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Beyond The Obvious: What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Trans People

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In the past few months, multiple states in the US have fallen prey to a series of regressive, discriminatory laws which restrict the transgender community’s access to washrooms of the  gender they identify with most, spawning a large-scale protest from not just the LGBT community, but also from various other mainstream sources such as Hollywood and big businesses. Predictably, the protest and outrage also spread across social media, and  started one very popular trend—that of trans people taking selfies in bathrooms, to challenge the transphobic assumption that their presence in bathrooms of their preferred gender is predatory. The trend became extremely popular, and many cisgender and straight people began circulating and sharing these selfies too. Many queer activists lauded this trend at first, because what better way to show the bigots the middle finger than visibly occupying those very spaces they are shutting trans people out of? And, if the selfies had truly lived up to that principle, this trend would have been extremely political indeed. But, on closer examination, one realized that it served a very different, and very narrow function. The selfies posted were all of visibly cis-passing, conventionally attractive, and often, white trans people;  as if saying that ‘see, I look too much like a cis woman to be comfortable in a men’s  washroom, so let me use the ladies’ washroom’. The fact that people actually pledged their support to the cause by sharing these selfies and making them go viral, drives home further that the more a trans person resembles a cis person, the more they will be accepted—and doesn’t that reinforce gender norms all over again?.

What about the trans people who do not ascribe to either a male or female gender, or do not visibly resemble the gender they identify with  (yes, they exist!)? Don’t they need to use bathrooms too, and, won’t they feel uncomfortable in bathrooms which are clearly still segregated in terms of the male/female binary?

Why do we not talk about them when we talk about trans people?

Why The Binary, Yet Again?

Trans identities occur within a spectrum. While male-to-female, or female-to-male transitioning people are also trans, people who are nonbinary (i.e, who do not identify with either ‘male’ or ‘female’ identities), genderfluid (i.e, who identify with both ‘male’ and ‘female’ identities), or, those who in general do not fit into or identify with traditional expressions of the binary genders are also very much trans. But often, in our mainstream culture, media reporting, and even day-to-day conversations, we tend to leave the latter out of discussions of trans identities. Even when a trans person comes out publicly—take Caitlyn Jenner for instance—the first thing that is commented upon is “what a beautiful woman” she makes; i.e, how convincingly she passes for as a cis woman.

In an insightful discussion for Buzzfeed LGBT, four transgender activists sat together and talked about the various (warped) ways in which transgender identities are perceived by society, and how certain harmful notions are perpetuated as a result. The biggest misconception they found is that being trans is seen as nothing beyond “being born in the wrong body”, which, puts unhealthy pressure on trans people to ‘perform’ their  gender expression in the way they look or dress (and so on). Not all trans people suffer the same experiences. While some definitely experience very real, and very traumatic bodily dysphoria, some do not. Many trans people are comfortable with their bodies, but may not be comfortable with the gender identity assigned to them at birth. As GLAAD, in a handy list of “tips for allies of transgender people” points out—not every trans person transitions, and “there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to transition”. Trans bodies, identities, expressions are diverse—and even if someone is visibly ‘feminine’ and uses ‘she’ pronouns, but believes her gender identity to be nonbinary, or even, male, then, that person quite simply, is nonbinary or male. A trans person does not need to physically resemble and “perform” the gender identity they align themselves with to be trans; and hence, we should stop telling trans stories which are only about transitioning from one’s assigned gender to look like the gender they identify with.

How To Talk Pronouns, And Names

I met a prominent gender-nonconforming queer activist a couple of months ago, who—after I shyly asked him his preferred pronouns—laughed it off and told me, “pronouns are a construct of language anyway, and since I don’t like conforming to constructs, I don’t like using a fixed pronoun for myself”. It was a truly insightful revelation for me, because, before this, I had always thought that trans people always had a specific pronoun they preferred.

Now, this doesn’t mean that using the right pronoun in talking about, or with, trans people is not important—because, for some, the use of the wrong pronoun is an act of misgendering; and can be very triggering and bring up traumatic experiences. However, the imposition of binary pronouns, or the assumption that pronouns will always work in a he/she binary—a mistake which even the most well-meaning of cis people often end up making—is wrong. Pronouns, too, exist in a spectrum, and there is a whole host of gender-neutral pronouns out there. So, assuming that a trans person will always stick with either a ‘he’ or a ‘she’ pronoun, with respect to their gender identity, is a faulty one. Someone who uses she/her pronouns can very well identify either as a trans woman, or a genderfluid person or literally anything else in the gender spectrum. Pronouns, like one’s gender identity, is entirely up to the volition of the person in question, and does not have to align with any set binary. Hence, while talking about the pronouns of a trans person, let’s be aware of the very vast, and very fluid nature of gender pronouns, and also simultaneously always be considerate enough to ask a trans person their preferred pronouns without assuming or imposing one on them.

Another equally important aspect here is the use of a trans person’s name. A “dead name” is the person’s name assigned at birth, which they have rejected on discovering their true gender identity; for example, Caitlyn Jenner’s dead name is ‘Bruce’. Using a dead name is extremely disrespectful to a trans person. Not only does using a dead name mean misgendering that person and disregarding the identity the person has chosen for themselves, but it also perpetuates the transphobic notion that the person is ‘just confused’, and that society knows their gender identity better. So many times, in media reports, it is entirely frustrating how dead names are used—both advertently and inadvertently. Especially for prominent trans people and trans celebrities, the first thing that will come up in a Google search is their dead name, or a picture of them before transition (just Google trans actors Laverne Cox or Jamie Clayton and see what results turn up) and that is inherently messed up. This curiosity surrounding what trans people have transitioned from, or were born as, is plain and simple ridiculous.

So How Should We Talk About Trans People?

Very often, intentionally or not, our conversations about trans people serve in either co-opting them within cis identities (like the bathroom selfies which suggest how much ‘ they’ look like ‘us’), or othering them entirely. Often, the very concept of people not conforming to pre-existing notions of gender baffles society, and they don’t know how to respond to such nonconformity. But that’s the very problem we need to combat, and we need to normalize gender nonconformity, and make it more visible. A DMAB (designated male at birth) person wearing a dress or a saree in public should not be either cause for shock, or cause for celebration—but should be dealt with as normally as a man wearing a suit. This is exactly what we should be keeping in mind—that trans identities are diverse, that they are as legitimate as cis identities and call for neither sensationalization nor discrimination and harassment. Most importantly, the imposition of the “cis gaze”—i.e what cis people perceive trans people to be like—on the way trans stories are told, and trans bodies are seen in mainstream culture needs to undergo a sea-change. We need trans storytellers (all hail the trans Wachowski sisters, who’ve created major film franchises such as The Matrix!), but most importantly, we need to stop highlighting only the stories of cis-looking trans people. Not because their identities are any less valid, but because trans identity is not a monolith, and theirs isn’t the way one can be trans.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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