gender assigned at birth, and includes trans men, trans women, persons with intersex variations and gender-queers.”

The bill does not define trans men specifically, and does not address any of their specific concerns arising due to sex or gender for a trans man. In fact, the word ‘trans-men’ is used only once in the entire bill. Following the 2014 Supreme Court judgment in NALSA v. Union of India, which affirmed the fundamental rights of transgender persons, this bill seems to be a hasty attempt at conjuring a legislative instrument more than anything else.

Image source: flickr, for representational purposes only.

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