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. Read part of the interview here.
Interviewer: The words hijras and jogtas, though meaning trans, have many negative and derogatory connotations attached to them. Do you think that these words should be replaced and do you think that will have any effect?
Trinetra: So I think that it’s quite surprising to me that even our forensic medicine textbooks feature so many slurs which should be discarded and not be used as official terms to be learned by medical students. For example, the word Zanana, meaning an effeminate man is actually included in our forensic textbooks as an actual definition to be learned. Why? I mean, it’s a slur it shouldn’t be used or taught at all. Words like Zanana, Chaka, Mitha, Gud, Mamu—all of these words are very derogatory in nature, and I think that the only way that derogatory slurs can be stopped or in other words are the only way for people to have respect in society is when people prioritise. I think it’s important that when people file petitions, appropriate media attention be given to transgender rights, and when transgender people have issues they should be listened to. It would make so much sense if people in the spotlight—people like Menaka Guruswamy and Arundhati Katju and many others who are associated with the 377 hearings—passed the mic, or basically put the spotlight instead on trans people to allow them to talk about their issues, including slurs. I think it really goes a long way in. So you basically are asked how, you know, how can we get rid of these slurs and how and what kind of effect does that have? I think that change has to happen on multiple levels. Firstly, things like slurs should be discouraged right from the school level. Secondly, when it comes to laws, things like the Transgender Persons Protection of Rights Bill should explicitly mention that using certain slurs counts as harassment. It’s also important that the University Grants Commission (UGC) explicitly mentions that ragging also includes using these slurs—that’s another way of dealing with it. So I think that when various institutions include within their anti-discrimination policies that certain words are discriminatory, only then does it become part of the mainstream conversation. And only then can we sort of move further. That would, of course, change attitudes and it would sort of make our lives a little easier to live with dignity. But of course, slurs are the symptom. The disease is transphobia. And only when you deal with the disease, will the symptoms be cured. So there’s really no point in talking about the symptoms without addressing transphobia within various pieces of legislation, like the Transgender Persons Bill and the transphobia that exists in mainstream society. I think it’s a problem that’s deeper than slurs for sure.
Interviewer: Speaking of transphobia how do you think transgender minors can be protected from abusive households?
Trinetra: Speaking of abusive households and transgender minors— right from something that the Transgender Persons Bill did in 2016, and then 2018 did, something that was protested by a lot of people, was that biological families were given a huge amount of say over where a transgender minor lives. So what it basically said was a transgender child cannot be separated from their families unless it is ordered by a court. While this on the surface seems like it’s protective of transgender children, that they can’t be kicked out of their homes, often what happens within the transgender community is that many transgender minors because of abusive households, of their own accord, run away from home and live with, say local transgender communities like the hijras, the jogappas, etc, because it’s safer for them there. Now, when a bill says that a child can’t be separated unless a court orders it,n what happens is that a child is now forced to live with their abusive family. And no family will willingly go to court and say that ‘we our child wants to be separated from us, please give us permission’. So I think that is something that really needs to be addressed in the Trans Persons Act, wherein you recognise socio-cultural communities as equally valid compared to biological families and allow people to sort of be separated from their families, if necessary, so that they’re at least safer with their chosen families as opposed to their biological families. The bill also states that if a child has to be separated from their families, they will be put in rehabilitation centres, and we all know how poor the state of those rehabilitation centres is and there’s no end to this safety of a transgender child and a rehab centre is highly, highly doubtful. So to sort of completely leave out the concept of chosen families, which is a very important concept in India, makes it all the more difficult for a transgender child to sort of be safe. And it, unfortunately, puts the child in the hands of abusive biological families, which makes it more dangerous. So to very directly answer your question, those aspects of the Transgender Persons Act, which force a transgender minor to stay with biological families, have to be elaborated on so as to include the concept of chosen family. So that is, I think one of the biggest ways in which the lives of transgender minors can be made safer.
Interviewer: What are a few ways allies can make trans people feel more comfortable?
