HAPPINESS IN RESILIENCE
Trans men are people who were assigned the sex female at birth, but their gender identity is that of a man. They often grow up feeling dysphoric and uncomfortable, realizing they have been born in the wrong body. Many such people choose to undergo the sex reassignment surgery, also often called gender reassignment surgery, by which a trans man’s physical appearance and physiological functions are altered to resemble those which socially associate with the male gender. This is a story of one such trans man, describing his early life as a girl, and the trials and tribulations which he went through to finally transition into a male, and the monumental work he is now doing to support other such people from the community.
In Conversation with Arun Karthick, Co-Founder, Trans Men Association of Tamil Nadu
Back in January 1995, Arun was born in a middle-class family in Madurai, and lived with his father, mother, and his younger brother. He had a comfortable life, with his family taking care of all his needs. Just how any of us would recall a regular childhood in an Indian home.
Assigned female at birth, Arun felt there was something wrong about who he felt he is, and the way society around him was treating him. Even before hitting puberty, he felt uncomfortable with his body. He wasn’t at peace. And what does a child do when they are perplexed? They turn to their parents for comfort, but in Arun’s case, speaking with his parents did more harm than good. His parents were dismissive of his feelings and claiming he had lost his mind, they took him to a psychiatrist, and even abused him.
Throughout his academic career, he stayed in hostels across Namakal, Chennai and Madurai, and later pursued a Bachelor’s in Engineering, in Computer Sciences.
Having always studied in all girls’ institutions, this sort of gave him even more clarity on who he really was. It drove his search for his identity and self-realization. All through his education, he was at constant discomfort. Whether it was filling out a form and choosing the sex female, or having to use the women’s washrooms, and various other everyday occurrences that cisgender people often take for granted.
“If you dress like a male, you are a male, and if you dress like a female, you are a female”, says Arun, about the gender binary notions of society.
Due to such experiences Arun desperately wanted to do something and kept reading up on the topic, trying to find an explanation for what he was feeling.
But given how his parents had reacted, he felt that it might be best to keep his feelings to himself. However, after hitting puberty, things turned into a nightmare, since he constantly found his mind and body at loggerheads.
At the age of 18, he finally understood that his feelings were valid, and the fact that he was a trans man was in fact true.
He realized that there was nothing wrong with him, just that the female body he was born into wasn’t right for him. And so he decided to transition into a male.
But this decision was met with harsh disagreement from his family. They forced him to marry a cisgender man, despite Arun being clear about what he wishes to do. Having been left with no choice and facing hostility at the hands of his family, Arun set on this journey alone.
At the age of 22, back in 2017, Arun moved out of his house in Madurai, shifted to Chennai, with whatever little savings he had, and started the process for his gender affirmation surgery.
While preparing for UPSC exams in Chennai, Arun watched a lot of videos regarding trans men, who left their houses to transition and work for the cause. Until then, he thought there weren’t many transmen in Chennai who could help him. Around the same time, he also underwent counselling since that is a requirement for transgender people planning to undergo gender affirmation surgery.
The first time Arun spoke to a counsellor, he was excited beyond words. He asked so many questions that the doctor asked him to slow down and give him a chance to at least respond to the queries. He advised Arun to take everything one step at a time, since he was worried that Arun was being slightly hasty about the process. He also helped Arun with the contact number of a person from the community.
Arun waited a month before he met the person, but the day he did, he couldn’t sleep at night, feeling immense satisfaction and happiness. He was doubting himself until then, but after meeting with people from the community, he felt confident about himself, and the feeling of being inferior in any way started ebbing away. He even managed to become part of a WhatsApp group, where he could meet other trans people, share with them, and progress.
Aside from the physical and emotional toll that this process can take on a person, Arun also had to fend for himself in Chennai. He had to live with his friends since he didn’t have a place to stay or even the money to pay rent.
And along came another legitimate problem – the identity on all his official documents. If one must take up lodging or apply for jobs, personal ID proofs and academic paper work is needed. During the first year of transitioning, Arun did not change his name on these legal documents yet. This meant that the documents did not align with his current physical appearance, and this brought along another set of troubles. One cannot get anything done if they are unable to furnish basic ID proofs, such as the Aadhar Card.
Arun is thankful that before he started this process for himself, there was another person who underwent this process, which made it slightly easier for him, but it still took him 2 years to update all his documents. To change his marksheets, he was asked to furnish a bona fide certificate from his school. When he approached the school, people were shell shocked to be faced by a student who underwent a transition, and sent him away, afraid that he was trying to do something illegal.
There also seems to be a systemic challenge. When Arun began his transition journey, he realized that transwomen had a lot of visibility for their cause, and many NGOs working to support them, and while they have every right to this, there is a lack of equal representation for transmen. Further, the similarity in the physical appearance of transmen after surgery and cis-men is a factor in this erasure. Both factors together leads to inadequate and skewed representation of transmen as a community. Arun himself stayed hidden during the first two years of his transition, since he was afraid he’d be abused.
NGOs such as Sahodharan, Nirangal Charitable Trust, Sathii, Thozhi and various other independent activists were actually the drivers of change in the area of support and visibility for trans men. These organizations became the voice of the community, filing petitions and winning legal battles, propelling more transmen to feel safe to openly come out and express themselves. Arun underwent counselling through the NGO Orinam, who also work in putting people in touch with trans-affirmative doctors.
