Monday, October 23, 2017


Trigger Warning: Transphobia, sexual abuse, police violence.

Harshavardhan Thyagarajan interviews Ms Dhananjay on her journey, on life and work.

'People are curious about my genitals. “Please don't mind” they always say (she mimics an awkward laugh) – before proceeding to ask me they would never ask anyone else.' From her tone, it's hard to tell if she takes umbrage to this kind of treatment.
In school it became obvious to her classmates that she was distinctly effeminate; unlike the rest of the boys. Her friends were almost exclusively girls, their games and conversations were always more appealing to her. The occasional boy who wanted to be introduced to a girl would seek her out and befriend her. As school progressed, delivering love letters became a niche that she occupied singly. It never presented itself as a question of gender – looking back, Dhananjay sees no question here at all. She was always a girl, only one without the understanding to explain it to the outside world. The mens' room was out of bounds to her – the other boys would pull her pants, attempt to dunk her in the urinal. At this time in my childhood (much more recently) – I avoided the school toilets because I wondered if the others used it responsibly. In 6th standard, her fears were realised in their entirety. Pants were taken, and the teasing became markedly more abusive. As we speak, she registers little or no emotion – in her voice I can almost hear a sense of understanding. I am already slightly jealous – I have borne grudges for far less. Growing up, the world is already a confusing place. How does one deal with being ear-marked for abuse in an entire school?
It wasn't all bleak and awful though. She had her friends, and in 8th standard, she fell in love with a boy. He was practically a neighbour, about 16 years of age. 'I used to care for him' she says. She did not tell him of her love – but there was this care for him. Hours would run by in writing his homework, packed lunches for him and waiting beneath trees. 'We had no phones then, so I'd just wait – not knowing if he'd come.' He too, grew close to her eventually and they proceeded to become intimate. He was engaged to marry another when he was 21 – and became wary of seeing her. The last straw broke when he offered to introduce her to friends who might have been interested. She broke contact, never again to speak with him. The following period saw the first onslaught of depression in her life. Her boards performance was severely affected and suicidal thoughts began to ferment.
Time seems to have numbed her to these memories, and the number of times she has told these stories allow her to breeze through the incidents almost as if they happened to someone else. Her incredible persistence in the face of staggering odds has made her a trained professional in the field of sensitization and her role as an activist has won her attention nationally – not without reason. Today she runs Saksham Trust – an organisation that engenders to support transgender and LGB communities. She was significantly involved in the build up the historic NALSA vs Union of India judgement – which affirmed fundamental rights for the third gender. Her efforts have led to Panjab University (Chandigarh) processing an application to construct a separate toilet for transgenders, making them the first University in the country to do so. She has been at the forefront of pride marches – in the first edition, she was walked off campus in PU – and most recently, Panjab University's name decorated the banner of the Chandigarh Pride Walk. Today she is fighting for a separate hostel for transgenders and remittance of tuition fees, and it appears to be another fight she will win. On a personal front – she is now completing her second masters' degree (the first was in Social Work, she is currently studying Human Rights) besides diplomas in Russian, French and Computer Science. She has been invited to multiple conferences in the LGBTQ community across the globe – and has toured Asia and Europe to lend voice to a community.
Dhananjay firmly considers herself a transgender woman, and takes pains to explain to me the distinction between her identity and Hijras. Over the years, she has grown to become firm friends with the Hijra community in Chandigarh and continues to visit the Deras periodically – but believes that her identity is different for multiple reasons. The Hijra identity is firstly associated with intersex individuals – children who are adopted by the community if born with genitals that are neither distinctly male or female. Plenty of trans-women join these communities – and often undergo crude procedures to remove their male genitalia. Secondly, the Hijra community occupies a very specific niche in the North Indian society – one of religious performers. The idea of collecting badhai and performing do not appeal to Dhananjay – in fact, she believes that it's existence does not allow society to consider Hijras as regular humans. The respect they receive, she feels to be tainted by the fear that elicits it – for after all, to be paid, it is common practice for a Hijra to threaten to lift her petty coat and display her genitals. In D's opinion, she has always been too stubborn to allow society to dictate her way of life.