Trinetra: I think that the very first thing that allies need to be doing in order to make transgender people comfortable is to more than just call yourself an ally. Because it’s very easy to say “I support transgender people”, right? It’s almost the woke thing to do. Anybody and everybody that wants to sound woke will kind of say that we are allies of the community. But being an ally is a lot more than that. Being an ally means being an active supporter—a passive supporter. Just saying “I’m not going to beat up a transgender person” does not mean you’re an ally. Being an ally means following trans people, be it on social media, be it within your friend circles, be it blogs, be it articles for transgender people. Listen to what they have to say first, and actively try to educate yourself on various topics, such as laws that affect trans people, medical and surgical transition, the psychology of it. So I think being an ally to any community in your communities, be it Dalit individuals, be it any community. As an individual with privilege, it is your job to educate yourself, especially if you have the means to do it. Very often people will come up to me on social media and be like, can you please explain this to me when those things can just as easily be googled? If you’ve come far enough to ask me those questions on Instagram, surely you can also Google them. I think the first thing to do is stop expecting emotional labour from trans people, when you can make more of an effort yourself—educate yourself, and then come to us if you have any more questions. The first step would be to take an active stance and try and read, listen, educate yourself more, and make the active effort to learn. Secondly, this is something that we talked about in my first interview with mttn, use your common sense. Don’t ask questions to a trans person that you yourself would not like to answer. If I asked you “what is your favourite position in bed in public?”, if I asked you the size of your genitals, you’re not going to want to answer such questions. So why should we be asked those uncomfortable questions about our bodies and such? I think that one of the biggest problems in Indian society is unhealthy curiosity, because these things are not taught in sex ed, people think that they’re entitled to ask us invasive questions about our bodies and about our private lives, and that attitude sneaks into the Transgender Persons Act, when it allows a district magistrate based on their opinion, to figure out if we are really transgender or not. Now you as a cis woman, have you ever had to do your womanhood to any District Magistrate or any sort of legal authority? No, because it’s just a very normal thing that an individual has the right to call themselves whatever gender they want, and the NALSA judgement of 2014 makes it very clear that an individual has the right to self determine their gender identity, whether or not they have had any medical intervention. Why is that important? Because a lot of transgender people don’t have access to expensive medical treatments and surgeries and stuff. And in the meantime, to say that they don’t have the right to legally call themselves whatever they identify as is very discriminatory. It basically says that you are not what you say you are, you are what I say what you are what the government says you are, you are what a district magistrate says you are. As a result, the kind of unhealthy curiosity as to what is between our legs sneaks into laws, it sneaks into legislations that make our lives difficult. So I would say that in order to be allies, start from scratch and actually listen to us only when you listen to the community will you change your worldview, will you pass legislations which are actually beneficial. I would say that’s the very first step. And that’s the most important step.
Interviewer: Any advice for people who are transitioning or realising they might not be cisgender?
Trinetra: I would say if you’re someone that’s questioning, be it your gender orientation or gender identity, give it time. This is something I sort of wish I did myself because I was in a mad rush almost to figure out what label to place on myself. And I would say that give yourself time to be confused. Give yourself time to live with not being sure of who you are, because the greater amount of comfort you have with that space of questioning yourself, the more you get to read, the more you get to understand, the more you get to talk to different kinds of people before coming to a conclusion as to who you are. So allow yourself some time to be questioning, accept that it’s okay to not know it’s okay, to not have one final answer. It’s not a bad thing to be confused. It’s normal. Accepting a state of not being sure only allows you to explore further. Of course, that does not mean that you don’t take a trans person seriously, or you don’t take a queer person seriously, just because they’re questioning. That’s the best advice to people—just because someone is questioning don’t be like, “oh, you’re really not sure, so why should I respect?” I understand that questioning is a normal part of the process and this is something that both trans people and people and just queer people in general should understand—that you’re perfectly valid even if you’re not sure. I think that’s the best way to proceed. Now, I know that sounds a little privileged because when you talk about that, with reference to say the Trans Persons Act, which says that you have to have surgery and only then will you or you have to have medical intervention, only then will you be called male or female—that puts a lot of pressure on you, because then you’re just like, “okay, I need to have surgery, I need to plan that, and only then will I be called male or female.” So it puts a lot of pressure on you to figure out what you want to do with your body, what surgeries to have, etc. That’s unfortunately a problem with our laws. But I would definitely say that try to whatever extent that you can to be okay with questioning yourself, to be okay with not knowing for sure and figuring yourself out. And then once you’re sure, then things can proceed in a way that is affirming to your sense of self. In the meantime, those who are sure of themselves will keep fighting for equal rights, will keep protesting against unfair parts of legislations that affect us. I think that’s the best way to be moving forward. And of course, I will say that it gets better. You’re not alone. There’s a lot of us fighting for your rights. And there’s a lot of us constantly pushing for greater visibility and greater inclusion. you will definitely find a community and you’re not alone. It will get better.
Interviewed by Tanya Jain for MTTN
Featured image by Naman Ohri and Diya Chaudhuri for MTTN