Ironically, all is never fair in love and war. I fought a no-holds-barred war to come into my own, to define my own modesty, ditched all those who denied me dignity and made a meaningful place for myself against all odds. Today, I am a full-fledged woman, having undergone gender reassignment surgery and fully settling into mainstream life. Yet, does the world recognise me as a woman, the woman that I have so longingly felt like all my life, to finally find the meaning of life in which I have endured brutal acidic arguments—one that is fulfilling, filled with love, one where there is no space for negativity and guilt? The answer is couched in the deep-rooted discomfort and awkwardness that people feel when discussing a transgender woman’s right to dignity, liberation and love.
Despite my surgery, men who have conversations with me seldom look at a long-term relationship, although they are willing to unequivocally sign up for love, passion and togetherness. But never marry. And those that do, with a promise of a happy life, refuse to stick around too long after the initial euphoria dies down.
Transpeople need not just livelihood but also a society that does not mock at their love stories
Shamita, a dear transsexual friend of mine, was an escort. She was fragile, silken soft, vivacious and fun-loving. One of those girls you would call a doll—so beautiful, she passed easily for a real girl. She was also terribly yearning for love, a home and a lasting future. By day, Shamita would spend time at home looking after her ailing mother and at night she reluctantly entered the dark world of escorting at plush city hotels. Her clients included professionals, local politicians, Chennai’s elite and rich oil barons from the Gulf. But Shamita nursed a dream too—she wanted to someday become a human rights activist—having studied human rights at college through a scholarship in Delhi. But as she began the process of transformation (to becoming a transsexual), her fate was unfortunately sealed.
According to rough estimates and unverified numbers by NGOs, there are approximately over 2,50,000 transgender women in Tamil Nadu alone. Most of them work as escorts or street hookers, some caught up in menial jobs, and a few at the mid-managerial level. These are transsexuals from all walks of life—many well-educated, well-spoken and skilled. Yet the only way to survive is to enter the flesh trade. Why? Because employers, governments, society and even families fail to see their value-addition to the greater society and often relegate them to slaves in their own home (often abused by their male relatives or landlords). In 2008, Tamil Nadu was lauded for becoming the first state to set up a transgender welfare board. The board was supposed to help with housing and jobs, among other things. However, activists say, it is now barely functioning. So, when transgenders choose to walk out, the only option to make a living is escorting.
I remember reading a newspaper article a couple of years ago on the high rate of suicides in the transgender community, which often go under-reported due to our gender. The police classify those who have undergone sex-change operations under a third gender, but those who haven’t are generally dubbed as male suicides, so these deaths do not garner enough attention as the transgender community is anyway marginalised. As we fight to come to terms with our identity, our education often takes a beating and, in the absence of proper training and education, a transgender is almost always forced to resort to either sex work or begging. Even in the professional space, most transgenders are subjected to various forms of abuse and, faced with harassment, a lot of them seek solace in alcohol and drugs, increasing their vulnerability to suicide. Often, the break-up of a romantic relationship pushes many over the brink.
Prostitution, one of the oldest professions, feeds the core of our selfish needs—money and sex—yet there are differences in opinion when it is discussed in terms of morality, legality and the politics of gender and sexuality. Sandwiched awkwardly between moral policing and extreme poverty or sexual exploitation, transsexual escorts, like Shamita, have no support systems and are abused by the very system that is meant to protect citizens.
Shamita, for instance, was initiated into this trade by a female neighbour when she was unable to pay her rent. “It was a very painful experience, but I desperately needed the money and I was the only breadwinner in my family,” she told me once, almost five years ago, her voice choking, tears brimming up in her eyes. “This is what came my way. I tried for nearly two years to find a job. I have been arrested many times by the police, but some highly placed officials bailed me out and I used to satisfy them to allow me to continue my work.” What took me aback was that she was such a burnt woman—far from the young girl I knew her as, who was brimming with unbridled hope and love for life.
It is pathetic how society ridicules transsexuals who engage in prostitution for lack of a better option, ironical how we are silent on their male clients. Aren’t they committing the same sin or, in fact, even worse, because in most cases these men happen to be ‘happily married’? Think about it—here is a person going through gender identity issues, and is coping with it. S/he is looking forward to realising a dream, engaging with society and living her life. But what that same social structure has to offer her are restriction, prejudice, ridicule and contempt. Moreover, taking advantage of this negativity are the men or people in positions of power who brutally exploit young transgenders and torture them physically and mentally. Ours is a victim community because we have no recourse to justice, rehabilitation or counselling. And when we find strength in numbers and hang out as groups or form collective communities, the society classifies transgenders as beggars or looks upon us with disdain as an evil sect out to curse people. If you look deeper, it is due to years of suppression, ridicule and torture inflicted on them as a sect that they act in a certain way.
