The Lede
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The Secret Lives of Transmen
Tamil Nadu

The Secret Lives of Transmen

Raveena Joseph

Raveena Joseph

Picture courtesy: Sahodaran NGO

They carry on under the cloak of invisibility in society, living lonely lives with untold, unaddressed issues

Ramesh Kumar, 22, has only one identification document – his Aadhar card. In it, his gender is stated as ‘male’, even though he wasn’t born as one. “For the last year, I have also been on hormone therapy, so nothing gives me away. I see myself as a transman, but society sees me as a woman. It’s scary because people sometimes try to overpower and take advantage of us,” explained Ramesh.

Orphaned as a child, Ramesh has been working since he was 8 years old. “I’ve done all sorts of jobs, but nothing has lasted longer than two months because salary won’t be enough, I’ll get into trouble because of my gender identity or the physical labour involved will be too much for me.” Ramesh currently works as housekeeping staff in a saloon for Rs 8000 a month. His colleagues, for over three months, have had no idea that he is a transman. “I want people to know me for who I am, but you never know how some people will behave. It’s best if people just treat us as men,” said Ramesh.

“In this city, even if you look a little like a girl, who will let you be?” asked Selvam, a 32 year old Transman, who was one of the first to be open about his identity in the early 2000s. “We can’t go to the restroom at work because we can’t use urinals – so sometimes we don’t even drink water during the day. Colleagues have tried to touch to see how we react; they ask what’s the problem if you are a man?

If we work in the same place for three years, and don’t grow facial hair or get married, they start asking too many questions. If we say we have a wife, they will want to see her, or ask when we will have children. There is always one issue after another cropping up. If we get angry and refuse to answer questions, then they start giving us trouble. If they find out about our identity, they start blackmailing,” ranted Selvam, who has worked as a building contractor, painter, welder, chair weaver, mechanic and tailor, but has held no job for longer than one month.

“Society is made for men,” said TD Sivakumar, co-founder, Nirangal, an organisation that has worked for the LGBT (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender) community since 2012. “A transwoman can come out proudly and loudly say that she is who she is, but transmen can’t, because gender assigned at birth is female – they are more vulnerable in society.”

Transgender includes transwomen (men who transition to women) and transmen (women who transition to men). Tamil Nadu’s Transgender Welfare Board, which is the pioneering board for transgenders in the country, caters largely to transwomen, pointed out Siva. “Transwomen get free houses, pensions and skill development programs through the government. Transmen are denied all this,” he said.

Though sidelined and marginalised, the stories of transwomen have thus far dominated the narratives pertaining to transgender issues. Their obvious physical features, too, immediately give them away. They deal with inevitable social stigma, but also find support in communal living and strength in numbers.

Transmen, their narratives and distinct issues, on the other hand, remain shrouded in silence. The community is scattered, with hardly any understanding of their own gender identity or how to deal with the issues that come with it. They find jobs in mainstream society, deal with their gender issues in silence, and live under the cloak of invisibility.

Bringing Out The Woman In Him: A Mental Health Hazard

As a 10-year-old, Ramesh Kumar attempted suicide more than once because of the intense loneliness he felt in understanding and accepting his gender identity. As a 13-year-old, he took to the streets, after his adoptive father tried to molest him. Almost a decade later, abuse, from other men he encounters, has not ceased. “If someone finds out you are a transman, they will try to use you for sex. It’s the worst thing,” said Ramesh.

For transmen, who are seen as women in the eyes of society, the restrictions are aplenty. They do not have the option to leave home as they please, or the means to survive on the streets. Most transmen live lonely lives due to lack of awareness, and support in helping them understand their gender identity at a young age.

27-year-old Jovin lived at home till he was 20, and left because of the severe stress in having to hide his gender identity. “When I met other transmen, I was so happy. I used to feel like I was the only one like me,” said Jovin.

While social stigma is lesser due to lower visibility, family exclusion is still a major issue for transmen. “When I was younger, I attempted suicide several times because my parents would tie me up and tortured me at home since I was behaving like a boy, and hanging out with boys. They would ask me why I’m humiliating them; they would ask me to go elsewhere and die. That’s why I left home,” said Jovin. His mother, who sells flowers in Puducherry for a living, still has not entirely accepted him – she gets very distressed at the idea of what society would have to say about Jovin.

