Navigating Gender and Identity: An Interview with Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju—Part 1

A medical student at Kasturba Medical College, Manipal, Trinetra is a proud transwoman. She is an aspiring surgeon and a prolific artist. MTTN had the chance to have a chat with Trinetra and to hear her opinions, beliefs, and experiences of being a transgender person in India.


Interviewer: How are you? How has your quarantine been?

Trinetra: I’m good. Quarantine has been fun. I was in Bangalore for about three and a half months with my parents. But then turns out I like my own space a lot better and it messes with my head to not have privacy. I just wanted my privacy back. So I came back. 


Interviewer: The behensplaining episode was amazing! What was it like filming it?

Trinetra: Behensplaining, right. Speaking of that, earlier in the year, in February, my final exams for the final year were conducted. Now, I couldn’t write one subject because I didn’t have enough attendance in it because I missed a lot of classes as a result of my own personal transition. Last year, when I had my surgery, in Bangkok, I missed a lot of classes in that one subject and I just couldn’t make up for it. So, because of that, I had about six months to prep for that subject. Then covid happens, lockdown happens, quarantine happens, everything goes bad, the entire year just becomes a mess. And I was trying to figure out how I can make this year productive, and how I can keep the productivity going. And throughout the year, I tried to increase the writing I did on social media and put my opinions out there with respect to covid, with respect to the Trans Persons Act, etc. And my Instagram following increased quite a bit. And finally, just one month ago, Netflix reached out saying, “do you want to do an episode of behensplaining?”, and I’m just like, hey, yes. And it was great. We, the director and many other people on the team sat and we worked on the script together, and tried to make it as sensitive as possible, encompassing social issues along with entertainment and comedy and make it a form of activism, so to speak, in addition to entertaining people. The reception has been great, and I’m very happy with how it went. Shristi is amazing, of course, and the directors were also amazing.


Interviewer: You’ve spoken about transphobia in the medical community before. As a medical student, you have first-hand experience in the community. So, how does transphobia in medicine affect people?

Trintera: Okay, okay. So I think that as a medical student I have had a foot on either side, within the medical centre and activist spaces and I think something I’ve realised is that medicine is not something that has been exempt from social injustice. It’s not been exempt from social ideas of what is moral and what is immoral. A lot of our social prejudices sneak into how we practice medicine, and how rules were framed as to how to treat trans people. So in order to answer that question a little further, it’s important to understand the relationship between trans people and the medical fraternity as such. So the thing is, homosexuality was understood by the medical fraternity earlier than transgender identity, per se. Take, for example, Lili Elbe. So the Danish Girl features the story of a trans woman called Lili Elbe, one of the very first trans people to put their narrative out there and seek medical help with their gender dysphoria. So, she talks about this in her journals, and she talks about how many doctors thought that she was schizophrenic and that she was psychotic. And they tried to fix that by giving her all kinds of medications by putting her in a mental asylum. They treated her like she was mentally ill. And then finally, she found doctors who were empathetic and tried to help her out doing things like transplanting or uterus or transplanting ovaries and such. Surgeries, at the time, were very primitive. They really didn’t know how to go about this because of very little research. And she finally passed away because of complications from these surgeries. And only after that, did the medical fraternity actively begin researching the topic and trying to figure out how to help trans people with dysphoria, or that discomfort, so to speak. And unfortunately, a lot of the work that was initially done was by non-transgender people, so the medical fraternity basically consisted of cisgender people, and a lot of the initial work that was done was very pathologizing. Or, in other words, kind of made it seem like trans people had a mental illness, and they had to be treated for it. It was therefore called gender identity disorder. And so the first few attempts at helping people had terms like this involved for gender identity disorder. Only later was that removed from the International Classification of Diseases 11 and replaced with gender incongruence, saying that it’s not a mental disorder so it should not belong in that category of mental disorders in the first place. Unfortunately, this decision was made only in 2018. If you look at the history of how the medical community has treated the trans community, it’s always been like you folks have a disease, and we need to fix you. As a result, when I go to the hospital, when I interact with doctors, when the trans community tries to interact with doctors, they’re almost always treated like something’s wrong with them. 

The notion that a woman is someone who is attracted to men often plays into how the trans community is treated. Now what I mean by that is, I know many trans women like myself, who are also attracted to women. If you’re a woman you have to be attracted to men—that’s not true. Your gender and sexuality are two different things. So many of my friends are attracted to women, trans women friends attracted to women, are never taken seriously by a lot of doctors saying that “you’re attracted to women already, that means you’re a man so why are you so confused about your gender?” So there’s sort of confusion between your gender and your sexuality and all these kinds of things are what medical communities are very confused about.

