TW: Transphobia, Trans Deaths, Trans Erasure
June 18, 2020 would have been a bearable Thursday for India’s Trans community. Unfortunately, national daily HT MINT decided to publish a blithely ignorant and poorly researched piece by a heterosexual, cisgender male art critic and curator named Girish Shahane, which defended Harry Potter author JK Rowling’s equally misinformed tirade against the global Trans community. Rowling’s history of transphobia has been dissected and disproved consistently by way of numerous threads on Twitter and analytical pieces.
Despite the justified backlash to the piece by trans individuals (including myself), MINT Lounge editor Anindita Ghose has defended the publication of the piece, stating that it is a time to “mainstream this debate”.
Shahane’s article in its entirety appears to have been born from snippets of equally transphobic rhetoric and complete figments of Shahane’s imagination. He refers to trans women as “males who identify as women”, states the assignment of gender of birth is a choice that is only required when it comes to the matter of intersex children, and that the cases of detransitioning individuals represent the entirety of the Trans experience; all of which are resoundingly incorrect and utterly harmful for the existence of Trans individuals. He seems to quote statistics from some unseen source (about the number of teenagers applying to transition in the UK) and uses the negatively connotated word ‘entrenched’ to describe the affirmation of queer rights in liberal democracies. There are words like ‘research’, ‘videos on YouTube’, and ‘reported incidences’ peppered throughout the text without any visible link-outs to factual and published evidence that would back these statements. This means one of two things; it is either the sole responsibility of the reader to search for said evidence themselves or simply take Shahane at his word.
However, the biggest fallacy of the entire piece lies with the basic thesis; that Trans and queer rights differ. The classification of queer rights as ‘gay rights’ is erasure in itself, as it boils it down to the oversimplified assumption that human sexuality exists within the gay-straight binary. Furthermore, Trans rights are queer rights, and human rights by extension. Shahane’s facile statement about queer rights “fundamentally concern(ing) the behaviours of consenting adults” blatantly erases the struggle of queer and Trans couples’ ability to marry and adopt children, obtain access to healthcare, get involved in politics and the government, be hired without prejudice, not face discrimination in those jobs, and self-determining without facing ostracism and even death. The rotten cherry on this sour transphobic cake comes from the statement that Trans rights are “perceived by some to curb female rights”. Not only is this statement factually incorrect (Trans women have stood by cis women in their fights against sexual assault and harassment), but it also affirms the harmful notion that Rowling herself has propagated repeatedly: that Trans women who do not have Sex Reassignment Surgery and do not take estrogen are just men playing dress up.
I usually choose to ignore any ‘opinions’ or ‘discussions’ on being Trans by cis het people, because delving into them would stoke my ongoing gender dysphoria. However, Shahane could not have chosen a worse time to needlessly air out his completely unnecessary take on an experience that will never be his. Apart from being Pride Month, the last month has been filled with more and more burgeoning news for the global Trans community, including the deaths of Black Trans people like Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, Tony McDade, and Riah Milton, Boris Johnson scrapping key trans rights reforms to the Gender Recognition Act that would have allowed Trans people to legally change their gender without medical intervention, and the Trump administration erasing trans civil rights protections in healthcare.
Furthermore, Shahane is willfully ignorant of the existence of the Trans Act, which was passed without the involvement, input, or consent of the country’s Trans community and serves to stifle its rights rather than affirm and guarantee it. And sadly, Shahane’s piece (which I fear will be cited and weaponised by pro-Modi and generally conservative families as a way to misgender and vilify their Trans children) is not the first of its kind to stoke and validate transphobia, or to affirm that the opinions and beliefs of cis het individuals hold value in determining the rights of Trans and queer individuals and the communities at large.
The majority of professional industries in India, and specifically writing and journalism circles in this case, have been dominated by the voices of upper caste cis het individuals. Most of the time, it is these same upper caste cis het individuals who appropriate the struggles and lived experiences of the country’s minorities to beef up their portfolios and bibliographies. While a negligible percentage may pay their focus subjects for their time, the glory and recognition to be had is all theirs. The stories they profit from become topics of discussion among high ranking members of the upper caste bourgeois, who will describe it as groundbreaking in their highly exclusive dinner parties, wine evenings, and ‘intellectual’ gatherings.
The Trans community, and by extension the queer community, is no exception. Over the years, the trend of rainbow capitalism has swept large multinationals and fledgling startups alike, who treat community members’ experiences as ubiquitous tokens to up their social media popularity. The same five to ten members of the queer and trans communities, all of whom conveniently live in Mumbai, are commissioned and employed to represent us, time after time, year after year.
Despite having significant social privilege, I have had to fight to be heard and respected, as both a Trans person and a writer and journalist. What has taken me five years to establish a semblance of has been accomplished much faster by my peers who are upper caste, cisgender, and heterosexual. Because the reality is that the predominant space being taken up in writing and journalism circles adhere to the standard of cishet normativity. Being Trans not only means that identities and experiences like mine will be tokenised, but it also means that our opinions, knowledge, and expertise above and beyond our Trans identities will be blatantly disregarded to make space for ones from cis het journalists and writers.
Our media is appropriated by cis het writers. Our experiences are appropriated by cis het writers. And as Shahane and Ghose have reminded us yet again, our lives are appropriated by cis het writers, and will continue to be unless gatekeeping editors start to make some serious and actionable change.