I had been in India for almost a year before ever encountering any space for queer people, aside from running into the occasional hijra on a train or just out and about. To give a little bit of context: I was a 21-year old college student from the US who’d wandered from Bhubaneswar to Trivandrum and then Palakkad doing research on handloom, with few social skills, long bouts of isolation, and plenty of issues with her family. I’d also only transitioned a few years before, and after spending much of the preceding time fighting with my mother (who’s a born-again Christian and also voted for Trump), left the US and stayed in India because apparently I passed better here. I also had my reasons otherwise, and always had a disdain for being in the US.
In the midst of all of this, another woman around my age found me on a site for queer women and we began talking. She was in Bangalore, and somehow the presence of a circle of queer women sounded appealing for a young trans woman who was still questioning her sexuality but realising nonetheless that she was interested in women romantically. Eventually I decided to come to Bangalore, and we talked of meeting.
I have a lot of social anxiety, and at the time it was much worse than it is now. I’d also never been to a bar before, and didn’t have a lot of experience with the queer community. She’d suggested I come to a pub on Lavelle road, where there were other queer women present – mostly middle and upper class women from urban backgrounds. I agreed to go, it went okay, and I decided to come the following week.
Unlike the first time, my friend wasn’t there. The waiter still must have recognised me or something and directed me to a table with several women I’d never met and maybe one or two who looked vaguely familiar from the week before. And then one woman in particular starts shouting at the waiter that “We don’t know her! Who is she?!” . . . I felt awkward and sat elsewhere until my acquaintance ended up coming.
I ended up attending these weekly meetings for several months, never feeling entirely comfortable but it was the only space I had to meet other queer women. This came to an end when the same woman basically told me one night not to come back as I “made people uncomfortable.” She then had the nerve to say that “it’s not about your gender” even though that was clearly a factor, if not the only one.
I didn’t have a space to meet people like me, especially not of my own age – that, I think is the important thing to take away from these experiences which left me floating around to various queer spaces where I didn’t entirely fit in. I found these to be mostly dominated by queer men, and even events like Pride are not entirely different.
Like most women, my sexuality is somewhat fluid and my identity has changed over the years: as a teenager and early on in my transition I defined myself as bisexual, then as a lesbian. After finding myself interested in boys as an adolescent, my sexuality started to shift after I started transitioning at the age of 18. I was simply able to let go of preconceived notions about my sexuality. What I will say here is that this should rubbish any of those claims about “masculine” women and hormones and lesbianism, for if hormones had any effect in this sense then it was oestrogen that made me into a lesbian (kindly forward this to the next delusional professor who gripes about female students wearing jeans). When I came to India, I felt more strongly attracted to women than before. It took me a long time to be okay with my sexuality, though I’m not going to assume that it’s a completely fixed identity. What I will say is that I’ve not really been romantically or sexually drawn to a man in years (and am not currently), but I’m not going to assume things will always be the same (nor will they necessarily change much either). I simply don’t want to be with a man, though I won’t go so far to say that I never find any of them attractive.
My hangups on gender and sexuality were actually pretty straightforward: how could I, as a woman, be attracted to other women? Why bother transitioning at all when I’m more interested in being with a woman than a man? Is this a “hangover” of masculinity? That took years to get over, and it certainly wasn’t helped by the fact that my limited interactions with the hijra community really brought out these questions. While I don’t fit into the hijra culture for a number of reasons, one of the main ones is that as a queer woman and a feminist I’m automatically an outsider to such spaces. I’ve actually found an even stricter form of heteronormativity within many trans spaces than outside of it. I don’t need a man to validate my identity as a woman, and moreover I don’t bloody want one right now anyway. Maybe I never will. Whatever the case may be, this must be respected.
This is not something that’s understood amongst everyone in the trans community. I was told by a trans sex worker in Chennai that I “wasn’t ‘a transgender’” because I’m attracted to women (she seriously couldn’t wrap her head around the idea and went on and on about that), I was asked by an older hijra in Bangalore whether I had a husband and then asked “don’t you like fucking?” when I told I didn’t. This is not an issue of class or education, though. A rather vocal trans activist from Hyderabad even told me that she’d “never heard of such a thing as a trans lesbian” when told that I was one. To be fair, this was a bit more ignorant before her transition, a few years back and had also once commented on my breast size in public. Another, more prominent, trans activist unfriended me on Facebook around the time she found out I was a lesbian. It’s disappointing to learn how oblivious people can be, especially when the people in question should know better. Why is my sexuality such a problem to these people, and how does it matter anyway when I was unaware of it when I transitioned?
One could talk all day of femme invisibility and still miss the point that this also affects trans women, though of course more butch trans women are also erased. Just because I’m a woman who presents in a feminine manner (or am I really nonbinary, since ultimately gender is a construct and one’s presentation a manipulation of certain cues?) does not mean that I want or desire a man. This is obviously not an issue limited to trans women, as any cis femme will tell you. “I never thought you were into women?” and “you don’t look like a lesbian” are two examples of what myself and umpteen other women have had to put up with hearing even from people who ought to know better. Even a few gay men have stared blankly in disbelief when I’ve told them this. Sometimes it doesn’t register, and they say illogical things anyway. “HIV infection rates are high, play it safe and use a condom” . . . as someone that doesn’t do penetrative sex at all, then what the fuck am I supposed to do with a condom?!
There’s really not much in the way of spaces for queer trans women in India , and even then it’s hard to say that there would be a coherent community as such. Most spaces for queer women also specifically exclude trans women, making it difficult to meet other queer women. There are exceptions (like ASQ in Bengaluru), but the general rule is that most LBT organisations do not welcome trans women – not Sappho, not many of the others. Why? Because (a) I don’t exist and (b) I apparently benefit from male privilege (despite never having lived any of my adult life as a man). It’s not like I get much out of trans spaces either, given the focus on hetero-patriarchal conceptions of femininity and indeed the focus on performing such for the male gaze. Though to be more to the point about this, there’s just not a lot of commonality between us.
This isn’t to say I have a lot in common with queer women generally, because indeed there have been spaces that I didn’t fit into: when everyone’s ten years older than you and has a corporate job, then conversations can be a bit awkward if they even come at all. Even aside from the hostility that I faced at one point, I’m not sure how much I really fit into a group like WHaQ anyway.
Even if I found other queer trans women, I’m not sure that we’d have a lot in common anyway. Most of them that I have met were/are married, having lived at least some of their lives as a heterosexual man. I really cannot relate to that experience, or indeed to the experience of having a “normal” or stable career professionally. Nor can I really relate to these stories of family acceptance or the desire to change to their opinions, as someone who didn’t care about their denouncements and hasn’t spoken to her mother since 2010. All trans experiences are different though, and I really don’t see the point in creating such dichotomies or distinctions except when addressing specific issues or past traumas. I also don’t get along with people well anyway, so it’s exceptionally difficult to not find myself in isolation. I’m not going to suggest that this is only the result of my being a lesbian trans woman.
I don’t wish to make this only about myself, as I’m kind of an anomaly in the sense that I transitioned socially as a teenager and ended up in India only a few years after that – I had/have my reasons for being here (which include passing, family drama, a friend circle in India but not really the US, and several personal reasons which may not be appropriate to elaborate on here). Furthermore, I seem to have a certain set of mental health issues to deal with as well, which are mostly unrelated to being a trans woman (but maybe they aren’t). My experience is solely my own and I do not wish to pretend that my experiences are universal. Indeed, there are many elements of privilege and the resulting social status which I have been afforded.