The Lede
The Fragility Of Gender
Tamil Nadu

The Fragility Of Gender

Raveena Joseph

Raveena Joseph

(Picture is for representational purposes only. Picture credit: Sahodaran NGO)

Editor’s note: In this 4-part series, The Lede delves into an aspect of transgender lives that is largely ignored – mental health. Studies point to the fact that a frightening majority of transgenders attempt suicide before of the age of 18-20. In this series, The Lede attempts to get to the root of the cause for such mental distress, the lack of access to counseling and therapy and the need for awareness during teenage years to shield our youngsters from suicide risk.

Part 01: The Men In The Lives Of Transwomen

A look at the turbulent and transient relationships young transwomen share with men, which leads to high incidence of suicide and mental health issues in the community

Aruna came to Chennai in 1987, when she was 15 years old. She was born with the anatomy of a boy, but all she wanted to do was go to school as a girl. So she came to the big city from  Sullipalayam, a village in Namakkal district, with her school books in tow, hoping to find acceptance. “I slept in railway stations and platforms for 30 days, hoping to meet others like me. Finally, one evening, I found some transwomen standing under a bridge, waiting for sex work. We couldn’t even come out during the day then because we would be pelted with stones,” said Aruna.

They lived along the banks of the Cooum river, under a sack tent, and made their living by having sex with men near bushes for a rupee or two. Starting from the early 1990s, when HIV prevention was gaining ground in Tamil Nadu, many organisations started working with the transgender community. “We learnt and understood how to lobby government, people in power and the police. That’s how people from the community got empowered,” said Aruna. Today, 44 years old, and head of a Jamat (a social and economic system in which transgenders live), Aruna has over 400 ‘daughters’, ‘grand-daughters’ and ‘sisters’ across the state.

What about men? “They come and go, whenever they want money, food or sex,” she said dismissively. In Aruna’s generation, when transwomen were fighting for recognition and rights, their focus was on asserting their identity and adjusting with mainstream society to make their living. Much has changed today, but the transgender community still lives marginalised lives, and deals with high incidence of mental health stress arising from stigma, and social and family exclusion. They crave for affection and acceptance, and yearn for the same with romantic partners.

Due to lack of social acceptance and a transwoman’s inability to bear children, most transgender relationships are fragile. There is constant fear of abandonment or cheating. “Sometimes, a man has a wife and children, all living on the earnings of  his transwoman partner. Or he will be an alcoholic, dependant on her for money. Many transwomen allow men to go to other women just to keep him in their lives,” explained Aruna.

According to the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine: “Suicide rate among transgender individuals in India is about 31%, and 50% of them have attempted suicide at least once before their 20th birthday.” Community leaders predominantly attribute this to the turbulent relationships transwomen share with men. “Sustaining a partner causes high stress amongst young transgenders. They invest a lot in changing themselves physically, mentally and economically to retain affection. Then when they lose him after all that, they get really dejected,” said Aruna.

A Stormy Affair: Bhavana’s Story

Case in point is Bhavana, who has a cloying, turbulent and sexually charged 11-year-long love story to tell. In September 2006, 17-year-old Bhavana met Sheik, a 16-year-old coolie at Marina beach, Chennai. The attraction, said Bhavana, was instant. “I still looked and dressed like a boy, but my feminine walk and talk attracted him. In terms of looks, he wasn’t good enough for me. But my heart went out to him, what could I do?” she giggled.

Over the course of their relationship, Sheik dabbled in fraud, forgery, intimidation and soliciting to make money. Bhavana, unhappy with his choices, felt it was her duty to make a man out of him – she engaged in sex work to earn more to provide for him and for her family, whom she did not live with. “Taking care of him came naturally to me – I would take him out to eat, buy him neat clothes to wear, and help him whenever possible,” said Bhavana.

If Sheik did something she did not like, she harmed herself – a series of cigarette burns on her arm are testament to their tempestuous relationship. “We’d fight often and I was always the one who would get physically abusive – he was practically my slave,” she chuckled.

In 2013, Bhavana started transitioning. She grew her hair, started taking hormones and being open about her identity. Sheik encouraged all this. When his family started looking for a woman for him to wed, he proposed that they get married. Instead, Bhavana got her surgery; Sheik paid for it.

A year later, he married another woman who would be able to bear him children. “I told him our life together can always be a secret, and he can live with another woman for the sake of family and society. He told me all about the girl and her family before he got married. If he wanted to cheat me, he needn’t have done that,” she said.

But, soon after he tied the knot, he broke things off with Bhavana, leaving her shattered. “I can’t explain what happened to me after that. I never expected him to leave me. I would lie in bed for hours, but wouldn’t be able to sleep. I would stare at my phone unblinkingly. I wanted to die. I would get drunk, get on my bike and go around the streets in a crazy frenzy.”

Finally, at one point, she considered cutting her hair and heading back home: “I felt I could have lived as well as him, as a man, if he had told me how he felt ahead of the operation.”

The Men She Meets While Walking the Streets

23-year-old Regina, on the other hand, transitioned only after her lover Raja left her for a woman. She is happy to be a transwoman. Her former boyfriend, who she considers the love of her life, is a masculine gay man. So throughout their relationship, she adopted the role of an effeminate gay person to please him. She’s met many men after that, but none who are able to give her the exclusivity and commitment she wants from a relationship. “You can easily deceive transgenders with affection. Lots of men send proposals on WhatsApp. You know why? For free sex,” said Regina.

A qualified civil engineer, Regina works as a sex worker for a living. Sidelined in society and denied employment opportunities, the main means of income for the transgender community is through begging and prostitution, through which there is a good chance of making a killing. Regina, whose parents sell idlis from a pushcart for a living, went to Bangkok for her transition surgery in 2016 and paid for it through the money she had made from sex work.

