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Why Are We So Uncomfortable With People Who Like To Crossdress?

More from Rohini Banerjee

I am so jealous of Jaden Smith. He is everything my parents will never allow me to be,” said a friend (who identifies as gay) to me, during a casual conversation. It was a small, one-off statement, but it resonated with me deeply.

My friend was referencing Jaden Smith’s wonderfully gender non-conforming fashion choices—how he unapologetically dresses in skirts, heels, makeup and other forms of clothing that are far from being traditionally ‘masculine’—and lamenting his own inability to do the same. My friend lives in a small conservative Indian town, that has not only forced him to remain in the closet, but also hasn’t allowed him to dress how he wants.

But he isn’t alone in his predicament. In India, dressing beyond the gender assigned to you at birth, i.e. male or female, comes with a whole range of complexities. The expectations of hyper-masculinity from men and hyper-femininity from women are so pronounced that the moment you try to break out of them, you are seen as a threat to the status quo, and often ostracized. And yet, the situation isn’t entirely black and white.

What Happens When You Dress Beyond Your Assigned Gender?

A couple of years back, I attended a seminar where Vikramaditya Sahai—a prominent Delhi-based, gender nonconforming, queer activist—shared an interesting anecdote. While attempting to travel by the Delhi Metro wearing a saree, he was cornered by security personnel—who couldn’t decide whether to have him take the ‘ladies’ security check or the ‘gents’ security check.

While the story was told as an amusing one, it highlighted a universal reality that those dressed in gender non-conforming clothes face. Crossdressing and identifying as trans or gender non-conforming aren’t always the same thing.

Crossdressing is the term loosely applied to anyone who dresses beyond the constraints of traditional gender roles. However, crossdressing is different from being trans or gender nonconforming – because in such cases, they are wearing the clothes that express their gender identity, and not dressing beyond, or opposite to their genders. But sadly, in India, both categories often collapse into each other, because the moment one goes beyond a binary gender expression in terms of clothing and appearance, they are met with disapproving stares, prejudice and often, even heckling and harassment.

Dressing beyond your assigned gender is meant to be both an intensely personal and a political act—both a means of self-expression, as well as a significant way of challenging the rigid social impositions of gender norms. But in India, it often leads to discrimination and violence.

Trying to determine a person’s gender identity on the basis of their clothes or appearance is an inherently flawed concept. No identity comes with a rigid set of gender expressions- so it is none of our business, to assume somebody’s gender or sex on the basis of their clothes.

Crossdressing And Popular Culture

While many people struggle with their gender identity and expression, Indian cinema often goes and makes fun of it. It abounds with instances of men crossdressing as women, but in extremely problematic ways. From veteran actors starting from Kishore Kumar and Rishi Kapoor to contemporary actors like Riteish Deshmukh—men dressed as women have populated Bollywood for years. But these portrayals are far from political, revolutionary, or a challenge to gender norms—instead, they are exaggerated and caricaturish, and very often, extremely sexist. They serve to make fun of and trivialize crossdressing rather than actually further its cause, or help break the stigma surrounding it, so it’s no wonder that such negative portrayals have been internalized by our society—and has translated into further prejudice.

But crossdressing men in performance arts have a long history. In traditional, folk theatre ( “nautankis”) or street plays, or in classical dance or drama performances, men have often taken up the feminine role. Bengali theatre performer Chapal Bhaduri was one of the most iconic crossdressing folk performers, and became so legendary that men who play female roles in modern Bangla theatre are often referred to as ‘Chapal Rani’ (Bhaduri’s stage persona). In such cases, the politics of crossdressing is far more complex – while on the one hand, these crossdressing men were still playing exaggerated portrayals of women, but in many cases, they were also bringing out the pathos in these characters and were even addressing women’s issues. Though these crossdressing performers were largely accepted and normalized in popular culture (which was definitely something significant)- the respect for their defiance of gendered clothing lasted as long as it was confined to the stage.

With crossdressing women in Bollywood, the issue is slightly different. Whether it be Sridevi in “Mr. India” or Rani Mukherjee in “Dil Bole Hadippa,” Bollywood seems to drive home that for a woman, crossdressing as a man gives you more agency and power—which is an inherently sexist assumption because it seems to send the message that women can have agency only once they take on a ‘masculine’ appearance.

Gender-Neutral Clothing And What It Means For Crossdressing

Gender-neutral clothing—i.e. clothes that anyone, regardless of their gender, can wear—has been slowly taking over the international fashion scene in the past couple of years, and in India too, the trend is slowly, but surely, finding a niche. Last year, designer Charchit Bafna debuted his line of gender-neutral clothes at the Lakme India Fashion Week and Jaya Iyer, another designer, launched a line of gender-neutral baby clothes. But even beyond that, the trend has been fast catching on with urban Indian millennials and the rigidity of the binaries around clothing might just be slowly collapsing.

However, the relationship between crossdressing and gender-neutral clothes is a complex one. While many crossdress to break out of binaries, many also crossdress because they identify with the opposite end of the spectrum (i.e. cis men dressing up as very ‘traditionally feminine’ women)—so for the latter category, gender-neutral clothing might make no difference whatsoever. But the fact remains that the underlying principle in both crossdressing and dressing gender-neutrally is essentially the same—to challenge the strict bounds of the gender identities that society thrusts upon you and to break out of these norms.

While gender-neutral clothes definitely need to become more mainstream, and more popular, we should also be questioning why one’s gender identity becomes associated with one’s clothes and physical appearance in the first place. Only then can we evolve as a society enough to not call it ‘cross’ dressing and just dressing the way you want to.

Featured Image Source: Darkmatter/Facebook. For representational purposes only. To read more about gender and clothing, check out non-binary transfeminine poet Alok-Vaid Menon’s website here.

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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 Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’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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