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‘Can You Tell Stories About Trans People That Don’t Only Talk About Sadness?’

Is it possible to tell stories about transgender people that don’t only talk about sadness and oppression?” Asked Abhishek*, a kothi from Sangli in Maharashtra.

This was during a digital storytelling workshop organized by POV Mumbai between 7th and 11th of November. Present at this workshop was a diverse group of transgender and queer people from Delhi, Bangalore, Coimbatore, Chennai, Warangal and Sangli, meaning a lot of diversity, and on-the-spot translation!

Digital storytelling uses basic tools such as cameras, recorders, cell phones and laptops, and a mixture of formats that includes audio, images and video clips, to create narratives that are three to five minutes long. The act of making a digital story can be an empowering process, allowing ordinary people to voice their lived experiences – to tell their own stories.

Photo courtesy of the author.

On Discrimination And Empowerment

Abhishek – one of the participants – was wondering what he would include in his story. His life was not devoid of sadness; as a child, he was harassed and ridiculed by other children because of his feminine mannerisms and preference for feminine clothes. The bullying left him feeling isolated.

One day, Abhishek met a kothi on a train, they started chatting, and Abhishek was delighted to hear that there existed an entire community of people like him. This meeting changed his life, and after being introduced to other kothis, Abhishek found the courage and support to assert his own identity as a kothi. He said that although his life as a sex worker was tough, his heart was with his community and support group, where he felt safe, cared for and respected. And so Abhishek wanted his digital story to be a positive one, which spoke about love, acceptance and community power.

Harsh*, another trans man, described the experience of a simple bus journey from his home to office. One time before his gender affirming surgery, he was harassed by his co-passengers. Nobody stood up for him, and the driver didn’t stop the bus for him to get off, so Harsh finally had to jump from the moving bus. After this terrible experience, he rode a bicycle to work for a while. Following his surgery, Harsh had to return to traveling by bus, and make a bus pass. He was slightly nervous about this, but his apprehension turned to glee when the conductor check-marked his bus pass as male.

But other stories were a reminder of unresolved prejudices. Vijay*, a trans man, said he was lucky to have supportive friends and family, but the absurd, hurtful words of an ex-professor had stayed with him for a long time. When he came out to this professor, the latter blamed him for ‘corrupting nature’ and accused his ‘kind’ of being responsible for natural disasters like the Uttarakhand floods.

On Families And Freedom

Our facilitator Priya had participants interview each other, and one of the questions that came up was: “What is the most important thing in your life?

The first, obvious answer was family and loved ones but along with that came money and independence, as these are directly linked to the participants’ freedom to express and inhabit their gender identities.

Pratik*, a trans man said he was subjected to emotional and physical abuse by his immediate (and very conservative) family. They wanted him to live as a woman, get married and have children. This scared Pratik, who said, “I feel that the relationship between a man and a woman is one of violence, and I didn’t want this.” When Pratik left home, started to work and do well in life, his jealous brothers paid a gang of men to rape him. As a martial arts practitioner, Pratik managed to fend off the attackers.

When Pratik told us this, a stunned silence filled the room. However, he continued his story, and proudly spoke of how he fought for the ownership of his parent’s house with his brothers and won. It was clear that fear had been a constant element of his life, but his will to fight had overpowered it.

On How The Media Fails Queer People

The group also discussed was how mainstream media represents transgender people. Several participants shared examples of how TV channels misrepresent the transgender community, and critiqued sensationalist news that is intended to spread transphobia. They agreed that it is important to create and strengthen a counter voice to this mainstream media narrative.

On Being Constrained By ‘Identity’

An important point of contention which came up was about how persons initiated into some hijra communities are only allowed to dress in saris (or other traditional women’s clothing) and strictly cannot wear shirts and trousers. Some of the participants questioned this restrictive rule – enforced by superiors – on this very basic form of self-expression. One participant candidly said that she felt that as transgender people, they traverse societal rules and norms by the simple act of being. So it was wrong to have binding rules that control how they can dress. Others argued that traditional customs of the community had to be respected.

Another participant, Chetan*, spoke about how his disability and Adivasi identity are accepted by society but not his gender identity. And Komal*, from Coimbatore, said that although she had had gender affirming surgery, she hadn’t found complete fulfilment as she couldn’t give birth to a child.

Participants recorded their stories, in the language they were most comfortable with. For some, this was an emotional experience, and they had to take a few pauses to gather themselves. Others confidently told their stories as if they were performing a play. Putting these stories together presented new challenges as a few people had never used cameras before, let alone computers, and almost nobody had edited audio and video files before. But at the end of it all, we had a week’s worth of stories – of love, self-discovery, empowerment, introspection, power, abuse, systemic oppression, and more. But above all, it was a week full of learning. To see this process start from scratch, take form, and finish as a fully-formed story was an incredible experience. The participants said they were happy and proud to have created their own stories, and hoped that these stories would contribute to the strengthening of transgender rights by spreading awareness and leading to more acceptance.

As Abhishek said, “Prem manje, prem manje, prem aasthe, tumcha aamcha same aasthe.” (‘Love is love is love. Yours and ours is the same love.’)

The conversations included in the article have not been recorded verbatim. All translations are the author’s own.
All names have been changed to protect the identity of people.
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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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