Every time I tell someone I’m working on a book about transmen, they assume I mean transwomen. So alien is the concept of transmen to the world that even when I explain they are female-to-male (FTM) and not male-to-female (MTF), the typical response is a puzzled, ‘But then why do they wear saris?’
Finally, I resort to, ‘Have you seen Boys Don’t Cry?’. The film that won Hilary Swank an Academy Award was my first exposure to the idea of transmasculinity, and so it was for most people of my generation. I remember watching it in my teens and being stunned. Despite my familiarity with transwomen, it had never struck me that the converse could exist too.
Indian cinema has used transwomen mainly in comedy tracks, and only reinforced our preconceived assessment of them as transgressive oddities, to be mocked and avoided.
In this context, Boys Don’t Cry let me into a world I had never contemplated—the inner world of a transperson, a world where one’s anatomy was at odds with one’s idea of oneself and with society’s perception of one.
A few years later, as a student of journalism in the United Kingdom, I chose to work on transgender rights for my final project, a video documentary. My documentary was a comparative study of trans rights in the UK and in India. It seems strange to think back to this now, but I—like most cispeople in India—had assumed transwomen were hermaphrodites or intersex people; I did not realize they had been ‘fully functional’ males until they chose to undergo ‘nirvana’, the term transwomen use for castration and penectomy. In the UK, I met transwomen who had fathered biological children before transitioning.
It took me a while to understand that Indian transwomen were not biologically of ambiguous gender. It took me longer to understand the jama’at system, under which transwomen formed quasi-families, a sisterhood to ensure their livelihoods and shield themselves against a cruel and prejudiced world. It was this system that gave Indian transwomen more protection than their counterparts in the West.
The narrative of transwomen dominated the discourse on trans rights. But I was keen to speak to transmen, and sought them out in both countries where my research was based. I met several transmen in the UK, all of whom had even more horrific tales to relate than transwomen I had interviewed anywhere in the world. If things were this bad for transmen in the UK, what was the situation like in India?
When I set out to make the documentary, in 2006, I travelled to various cities—Madras, Bangalore, Bombay—and several little villages of Tamil Nadu, to interview prominent transwomen and junior members of numerous jama’ats. I met only one transman in India. His name was Selvam, and I lost touch with him some months after we met. He did not have a phone at the time. The transwomen with whom he had lived told me he’d moved out of their community.
I’d always wanted to do a follow-up to the documentary after relocating to India. My search for Selvam and other transmen initially proved futile. I did hope to meet members of the transmasculine community when ‘unnatural sex’, under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, was decriminalized and then recriminalized, but all the non-cisgender spokespeople appeared to be transwomen. Transmen were, and perhaps in the popular imagination still are, invisible.
It was entirely by coincidence that I was reunited with Selvam. I was interviewing Siva Kumar and Delfina of the non-governmental organization (NGO) Nirangal for another story, when they happened to mention Selvam. Could he be the same Selvam? He was. I met him in December 2016, and began to work on a long read on transmen for Fountain Ink magazine. It was an interesting time to do the story.
The transmasculine community in India was beginning to form its networks, more people were coming out about their gender identities and sexual orientations after the Supreme Court’s verdict in the National Legal Services Authority vs Union of India case on 15 April 2014, and the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016 was due to be tabled in Parliament.
While working on my long read, I met and interviewed some of the people who would become close friends and subjects of this book—Selvam, Jovin, Satya Rai Nagpaul, Keerth, some who wished to stay anonymous—and heard about several others whose stories awed and often frightened me. They told me how much cruelty the world is willing to unleash, and how much endurance and resistance its victims find to counter it. I wanted to tell these stories.
The narrative of transmen has been typically restricted to before–after reports in the media, complete with pictures, and at best to discussion on transgender rights. In doing interviews and research, I would come across various layers to their lives that are rarely understood. The stories I found most poignant were not those of the external, of how transpeople are perceived by the world, but the internal—their dilemmas and dysphoria, their struggles to explain their beings first to themselves and then to everyone else, and even inter-community and intra-community prejudice.
I would hear similar stories of growing up—of indulgence from parents, even pride at their ‘daughter’ scaling trees and playing cricket, which would suddenly transform into restrictions and sometimes rage once the child hit puberty. It was bad enough for a boy to grow breasts and deal with a monthly reminder that he was not biologically male; but even worse was being separated from his best friends because they were boys and girls should not interact with boys. It was traumatic not to be allowed to play cricket or cycle or wear shorts.
My interviewees are drawn from across various spectra—different ages, genders, regions, religions, convictions, socio-economic classes—and I would be struck by both the similarities and differences in their stories. The broad general issues I had planned to examine began to splinter into various other aspects of their lives that I had not even known existed.
One of my primary preoccupations was the ‘other’-ing that could so easily happen in such a context. My interviewees could not become specimens. I did not want to subject individuals and their lives to scrutiny. I wanted to subject the system which interfered with their lives to scrutiny. I did not want their stories to evoke pity. And yet, I would spend nights crying into my pillow, thinking of someone who had been forced into marriage with a man, or someone who had been disowned by his family, or someone who was having commercial sex with men in order to pay for his surgeries. Were they tears of pity? Were they tears of anger? Were they tears of empathy? Were they tears of helplessness? Were they tears of guilt?
At some point, I realized the lives of the people I was interviewing were tied into mine. The realization resolved one of my biggest problems—how would I deal with such a bulky narrative, how would I streamline it so that it made sense to the lay reader? Should I go in chronological order of my experience? Should I split the book by issue? Should I split it into chapters, each dealing with a personal story? I finally understood that I could not possibly streamline something that is so fragmentary. The only way to lead readers into the narrative was to leave the fragments and layers and contradictions as they were, to expose their nuances and fissures, to show them my own journey as distinctly or as vaguely as I remembered it. These lives had come to me in fragments. The stories were told in layers, often changing shape and form. Just as my interviewees went from strangers to acquaintances to friends, from people I approached for information to people about whose lives I cared, so I would like them to enter the consciousness of our readers.
When I hear the word ‘transman’, I think of the dimpled smile of a student who calls me ‘Akka’; I think of a bodybuilder who spends four hours a day at the gym and has broader shoulders than any cisman I know; I think of a cinematographer and the heart emoticons with which he ends our WhatsApp chats; I think of the thoughtful eyes of an activist who does not subscribe to any pronoun, not even gender-neutral ones; I think of the brown curls and hazel eyes of a commercial sex worker cruising on Goan beaches; I think of the white teeth of a singer who jumped off a train; I think of the confident voices and happy laughs of their femme partners; I think of a person who twirled his moustache and flexed his biceps as he flirted with me from his hospital bed; I think of the intensity with which an interviewee asked me, ‘Do you think my story is worthy of publication?’ I think of a woman who sat next to her twelve-year-old child and testified in court that she wanted the child’s Gender Identity Change certificate to state he was a boy. These are the images I hope will unfold in the next few hundred pages.