Wednesday was Aryan Pasha’s 27th birthday, but that wasn’t the only reason why he was in a celebratory mood. On December 1, the Delhi resident became the first Indian transgender man to win a prize at a bodybuilding event. Pasha came second in the Men’s Physique (short) category of Musclemania India, the local edition of a major international bodybuilding competition.
The full results and details of all the categories and winners will be out later this week, according to the Musclemania’s Facebook page.
This was Pasha’s first bodybuilding competition and he had not expected to walk home with an award. “I never thought that I must win a position,” Pasha told Scroll.in. “I just wanted to participate and tell the world that I’m trans and can give a tough competition. So I was practising hard, giving my 100%. Because usually it [winning] doesn’t happen in the first go. There’s stage fear, mistakes in posing and things like that.”
Step by step
Pasha took up bodybuilding a few years ago, but had been inching towards it all his life. Always a fitness enthusiast, Pasha played several sports in school and was a national-level skating champion. When he turned 19, Pasha underwent sex reassignment surgery to transition to male. For a year or so, his activity levels had to drop.
He picked up weight training sometime in 2014, he said, when he was studying law in Mumbai. The decision was partly motivated by his desire to add bulk to his lean frame. “All boys in college want to build a good body, physique,” he said. “So that’s how it started for me. Slowly it became a hobby, then a passion. Then when I decided to compete, it became a goal.”
Pasha first had his sights set on an all-trans bodybuilding competition in America’s Atlanta, the Trans FitCon, which is reportedly the only such event in the world. When he couldn’t get a visa, he turned his focus to Musclemania India and took it as a challenge to compete in the men’s category, as most sporting events do not have a separate category for transgender participants.
He quit his job as a lawyer last year to focus on training full time, and for the last three to four months, he spent about six hours a day in the gym. Competing against men brought its unique set of challenges, he said. Since his body does not produce male-equivalent testosterone levels naturally, it does not respond to his workouts as fast as that of the average cisgender man (someone whose gender identity corresponds with their biological sex), meaning he has to put in more effort to get the same results.
Another challenge was that since Musclemania is a natural bodybuilding competition, the use of hormone supplements, including testosterone, are not allowed. In Pasha’s case, when he informed the organisers that he was a trans man who required regular testosterone doses as part of his post-surgery hormone replacement therapy, they decided that he would only need to skip his last dosage before the contest (he takes one shot every 21 days).
Pasha is proud to have competed and won despite these challenges, but believes that a separate category for trans men is the way forward. Strides on that front have been slow, but he said plans are a afoot to launch a transgender category for a major bodybuilding competition’s India edition.
Globally too, the inclusion of transgender athletes in sporting events has been a contentious topic, with concerns raised over creating a level-playing field, and various federations have devised rules in recent years to navigate the issue. In 2015, the International Olympics Committee issued new guidelines allowing transgender athletes to compete even if they had not undergone sex reassignment surgery.
Born Nyla in 1991, Pasha realised early on that he did not identify as a girl. Right from Class 2, he would go to school in the boy’s uniform and was more comfortable around his male cousins than his sisters. “I don’t have any memory of deciding [that I wanted to be a boy]. I always knew. When you’re a child you don’t know the difference, but I just knew that I’m a boy.”
What helped was that his family was very supportive. “They never asked me to wear feminine clothes, or asked me why my hair is short or why I am talking like a boy,” he said. At age 16, he decided he wanted to undergo surgery to transition to male. His family welcomed the decision, he said.
The physical discomfort of the surgery was far outweighed by its emotional benefits. “I felt very strong, confident,” he recalled. “Because the thing I was feeling discomfort over is no longer there. And I’m not hiding anything from anyone any longer. Earlier, I had to hide my identity. I had to be alert all the time, because I used to play in the boy’s team. School trips used to be hard. Now when I think about it, I wonder how I would have managed, but at that time, it did not strike me as that difficult.”
A few years after his transition, Pasha decided to live openly as a trans man and started working with LGBTQ rights organisations with the aim of encouraging the trans community to embrace themselves. “When I first transitioned, I thought, why should I tell anyone? No one would realise anyway,” he said. “But when I saw how many problems are there [for trans men ] – family support isn’t there, acceptance isn’t there, even friends and partners aren’t respecting them, parents are taking their children to tantriks, doctors are giving sleeping pills – I didn’t find that right. So I thought, if one can accept themselves, then there’s nothing wrong in coming out. So I did that.”
Bodybuilding is not just a career for Pasha but also an extension of his activism. It’s perhaps a happy coincidence that he can use his body to help other transmen and women become more comfortable in theirs, while also telling the world to look beyond the binary and challenge the limitations proscribed by societal notions of gender. “I wanted to do more than paperwork [as activism]. If you want to bring about change, you have to compete and prove them [critics] wrong,” he said.
On his plans for the near future, Pasha said he wants to help more trans men get into competitive sport and wants to work with the government and other organisations to facilitate that. He also plans to get back in the competition circuit in a few months and come back to Musclemania India next year – this time with an eye on the top prize.