It was not until seven years ago that Gopi Shankar learnt of the precise nomenclature for his gender identity which found little space in the then discourse of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) community in India. From being forced to change his school every two years due to bullying, to facing death threats for contesting the last Tamil Nadu assembly elections as the first openly-intersex candidate, the 28-year-old says that he has “lived many lives in one life”. His work has now inspired a judgment by the Madurai bench of Madras High Court – the court directed the Tamil Nadu government to issue orders banning sex reassignment surgeries (SRS) on intersex infants and children.
Noting that “consent of the parent cannot be considered as consent of the child”, the court order of April 22 has credited its knowledge of the issue to Shankar’s work in highlighting the pervasive practice of sex reassignment surgeries on inter-sex children — a procedure to make their sexual organs conform to either male or female physical norms. This surgery, the court noted, has “lifelong consequences for their physical and mental health”.
The order also cited a World Health Organisation report, which calls for deferring SRS until such persons are old enough to choose their own gender identity.
While the order is applicable to only the state of Tamil Nadu, it marks a milestone in the LGBTQIA+ (LGBT Queer, Intersex, Asexual +) movement globally. Currently Malta is the only country in the world to have banned SRS on children while the state of California has recently introduced a similar legislation that is awaiting passage. As per estimates, cited by several international organisations, 1.7 per cent of the world population have one or the other intersex condition but only around 1 in 2,000 babies are different enough that doctors may recommend surgical intervention.
The order passed by Justice GR Swaminathan while hearing a petition by a transwoman for her right to be recognised as a bride states “This Court must at this juncture place on record its gratitude to the intersex activist Gopi Shankar of Madurai. This Court had the occasion to come across his work and it has been a humbling and enlightening experience. Beyond the man-woman binary, there are as many as 58 gender variants.” Talking about why parents cannot allow SRS on intersex children, it adds that such children “must be given their time and space to find their true gender identity.”
Shankar views the order as a major victory for all the struggles of the intersex community in the country. Vocal in his stance against the institutional discrimination faced by female athletes with hyperadrogenism (an intersex condition which causes excess testosterone in the body)__ including in the recent case of South African runner Caster Semenya__Shankar through his many petitions has also helped push the cause of former Asian Games silver medallist Santhi Soundarajan who was stripped off her all her honours after ‘failing’ the gender test.
Born in a slum in Madurai, Shankar says his assigned sex at birth was that of a boy but was raised as a girl until he was seven years old. His grandmother was his sole support, he says, through a life of childhood abuse, bullying, and depression that led him to, as a teenager, seek solace in the monastic order of Ramkrishna mission and even join a hijra jamaat (council). Explaining his extreme alienation growing up as an intersex person, he says, “It was painful for me to see how these gay parties and pride parades in metros such as Chennai and Mumbai had no meaning to the lives of intersex persons who were entirely excluded from their conversations back then. I realised that our bodies are different and we are not transgender. In those days, even doctors didn’t use the term intersex and many psychiatrists saw it as a disorder. It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that I can remain non binary (gender queer) as I am not comfortable with either a female or a male body.” In June 2012, Gopi organised Asia’s first gender queer pride parade in Madurai.
He adds, “I have seen three of my friends commit suicide. You can hide who you are from the world but not from the person you love. When that person find out about this weird stuff between your legs…like this friend who later killed herself would tell me often that she was in love with someone and she hated herself,” After the death of the friend in 2013, he along with a few others held a press conference where he gave out his personal number as a 24×7 helpline for any intersex person who wants to just talk. His organisation Srishti Madurai Student Volunteer Collective that reaches out to sexual minorities is entirely self-funded by the 15 members who run it. “I contribute from what I make teaching yoga while some of my friends who are trans sex workers pitch in with 30 percent of their income.”
He recalls how as part of his attempts to reach out to the youth, once following his address to 600 school students in Madurai, a student came forward to talk of how it was the first time she realised she was not alone. However, the teachers chastised him for ‘spreading homosexuality’, a charge he had encountered earlier when in a belated attempt to finish his graduation, he enrolled at the American college in Madurai in 2011.
“Some seniors tried to shame me with posters on the campus notice board and posts on social media,” he said adding that this only egged him on to pushed for including LGBTQIA+ studies in the curriculum. Today his book Maraikappatta Pakkangal (Hidden Pages), the first book on the issue in Tamil language, is taught as part of the syllabus for “Genderqueer and Intersex Human Rights studies” at his alma mater.
“You have to start with the education system. On day 1, children are told that they are either a boy or a girl. Babies should be raised without any labels. When a dear friend’s daughter started going to school where other says pink is for girls, I would teach her that colours have no gender. I told her to say ‘My name is Athira. I have been assigned a girl at birth but I can grow up as anyone I want’.”