So much has been written about Nandini Krishnan’s invisible men Inside India’s Transmasculine Networks that another write-up seems like flogging a dead horse. However, when the horse in question is far from dead and is instead trotting across literary fests to promote her work, the critiques must persist. Invisible Men triggered a firestorm ever since it hit stores and e-portals last November. Its primary detractors notably aren’t conservative pundits. Cis commenters, including those within queer spaces, garlanded the work for throwing light upon the ‘seldom-visibilized’ transmasculine community. Firstpost claimed that she had ‘brought (trans men) out of the shadows’. Scroll insisted that her work ‘offers important lessons in inclusivity’. Hindu declared hyperbolically that she had ‘penned one of the most empathetic and eye-opening books on transmen ever written’. To be honest, the same cis (and particularly heterosexual) community calls Kapoor and Sons – a movie that barely skims the surface of queer identities, a ‘realistic’ representation of the homosexual community, so their acclaim for Invisible Men surprises no one.
It is the trans community itself which has criticized the work severely, citing misrepresentation and misgendering of the community as well as the Meitei community in Manipur. They have called out the casteism, ableism, and the Brahminical overtones among other problematic elements. Several rejoinders sprung up online and a public protest was organized in Imphal where physical copies of the work were set on fire.
Krishnan on her part has remained staunchly defensive, offering long-winded clarifications on social media platforms. She has dismissed many of her critics as trolls, being one step short of saying ‘Stop crying, jealousy won’t help you’ ala Kangana Ranaut. Many of her cis-gendered followers have backed her. One shared a link to Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off while another remarked – ‘Trans people, this sort of behavior isn’t doing your community any favours’. Flatly refusing to apologize has only antagonized Krishnan further. She recently withdrew from a literature fest in Bangalore after reportedly receiving threatening and abusive calls (I do not condone such forms of retaliation regardless of my opinions about the book). A Gaysi Family contributor too went gaga over Invisible Men, devoting two pieces to the work one of which termed it ‘Your New Woke Guide’. The website came under a barrage of criticism and eventually withdrew both the pieces.
Krishnan’s central allegation has been that many of her naysayers haven’t read the work in its entirety. In a day and age where messages are often taken out of context to rip apart human lives, her statement holds some validity. Therefore, I chose to engage in public debate only after reading the complete work. By then, I had already flipped through dozen-odd readings, both in favor and against the book. I do anticipate the opinions to color my own perspective, though I believe the write-ups have rather enriched my understanding of transgender rights in general and their media representation in particular.
Without further ado, here’s my take on the Ugly, Bad, and Good in Nandini Krishnan’s Invisible Men –
Manu Joseph’s Foreword, hands down. No excuses, Nandini. Joseph may be your mentor, guide, even the godfather to your Ghatotkacha, but his sheer delinquency in penning the foreword should’ve disqualified it from the final cut.
Even though lambasted by trans people as ‘creepy’, ‘voyeuristic’, ‘ignorant’, even ‘violent’, Krishnan absurdly defends Joseph for ‘saying it like one sees it’. That is, viewing our identities through his cis-heteronormative and patriarchal lens.
Joseph admits he has had limited interactions with the trans community. First, in the capacity of journalist covering the Koovagam Annual Festival. Second, as a Samaritan to trans persons seeking alms at traffic signals. While narrating about Koovagam, he exocitizes them, conjecturing that ‘they wail for being entrapped in male bodies’. The wrong body paradigm, popularized by Western media and modern medicine is solely emphasized (see Further Reading). Joseph could have critiqued how the society at large has coded bodies into binaries, imposed gender roles and expectations, and forced queer identities to adhere to the status quo for social recognition. His attempts to “normalize” the trans community is feeble and self-serving at best. By handing twenty rupees (a princely sum, nah!) to a trans person, he chest-thumps his own benevolence.
Asserting that ‘gender isn’t a spectrum and that transition has only two directions’ is a slap in the face of queer politics and, in the particular, the gender non-conforming community. I agree, there is an act of ‘striving’ among trans people, but this the ‘striving’ is not to embrace the ‘opposite gender identity’ but to reclaim one’s own identity which has been severely repressed for years.