The worst part is that we are not taught any better in our lessons. We don’t have any chapters about it. Whenever gender identity is spoken about in forensic medicine or gynaecology, it’s always ramed in a way that makes it seem like being transgender is an illnessit’s something that’s wrong with you. It’s something that’s sort of pathological, in terms of not being updated. We have an attitude and ethics communication module which is a programme that’s designed for medical students to basically teach us communication. Essentially, ad comm has zero hours dedicated to gender and sexuality. And the most recent, what we call the competency-based medical education system, is a new system devised by the Medical Council of India as to how to make education better. It again has nothing to do with it says nothing about transgender people it says nothing about you know,


Interviewer: Since there’s been a lot of talk about change in education policy in recent times, do you think the schooling curriculum should include the LGBTQ+ community, or, more specifically, the transgender community?

Trinetra: I think that talking to children is always the easiest thing to do because they have no preconceived notions as to what a man is supposed to be and what a woman is supposed to be. A lot of that conditioning is something that’s thrust upon us by society that if you’re a man, you’re supposed to be someone who is strong, masculine, does not show emotions, earns for the family, is violent and aggressive, has a greater sex drive. And when it comes to women, you’re expected to sit at home, be a mother, raise your children, take care of the home, be the baby-making machine. Children don’t have these ideas as to what a man and woman is, what those concepts are because kids are not born conditioned to think that way. I have had the easiest time explaining this to children about four or five years old, because they understand that sometimes people are born a certain way, but they may not identify as what they have been assigned at birth. I think the earlier you start having these conversations with your kids the better off.

So I would say that you know, age four or five, maybe because age three is when a child starts understanding their own gender identity. And if a child is able to start perceiving their own gender identity and understanding it by the age of three, then I think it’s definitely a good time to sort of start introducing these concepts to kids of ages four and five. There is a way of putting these things across the children as well. We always say that the best way to do this is by introducing sex ed as early as possible, which is like age six or seven is when you can start telling kids that typically, men have certain kinds of bodies, women have certain kinds of bodies. And you can start telling kids about what is a good touch and what is a bad touch. At the same time, it makes sense to also tell kids that sometimes people may feel like they have a certain identity which is different from what they were given at birth. So I think the earlier you start, the better. It’s very idealistic and simple to say that, but yeah, around age five to six is when I think it’s best to introduce these concepts both at school and at home.


Interviewer: A lot of the conversation about transgender issues online and in the media tends to happen in regard to Western cultures. Is there any difference between trans issues in the West and trans issues in India? If so, how?

Trinetra: Right. Okay. So I think a good way to think of this would be that whether it is in India or within the USA or in you know, other parts of the world, you will always find that transgender issues, always take a backseat. Even if you look at the pride movement in the West, if you look at the USA, for example, when you talk about the LGBTQ+ movement, you will always hear first about cisgender homosexual men, particularly cisgender, homosexual, white men. So things like racism, play into what issues take a backseat and what issues are a priority. So people like say Sylvia Rivera, people like Marsha P. Johnson etc—basically, black people or people of colour who belong to the LGBTQ+ community, particularly trans people and gender non conforming people sort of never make it into the, into the spotlight and it almost always becomes about gay rights and almost always becomes about cisgender homosexual white men. Now, you can see that a similar thing happens in India, where the entire conversation around queer rights and queer liberation becomes solely focused on gay sex and solely focused on the 377 hearings and so on and so forth. Like the historic NALSA judgement of 2014, which gave transgender people equal rights was practically not even like a big thing for people to be talking about

Similarly, the Transgender Persons Bill and Transgender Persons Act were not even talked about in the mainstream and transgender issues and transgender rights always take a backseat. Which is why, even after the three after the 377 hearings, the conversation is still sort of limited itself to gay marriage and such, which is exactly what happened in the US as well. Trans issues get completely sidetracked and left behind and issues like caste privilege, class privilege, and privileges that cisgender people have over trans people just never get spoken about at all. That is unfortunately a pattern that you notice both in the West and in Indiatrans rights take a backseat.

Interviewed by Tanya Jain for MTTN
Featured image by Naman Ohri and Diya Chaudhuri for MTTN 


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