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Call Me ‘They’: What It’s Like To Live Without A Gender

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Love is taboo. We sexualize our fears. Witches, incubi, succubi, cuckolds, Oedipus, Elektra, and the various other ways in which mythology, literature, and culture represent sexuality and femininity as evil.

Recently, I provided myself the tag of being ‘agender’. Gender and identity tends to be tacit and latent, where in most cases, language falls short of best expressing our felt and lived experiences. An agender identity, to me, is one that goes beyond categorization within gender binaries, or any combination of them. It is a wish for a post-gender world. By labeling myself such, I had to clarify the language behind gender, and sex, and sexual orientation. My sexual orientation remained the same, it was my gender identity that I wished to deny, removing myself from the gender spectrum entirely.

In doing so, I did not wish to deny the historicity behind the ‘male’, ‘female’, ‘gender-queer’ or any other gender identity. On the contrary, it is a recognition of the same, and an attempt to subvert these oppressive structures from within.

I despise the fear and pain of being a woman in this world: an etymology of oppression, and a history of begging. I despise the privilege of men and the power they believe they hold. “Providing” women with rights evolved from charity to chivalry and, finally, to equality. It took us this long to be convinced that true diversity means acceptance and hospitality, even of the unknown, and that which isn’t understood.

Esotericism has consumed the dialogues of the mind, our “English as Second Language” has left us convinced of progressiveness, despite our First languages retaining the spirit of fear, dominance, and power. Historically, why have women been considered ‘the weaker sex‘? Why have men been the stronger one? Why have women been ‘the vessel’, ‘the chalice’, and ‘the receiver’, while men have been ‘the arrow’, ‘the point’, and ‘the actor’?

Power and physical strength. Biology may have provided testosterone-derived strength to the male sex of the ancient cavemen, but it provided the female sex the ability to withstand childbirth, and to reconcile ferocity with nurturing. We’ve progressed beyond mere biology and animal instinct, to process and interpret and rewire our interpretations of the world, not merely for co-habitation but for fantasy, creation, and magic. Power hierarchies will perhaps always exist, as long as diversity is seen quantitatively rather than qualitatively.

Growing up, I was always told that I’d be taller than my dad. That I’d be strong and bigger and I’d take care of people, that I’m the man in the family. I continued being one of the shortest in every class, standing first in each school-assembly line arranged in ascending order of stature, but in the descending order of the ability to dream. For as in most schools, it was an assembly-line, but one where I learnt humanity in different ways. Beyond all else, when I failed to grow to reach those literal heights that I was told I would, I wasn’t the lover of the day as much as I was of the night. Not a lover of honesty as much as I was of secrets, nor of aggression as much as intellect. I believed me to be the witty intellectual, the potential smart-ass detective, the Artemis Fowl and the Sherlock Holmes. When I entered my first fight, none of that panned out too well. Fear, my old friend, complimenting my love for the nights, by denying me the sleep that I knew I really wanted. I really did.

I wasn’t the caring paternal figure, I was the one who wanted to be cared for. The ‘receiver’, not the ‘giver’. I despised the fear I could smell from the women living in the world of men, a scent I’d recognized from my first fight. But I could never taste it. Only smell it from a distance as the gut-wrenching odor grew. Men have historically been seen as stronger, because strength and violence have evoked fear and thus provided power, since time immemorial.

The Agender Pride flag. Source: Wikia.

But as Hannah Arendt would tell you, or Gandhi, violence is but a primitive means, a temporary form of subjugation born from an insecurity. Much like the violence that comes from anger, and anger itself, it was born from irrationality, and an ability to comprehend that you might be powerless, truly. With every strife I witnessed in my friends, I noticed two paths – quiet sadness, or loud anger. The ones who picked the sadness kept the anger, displaced it to create the most beautiful art, the most wondrous music, and the loveliest conversations that have ever happened. The angry ones continued to believe that their power was supreme, and continued to misunderstand the universe behind the quiet sorrow, sadness merely being the door to a mansion of beauty, wonder, and music. The anger does arise, eventually, but in creation, and not destruction. A desire to surpass goodness, and greatness, and simply be compassionate and tender.