“Lots of young transmen face sexual abuse from relatives; they think arousing a young girl would bring out her feminine qualities,” explained 23-year-old Arun. When he moved to Chennai from Namakkal, he did so under the guise of finding work. His friend, however, who is also a transman, wanted to inform his parents beforehand about his decision to transition. “They tried to house arrest my friend and get him married to a guy,” reported Arun.

The Employment Issue

Arun studied in a girls’ school, while staying in a girls’ hostel. “I had a circle of friends who treated me like I was a tomboy. They knew I was interested in girls and many girls used to propose to me too – but I didn’t tell anyone I was trans.” Unaware that there was a transmen community in India, Arun aspired to qualify himself and secure his position in society so that he would be able to educate others about his gender identity.

In 2016, after he received his degree in computer engineering, he moved to Chennai to prepare for the civil services examination. That’s when he started to seek out other transmen; he asked them a multitude of questions to ascertain if their gender dysphoria – the distress a person experiences as a result of the sex they were assigned at birth being mismatched with the one they identify with emotionally and psychologically – was similar to his.

“Largely, transmen only leave home after their education to transition. They change their name and live as men – they are in the police force, in government jobs, in IT and the media – but no one knows,” said Arun. However, despite his qualifications and aspirations, Arun currently works a 9-hour job in a food start-up, for Rs 12,000 a month. He found the job through Peri Ferry, a transgender employment agency, because his qualifying documents still state his gender as ‘female’. “Who can get a job with a driving license or an Aadhar Card? I’m anxious to approach my college, where they knew me as a girl, to change the gender in my documents,” said Arun.

He has heard of instances, he said, where a person would have taken up a corporate job as a woman, and then decided to transition. “They would talk to their superiors and if they are accepting, they continue in the same job, as a man, after surgery. But there are other people who change their house and job to move away from people who knew their former identity.” Losing so many friends, neighbours and colleagues, leaves transmen feeling further lonely and depressed.

The Struggle For Surgery

“I went to a psychologist who asked me about my suicide attempts, and my interest in women. I told him I wanted an operation and he asked me to start taking hormone injections. For ten years now, I’ve been waiting for friends and sponsors to help me get my sex reassignment surgery,” said Jovin.

Transwomen, though not afforded employment opportunities, have been ‘allowed’ to earn a living through begging and prostitution. Many use the money they make to transition and create a life for themselves in the sidelines of society. Transmen, however, do not have that option.

The foremost surgery transmen yearn for is mastectomy (removal of breasts), which could cost close to Rs 1 lakh. Jovin, who used to do packaging work in a biscuit company for ten years, has not had enough money for this surgery. Instead, he straps in his breasts with a grip bandage. “I’ve dealt with so much pain in life – this is hardly anything,” he said.

Of Love And Acceptance

When Selvam was 15 years old, he fell in love with a girl. Their romance lasted three years, after which they decided to elope, from Tamil Nadu to Kerala. “It became a big issue and that’s when everyone came to know who I am. They forcibly brought us back,” said Selvam.

His family cried and fought with him, and he realised all the friction was futile. “There are five people in my house. We get food only if someone works. On the days we don’t get work, we starve,” said Selvam. So in 2004, he moved to Chennai to find work. “I met a lot of transwomen here, and realised there would be others like me. I was the first one of my kind at the time and gave a lot of media interviews – soon, lots of transmen started seeking me out.”

Many he met said they wanted to live as themselves, or not at all. “There are lots of new transmen in Chennai now. I don’t even know what happened to the ones I met earlier – maybe they’ve all killed themselves. Things used to be really bad back then.”

Due to lack of awareness, many do not realise the meaning of their own gender identity. “Not all transmen come away from their family. Some live as single women, others are married and raped everyday,” explained Sivakumar of Nirangal, adding that he is aware of about 300 transmen in Chennai.

In love and relationships, transmen have it tough. Jovin, who was in love with a woman for seven years, lost her because she wanted to get married and couldn’t wait. “A girl will have to leave her family and come with us, and we have to take care of her entirely. If a woman comes with us, and we can’t give her a baby, she won’t be happy. That’s a big stress for those wanting to get married. Sometimes the girls leave us because of kids, social and family pressures. I’m yearning for love and acceptance, but I just want to work and come up in life now,” he said.

Transmen are a fragmented minority within the marginalised transgender community. There is a startling lack of awareness amongst transmen, which is compounded by lack of avenues to air their issues, let alone address them. All this leaves them lonely and helpless, contributing to high incidence of suicide and mental health stress. But their issues, just their identity, remain invisible.