In fact, her sharpest memory from childhood is from the day of her Mundan (head-tonsuring ceremony). D demanded that if her head be shaved – she had to be gifted a pretty frock. Her parents eventually gave in, and the frock was bought. 'I was always 'ziddi' – even as a child.' she smiles wrily. At other times she remembers kneading dough in the wee hours of the night. It was imperative that no one knew that she played with the dough. This would have invited unnecessary conflict. Likewise – the options that presented themselves to her, joining a Hijra community or becoming a sex worker – both demanded that she smother any hope of academic qualification and equitable outcomes. Instead, she chose to repress any thoughts on gender, while trying to understand why she was sexually attracted to men. After school – D enrolled in PGGC (46) – Chandigarh. Here she studied music, history and spent a considerable amount of time involved with the drama troupe of College. She is still associated with Alankar theater – and uses the medium to spread awareness. Even today, our interview is more of a drifting conversation. Seated in the lawn of the Developing Areas Building (PU), we listen to Begum Akhtar's rendition of a 'Kuch to duniya ke inayat ne dil tod diya', and D tries to explain to me the beauty of the lyrics. We intermittently talk current affairs – communal tensions, a climate of anger, Donald Drumpf. I speak a broken Hindi – having spoken Tamil and English all my life, Hindi's habit of supplying gender to everything, gendered or otherwise; confuses me terribly. Today I'm even more conscious, determined not to mis-gender – and stringing a single question together takes a minute. D in turn replies in a mix of Hindi and English. It is a conversation peppered with trivia and history – D tells me how Akbar's courtesans were guarded exclusively by eunuchs, she tells me how the Sivalingam is a penis emerging from a vagina – and how we choose to ignore this symbolism while cherry picking sacred ideas – and I struggle to make notes. We talk about the East India Company, the idea of India, homoerotic Sufi poetry (were Nizamuddin Auliya and Amir Khusro gay lovers? In whose voice was Khusro writing Chaap Tilak Sab Cheeni – in whose voice does he exclaim “Khusro Nizaam ke bal bal jaiye”?) and plenty of other tangents. Beyond a point, I give up – there is too much to be heard – and nearly no time for documentation. It is clear that her college education was something that she valued deeply. It was more than a mere degree, after all – how many people remember ideas they studied more than two decades ago? Aptly, for three consecutive years, she was the College topper – an achievement that still brings a little sparkle to her eyes.

When I initially planned to write this, I was hoping to develop a picture of what life in India was like for a member of the trans community. I grew up in Chennai – in a society that was very sexist in nature, and by extension, severely discriminated against minorities from the LGBTQ. These ideas seemed very normal to me. People I considered morally upright seemed to behave well in accordance with this framework. I was probably one of the blissful many whose only image of transgenders are those of uncomfortable situations in a traffic signals. The internet brought to me ideas of feminism, questioned my belief that cis-heteronormativity was more natural than other orientations and genders. An entire generation grew increasingly aware about these issues alongside me. And yet, this awareness was not local. It was, at least for me, a very American consciousness of the existence of LGBTQ – and this bothered me. How much is a rainbow-display picture worth, if we continue to ignore issues that individuals within our country face?

Besides the tremendous stigma they face, a surprisingly common opinion is that if transgenders are allowed to self identify – this choice can easily be faked. D bristles at this – in making this choice, she has not only discarded the multiple privileges that come with being a man in India – she has also invited the liabilities of being a trans-woman. “I have been accosted by random men in jeeps out on a gehri – to be slapped without provocation on multiple occasions.” To her, the choice is anything but frivolous. The reflexive assumption that a social order of this nature will be exploited betrays a lot about the climate of distrust that hovers over a people.

Another source of alienation to the trans community is the unspoken assumption that they are/have been involved in the industry of sex work. D maintains that a) the public perception of sex work and the taboo-ized image of sex in society is unhealthy, and that b) transgender people are not by default sex workers. This flawed pigeon holing prevents many closeted individuals from coming to terms with their own identities – resulting in internal conflicts and tremendous frustration. D went through similar frustrations of her own growing into adulthood.

In 1993, she graduated – and began to pursue her Masters' in History from PU. Very soon, her identity was found out – and extensive ragging followed. 'They took me the forests at the back' she says and then proceeds to detail horrific sexual abuse. It remains unclear whether this was the first case of sexual abuse that she endured. I find myself incapable of asking. What is for sure however, was that this was far from the last. Within a month of beginning, she quit and decided to take up a job as a clerk in PU. At this point in her life, she thought herself to be a gay man, rather than a woman – and it became a sort of open, unspoken secret.