“If there are no transgenders, the lives of women will get so difficult,” said Regina, alluding to some strange fetishes she has encountered while walking the streets. She has met big shots who have wanted to dress in women’s lingerie, others who have asked to be humiliated, mistreated and maimed. “One guy paid me Rs 5000 for two minutes. All he wanted to do was look at me with my hair let loose. There was another 60-year-old guy who paid me Rs 3000 to wear a bikini. He couldn’t even do anything. He just wanted to see. Each one has his own kink,” shared Regina.

Her clients range from 16-year-olds to 60-year-olds, and pay her anywhere from Rs 500 to Rs 50,000 for her time. Sex, which takes longer than 10 minutes, she explained, is rare. “If the guy gives me more than Rs 5000, I might take him home. If he’s going to give me Rs 1000 or so, I just do it by the roadside in dark places.”

One night, she made her way to a dilapidated building with a young coolie. Within minutes, they were interrupted by two policemen, who beat up the guy and took his money. “One cop blocked me and said he would let me go only if I ‘did fun’ with him. I had to do it. What else can I do? I can’t stand on the streets without his support,” said Regina.

When she isn’t watching out for exploitative policemen, she is worried about goons and rowdies who come at her with knives and sickles. “If something happens to my face, I can’t do any business,” she said matter-of-factly.

Lovers, clients, policemen or rowdies…the men in the lives of transwomen are constantly looking to exploit them sexually and economically. And their social status leaves them at the mercy of the whims and wants of these men.

The Worth of a Wedding 

In intimate relationships, transwomen have no protection. Marriages, whether they are sanctified religiously or registered with a false ID card that states the transwoman’s gender as ‘female’, are not legally binding. “There are laws against dowry and domestic violence to protect women. Such crimes still happen, but at least it affords women a redressal mechanism. Transgenders only have a controversial Bill that is still being debated,” pointed out Jaya, General Manager, Sahodaran, an organisation that has worked for the community since 1998.

Shalini, a 34-year-old transwoman with blazing red kungumam on her forehead and a chunky thali around her neck, has been married to Kumar, an auto rickshaw driver, for eight years. When they met in 2007, he was impressed by her conviction to find a mainstream job and live a dignified life. He wooed her and wedded her, and when his family showed up with sickles to object to their marriage, he stood up for her and stuck by his decision. Shalini was very happy. But, marital bliss only lasted three months.

Today, Shalini is separated from her husband because of his chronic alcoholism and severe physical abuse. “His mother took him to a doctor some years ago, but was told that any woman who lives with him won’t survive his abuse for more than a month. So she begged me to stay with him. But now she wants me to leave because she wants grandchildren. His friends also don’t respect me. They ask him to hit me saying I’m just a transgender,” said Shalini, teary-eyed.

In 2014, Shalini turned entrepreneur and started her own saree business. Its growth has won her recognition as an independent transwoman. For 2018, she has grand plans to expand her business and source sarees from Kolkata to sell. She has also put down her name at the Government Hospital’s Thottil Kuzhanthai Thittam (Cradle baby scheme), in the hope of adopting a child. Yet, she wishes that her husband would come back to live with her, and will behave well when he does.

“As a transgender, you don’t have anyone or anything. What will happen if the person you think is your world leaves you? Some women have hung themselves and no one even found out about it for days,” said Shalini.

Relationship Woes and the Mental Health Toll

Transwomen live in a constant state of stress – aggressive, angry, brash and boorish – because that’s the only way they can survive on the streets. But, hardly any choose to turn to mental health experts who do not share their gender identity, and are afar from their lifestyle issues and choices. “They resort to  over-the-counter drugs, alcohol and social vices to cope. Many develop diabetes, blood pressure and weakness of bones as they grow older,” said Aruna.

Lakshmi Vijaykumar, mental health expert, explained the pronounced stress they suffer due to failure of romantic relationships: “A break up in a transgender relationship affects them ten times more because they don’t have supportive relationships with other people. Their partner becomes their sole source of comfort and support, leading to increased trauma and rejection.”

A transwoman’s only solace is sympathetic ears from within her own community – a lack of honesty and trust, however, makes them non-therapeutic. “They share that their guy is tall, handsome, caring, loving… but they never admit to giving the guy money to keep him in their lives,” explained Jaya.

Sultana, a 24-year-old transwoman who works at Sahodaran, looked to the heavens and said she feels blessed to be in a stable and loving relationship with her boyfriend Mohamad. However, she admitted to slitting her wrists when she found that he’d been chatting with another transwoman. But fortunately, their relationship recovered from the incident. “When he was in Chennai, he used to drive me to and from work every day, at whatever time. I don’t think any woman would have experienced the bliss I had when I was with him,” said Sultana, dreamy-eyed.

Mohamad has been working abroad since early 2017. The stress of long-distance has made her worry if he would  leave her now that he is professionally growing, but she feels safe in the relationship thanks to his consistent affection. “It’s very rare to get a guy like this. He’s religious and accepting of a transwoman. We should never share our relationship status with anyone because they’ll try to provoke negative ideas – they’ll say he’s cheating on you, worry you saying he’ll leave you or he’s using you, or they will instigate you to pursue a better looking guy,” said Sultana.

She has kept him away from her friends in the community too, because, “if there’s someone nice and caring, people will try to badmouth you and steal him for themselves.”

“You can never trust men” is a constant refrain in the transgender community. But a lack of trust and support otherwise leaves transwomen in stifled and lonely mental spaces when it comes to romantic attachments. This contributes to high incidence of mental health stress and suicide, which goes on unaddressed and unchecked amongst transwomen.

(Some names have been changed to protect identity)