Joseph hits rock-bottom when he gives his two cents on trans men’s journey to reclaim their identity (see screenshot above). How did Krishnan or the editors at Penguin approve this dysphoria-triggering passage that makes ‘transition’ sound regretful and, even worse, sexualizes it through gems like ‘liberate themselves from their gorgeous female shape’, ‘cut away their breasts’, ‘destroying their long flowing hair’ (Didn’t Krishnan perceive that any trans person will be deeply uncomfortable coded in these terms?
All in all, Joseph is the one stuck within the ‘corrupt and destructive notion of normality’, and Krishnan has enabled his prejudice.
Sensationalism. Both in imagery and text. See, I am in the media myself and know that in times of ‘virality’, sensationalism rules the roost. Take for instance Bollywood/Tellywood tabloids. When Gauri Arora (MTV Splitsvilla) came out as a trans woman, she automatically became fodder for gossip. ‘Post SEX CHANGE Surgery, (deadname) Makes A Comeback On TV As Gauri Arora!’ yelled 9X Media’s SpotboyE. ‘Ek Mard Kyun Ban Gaya Aurat?’ Crazy 4 Bollywood enquired. Countless leading publications fetishized her transformation from a ‘40-30-36 physique, eight-pack abs and 16-inch biceps’ to ‘willowy glamour’, ‘classy chic’, ‘comely hairstyle’, and ‘32-24-36 figure’. They openly misgendered her and put under scrutiny personal details of her life. This invasion of privacy might have gotten her considerable attention but the phenomenon is also a living case study of the society’s tendency to sensationalizing trans identities with impunity.
Krishnan and her team seem to have adopted a similar strategy for their assumedly ‘serious’ work. Let’s begin with the clichéd cover image designed by Ahlawat Gunjan, with an explicitly ‘feminine’ outline housing a typically masculine body. Similar illustrations albeit designed by Krishnan herself deck up sections of the book. Look at the Shikhandi image above with W-shaped genitalia.
I vividly remember during my teenage years, I would fill up my notebooks with drawings of the female form. They were not even close to impressions that Krishnan or the cover designer Gunjan Ahlawat illustrate (i.e. assuming that trans men illustrate male bodies). The duo could have consulted trans persons and used their inputs while creating and finalizing the illustrations. The best option – hire a trans person to design the cover!
And then comes the Titles. Ones like ‘I Will Erase Myself’ and ‘Boys Do Cry’ seem fine. On the other hand, ‘Why Didn’t the Indian Army Want to Search Me?’, and ‘I Used to Think My Penis Would Grow One Day’ is pure eyeball-grabbing. Even if the interviewees had uttered these exact words, the author could’ve used alternate headings. Except Krishnan is an old hand at conjuring sensational titles. One of her earlier piece on Indian marriages is unsubtly called ‘Let’s Share the Cock’.
Krishnan’s position that trans persons need cis people as mediators to be accessible to ‘laypersons’, whatever that means. In my experience as a trans person, I find non-trans folks, both from the LGB or heterosexual community, saying the darndest things. I have been referred to as ‘technically a crossdresser’ (No), ‘a male body soon to undergo surgery’ (no – woman, pure and simple), ‘in process’ (what am I, a Windows update?), and ‘not a “real” woman’. Not by random strangers but by close friends, who balk when I call out their transphobia. So just leave us to speak for ourselves, please.
All hail Hindu Mythology. Though I am not a religious person today, I was brought up in a Tamil Brahmin family and was drawn to powerful Hindu goddesses like Kaali and Durga, whose idols adorned my grandparents’ home. Krishnan could have probed her interviewees on the role of religion and religious figures in their lives (other than the Muslim interviewees, who have shared such insights).
Instead, it is assumed that every broad instance of gender non-conformity in Hindu mythology will resonate with trans folks. Narrated is the legend of Amba who is reborn as Shikhandi so he can slay Bhishma. Of Lord Krishna who takes the form of Mohini to satisfy prince Aravan’s last wish of losing his virginity. Of Chitrangada who transforms into a comely maiden (‘her chest ballooning into breasts’ Krishnan writes) only to seduce Arjuna.
In reality, trans folks are born the way they are and don’t land on earth with such motives in mind. At a time when there is a misconception that trans persons undergo medical assistance only to unite with cisgendered partners, I cannot comprehend how these mythological narratives work in our favor? (And this part falls under ‘Ugly’) The worst offense occurs when Hindu mythology is incorrectly imposed on the indigenous Manipuri community (she writes ‘In Manipur, the legend of Chitrangada could be appropriated by anyone’… yeah, right!).