Shamita, for instance, often used to tell me about a top financial consultant in Chennai she was in love with. A married man with three daughters, he had promised her love and marriage outside India. And Shamita blindly believed him. She even gave up escorting and started staying in an apartment provided by this respectable Chennai businessman, weaving dreams of moving abroad once his divorce came through.
Today, I have completely lost touch with Shamita as she has not responded to any of my emails or phone calls. I am not even sure if she is still alive. Her life simply faded into oblivion. She might have been killed or driven to depression due to the harsh rejections in life and marriage. Or maybe she moved abroad and is living a fulfilling life with a once-married, straight man (while being unlikely, for her sake, I always hope it’s true).
The sad truth about transsexual love and marriage is this—when there is hope, the situation isn’t often right. No man would really want to marry a woman who has taken too many drastic decisions, one to change gender and then to dabble in the flesh trade. And when there is a girl who is clean and dignified, who can keep home and family well, she is wooed by daring-to-date men who will seldom marry her, thereby annulling her whole life’s effort to mainstream herself and become the “suitable Indian bride”.
As a transgender woman, who has gone through the physical and mental complications of the sex-change surgery, I feel most men in this country are very kicked about ‘shemales’. Women who are buxom and are not operated upon. Hormone therapy gives pre-op transwomen the breasts and they wouldn’t have to opt for surgery to reassign gender. These women get the maximum requests and proposals for love and dating, but, soon enough, this same reason, is cited by the suitors to rush out of the exit door, the minute she asks him for a lasting marital commitment.
I have also dated a few men, who have been courageous to wine and dine with me, travel to fancy places, spend cozy nights discussing a ‘confusing’ future, but never has the same person displayed complete trust and belief in being married to a transgender. There is a lot of physical attraction, the emotions too, and even a rather intense commitment to the relationship, but soon all this gets quickly diluted with the influence of his friends and family—it’s like taking on the larger social system, something that is too daunting for most men in this country, who pursue us for pleasure.
The social media is proof enough that decent, accomplished, educated and powerful men support, gravitate towards and fall in love with transwomen. Often, these are very high-on-sex relationships and a lot of emotions are spent on proving to the transwoman that the man does genuinely love her. But quickly that changes with lame excuses like, “Oh, but you were born a man, what will I tell my parents?” or “I will somehow be with you, don’t ask me questions.” And, the best of them all, “I have to get married, but I will never leave you.” Whatever that really means!
Just last week, a well-to-do gentleman asked me out for dinner. During our initial phone conversations before I agreed to see him, he spoke of literature, many of his exquisite travels and how he felt lonely, almost hinting at wanting me to be with him. He talked poignantly of heartbreak, how he never could trust another woman and how our interests matched perfectly. Then came the dinner date, where he discussed a painful past, a girlfriend who strayed and how all his money couldn’t buy him happiness. Then however, came the bomb, “But Apsara, why is marriage so important? I want to be with someone like you who is wild, likes travelling, who will entertain me and enjoy life.”
Did he think I was incapable of marriage? Was I not good enough to be taken home to his family? Or do men like him see transwomen as intermittent companions with no plans for a real future? Answers to these I may never get, but one thing I know for sure: no matter how settled or secure, men are happy to crawl back into the same closet that India is so desperately trying to come out of. While visibility and media coverage have surely increased receptivity to the transgender issue, there is no real place in the heart of a man for a transgender woman who is yearning to be accepted, loved and cared for, just as much as a woman born as one.
As a society, we must take a stand and lobby for sustainable livelihoods for transgendered people. We must help their love stories and not mock at men who date trans-women. We must have stories of peace, passion and prosperity to tell our future generations. Not celebrating remembrance days or candlelight vigils.
Indian mythology is replete with gods represented as male and female at different moments and in different incarnations, or manifesting traits of both genders at once, such as Ardhanarishvara (the lord whose half is a woman), created by the merging of Shiva and his consort Parvati. Vishnu takes the form of Mohini to trick the demons into giving up Amrita, the elixir of life. In the Puranic story of the origin of Ayyappa, Vishnu as Mohini is impregnated by Shiva and gives birth to Ayyappa, who is later abandoned in shame. Changes of sex and cross-dressing also occur in myths related to non-divine figures like Shikhandi, a character in the Mahabharata. During the Kurukshetra war, Bhishma recognised him as Amba reborn and refused to fight ‘a woman’.
(Apsara Reddy is editor-in-chief of Provoke Lifestyle magazine in south India and a member of the AIADMK.)