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Heart of a woman

We think sexual identity is inseparable from the body. But people are more than the sum of their parts. Two women reveal their personal stories.

india Updated: Dec 12, 2009 18:46 IST
Kushalrani Gulab

For most of us, the world is divided into two kinds of people. Women and men. Most men are attracted to women and vice versa, but some men are attracted to men and some women to women.

In the world of gender and sexual identities, most of us have got this far. And that is fine till we come across people who are, to our eyes, neither women nor men. They are men who seem like women, or women who seem like men. And not withstanding their physical bodies, some men know they’re actually women, and some women know they’re really men. This is when, for many of us, something in the brain short-circuits. Man? Woman? Transgender, we’re told. But that’s not informative in itself (for definitions, see box). Just who is this person in front of us? Why isn’t he or she the kind of person we know?

Question of Identity, the irony, laughs Kalki, founder and director of Sahodari Foundation, an organisation that works for the empowerment of transgender people, is that transgenders are very certain of themselves. “Other people are confused about our gender identities, but we know very well which sex we belong to,” she says. One in every 30,000 of us is transgender, says a report from the International Foundation for Gender Education / UNAIDS, which makes transgender people a very minor minority. Which means, in turn, that for many of us, the concept of a person as ‘trapped in the wrong body’ – a woman in spite of being physically male or a man in spite of being physically female – is very difficult to grasp. “Transgenders are some of the most neglected and stigmatised people in our society,” says Kalki, who was born male but is actually a woman and has also had sex reassignment surgery (SRS). “We constantly face discrimination because of our gender identities.”

It isn’t a nice thing to admit, but most of us are not very comfortable with transgender people, so we often treat them with a distinct lack of respect as people – and also with a lot of fear. “Their biggest hassle is identity,” says Shivangi Rai of the Lawyers Collective, an organisation of lawyers who work to help the marginalised meet their legal needs. “In India, like most countries, people are either male or female; there’s nothing else. The Election Commission of India has now permitted the option of a third gender identification called ‘Other’, but till now there has been no legal mention of the existence of people who are transgender.” body of evidence

There is a big question most non-transgender people have. How do you know you’re a woman in a male body or a man in a female body? What makes you sure you are not gay, for instance, or even just going through a prolonged period of confusion? That question is not easily answered. Even Dr Anil Tibrewala, cosmetic surgeon at Saifee and Hinduja hospitals in Mumbai, who has performed several sexual reassignment surgeries (SRS) in his career, cannot say. Yet, he says, the desire for SRS in all the cases in his experience has been very strong. “Transgender people are not gay or lesbian or funny in the head,” Tibrewala says. “They have a very strong sense of who they are and will opt for SRS whatever the cost.” The cost has little to do with money. SRS is not a magic operation that transforms you instantly into the person you want to be. “Our technology for penile reconstruction is woefully inadequate,” explains Tibrewala. “Breast amputation can leave fairly large scars. And though penile reconstruction or vaginal reconstruction results in functional genitals, they are functional, that is all.”

Despite these pessimistic possibilities, says Tibrewala, his patients have been adamant. And correct in their understanding of their gender identities. But few people who have not struggled with gender identity themselves can truly explain what it is like. So we asked scriptwriter Gazal Dhaliwal and talkshow hostess Rose to take us, at least briefly, into their lives.

When you ask Mumbai-based film scriptwriter Gazal Dhaliwal how she came to grips with the social side of womanhood, the 27 year-old, once a physical male, now all woman, grins and says: “That depends on how you define women, doesn’t it?” Ouch! But Gazal replies. “I’m always asked if I cook, and how I dress. Is this how I prove I’m a woman? Well, I dislike cooking and with clothes I initially played safe, but now I have a style of my own.”

Gazal is happy in her choice of clothes. Gazal is happy, full stop. Since her sex reassignment surgery (SRS) two years ago, she’s been able to really be herself. “I first realised I was in the wrong body when I was about four,” says Gazal. “My friends were all girls; I never played with my brother and his friends, and I enjoyed dancing around with my mother’s dupattas. I did that one day when my aunt was home. She got irritated and asked me to stop. When I didn’t, she slapped me. That registered as a shock. I realised, I’m not getting what they expect of me. And they don’t get me. After that, I was never truly myself. I felt whatever I wanted to do was probably not right for me to do.”

Understanding came when she was about nine. “I was very upset one day and screamed at my mother, ‘If you want to spare yourself sorrow, kill me now, because when I grow up, I’m going to be a girl.’ And suddenly, it became clear. I have to be a girl.” But the guilt didn’t go away. The boy who knew he had to be a girl did his best to be a boy. “Whatever I did, I tried to seem ‘normal’. But that became so much a way of living that I lost my spontaneity,” says Gazal. “So one day, I told my parents I was visiting a friend, and went to see a counsellor. They found out and my father brought it up. We talked and I told him, this is not my body. I have to change myself. He tried to understand, but said it could be a phase.”

There it stood till Gazal ran away from home. “I was so upset about my situation that I could think of nothing else,” she says. But she panicked and her parents came to fetch her. “We talked and the problem became real to them,” says Gazal. Now Gazal was back on track. She topped the Class XII boards and did engineering at NIT, Jaipur. “They were the best years of my life!” Gazal beams. “I made the bestest of friends, though I was in the boys’ hostel and ragging was very tough.”

But her first job, in Mysore, was not happy. Gazal did not know what to do about her situation – and also felt she’d rather do something more creative. So she moved to Mumbai for a filmmaking course. And that’s when her life changed. The course ended with a project – a documentary on a socially relevant subject. “Why not transsexuality?” thought Gazal. Researching the film, she realised she’d known very little about SRS. She learned it could be done anywhere and wasn’t very expensive. And when her father watched her film, To Be… Me, he said: ‘You must do it immediately.’ But there’s nothing immediate about SRS. First, Gazal had to be counselled by two psychiatrists. Only when they certified that she would benefit with SRS could the surgery be sanctioned. After that, she went on hormone replacement therapy (HRT).

