If you choose not to read this review any further or the book in question, do pay close attention to the next set of words.

  • Transgender/Transsexual: A person whose gender identity does not correspond to the sex they were assigned at birth
  • Transman: A man assigned female at birth (AFAB)
  • Transwoman: A woman assigned male at birth (AMAB)
  • Intersex: A person born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit the typical definitions of female or male
  • GNC: Gender Non-conforming Persons
  • Gender Neutral / Gender Fluid / Genderqueer / Non-binary: A person with a gender identity that is neither exclusively masculine nor feminine
  • Femme: A queer person who presents herself in a traditionally feminine way
  • Butch: A queer person who presents herself in a traditionally masculine way

These terms, which roughly define some of the persons belonging to the LGBTQIA (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender-Queer-Intersex-Asexual) community, are critical to understanding this subject in general, and this review in particular. If, despite a proliferation of coverage about the community, they read like an array of confusing words, it is probably due to cis-het “privilege” (“cis-het” stands for cisgender-heterosexual person, i.e., someone whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth, and who are sexually attracted to persons of the opposite gender).

Unawareness of the cultures of minorities is a luxury afforded to those belonging to the majority. In recent years, the terms “gay”, “lesbian” and “homosexual” have acquired some grudging acceptance thanks to the media, but there is little understanding about the transgender community. Indeed, we have been content for far too long with the use of dismissive and often, disrespectful umbrella terms like “third gender” to describe people who do not fit into the rigid male-female binary. Nandini Krishnan is out to change just that with her new book, Invisible Men: Inside India’s Transmasculine Networks. She takes up the case of what is probably the most invisibilised gender minority group – India’s transmen.

An invaluable ally

As queer insights and, consequently, vocabulary expand, the LGBTQIA spectrum may soon include an extra Q and an extra A (LGBTQQIAA, anyone?) to accommodate those still “questioning” their gender identities and those who are “allies” to the community. Krishnan is one such ally. In his foreword to the book, journalist and novelist Manu Joseph writes that Krishnan “is a delinquent. No interesting aspect of life escapes the delinquent. Also, she does not need the farce of compassion to respect people. As a result, the book that you hold does not contain even a moment of the feudalism of the lucky masquerading as sympathy for the unlucky.”

One is inclined to disagree with Joseph on both counts, because Krishnan’s voice is as compassionate as it is courageous. For her, the transmasculine community is not just an “interesting (story-worthy) aspect of life”. Nor is her compassion farcical. An invested reader will not find it hard to see how the author is often seriously involved in the lives of her subjects – many of whom she considers friends – without compromising on journalistic rigour. However, unlike the linearity preferred by most journalists, Krishnan allows her book to “come(s) in fragments, in a way she experienced it, and in a way a reader would/should experience and find their own connecting threads.”

Wrong bodies, right men

While the timelines, characters and narratives in Krishnan’s book move back and forth, she never loses sight of her readers, some of whom may be encountering the subject of transmen for the first time. She and her subjects often observe how the position of this community is a lot more at a disadvantage than that of their transwomen counterparts. Most of us are aware of the existence of hijras but few know about transmen – persons who identify as male but are assigned female at birth, owing to their reproductive organs.

This means that a transman (or woman) goes through several years of life feeling like they are in the wrong body with the wrong organs. They feel what is called gender dysphoria, and seek to align their appearance with the gender they identify with.

Through the personal accounts of many transmen, Krishnan explores the narratives of these lives – each of them similar and yet unique in its own way. The author picks interviewees from a fairly diverse demographic, with transmen from rural South India and North East India to cosmopolitan Delhi, and beyond to Bangladesh, as also partners of transmen, and prominent activists. These people belong to different stages of transition, different socioeconomic backgrounds, and, therefore, identify with varying sets of issues. But what binds them all is the extreme prejudice and discrimination they face in society on a regular basis.

No country for transmen

Lives of transmen in India are fraught with difficulties and outright danger. Starting lives as girl children while being loath to fit into gender norms expected of girls, many face bullying and disdain from their peers in school, even if their families are indulgent in the beginning. But the indulgence for “cutesy tomboyish” behaviour is quickly withdrawn as they hit puberty. The curtailing of freedom of mixing with boys, the expectations of growing their hair and dressing in feminine clothes fly thick and fast, and refusal to adhere to these often result in harsh punishments.

Any hint of sexual attraction towards women calls for the usual witch hunt that lesbians are subjected to in this country. Coerced heterosexual marriages are often turned to as “remedial measures”, for surely marital rape can “cure” such deviants?

The “luckier” ones may run away, leaving behind education, career prospects, families, lovers and all promise of safety and security. The tradeoff is being able to live an often difficult life, but one in which everyone around you is not constantly addressing you and treating you like a woman. One of Krishnan’s subjects answers this quandary with a question: “If you had to choose between your profession and your life, what would you choose?”

In the chapter titled “A Complete Man”, the author tells us how once a transman recognises, understands and chooses to act upon his gender identity, the first two obvious signs of womanhood he tries to erase are hair and breasts. Cropped hair, bound breasts, men’s clothing and a new name often become the first steps towards achieving consonance between one’s gender identity and appearance.

