“Most of us are unhappy with what nature gives us. Or, guys wouldn’t want a macho six pack to ‘become’ a man, girls wouldn’t wax and primp to ‘become’ a woman.” – Rituparno Ghosh
Ria* remembers being asked to sit properly, to not stomp down the stairs like a man, to not scream and argue, to take insults with a smile and a dignified silence – all because she is a girl. She remembers cringing when her friend’s father told her that she must not chop off her hair, because, “You were born a girl. You must live like a girl.” Never mind her comfort or her wishes.
Pranay* was slight, effeminate, and talkative. He was also very fair and delicate, which did not help matters. All his life he grew up listening to adults either mocking or trying to correct his walk, speech, and mannerisms, which they deemed ‘girlish’. Pranay internalised the idea that there was something wrong with him – so much so that when he was sexually abused as a child for years, he could not muster up the courage to tell his family about it because he was convinced, somewhere in his subconscious mind, that he was being abused because of his effeminacy. He believed that the adults would hold him responsible for his abuse too. That phase has left lasting psychological scars on him, still present in his adulthood, which has affected some of his personal relationships too.
Whether gay or heterosexual, being mocked for one’s body (that is constantly growing and changing in one’s childhood and adolescence) makes one feel suffocated and caged in one’s physicality, unable to express oneself the way one would naturally want to otherwise. Both effeminate young men and tomboyish girls are the target of abuse — whether verbal, physical, or sexual — for not abiding by their expected gendered behaviour. With words like ‘chhakka’ (slang for Hijra) to ‘pansy’ to ‘sissy’ to a whole host of other sexist, homophobic, and transphobic slurs, language is the first and easiest tool used to bully and shame a child into toeing the line.
Verbal abuse is one of the first recourses of the family members of children also, who, in the name of love and concern, usually try to ‘correct’ the forms of behaviour and expression that come naturally to their children but which, in their opinion, defy rigid societal norms of ‘accepted’ gendered behaviour. When mere words don’t work, the corrective measures can graduate to emotional blackmail, shaming, mockery, mental abuse, preventing them from doing what they love, and even beating and locking up the child until they listen to their parents and ‘mend their ways’.
The problem, though, is that these techniques rarely work. Far from accomplishing their intended goal of beating the ‘abnormality’ out of somebody, these slurs leave behind scars on the psyche of the child, that may manifest themselves through misogyny, homophobia, mental illnesses, violence, or self-harm in their later years. Many people who have been subjected to such treatment as children live a life closeted and repressed, neither able to be themselves and live life as they would like to, nor able to let others live that same life that they secretly aspired to – without interference, ridicule, and sometimes, violence.
In India we still hear of gay men who marry a woman and birth children with her just because they fear the consequences of coming out — both for them and their entire family — mentally, socially, and materially. There are still parents who subject a girl child to electric shocks or rape, because they have dared to come out as a lesbian, and having a man rape them or subjecting them to torture is meant to be a way to ‘correct’ their sexual orientation and ‘normalise’ their behaviour.
We, as a society, are obsessed with the idea of what is ‘normal’ and what is not. We think we know what it is, too, when it comes to both sexuality and gender: a child born with a vagina must ‘act like a girl’ and choose a partner who is ‘masculine’ as well as male, while a child born with a penis must be ‘masculine’ and choose a ‘feminine’ woman for himself. Any deviation from this norm and we start panicking, not knowing what to do with ourselves or the child we have amidst us.
Abir* was a little boy who loved to dress up in women’s clothes and jewellery. They loved their girl cousin’s frocks and trinkets. On the cousin’s fourth birthday, three-year-old Abir dressed up in her clothes and started to flaunt it in front of the mothers and aunts in the party. Amidst amused exclamations and horrified gasps, Abir was divested of the ‘feminine’ clothes and forced to join the party in shorts and a shirt, the clothes they had initially arrived in.
On another occasion, Abir was reduced to howls of self-conscious agony, their hands trying to cover their chest when, on a particularly humid day, one of their ‘well-meaning’ male relatives violently removed their kurta from their body. A few years later, as a college student, Abir came out to his family and friends as a transgender person.