Medical Mania. Medical concerns play an important part in the trans community. However, imagine how bothersome it is if every person is described by the surgeries they have had? I too have been flooded with questions like – ‘Why aren’t you on hormones yet?’, ‘Have you gotten rid of your private parts (they actually name the exact part)?’, ‘How many laser sessions have you undergone?’, ‘Hormones do have side effects, you know’. The author’s curiosity of trans persons’ medical history holds no bounds. She casually brings it up in every other informal conversation. Even if her respondents themselves divulged such information, she could’ve forgone constant reiteration. Like ek-do baar me pata chal jaata hai procedure vagere.
Framing/phrasing issues. Krishnan repudiates the labels ‘casteist’, ‘transphobic’, or ‘ableist’. So I won’t do that. However, the questionable framing/phrasing of her interactions still baffles me. For instance, in a chapter on disability rights and trans rights activist Kiran, why would Krishnan highlight her own family’s caregiving skills and follow it with the failure on the part of Kiran’s parents’. Comes across as a put down than sympathy.
Similarly, after a heartrending account shared by another interviewee and his partner, Krishnan gets a fleeting image of the man ‘in a saree, with long hair, pregnant and grinding chutney in the morning’ (of course, in addition to observing him ‘keeping his legs slightly parted as men do’). Like, what a mood-killer, seriously!
She crudely terms an interviewee who was intersex and who had overcome several hurdles in his life as a ‘golden goose’. Being in media myself, I know how professionals use such parlance while on the field in their quest for the ‘strange and the unusual’. Reality TV like Bigg Boss wouldn’t be such blockbusters otherwise. However, it is insensitive to air one’s intentions so brazenly, especially in such a context.
Grading trans-masculinity. Krishnan often observing her interviewees’ body language/ movements to note the presence or lack of masculinity (see Screenshot above). Trans men who don’t fit the bill are described as ‘cherubic’, ‘Peter Pan-like’. One might find the usage innocuous, and yet, unsexed infantilized terms risk building the perception of trans men as not complete men (see Further Reading).
Misgendering. The last and only time I heard ‘It’ used to refer to a person was for Pennywise the Dancing Clown in Stephen King’s horror novel. Invisible Men uses ‘it’ to substitute the word ‘adhu’ in Tamil to describe a ‘kothi’. She coolly passes the buck and holds nameless trans women responsible, insisting they had instructed her during their meeting not to use gendered pronouns until the person had earned it. Listen. No one denies the prevalence of oppressive practices even within the trans community. I remember this conversation with a friend who misgendered her acquaintance as ‘that person was in an early stage’. That, however, did not stop me from using the right pronoun and politely correcting her too. When Krishnan has taken so many liberties in her work, why couldn’t she just use a more dignifying ‘her’ or ‘them’?
Dead names are name-dropped without compunction and justified through technical “loopholes” (‘she used her given name in her autobiography’, in the case of actor-director Living Smile Vidya). Now, if you were to search for articles I have written in the past, you’d surely find material where my given name is used. It’s very difficult to erase that out of existence, especially for writers, however, one can ensure that any new content does not repeat the act.
Krishnan’s (Random) Food For Thought. Krishnan is a vegan and a strong believer in animal rights. Fantastic. If I were to meet her, I’d steal one of her doggies (especially the one in the Author Photograph which is Oh So Cute!). Trouble is when she abruptly goes off on a defence of the beef ban to critique the queer movement’s oppositional stance on the same. It is an altogether separate issue that should either be explored in depth (perhaps on Krishnan’s blog) or chucked out altogether.
Lastly the book, in spite of being a 500-page tome, is s-h-a-l-l-o-w. Invisible Men dwells endlessly on the gloom and doom of its interviewees’ childhood, then belabors their medical history like a surrogate endocrinologist. Yes, most trans people wear trauma on their sleeves but Krishnan stitches a Sabyasachi gown out of it. When certain forms of repression are shared by most interviewees, couldn’t she avoid repetition? Like how many times do I have to know that the interviewees were forced to grow their hair?