The next steps towards transition involve psychiatric evaluation and clearance, followed by HRT or Hormone Replacement Therapy. Here, a transman periodically takes testosterone injections under medical supervision. This helps growth of facial hair, deepens the voice and changes the shape of the body. It may be preceded or followed by surgical interventions such as mastectomy (removal of breasts), oophorectomy and hysterectomy (removal of ovaries and uterus), and finally metodioplasty (construction of a rudimentary penis by enlarging the clitoris) or phalloplasty (construction of male genitalia – often non-functional). These are, of course, ideal transition scenarios, but far from achievable for many transmen, because of the exorbitant monetary, health and social costs. “Top surgery” and “bottom surgery”, as they are known in trans parlance, are a pipe dream for many Indian transmen.

But there are many transmen who may not even want a physical transition, and their self-identity has the support of what is popularly known as the NALSA judgment. It refers to the landmark judgment passed by the Supreme Court in April 2014 in a case between NALSA (National Legal Services Authority) and the Union of India, where it allowed an individual to self-identify with a particular gender, irrespective of what their birth certificate, hormones or surgical history say. But as many SC judgments are known to be blatantly disregarded in this country, the NALSA judgment holds little water, and transmen face unending red tape when trying to get/ change identity proof documents. Faced with ignorance, apathy, transphobia, and humiliation from all quarters, getting the most basic things such as housing, jobs and healthcare become impossible life goals. Depression and suicide are sad yet common consequences of such a hard life.

Without cultural or legal precedents, transmen and their partners find little or no recognition and acceptance from the people around them. To make matters worse, transmen often find themselves at odds even with the trans community if their partners are not cis-het women. The same model of toxic masculinity, which is quick to judge gay relationships, seems to govern this microverse too. Prominent trans rights activist and transman, Satya Rai Nagpaul puts it succinctly: “The biggest pressure is the social (one), since there is (as) yet no imagination of the possibilities of gender and sex being valuable and legitimate beyond male and female.”

Legislature, language, and love

Krishnan’s book is exhaustive in its scope, making it an excellent resource for anyone seeking to understand the world of transpeople. It is especially significant for transpersons who may not have access to an already sparse network, or have several questions about themselves. Throughout the book, the author helpfully lists out names of several NGOs, support groups and activists who work in the domain of trans rights – especially those of transmen.

The author also offers a diligently prepared timeline of legislation, explaining its implications to help readers understand the legalities associated with trans issues and the necessary courses of action. She goes beyond judicial law into the domain of religious law, given the importance these have in South Asian societies. In fact, she dedicates an entire chapter (“The Mercy of Allah”) to understanding transgenderism from the point of view of Islamic law. Krishnan also cites examples from Hindu mythology and Christian culture to make similar cases.

Further, Krishnan offers pointers to the use of gender-sensitive language. Her writing is helpful in understanding what terms and pronouns are appropriate, which ones are avoidable, and which are taboos. She stresses upon the importance of vocabulary in talking about trans rights, that one ought to be careful about cis privileges, and what qualifies as “gender experiences”. In fact, through the author’s constant questioning of her own linguistic and cognitive biases, the reader acquires several important tools of thinking, which they may use to navigate through one’s conditioning and prejudices.

A journalist herself, Krishnan acknowledges the often problematic portrayal of the trans community in India, and how it pushes an already marginalised community further against the wall instead of helping people understand and accept them. She asks, “Who was getting visibility? Whom did it serve? On whose terms and conditions? Was the visibility for the ‘bourgeois press and audience’? 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?”

But Krishnan’s book is not all sorrow and tears. It offers hope, however scant, to transmen who may or may not have come out, for a life that may be lived with love, dignity and acceptance. The stories of her subjects are not without inspiration, and go to show just how love becomes the thread that holds it all together.

Stories of the parents of transmen coming around, stories of successful transitions, stories of legal victories, stories of successful careers, and, most of all, stories of happy if unconventional families find place in her book, as they do in the fabric of her life. Objective, reflective, and yet never without tenderness, she writes: “It was the saddest sentence I’d heard, I thought. ‘I don’t care what I wear.’ There were so many kinds of glass ceilings, at work, in life. So much depended on the most private parts of us, parts we hid behind clothing. And yet, those organs, whose shape and size we concealed from the world, determined what careers we chose, whom we could love, how we lived.”

Invisible Men forces its readers to take a deep breath, pause and reflect on the many truths that surround us and the ones some of us consistently refuse to see. Even as most of us sit comfortably inside our bubbles of conventional gender identity, she asks us to question the binary of gender and its very function – which is largely social and not biological. We are asked to rethink the idea of gender as a category and consider it as a continuum instead. Perhaps only if we do that will we finally learn to see that we occupy but one point in this space, and that no one point is more or less valid than another.

Invisible Men: Inside India’s Transmasculine Networks, Nandini Krishnan, Viking.