'Three hospitals rejected me because I am a transman'
Mumbai's first trans doctor speaks about what it takes to be accepted for your skills, colleagues and patients alike
It's a warm August evening, and, like us, Dr Shashank Parekh, happens to be working on a national holiday. Being considerate, he has agreed to wrap up work and meet us at a nearby Starbucks for a chat. Turns out, we couldn't have picked a better day.
Sitting across the table at the Marine Drive outpost, the 30-year-old is celebrating his first Independence Day as a man. "It feels surreal," he says, his dimples playing peek-a-boo through his scant facial fuzz. Give it a few more months, and the dent will be eclipsed. But there's no hiding the red rakhi tied to his wrist that a cousin couriered from Aurangabad. Dressed in a casual blue t-shirt and jeans, it's also the first time in 13 years that Dr Parekh has stepped out of home without a chest binder. A reality for many trans men and non-binary individuals, chest binding is a technique used to minimise the appearance of breasts. "I would be repulsed by the sight of my b***s," he recalls. Back at his hometown in Aurangabad, he did not have access to a medical binder, so he would wrap a crepe bandage tightly around his chest. As a student of medicine, he knew it could cause grave harm. "I was scared that I'd end up breaking my ribs." Last week, he underwent a chest reconstruction surgery at an Andheri clinic. "And now I can't stop looking at it," he jokes. With one Female-To-Male (FTM) surgery done, he has two more to go—hysterectomy with bilateral oophorectomy (removal of uterus and ovaries) and phalloplasty with scrotoplasty (creation of penile shaft and scrotum).
Two years ago, Dr Parekh, born a woman in a Marwari family, took the decision to undergo a sex reassignment surgery and began his hormonal therapy. The process takes over two years and is one of the two reasons he moved to Mumbai. The other was to find a job as a medical practitioner. After being rejected by three big hospitals in the city, he has finally found a job at a leading private hospital in South Mumbai. "I have two postgraduate medical degrees. Yet, when I would go for interviews, I'd end up being rejected at the last stage. Each time, the 'no' was from the management level." The reason was not hard to guess. He was told that they have decided to close the vacancy and don't need the resource. "A month later, I would find out that they have hired somebody, often a junior."
The sense of failure drove him to depression and anxiety—he is still undergoing therapy every week. The fear that his coming out publicly might jeopardise his career as a doctor still looms large. Which is why there's no photographer in our midst. Even the name has been changed to protect his identity. "I'm not sure that the world is ready to accept it yet."
It's taken him over a decade to accept his own identity. He even thought it's a "phase that he would eventually get over". Over the years, he has gone through the rite of passage: dated men, then thought he was a lesbian, eventually realising that he is trans.
"Actually, one of my ex-girlfriends sowed the seed that I might be gender dysphoric. Until then, I didn't know who I really was. She could see how uncomfortable I was with my own body," he says. At 13, he broached the subject of homosexuality with his science teacher in school, who flatly told him that's "it's a crime".
Decriminalisation would come years later. By then, a lot of damage had been done. He was full of guilt and shame. "I started ignoring that part of me [sexuality] completely." Things were no different at the MBBS level either, he says. "The syllabus is devoid of LGBTQi material. It's taught only in forensics."
Back at the hospital, Dr Parekh is one of the youngest medical practitioners on the floor. When he joined the organisation last year, his face still retained a feminine quality. He was yet to change his name on official documents as well. On cue, everybody would address him with his last name, including patients. "I felt more accepted when people would not address me by my first name. Also, I was transitioning so the changes were gradual. It was natural for people to give me a once-over on seeing me with a beard and talking with a cracking voice." The first two weeks were awkward to walk around with a stubble, he recalls. Before his stint at a private hospital, he worked for six months at a government hospital in the city. That laid the groundwork for what he would eventually experience. "To be honest, patients have never bothered much about my identity. They are under stress and all they are looking for is medical care. They don't care about your gender."
The stigma is more from their relatives. It's not uncommon for him to be asked, 'Aap aadmi ho ya aurat?' by curious family members of patients. He has learnt to tackle it smartly. "I politely ask, 'What do you think?' And that instantly puts them on the backfoot. There was no other way to deal with this. If I had to lose my cool at each taunt or question, I'd lose my sanity."
According to him, seventy per cent of the time, the questions are not meant to provoke. "Only a few say it to offend you, the rest are simply ignorant," he says. Although his colleagues in the department have been supportive, the staff, not so much. Snide remarks behind his back are common. "I make friends easily so the gossip reaches me sooner or later." But, having found a support system in the department head has made it relatively easy to cope. "It's funny but some of my peers think I've got the job because I'm trans!" he laughs. His merit often goes unnoticed. Initially, he would lie in bed thinking about it, but overtime he has learnt to take it in his stride. "It takes a great amount of mental fortitude to ignore it." His friendly demeanour has helped him blend in. "I am now a part of the boys' locker room talk at work," he laughs. He has a steady girlfriend, who happens to be from the medical profession.
It's sundown and time for him to meet her. "I can't be late for this," he says, signing off.
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