Siddhant More. Image: Siddhant More.
The transgender man somehow hasn’t made it to India's collective public imagination, and continues to remain an inscrutable figure in the LGBTI discourse. Siddhant More, a transman from Mumbai laments the fact that his identity is akin to that of an alien’s. In a refreshing interview, he speaks about his identity, the physical process of his transition and LGBTI politics in India.
Born into a healthy female body, 38 year-old Siddhant More can today pass off as any regular male in his late 20s. The first time I met Sid, as he is popularly known, was in Mumbai along with Nepali transgender activist Bhumika Shrestha. Neesha, a friend who came along was dumbstruck upon learning that Sid was born female, and repeatedly scanned his muscular frame and beard exclaiming, 'But he.. I mean she.. I mean he’s just like a guy. Even his voice. Are you pulling a fast one on me?'
City-born and bred Neesha is no stranger to American sitcoms televised in India where LGBT characters are prominent (Will & Grace, etc) however meeting Siddhant the transman was like a far-out phenomenon unfolding before her eyes. Having grown up in Mumbai through the 90s, Neesha has known tomboyish girls who dressed like boys, but who never quite passed off as males. To her, Siddhant was no tomboy — he was a '100 percent male!' She went on, 'Imagine if I dated a transman like him who hid this fact from me, and I found out only after marriage. Wow, after today, I'll always doubt who is a real man and who is a transman.' A barrage of emotions swept over her from shock, anger and even betrayal. This is just one of the reactions Siddhant comes across when he decides to 'out' himself to certain people.
He says, 'I’ve always been a tomboy. Only on the first day of work in 2001 I wore a salwar kameez. The next day onwards I started wearing pants and shirts. Back then I wasn't even aware that I was transgender. I thought I was a lesbian as I was attracted to girls. However I realized I was different from them. While lesbians were comfortable with their bodies, I wasn’t. I've always been ill-at-ease with my breasts. It was finally in 2008 I realized I was transgender when I met another transman on the social-networking site, Orkut. The day he came out to me as a transman, was the first time I heard this word. When he spoke, I felt like he was speaking about my own experiences. I realized that most transmen think they are lesbians initially. Some figure out their gender identity when they are really old. I was 30 which is also quite old. I should have figured it out at 20 or 21. I feel like I wasted ten years of my life in a woman's body.'
The transition process
Siddhant started his transition from female-to-male in May 2012 when he began taking testosterone shots. Within 3-4 months, the changes brought upon by the male hormones were visible. His voice deepened, a moustache grew and he gained weight. He decided to tell his boss about his transition only after the changes were impossible to hide. Siddhant's boss initially thought that transgender meant 'hijra' – transwomen - because in the Indian context, transgender equals male-to-female transgender individuals, more specifically hijras. Transmen are an unheard of species, aliens at best. Sid says, 'I explained to him that my soul was that of a male, but I was trapped in a woman's body. He was supportive and sanctioned a loan and leave for my surgery. I finally came out last year to my colleagues — three whole years after I started my transition. Before that, I tried hiding my moustache by shaving it but they had realized much before that I was transitioning. If you want people to start addressing you as a male, it's important to come out to them.'
As his transition progressed, Siddhant experienced changes in the way people perceived and addressed him — a constant reminder that his transition is a success. He beams, 'I feel like a man when servers in restaurants address me as 'Sir'. Over the phone too, candidates call me 'Sir' as I no longer sound girlish. When women check me out, l feel good about it. Today, not one single person believes I was born a girl.'
'I think we all are quite gender-fluid in a way. Though I identify as a male, I have so many qualities a female is expected to have in Indian society. I do housework, I cook and I like it. I remember once telling some transmen that I was cooking, and they felt so let down. My best friend is a straight woman who likes adventure sports and riding bikes. I sit behind on her bike even as Indian men give me disapproving looks for letting a woman ‘take control’.
I identify as a heterosexual transman. Although I believe that gender can be fluid, I’m unable to understand how gay men can be attracted to other men. Similarly gay men can't understand how I am attracted to females. Perhaps this is why many transpeople feel that they can never truly belong to the LGBTI umbrella. Gender identity and sexual orientation are completely different things. Still, the community should stand together.'
The law and LGBTI
Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, without making explicit references to LGBTI people, criminalizes the sexual expression and identity of homosexuals as it reads:
“377. Unnatural offences. Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.