Film: Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish (2012)
Scene: Rudra’s parents discuss his sexual orientation while he is hospitalised for his gender reassignment surgery.
Ma: It’s very easy to blame him alone, you know.
Baba: What do you mean?
Ma: It was… it was our fault too. All our lives we knew, but refused to accept it. We were stubborn, we insisted that since he was born a boy, he must act like one too.
Baba: Why do you call this stubbornness? It is but natural that a boy must act like a boy.
Ma: Only nature dictates what is ‘natural’. Even nature has its own desires. If only we had accepted what was natural to him, then today he wouldn’t have to cut and tear his body (through surgery).
What must the child, whose desires, interests, and feelings are at odds with the body they possess and the sex they have been assigned at birth, feel like? They inhabit a world where the only reflections they see of themselves in the real world are treated either as objects of ridicule or of revulsion. The popular media does not represent people who look or feel like they do, their homes and schools do not talk about ‘people like them’, and there are no leaders or inspiring figures like them for them to look up to (thanks to the economic, social, cultural, and political exclusion and invisibility that we have subjected the transgender persons in our country to). A vortex of confusion, self-consciousness, and sense of alienation envelops the child, who feels that they must be the only child of their kind around. The lack of discussion about, introduction to, and acceptance of, the transgender population in our world leaves a trans-child with an unnecessary amount of psychological and social trauma to deal with before they begin to accept their body and gender for what it is — normal.
The quotes cited earlier in this article talk about the inherent violence against nature that the gendering process necessitates. Just as forcing a left-handed person to use their right hand to write or eat with is a process that violates — and tries to erase — the truth that their body is trying to articulate, forcing a child to not play football just because they have been assigned the female gender at birth, or shaming a child for enjoying sewing or wearing frocks just because they were born with a penis, are acts of violence.
Closely associated with these arbitrary ideas of ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ is the concept of ‘shame’, which apparently comes in when the ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ goes out. It is due to this sense of shame and, by extension, social ridicule and exclusion that families, teachers, and the self-appointed moral police fear for themselves when it comes to accepting any trait, habit or being that deviates from the society-approved standard of ‘normal’. They also use ‘shame’ as a tool to scare children into conforming with those selfsame norms, thus reinforcing the same stereotypes, prejudices, and ignorance that we need to and want to fight against so vehemently.
(It is necessary to clarify here that ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ are not words that refer to the same thing, and therefore cannot be used interchangeably. Case in point: homosexuality and bisexuality are considered ‘abnormal’, but are very commonly found in nature, in the sexual behaviour of various species of animals. It is our half-literate nature of understanding our world that leads to the spread of such basic misconceptions, leading to confusion both in our minds and in the social order we help create and perpetuate.)
It is this concept of shame or loss of honor that, till date, makes families ostracise the hijra community and abandon, hide, or give away their intersex assigned at birth children to the hijras instead of treating them the way they would any child — with love, care, and pride. And it is this sense of shame that we need to fight against.
Are any of these justified reactions to the natural truth about the body of one’s child? Is there any way we can change how we look at homosexuality and trans people, so that we can save our children from the trauma of social repression that others like them have experienced for centuries? It is time we learnt to put the needs of the individual — the child we are in charge of — before the repressive conventions of our society, and before the abstract but often omnipotent ideas of reputation and family honour that usually drives our behaviour, however cruel and inhuman.
To build a loving, mature, and empathetic world, children need to be taught from day one not only how important it is to love and be themselves, but how essential it is to let others be themselves and do life their way. Hate, disgust, and prejudice are not sentiments that are inborn. They are learned by children from the reactions of the adults around them to the things they encounter.
It is as natural and easy for children to accept and embrace a trans person or a gay person like any other. All that is needed is mature parents who do what they need to do to help their child get there, to stop them from bullying other children for being different. After all, you wouldn’t like to see your child being mocked at and left friendless, would you? Then why let your children do it to someone else?
Disclaimer: All the anecdotes recounted above were taken firsthand from people inhabiting the large and fluid gender and sexuality spectrum, and are published with their consent.
*Names have been changed in this article to protect privacy.