A line from the popular British science-fiction show, “Doctor Who”, says: “Fear doesn’t have to make you cruel or cowardly… Fear can make you kind… Fear makes companions of us all.”

And in that understanding I persisted. I despised the violence of men. I despised the hurt of women. I wished to be nothing like the men, and I knew that my identity would always be tied to them, unless I reinvented it.

I sought to remove the gender perspective entirely – to not have my actions, clothes, gestures, stature, physique, voice, behaviour, or words be seen as a gender at all, but as an entity. Gender can be beautiful, and so can diversity, but not unless the two can accept each other in hospitality, until liberty can be reconciled with equality. I wished to be agender, to not be assumed to be hitting on a girl when I thought that she was beautiful, to be not considered “gay” when I told a boy that he was pretty, and not be the object of the world’s insecurities.

How? I began to embody those insecurities. Idolisation decimates objects of oppression. A caring world leader is no longer “gay” but “cool”. A pedestal makes everything seem more desirable. We all want to to be taller, in that way.

And I considered cross-dressing, considered makeup and nail polish that I always felt was fabulous, but I didn’t want myself to be a stereotype — an archetype of repetition, to be seen as the representative of all that is gender less in the world. I needed to threaten the powerful, in this case, the men, who for all this. I needed to reflect the ‘agendered individual’, not as someone who was starkly different from the way the men characterize themselves in appearance, but someone who looks just like them. I wanted to take everything that they, and I, had used to create power for us and fear for the rest, and turn it on its head. I wanted the performances of masculinity, to be reduced to the tenderness, the thoughtfulness, the compassion and the most loving strength, that I had the privilege of knowing all my life, from every fortunate suffering. If I, with my facial hair and my short hair, my baritone voice and my over-the-top hand gestures, could be seen as a concept and not as of a gender-binary, then anyone could be. Baritone because in all my phone conversations and fast-food orders, my pre-pubescent voice would evoke a “Yes ma’am?” and that would irritate me, for masculinity was the compliment and femininity was the weakness, so I’d practice a lower-toned voice till I was stuck with one. Facial hair because it represents masculinity and oppression, because of every female individual who I knew, despite most of them having some natural occurrence of facial hair or more due to hyperthyroidism or Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, they’d be degraded for even a glimpse of facial hair on them. My relatively fair skin, a lighter shade of the browns, for I idolized fairness as the paradigm of aesthetic beauty. I stayed indoors and away from the sun, till I was fairer than my parents or my sister, despite being of Dravidian origin that celebrates the dark skin that most Hindu gods possessed, before they were white-washed or, more aptly, “blue-washed”.

For representation only. Source: Tumblr.

I overcame my fear of being ‘the weaker person’, by falling in love with the concept of weakness. By accepting weakness not as ignorance or blank acceptance, but as an acknowledgement of sadness over anger. I loved being taken care of, I loved being ‘weak’, and loved knowing that vested in this weakness was a strength that wasn’t merely abstract, but translatable into a strength of will. I overcame the fear of being unable to fight for myself, by fighting for another who couldn’t do it for themselves. I understood the value of the sword, by being the shield. And I understand the value of hope, by knowing fear.

If all of my flaws, laid out as they are here, one by one, could become an abstraction, a connection of my ideal self-image with my current image, if I could become an ideal myself, where anybody and everybody around could be people and not genders, then my work would be done. A statement to the world to be creative and respectful with its categorizations, to use adjectives more reflective of nuance than superficial structures of the past. Call me sly, call me cunning, call me loving, call me beauteous, call me afraid, call me compassionate, call me stubborn, call me frail. Call me hopeful.

Don’t call me male. Don’t call me female. There’s more to life than penises and vaginas. Love over lust, kindness over cleverness. Call me weird. I shall wear it on my sleeve. Call me ‘they.’ For I am many.

Featured Image source: solomonfletcher/Tumblr.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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