Siddhant says, ‘As Section 377 only mentions unnatural sex, I think it doesn’t apply to lesbians, and to transmen because there is no penetration involved. Still, the entire community feels criminalized. We don't get into the technicalities of what constitutes 'unnatural sex'. The rules are so grey that even lesbians and transmen can be harassed and blackmailed. In fact, it's heterosexual couples too who could be indulging in 'unnatural sex' but when it comes to them, it's always and strictly a bedroom matter. They won’t land up in jail for ten years or undergo life imprisonment. Our community is a softer target. That said, I can't think of any actual convictions under section 377.'
The transmen of India
Siddhant says that an organization for Indian transmen exists, and that only transmen can register on the website; outsiders aren't allowed. Given that India's law criminalizes homosexuality, chances of abuse of information and blackmail are heightened particularly as transmen are seen as violating Indian culture by rejecting their female-born bodies, in a country whose sex ratio is already skewed in favor of males.
Siddhant also rues the fact that the show Satyamev Jayate, hosted by Aamir Khan invited two transwomen, a lesbian, and a gay man but not a transman. He says, 'That show broke ground with millions of Indians who for the first time saw that members of the LGBTI community were just normal human beings looking for acceptance. It's unfortunate they could not invite a transman citing time-constraints. They could have had a transwoman and a transman each instead of two transwomen. It could’ve made a difference. On a positive note, I was transitioning around the same time the show was televised, and several people who watched it said they understand trans issues better now. '
Sometimes, Indian parents are known to pressurize their gay sons to marry, and continue having male lovers on the side if need be. Immortality though continuing bloodlines and grandchildren almost always takes precedence over the child's personal choice and happiness. Does Siddhant feel a similar pressure? He says, 'I'm not concerned about never having my own children. If my future partner wants a child, we will probably adopt. If she really wants to have her 'own' baby, I'm okay with an anonymous IVF donor.' The question of family inheritances and legacies often arises.. When a transman transitions from female to male, his brother could be threatened that another male heir has suddenly appeared on the scene. A transman is a nightmare to a male sibling, his wife and children. Even if the transman adopts a child and starts his own family, the biological children of his brother would be more favored by aging parents who see their own immortality in these 'blood’ grandchildren. Sometimes even close family members like aunts who support you through your transition could tell you things like, 'Even if you adopt, that child is an outsider and not from this family bloodline. Your brother's son is the actual blood heir so let the parental house nomination be in his name.'
Fortunately, there are supportive parents who are concerned that their trans children could be abused and thrown out of the house by greedy siblings once the parents have passed away. It's all very complicated.
Making changing from female to male formal
Siddhant announces proudly that he now has an Indian passport with MALE written on it. This is his first passport. He explains, 'I first made an affidavit that I changed my gender and have become Siddhant More. My doctor had given me a certificate after my surgery stating that I could be considered as ‘male’. I attached newspaper clippings regarding my name change, and submitted the documentation at the passport office. I got my passport after five months. My Election Card, Adhaar Card and Pan Card are all MALE too. I just can't change my education certificates where my name is the female birth name. That's irreversible.’
Siddhant says, ‘Luckily, I changed my official documents during the time of the path-breaking 2014 NALSA judgement by India’s Supreme Court which gave Indians the right to choose their gender without doing sex reassignment surgery. Transgenders were given recognition in government forms and an option for ‘Transgender’ was added to ‘Male’ and ‘Female’. The current proposed Transgender Rights Bill of 2016 however takes away a transperson’s right to self-determination of gender identity. According to the bill, a transgender is someone who is neither wholly female nor wholly male, or a combination of male or female, or neither male nor female. How could they get the basic definition of ‘transgender’ so wrong? Also, a team of doctors and professionals will decide who qualifies as ‘transgender’. Hopefully this bill will be amended.’
Transmen in policy-making
Siddhant says, ‘Whenever laws and bills are passed regarding transgender rights, transmen are almost never called to the discussion table. Not once, have I been called, nor am I aware of other transmen who've been invited to sit with policy-makers. It's as if the word 'transgender' in the Indian context is exclusively reserved to hijras and transgender women.
This isn’t all. I've been intimidated at transgender consultation meetings where hijras (trans women) have said I had no right to be there since my official documents state 'Male' and not 'Transgender'. They assume I’m ashamed of the 'transgender' label and wish to disappear into the male species. Transwomen who can easily pass for females aren’t spared either, and are considered traitors. So what can I, a transman expect? Sometimes I feel I am in ‘No Man's Land’.
It appears like the Indian transman has much distance to cover when it comes to achieving personal happiness, safety and financial security. Siddhant was born into a privileged family in cosmopolitan Mumbai but can all of India's transmen claim the same?
Will this society allow for them to blossom and realize what they were meant to be? Or will they forever be considered transgressors who left behind their female bodies in a rejection of the CIS hetero-patriarchy?