To most young transmen, Satya Rai Nagpaul is a vision of what they could become – broad-shouldered, with a thick beard, deep voice, and several awards for cinematography, he is a spokesperson for transgender rights. But his professional success has ensured that his gender is of no consequence except when he chooses to use particular labels.
“I can’t wait to grow a beard like Satya’s,” a transmale student told me wistfully. “He came to my college for a lecture on film, and I just kept thinking, oh my god, how awesome it would be to look like him.”
Did Satya remember when he had first felt this moment of excitement in his own life, knowing that there was someone who had transitioned, and knowing that his physicality would one day match how he felt inside?
“There was no one,” Satya told me. “At AIIMS (All India Institute of Medical Sciences), where I had started my hormone therapy in 1997, I had asked if there were others I could meet. My psychiatrist told me there were a couple of people he knew of, but they had asked not to be contacted, since they wanted to assimilate back into society and not be visible as transpeople.”
Satya knew he had to start a network. People who wanted to find others like themselves had to have a way to access each other. Soon after he began his transition, Satya reached out to lesbian and gay spaces in Delhi.
He left his contact details with the gay collective Humrahi and lesbian group Sangini. Gradually, transpeople began to approach him. In the late 1990s, Sampoorna started with three transmen and one transwoman as its first members. Today, the group, which calls itself “a network by trans- and intersex Indians for trans- and intersex Indians across the globe”, comprises more than two hundred members.
It has been nearly twenty years since the group began, but networks of transmasculine people are relatively nascent. Most transmen in India are on the Sampoorna Working Group mailing list. There are also various local and national social media networks, and private Facebook or WhatsApp groups, through which transmen have found each other in several cities across India. Satya told me these networks have been expanding, particularly over the last two years. Many are also connected to other networks across Asia. Because the numbers were still so few, they formed intimate connections over long distances. A transman in the United States could become close friends with a transman in New Zealand after meeting him at a conference in Sri Lanka or Thailand.
It wasn’t all hunky-dory. As I met transmen and heard their stories, I would discover various aspects of these networks, some of which could be teething problems and others that indicated worrying trends. I would see the ways in which some of them tried to monetise their stories, and others rebelled against the concept of telling one’s story, the politics within and between various organisations that represented or tried to represent transmen’s interests, the chosen few who became spokespeople for trans activism, and the various ways in which other issues – caste, disability, language, class, education, family, religion – played into gender identity.
On rare occasions, transmen do put up before and after pictures on their social media accounts, typically to indicate how far they have come, and to motivate others who are just beginning their transition. But many find it difficult to even look at their old photographs, particularly those who were compelled to wear their hair long or don female clothes.
Yet, most media reportage to do with transition is accompanied by before–after pictures, so that the focus is entirely on the body modification and not on the problems of being trans – a man with breasts and no facial hair, an unbroken voice, and a double life.
Many reporters could also unintentionally spread misinformation and even myths about transitioning.
One of my interviewees sent me an article published on the website Quint, titled “Rajveer and Shivangi’s Unique Love Story Will Make You Tear Up”.
The piece declared that Rajveer, whose assigned name was also mentioned, had decided to have his gender affirmation surgery in order to marry his ciswoman partner. A statement of this kind, that someone would go under the knife for love and not because of dysphoria, could give the impression it was entirely a choice, and that one could function perfectly well without the surgery.
The piece referred to them as a “same-sex couple” whose relationship was not acceptable to their families, and that it was because of his partner’s love and support that Rajveer had decided to “change his gender” – careless phrases that make transpeople and allies cringe.
Could there be an argument in favour of media coverage? Did it only help create a voyeuristic narrative, or did it echo the stories of other transpeople, who might then reach out to each other? Did it bring invisible people into the public imagination? Was it important for the transmasculine community to have a place in the public imaginary?
Satya told me visibility in society, in law, and in life had somehow been replaced by visibility in media. In an age of 24-hour news channels, live website updates, hashtags, and the “Insta” prefix, perhaps this was only to be expected. One could not quite dismiss these stories as fifteen-seconds-of-fame, though. The coverage had several insidious effects, and Satya would outline them to me.
“A certain bravado is attached to ‘coming-out’ stories and a hierarchy of elites is created within the community, to whom the authority to speak and decide on behalf of the community is transferred overnight,” he said. “All players get what they want – the media their stories, the funders their nods, the storytellers their ‘moment of glory and status’, and the community remains where they are, where they always were. Outside of the career activists, it would be important to examine if the life of the common hijra person has really changed in so many years of hijra leaders coming to prominence of one kind or another. It’s something for the emerging transmasculine and intersex communities to investigate as they devise their own strategies and positions.”
Who was getting the visibility? Whom did it serve? On whose terms and conditions? Was the visibility for the “bourgeois press and audience”? And how did transpeople as a community benefit from such visibility? Did it help young transmen who were looking for role models? If so, what sort of role models were reaching them and how? Was the community interrogating these issues?
“The contemporary discourses being put forth by the current mainstream media are at their lowest,” Satya said. “They seem unable to operate outside of the sensationalist mode and the engagement is at a very shallow level. For me, the idea that role models reach us in our actual lives is more powerful than reaching us through, say, television. If there is any bit of hope vis-à-vis the media, then I still have some from cinema and the newly emerging web media.”
“But can you actually think of examples of films that have struck you as positive?” I asked him. “Like, in terms of representation of trans- and intersex people, what would you like to see in the fiction and non- fiction media?”
“None that match up to some of my favourites,” Satya said, and reeled off a list – ‘Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes, Rolf de Heer’s Dance Me to My Song, Wim Wenders’ Pina, Humberto Solas’s Lucía, Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I, Helma Sanders-Brahms’ No Mercy, No Future, Mani Kaul’s Before My Eyes, Guru Dutt’s Sahib, Bibi Aur Gulam and Roberto Minervini’s The Other Side.’
Where were the real-life encounters, he asked. Transwomen were seen in life, not on television. Why, then, were transmen only really seen in the media?
“But then, most of our childhood memories of transwomen are restricted to seeing them begging on trains, at traffic signals, and shops, no?” I said.
True, Satya said. However, he felt the transman narrative in the media was even more problematic than our distorted understanding of transwomen from those childhood memories.
“’Coming-out stories’ are a tiny, tiny part of the wider spectrum of the ‘trans discourse’, which is the entire diversity of trans voices that exist and may or may not be available to us in a mediatised manner,” he said. “The engagements go beyond ‘me and my struggle to become female or male’.”
Trans discourse must raise questions about “gender practice”, he felt, and fired: “Is the state creating the possibilities for self-determination of gender? Is it going beyond recognition in law and what institutional mechanisms are being established to ensure implementation? Has transmasculinity given patriarchy enough grounds for insecurity and self-reflection? Or has it only reinforced it? Does transmasculinity habitate misogyny at its core? What challenges has it brought to feminisms and feminist analysis? Has it transcended from the danger of ‘the transmasculinity’ to ‘transmasculinities’? Does it just feed off hegemonic masculinities or do its narratives destabilise them politically? What are its commitments to the larger intersectional space of caste–class–gender–ethnicity and other struggles? What kind of a ‘public sphere’ does it imagine? And most importantly, what are the very constitutive values that transmasculinities are setting up for themselves?”
Excerpted with permission from Invisible Men: Inside India’s Transmasculine Networks, Nandini Krishnan, Penguin Random House India.