Through his own experiences and the stories of 25 others,Sunil Mohan has explored the lives of the transgender community.
Sunil Mohan has an extraordinary story to tell. It began way back when he was in Class III,sitting among several girls and listening to the teacher. Thats the first time Mohan felt different from other students in class. Although born as a girl,Mohan realised he identified more with boys. I didnt tell anybody. I was not scared but knew that I couldnt tell anybody because I couldnt see anyone else like that, he says. As he grew up,Mohan decided he wanted to become a man,not knowing what that would entail. And so,when he moved to Bangalore in 2003,he began researching and learning about alternative sexualities. Then Mohan realised that he did not want any medical or surgical interventions. I realised I didnt need to become a man. I don’t believe in any gender. Gender is just an expression,a journey that people take up through their lives; it cant be boxed, he says.
Its been almost a decade now,and Mohan continues to research and work with people from the transgender community. Over the past year though,his research has given him a deeper understanding of the community,as he interviewed 25 people about their experiences,for a fellowship programme with Open Space. These interviews have now been documented as video clips,which Mohan recently screened at Open Space,Pune. My travels to Chennai and other places for the fellowship has shown me a lot, he says,adding that he came across startling stories of struggle,disillusionment,despair and in some cases,hope.
Like the story of Ponni and Anjali,who hail from the aravani or the hijra community in Chennai. Their dream was to teach Bharatanatyam to those who had little access to the elite art form. They started a school in a slum area where the majority of population was dalit cobblers,vegetable-sellers and the like. Both Ponni and Anjali identify themselves as women,and initially,no one would go to their class because they were perceived as different. But slowly,people began to understand them,and now they have 30 students.
Mohan has witnessed several such stories of acceptance but says that this acceptance is usually for male-born,or male to female transgenders. People are not aware that there are female to male transgenders also. Since male-borns have mythological examples,so people think there is a history behind them. And anyway,it is harder for women to choose their partner or their sexuality or gender because of the restrictions placed on them by society, adds Mohan.
The communitys struggles begin with acceptance in society,but dont end there. The simplest of things are affected,such as registering for a passport,or finding a job. One of Mohans interviewees,Sowmiya,wanted to become a beautician but because of her transgender identity,could not find a job at a mainstream salon. Another transgender,Chandini,wants the Indian government to recognise her as a female on the passport. Mohan says,The purpose of a passport or a Voter ID is to prove that you are a citizen of the country. What does gender have to do with it?
Even within the LGBT community,the transgenders are not understood too well. Its difficult to understand them because I do not conform to any one gender. We are doing the same thing even in the LGBT community. Society made two boxes for gender,and we are making many. As long as there is a box to fit in,people are restricted, he says.
Sunil Mohans work can be viewed on the Open Space website or on YouTube.