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“My family had sent men to rape me,” claimed 34-year-old Vivek Azad, as he narrated his story. “They never supported my decision. I have often been beaten up for choosing my way of life,” he said without any flicker of emotion on his face and then went on to show his injury marks after he was recently thrashed by his brother. “They want me to get married and live like a woman but I can’t,” he said.
Vivek is a trans-man – which means that he was born as a female but he identifies as a man. “I changed my name two months ago. Earlier, it was Pushpa,” he revealed. “Since childhood, I loved dressing up in shorts and t-shirt and sporting short hair. My family often forced me to wear frocks and did not let me cut my own hair. This led to a lot of physical violence,” he said.
The beatings haven’t stopped. But Vivek is more determined to stand his ground. Dressed in a check green shirt and blue jeans, he calmly narrated his story without any hint of self-pity. “I cannot feel or act feminine. It is just not me. I want to live like a man and I will,” he said. However, he hasn’t had the sex reassignment surgery (SRS) yet. “Where is the money for a surgery? I couldn’t go to college due to financial constraints. All my school certificates were burnt by my brother after an altercation. Employment chances are thin.”
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Vivek works with New Delhi’s Nazariya Foundation which identifies itself as a queer feminist organisation and works for the rights of the Lesbian Bisexual Women and Trans (LBT) people assigned female at birth. Rituparna Borah, co-founder of Nazariya, spoke to IndianExpress.com on the plight of the trans-men. “Trans-men do not have alternate support systems like the hijra community. So many of them who are experiencing gender dysphoria or questioning their own gender, they don’t even know that trans-men exist. There is an invisibilisation of the community.”
29-year-old Kabeer Sharma, who recently transitioned from female-to-male, agreed with Rituparna. “I didn’t know anything about the trans-community till I was 25. Mujhe toh lagta tha ke main akela tha, pata nahi kya anokha bhagwan ne paida kardiya hai. Pata nai kya badlaa lia hai. (I thought I was the only one with this conflict. I kept wondering if God did this to me to take some revenge),” he said.
Kabeer did not face any physical violence in his childhood like Vivek since people labelled his choices as a ‘tomboy phase’ which was acceptable in the fairly privileged class he belonged to. “They expect that the tomboyish phase will die out once it comes to matters like marriage,” he said.
Experts say that’s because trans-femininity is ridiculed more in India than trans-masculinity. Dr. Lavina Nanda, who has been a therapist for trans-men, said, “The social construct and acceptance in our country is different when it comes to female-to-male transitions. There are some societal classes in India which accept their decision in the beginning and classify it as tomboyish behaviour. Problem begins in situations like when the individuals want to transition, have surgeries or want to have a partner etc.”
Though Kabeer knew that “something about him was different”, he did not encounter any major problems until, during his mock interviews, his faculty began to criticize his dressing style. “They asked me to wear particular kind of shirts that were tailored for women. I wasn’t comfortable with that and it caused a lot of inner conflict,” he said. It was then when he saw a show that featured a trans-man. “I started reading more about it on the internet after I saw the show and realized that my problem had a solution,” he added.
Rituparna said patriarchy is a big factor behind all this. “For the ones who are assigned male at birth, there are a lot of privileges,” she stated. “The society is more concerned with males. There are more privileges like access to better education and healthcare. Because of patriarchy, transwomen also find it difficult to access education. However, we all know how most of the times, anything that relates to male assigned at birth gets greater importance. For instance, even the doctors doing SRS for male-to-female transition are better equipped than the ones doing female-to-male transition. Our medical industry could have developed better techniques for ‘ female’ bodies. The surgeries for transmen too are much more complicated and expensive.”
The invisibilisation of the trans-men community spills over to the legal arena as well. The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016 does little for them. The Bill defines transgender as “one who is partly female or male; or a combination of 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 neither defines trans-men nor addresses any of their specific concerns that arise due to their sex or gender. It doesn’t even acknowledge the blatant ostracisation of the community. The word ‘trans-men’ is just used once in the entire bill.
Moreover, the Bill takes away the right to self-determination that was provided by the Supreme Court’s historic NALSA judgement. While the NALSA judgement had ruled that trans people could identify their own selves, the Bill introduced by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment states that a District Screening Committee would be required to issue a certificate of identity stating whether the said person is trans or not. Also, there is no provision to challenge the Committee’s decision.
The government offices too seem to be unclear on the protocol. There have been multiple instances wherein the officers have refused to change the individual’s sex on paper because according to them, the rule is only for the Hijra community and not trans-men. “One of my friends went with the NALSA judgement and yet the government officer refused to entertain his plea. They said it’s only for the Hijra community and for those who have the surgery. The Top surgery (mastectomy) for trans-men costs close to Rs. 90,000 and the bottom surgery (Phalloplasty) can cost up to Rs. 8-10 lakhs. Everybody cannot afford it,” said Kabeer.
Vivek agreed. “We are from the underprivileged section of the society. We often do not have enough to eat. Surgery is out of question. While the NALSA judgement allowed us the right to self-identification without SRS, the 2016 Bill takes that away from us,” he said.
Lack of employment avenues aggravates the scenario. “I could have been employed with the CrPF but my family burnt the call letter the moment they received it. I didn’t even know I had got selected,” he claimed. “The Hijra community is talking about loans and pension schemes. Where are such provisions for us?”
Speaking to IndianExpress.com, another trans-man, 34-year-old Karthik Bittu, an Associate Professor of Biology and Psychology at Ashoka University, said, “Employability is the biggest issue. The names and gender on our certificates are different from what we identify. Thus, employers do not often hire us. The process of changing the ID proofs is a struggle for trans-men since they mostly go alone as compared to trans-women who usually go in groups.”
Ironically, the Hijra community – which has faced stigmatisation and discrimination itself – doesn’t accept the trans-men community. “They say it’s nonsense. We are women who are just trying to act like men,” Vivek said. In a book titled ‘A Life in Trans Activism’, a transgender activist A. Revathi wrote, “Transmen are a highly invisibilised and marginalised gender minority. Most people are not even aware that such a group exists. And sadly, even most members of the hijra community do not accept them. I feel the plight of transmen is, in many ways, worse than male to female transpersons.”