“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’)