Nandini Krishnan, author, humourist, journalist and playwright, witnessed firsthand the plight of transmen, who were largely left to their own devices, in 2006 while she was shooting a documentary on the community.
It was nearly a decade later that she reconnected with them and discovered that by now, the community had formed a close-knit network of its own, small WhatsApp groups with members from across the world.
Her research into the day-to-day lives of these individuals, their small and big concerns, their struggle for acceptance and their many interesting anecdotes fill her latest work, Invisible Men, with stories which otherwise are simply lost in the broader framework of the transgender community as a whole. As journalist Manu Joseph writes in the foreword, she gives the reins of storytelling to the voices in her book which speak of their own trials.
In this interview, Krishnan discusses the vulnerability of many transmen and the importance of going beyond the sexual identity of an individual to find the person within.
Why do you think has the issue of transmen not been a part of mainstream discussions on gender and sexuality?
Part of what inspired the title of my book is that transmen are generally invisible. Transwomen are very prominent because of how they carry themselves, how they dress. They live in a jamaat system – a house with several other transwomen with a sort of hierarchy within – whereas transmen don’t live like that. It is not a community which is banded in groups. Each one lives alone.
When I spoke to the community itself, there were several interesting reasons for why they are invisible compared to male-to-female trans-people. Part of it is the vulnerability, part of it is that though families may be horrified when they find out that their son, in fact, sees himself as a daughter and wants to become a transwoman, they may disown that person, but that person is not lost because there is always a group that she can join. In the case of transmen, this is not true.
Another reason transmen can blend in is their stature. Transwomen are abnormally tall women, largely because biologically they have the chromosomes of a male. Transmen, on the other hand, are often relatively small men and you can’t tell by looking at somebody that he has transitioned from female to male.
Also, when you have the organs of a woman, you are extremely vulnerable in any country. When people know that you are transitioning or you basically are a man but you have the body of a woman, they see you as easily exploitable, sexually. A lot of transmen whom I have known have faced sexual assault. They have also faced violence in other ways, physically, emotionally.
Besides larger concerns like red tape or stigma, what were some of the day-to-day difficulties faced by the community that you came across?
Transmen often have short hair and many of them look very male even before surgery. So when they walk into a woman’s bathroom, they are always stared at. Going into a men’s bathroom is also a bit of a challenge.
In one place, they had a transgender toilet. One of my transman friends said transwomen will use those because they are conspicuous but transmen would not because they will immediately be exposed as trans-people. You can pass off for a male far more easily than a transwoman can for a female.
I was speaking to a transman and his partner and they said every single step is difficult: finding work, acceptance from society, acceptance from family, one’s love life, surgery, affording hormone treatment, getting certificates, changing one’s name on legal documents.
One person who is transitioning and lives in an Islamic country where this is illegal said to me, "I am constantly scared. What if I get into an accident or something happens which requires me to be medically examined?"
In your book, you have stories of transmen that take us across the country – from Manipur to Tamil Nadu, way down to Kerala. Were there any cultural differences in the treatment accorded to transmen in each of these places?
In areas of conflict like Manipur or Kashmir, security checks are a big issue. People are subject to searches at random and searches would also involve segregation by sex. So the gender of the person who is patting you down becomes a factor.
Culturally there are many differences.
Manipur is a place where arranged marriages are not very common. A 22-year-old transman was telling me that usually, parents don’t find you a match. You find somebody for yourself. So that pressure of getting married off is not really there. But will they accept whomever you find?
Religion is also a factor. There are some religions which explicitly ban gender transition. I have quoted a couple of passages from the Bible [in the book] which say that if “you’re born a man” according to how people see it, you must dress like a man and you can’t grow your hair. And if “you’re born a woman,” you can’t cut your hair and there are certain clothes you should wear.
And again, Islam also explicitly bans homosexuality but in terms of transition, things are a bit vaguer. LGBTQIA is seen under one umbrella and people tend to confuse the two.
Muslim transmen whom I spoke to said part of it is family prejudice but all of them would say that as children they would constantly wonder, am I haram? Am I doing something haram?
I met several people who were forced into marriage with men or pressured into marriage but only one person I met had experienced marital rape and had a child as a woman. His story is in the book.
How do you see the youth of today, in both rural and urban settings, dealing with the issue of transmen? Do you find them to be more open-minded than their parents/elders?
I don’t think age is a factor in most cases. I think a lot of it has to do with awareness before acceptance. I would often find transmen who said their grandparents were more accepting of them than their parents.
It is only now that transmen are also feeling safe enough to come out. Still, I wouldn’t make a blanket statement saying that transmen can be out, because it is very tricky. Across the world, there is a lot of hate crime against LGBTQIA people.
Was there anything in the data that you gathered that did not make it into the book?
There were certain things I had to leave out. And there were some things which I wish I had spent more time on such as intimate partner violence encountered by transmen. And I am not just talking about those who have been forced into cis-heterosexual marriage.
Sometimes even within a romantic partnership between a transman and a cis woman or a transwoman or another transman or a cisman, the transman can be on the receiving end of intimate partner violence which could be sexual, physical or emotional abuse.
What according to you should the takeaway be for readers?
I think I’d like them to have the same takeaway that I did while I was doing my research which is that at some point you realise that this is not the only aspect that there is to a person. One of them was saying to me that no one is going to call you 'cis gender Nandini' or 'heterosexual Nandini' whereas people in the LGBTQIA community are sort of identified with a tag-based entirely on their gender identity or sexual orientation. So I think part of the takeaway is that I would like them to see each of the people I have interviewed or spoken to or spoken about as individuals. And I would also like them to start questioning things as I myself have.
What kind of an impact did the book have on you as you listened to and wrote these stories?
I think as a journalist you often think that you know your subject really well or you feel you have to sound authoritative about something that you have been researching. But it [the book] made me aware that unless you have lived a certain life, you can’t write about it with authority and that’s okay. Your job is simply to report and your job is also to be vulnerable in the book.
There were times when something would simply not occur to me. When I spoke to a couple of transmen who were saying things that I would find very chauvinist in a cis man, it didn’t even occur to me that they were being chauvinist. And I was thinking [later] do I not see them as male? Do I not see them as male, as a cis man?
Over time, it moved to a stage where I didn’t think of a man as trans or cis.
Once I found a packet of sanitary napkins in a house where only men lived. There was a gay couple and a transman and I think a student or someone who was also gay. And without a second thought, I said, "Looks like someone’s girlfriend left this behind." And then I was thinking that none of them has a girlfriend.
It’s only when someone said it’s this person’s, and that was the transman, that I remembered, "Oh my God, he gets his period." I also realised that, yes, in a way I have been insensitive in making that remark, but in my head I thought of him as so male that I completely discounted the monthly period.
Nandini Krishnan’s Invisible Men is published by Penguin Random House, India
Updated Date: Nov 23, 2018 13:31 PM