Speaking about finances, Arun’s top surgery, also called masculinizing chest surgery, and his uterus removal cost him 2 lakh rupees, which he paid partly out of his savings from the time he lived with his parents. But these were just the initial procedures, and there were many other procedures that he had to undergo. And before even starting the process, he was on hormone treatment for a year, to prepare for the surgery. Penal reconstruction, which is a major step in the transition process for transmen, is an extremely risky, possibly life threatening procedure, and exorbitantly expensive. Most transmen choose to not undergo this surgery given the risk and the costs.
Arun is currently saving enough money to be able to afford the penal reconstruction surgery, which can cost up to 18 lakh rupees. There is a lot of quackery prevalent in this area, and there are doctors in India who have performed the procedure on willing patients for 5 lakh rupees, but with distressing results, and therefore people prefer to undergo these procedures in countries like Bangkok, Thailand, Canada, or Russia.
Trans-friendly doctors are very rare. And the process was not as successful back in 2017, as it is nowadays. Gender affirmation surgery was not common at even private hospitals in big cities. Arun felt like he was a “lab rat” for the doctors, who were reputed, yet didn’t operate upon him correctly, leaving him in pain and pondering whether he made the right decision. He had to undergo a corrective procedure at another hospital two years down the line, and he was finally relieved and happy with the outcome. The situation is much better now, but back then, he had to fight his way through this process.
After moving out, until he underwent the first surgery, Arun was all alone in this journey, except for some support from a few NGOs and the community.
Talking specifically about the support from him family, despite the challenges he has been facing financially, all he looks to get from him family is moral and emotional support. “I thought they will understand me, understand my feelings, and since I was their child, they’d completely support me. But I was wrong. I thought they’d love me for who I am, but they don’t.”
Arun’s parents even went to the extent of saying that transitioning into a male was Arun’s decision and he can do whatever he wants but he must remember that this has come at a cost, and that they do not want anything to do with him anymore. “You are not our daughter or son, and we are just a family of 3.”
What a painful thought to live with, every single day.
Growing up, Arun and his brother were the best of friends. As kids, he shared his secret with his brother, even the fact that he was romantically attracted to girls. His brother supported him in all this, and even helped pass love letters, on Arun’s behalf.
But all of this changed when Arun came out, and decided to transition, majorly because of the influence his father had on the family, and the way he turned Arun’s mother and brother against him.
It was very tough initially, but Arun has now come to terms with the reality, and believes that, “We have to rely on ourselves.”
He works as shift manager at a takeaway restaurant, working 12 hours every weekday. On being asked if they support his identity, he says he has never mentioned to them that he is a trans man. He has faced discrimination at the hands of some previous employers, who were okay with employing him if they saw him as a male figure, but the moment they found out that he was a transman, they put him in uncomfortable situations, cornering him, targeting him, and raising absurd questions about his identity and in worse situations, Arun even faced abuse. So now, he chooses to not share this part of his life with people who cannot understand this.
But looking at the silver lining, Arun fondly recalls his first experience after starting the transition. Having trimmed his hair, and riding a bike, when felt the wind against his face, he felt free. People referring to him as Anna, or using male pronouns, salutations, or endearments for him gave him immense joy. This also brought along some self-confidence, and he stood up to the people who questioned him, even his friends who went against him. He found new friends in the community and calls them his real family. These people have helped him overcome his fears, and being on this path, Arun has recently been appointed as a Transgender Board Member, for Tamil Nadu, along with another transman, Selvam.
Being able to help other transmen is what brings Arun real happiness. He has also co-founded the Transmen Association of Tamil Nadu, an exclusive NGO working for the rights of transmen, educating transmen, providing trainings for job opportunities and provide homes for the people who have left their families due to lack of support.
They are also working towards making the hormone treatment and affirmation surgery free at government hospitals, and removal of stereotypical or discriminatory questions during medical examination for people choosing to have the surgery.
Arun is not afraid of being targeted by his employers for his past anymore. He has recently taken the bold decision to feature in the end credits of a Tamil crime thriller movie called Thittam Irandu, starring famous actress Aishwarya Rajesh. His pre and post-transition pictures were shared as a part of an inspirational initiative to create trans awareness in Tamil Nadu.
As a message to people to become more empathetic and embracing of the community, Arun wants to advocate the importance of using the right pronouns for trans people. He feels it is every person’s choice to live the life they want, and no two people, whether transgender or cisgender, should ever be compared in how they choose to identify themselves and live their lives. Respect is, and should always be, paramount. Also, regardless of their gender identity, people should have equal opportunities to study and get jobs.
Steps like having gender-neutral washrooms, education for children on topics of trans awareness right from an early age and understanding the challenges of the transgender community can go a long way. Right from teenage, up until workplace interventions, every aspect is important.
Arun also emphasizes on the need for people to have faith in themselves. Choosing to adjust to maintain peace with their families might bring them some respite, but this is short-lived, and eventually, people need to be true to themselves.
Even after all the trauma he has faced, Arun still speaks with a lot of kindness about parents and families. He believes that they always mean well but given the social conditioning that they have bene accustomed to, they take time in understanding and coming to terms with the reality of their children, but eventually, they do come around.
Talking about teenagers, Arun strongly believes they should seek psychiatric support the moment they feel conflicted about their identity. And with complete anonymity, people can seek support from LGBTQIA+ organizations, simply via the internet. Arun himself took a long period of time to figure things out for himself, and sought help from multiple experts, but one does need to take that first step to ensure they set on the path.
Arun is alone in this journey. He misses the support of his family because he feels one can be protected from abuse and a lot of untoward circumstances if they have their family by their side. But he has no regrets because even though he is alone, he is his most authentic self, he is who he wanted to be. He wants to create an impact on the society and make this world as a safe space for trans people. This is the life he wanted, and he is happy, and that is all that matters!
– Written By SAP Volunteers for SAP stories