Large chunks of the book paint trans lives as pathetic, while there is so much more to the lives that make them human. The contrast between the representation of trans and cis people is conspicuous in Krishnan’s interviews with A Mangai and Mina Swaminathan, whose professional achievements are narrated without needlessly needling personal traumas.
Coverage. Invisible Men includes trans persons across professions, socioeconomic status, geographies, religions, identities, and ideologies. I learned about the prominent members of the community like Rumi Harish, Jamal Siddiqui, and Dr. Karthik Bittu among others. I could identify with their life journeys, and this is important considering the state of local media representation is pitiful and many public spaces remain unwelcoming and hostile. I also learned about the various regional organizations and trusts (Sampoorna, Sangama) that work towards fostering a healthy and inclusive environment for the trans community.
Krishnan did manage to gain the trust of her interviewees, some of whom have very candid in spite of not being public about their identities. Considering this, it pains me to learn now that the author and the publishing house might have committed a serious breach of trust and ethical lapses in publishing their work.
So what happens next? Penguin seems unlikely to back down unless there’s legal intervention. As a community, we can continue making noise so our media representations do not reek of cis-curiosity… until we gain the agency and an equal footing in media creation. Instead of placing our bets on this show horse, why not hear from the horse’s mouth and purchase works produced by the trans community. A Revathi and Nandini Murali’s A Life in Trans Activism is a good start.
Meanwhile, check out these 5 ‘Woke’ critiques on Invisible Men:
On Wrong Body Paradigm:
• Glover, J. K. (2016). Redefining Realness?: On Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, TS Madison, and the Representation of Transgender Women of Color in Media. Souls, 18(2-4), 338-357. doi:10.1080/10999949.2016.1230824
• Lovelock, M. (2016). Call me Caitlyn: Making and making over the ‘authentic’ transgender body in Anglo-American popular culture. Journal of Gender Studies, 26(6), 675-687. doi:10.1080/09589236.2016.1155978
• Siebler, K. (2016). Transgender Transitions: Sex/Gender Binaries in the Digital Age. Learning Queer Identity in the Digital Age, 123-154. doi:10.1057/978-1-137-59950-6_6
• Skidmore, E. (2011). Constructing the “Good Transsexual”: Christine Jorgensen, Whiteness, and Heteronormativity in the Mid-Twentieth-Century Press. Feminist Studies, 37(2), 270-300. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23069901
On Infantilisation of Trans Men:
• Mocarski, R., Butler, S., Emmons, B., & Smallwood, R. (2013). “A Different Kind of Man”: Mediated Transgendered Subjectivity, Chaz Bono on Dancing With the Stars. Journal of Communication Inquiry, 37(3), 249–264. https://doi.org/10.1177/0196859913489572
• Bhavani, D. K. (2018, November 21). ‘We have much to unlearn about gender,’ says author Nandini Krishnan. Link
• Chanda-Vaz, U. (2018, November 24). ‘Invisible Men’ guides readers through the lives of transmen (and tells some happy stories too). Link
• Karthik, B. (2019, January 31). Nandini Krishnan’s Invisible Men does many of us a personal and political disservice, writes interviewee featured in the book. Link
• Krishnan, N. (2019, January 10). No one who has ever loved a book could burn another. Link
• Krishnan, N. (2018). Invisible men Inside India’s Transmasculine Networks. Gurgaon, Haryana: Penguin Viking.
• Krishnan, N. (2013, August 31). Let’s Share the Cock. Open The Magazine. Link
• Mahajan, S. (2019, January 26). The criticism of a book on transmen in India raises essential questions about power and privilege. Link
• Malur, R. (2019, January 13). Nandini Krishnan’s Invisible Men is prejudice masquerading as honesty. Link
• Protest Staged Against the Writer of Invisible Men. (2019, January 10). Imphal Times. Link
• Rai, G. (2019, February 04). Nandini Krishnan, Penguin Random House committed a serious breach of trust, ethical lapses in publishing book on us, charge trans men. Link
• Sahasrabudhe, A. (2018, November 23). Author Nandini Krishnan brings the transmasculine community out of the shadows in Invisible Men. Link
• Semmalar, G. I. (2019, January 9). Okay, Nandini Krishnan, I read your book ‘Invisible Men’, and here’s why it’s offensive. Link
• Siddiqui, J. (2019, January 15). How Nandini Krishnan’s Book Hurts The Trans Men Community. Link