At this time, still a clerk in PU, she had taken admission to evening law, but this too proved to be too much to handle. She was married, and with help of medical intervention, she fathered to three children. The marriage didn't hold water for long, and the relationship ended in 2005. “Though we don't live together, she understands and supports me.”
She terms this entire phase of her life an adjustment. Depression came and went, a frequent visitor – and the few friends she attempted to talk to either tried to use her for sex or distanced themselves from her. D's sexual lifestyle continued independent of her marriage and depression. Before WhatsApp and grindr, she cruised the Chandigarh streets for sexual release. This involved walking up to random strangers in public toilets and offering oneself sexually. D shocks me with such revelations from time to time – not only by being this remarkably honest about her life, but also with insights into the Indian male that I had no previous access to. Her experiences suggest that the proportion of men seeking sexual relationships with other men are much higher than we can gauge from a casual observation of our society. To remain hidden from the gaze of society, these currents of silent rebellion and self expression also take ugly forms, those of pretense and severe hypocrisy. From the top of her head, D reels off umpteen instances where men who've engaged in sexual relations with her have gone on to publicly shame her for her orientation. Eventually, this drove D to demand explicit and compromising photographs up front – to keep herself immune from the scathing shaming that followed.
At work, D was a valued member of her office – 'Work came to a standstill on days I took leave' she tells me, in response to being asked if she faced discrimination in the offices of PU. The answer suggests that she did not give her colleagues the chance – and sounds much more like the D seated across me than the person whose story I hear. To respect herself is a trait D has carefully cultivated over time. Her self respect is deeply rooted in her honesty to the world about who she is. D refuses to change anything of who she is in order to fit into a societal construct of what she should be – and in that she finds herself respectable. Respect breeds respect, she repeatedly tells me – and today in Chandigarh she is a public figure with extensive reach. Her status in PU is larger than life, she is something of a wary celebrity. Journalists repeatedly seek her out for interviews, police personnel by and large know her. As I write this, a friend asks if she can be put in touch with D for some support with her legal research. Things weren't quite the same back in the day.
In 1998, the administrative department of PU came under police investigation over charges of leaking a question paper. D was one among many taken into custody for interrogation in early 2000. According to D, the entire investigation was a mere political maneuver – set up to indict certain members of the top brass of PU. In order to force a confession, D was subjected to brutal torture and the threat of being outed to her family. After 5 days of resistance in the face of violent sexual abuse and repeated beatings, D gave in and signed a blank sheet of paper. She was subsequently arrested. Over and above that, she was formally outed to her family. The case was later thrown out – but D was still intermittently consigned to a spell in prison. I am avoiding graphic descriptions of her torture here, not because they are extremely unpleasant. I cannot convey the true magnitude of those 5 days. I doubt anyone but D can. The indomitable soul that she is, she has managed to see some good even in this episode of her life. It forced her hand, and it dragged her out of the closet – for which she manages to be grateful.
The first person she explained herself to was her wife. To her surprise, she found a reservoir of patience and understanding. They remain close to this day, although no longer as husband and wife. By early 2004, she had returned to gainful employment – as a teacher in a school. But tragedy still hovered around the corner. D was deceived by an E-mail scam along the lines of the Nigerian prince hoax and lost a substantial portion of her life savings. Shortly after, in 2005 – the Pakistan cricket team toured India. Preparations were made and special visas were processed for the tourists. On the eve of the game, D met with two young Pakistani men and they engaged in casual intercourse. Months later, D came to know that one of them had outstayed the welcome his visa had offered him, and had been listed as a terrorist suspect. Through his phone contact list, D too came under the scanner. She was called in for interrogation. Demons returned to haunt her, and the experience was traumatic even in the absence of abuse. For months after, D felt herself being followed, observed. Her only fault? To feature in a contact list. 'I couldn't believe that this was happening to me' she shrugs – she still hasn't quite exorcised this demon. D eventually quit her job at the school and devoted herself to activism and running Saksham Trust full time, around 2009. Cut to 2017. D has been beaten multiple times, accosted by random people and shamed for her existence, gang-raped, date-raped, shamed by men who tried to woo her – and even today,not everyone is comfortable being seen with her in public. She has persisted in the face of it all – and is still going strong. Long may she enjoy the fruit of her toil.