With HRT, Gazal’s body began to change. So did her emotions. “HRT gives you huge mood swings,” says Gazal. “Suddenly, I found it easy to cry. Now I know it’s all to do with hormones, and so is the sex drive. I had always been attracted to men, but the way I relate to them is different now. Earlier, I’d look at a man and think, ‘Omigosh! He’s so attractive!’ Now I look at his social, psychological, mental faculties. I want the complete package.” After nine months of HRT, Gazal did the surgery in Bangkok, even though she’d done the psychiatric evaluation in India. Then she went to her parents to recuperate. But she didn’t step out of the house.

“The neighbours would have been shocked, and I believe shocking people is the worst way to come out,” says Gazal. “I wanted my parents to go to everyone and tell them about my surgery. It had to be information given. It made a huge difference, the fact that they did that and were seen standing by me. It was such a courageous thing for them to do.” In the two years since Gazal became Gazal, she’s been very happy. “The way I look at myself, the way everyone around me looks at me, is different now,” she says. “Compared to other people who’ve faced this dilemma, I’ve had it quite easy. I have been blessed.”


A lot of people came to talk me out of coming out, says Rose, who hosts a talk show on the Tamil television channel, Kalinga. “One day, I was surrounded by 10 to 15 members of my family, all pleading with me not to do this. My grandmother fell at my feet, and begged me to get married. What would you do if that happened to you?”

Rose’s mobile, expressive face works to control her emotion at the memory of her grandmother abasing herself like that. What would you do if something like that happened to you? You don’t know. Rose however, stayed true to herself. Born a man, in every way that matters, she is female. She could not let go of that. “I can understand how people can break under that kind of pressure,” she says. “But it would be difficult for me to live like that. My family may feel terrible because I refuse to marry. But for me, it would be a lifelong pain. And I would ruin another woman’s life.”

Rose discovered she was a woman in a man’s body when she was in college. As a child, she had exhibited mannerisms most boys do not, but no one had paid them much attention. “But by the time I reached a certain age, the taunting became a little too much,” she says. “I was forced to see I was different.”

All through high school, Rose had to ‘act’ male. But she didn’t know why she had to act. So she was horrified when she realised she was attracted to boys – and it was noticed. “People would tease me, using Tamil terms for words like ‘faggot’,” she says. “I was forced to believe I was gay. What else could I have been? I was male and attracted to men.” Those were bad years. “You have this secret that everyone condemns as evil, sinful, dirty. You can’t be honest with others. I was always afraid, so I isolated myself. In a heterosexual world, I was gay.”

Years later, in college, Rose realised she wasn’t gay. She was a woman. “I was only attracted to masculine men, never gay men,” she says. “If a man I liked showed even a little femininity, I was put off. And in my imagination, I was never a man. I loved makeup. I wished I could dress up. I was a woman trapped in the wrong body. I am not a man. You have to be a man to be gay.”

From being traumatised about being gay, Rose was now traumatised about being transgender. The heterosexual world, she learned through experience, is usually not open to the unconventional. Though as a woman (though not in a woman’s body), she was attracted to men – the right way to be, according to most heterosexuals – that didn’t make her any straighter in their eyes.

“I was studying in the US by this time, and the US is a very homophobic and transphobic country. Even more than India,” says Rose. “But I returned home on a short visit and here I met a lady who was transgender. She enjoyed it and I thought, wow! This is what I could be.”

So before heading back to the States, Rose bought clothes. Women’s clothes. And makeup. And wore them, in the evenings, after classes. But with a degree in mechanical engineering from India and a degree in biomedical engineering from the US, Rose was a hot prospect on the marriage market. Except that the potential bridegroom felt he should be the bride. Rose came out and her family did not like it. When emotional blackmail failed to convince her to marry, she was left alone. At the same time, Rose quit her job at a BPO and failed to get another. Her relationship with her boyfriend went sour, and alone and depressed, Rose tried to kill herself.

“My family came to the hospital to see me once, that’s all,” she says. “When I recovered, I was hard, angry, determined to make it big – in business or as a celebrity or anything I would be admired for. And I would do it in this body – this prohibited body.”

With no experience in media, Rose went from TV channel to TV channel, hawking the idea of a talk show hosted by a transgender person. Some channels literally threw her out of their offices, but Vijay TV was willing to talk. “I don’t know why they agreed. Maybe because a controversial host would be bound to attract viewers.” Rose, the talk show hostess, arrived. Those of us who don’t speak Tamil don’t know of Rose. To those of us who do, Rose is… Rose. Transgender, but accepted. In her ‘prohibited’ body.

But sex reassignment surgery (SRS) is on her mind. “I can’t explain why I want to do it because I don’t need to become a woman, I am a woman,” she says. “But this body seems wrong. I don’t want to die while I still have male organs. I am not male.” She’s clear however, that when she does have the surgery, it will not be in India. Because, she says scathingly, Indian psychiatrists can’t see beyond the conventional.

“I was referred to a psychiatrist who explained to me that transgender people are people with genital defects. He also said I must live as the person I want to be for two years before surgery – so I must move to a girls’ hostel. Which women’s hostel in India will allow a person with male organs to live there?”

The answer, of course, is none. So the surgery, when it happens, will happen in Bangkok. “But it won’t happen till I am famous enough to hold an attainment of femininity ceremony when I come back,” says Rose. “There will be parties – and they will be really colourful, glamorous events. My transition must shock and surprise.”