Man! I don't feel like a woman
As a book on the transmasculine network releases, its writer and a Mumbai transman discuss the complex narrative surrounding the experience of a woman moving towards being a man
The staff at the Bandra West office where 40-year-old Siddhant More works, is now family. "I've been here since 2001," the recruitment consultant says, when we meet, during lunch break. Many of his colleagues, including his boss, have witnessed Siddhant's growth from a reticent newbie in his 20s, to a key team player.
But despite the long-drawn association, Siddhant says the discomfort some of them feel, when around him is palpable. He might not be a clairvoyant, but he admits, there are question marks he sees hang above their heads. "But, I am giving them time," he says. "If I was in their shoes, I would have been uncomfortable, too. I can't expect them to overnight accept my new identity."
The softness in his voice proves that Siddhant is done feeling bitter. If anything, he is grateful. "A burden is off my chest, literally," he says, breaking into a smile.
Nandini Krishnan, author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks
Until six years ago, Siddhant was Sonal. Before that, there were other "perplexing" identities. He was born female into a traditional Maharashtrian family from Borivli. Growing up in the 80s and 90s of then Bombay, where the LGBTQ community was still underground, a young Sonal, who hated dresses and enjoyed playing it rough with boys on the field, realised there was something unusual about her. This was in Class IV when she grew deeply attracted to her best friend, a girl. After years of falling in and out of love with her girlfriends, Sonal assumed she was lesbian.
"I was wrong," Siddhant says. "Lesbians are comfortable in their bodies. I hated mine. I felt trapped." It wasn't until 2008, while chatting with someone like herself on Orkut, that Sonal realised she was a transman.
The complex narrative of transmen like Siddhant has become the subject of a new book, Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (Penguin Random House), by writer-journalist Nandini Krishnan. Based on over 12 years of research, the book by Chennai-based Krishnan offers richly-detailed, poignant and often, intimate accounts of transmen from across the country, whose struggles, she says, are not apparent to a gender-normative society like ours. "Every time I tell someone I am working on a book on transmen, they assume I mean transwomen. Even when I explain that they are female-to-male (FTM), not male-to-female (MTF), the typical response is a puzzled, 'But then why do they wear saris?'" Krishnan writes in the introduction of her book. That the transman has gone fairly unnoticed, thanks to heavily made-up transwomen or hijras, is one possible reason. But how does one distinguish, one from another?
Standing outside his office, Siddhant wears a slight stubble, and has spent the last five years developing the bulk of his chest at a neighbourhood gym. There is a strong confidence which he carries himself with, and it's hard to imagine that this body has been in the making for only six years. Like Manu Joseph, in the foreword to Krishnan's book explains, "Gender is not a spectrum; gender is a definite state of being. The body is the spectrum. Some men and women are trapped in the wrong bodies, and they then proceed to transit. Transition is not a spectrum; transition is movement towards certainty." Siddhant agrees. "This certainty has given my life new meaning."
Siddhant decided to transition only after his mother passed away in 2011. "Some time after I learned I was a transman, my mother developed health complications. So, although I was close to her, I thought it was better to wait it out till her condition improved. That never happened," he says. He remembers going through a low after her death. A year later, a transmale friend convinced him to make the switch.
When he began the transition, the most powerful opposition came from his elder brother. "We are like the north and south pole," he says. "My father told me I could do whatever I wanted to, but asked me never to marry. That was a fair deal," he says. His boss from his current place of work was supportive, and even offered him a loan for the surgery and hormonal treatment. But, he doesn't get into the nitty-gritties of the surgeries he has had. He says, it's only for him to know.
Not going ahead with surgery, however, wouldn't make a transmale less of a man, Krishnan argues in the book. "There seems to be a hierarchy even among transpeople based on whether you are pre-operative, post-operative, or non-operative. The decision to undergo surgery depends on various factors, including the extent of the gender dysphoria and the size of your bank balance. Surgery should not be a precondition for identifying with a certain gender," says Krishnan in an email interview.
Her concern is the violation that transmen could be subjected to, otherwise. She cites the example of Charupriyan, "who was forced into marriage with a man, and spoke to her of regular marital rape, until he became pregnant". "He said, 'I'm not able to ask my child to call me his father, nor his mother.' As women, we are often more scared of being raped than murdered. Imagine a transman, being violated through an organ which does not belong in his body, by someone who does not belong in his life, and is forced into a role that ensures a lifetime of misgendering," she says.
Now, although Siddhant lives the life of a man, what riles him is when he is asked if he became a man because he fell in love with a woman. "I am not stupid to do this for love," he says. In fact, he tells us, that he was single even before the surgery. "I did the surgery because I wanted to be happy with myself and my body, not because I wanted to make somebody else happy." He gets irritated when we broach the subject of marriage. "Marriage cannot be the ultimate aim of everyone's life."
Krishnan makes reference to this in the book as well, while referring to how the media ends up sensationalising love stories between two women. "The answer is depressingly simple: sensationalism sells; nuanced reportage does not," she says.
Siddhant is glad that he is finally in the right body, although he also enjoys his feminine side. "I live with my father, and need to take care of him. After going home, I drop my bags, and head straight to the kitchen. I like cooking. Even on weekends, you'll find me cleaning the house. I do things that any other woman would do, and I like those qualities about myself. I have the best of both worlds," he says, the smile not once leaving his face.
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