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I for Intersex: Interview With Gangabhavani M. (Part 1)

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This post is a part of Periodपाठ, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with WSSCC to highlight the need for better menstrual hygiene management in India. Click here to find out more.

On June 19, I attended a webinar ‘Intersex Voices’, organised by Intersex Human Rights India (IHRI), SAATHII, Solidarity Foundation, and Nirangal. I am grateful to Dr Shruthi Chakravarthi for letting me know about it. I thank Pushpa Achanta from Solidarity Foundation for helping me connect with Gangabhavani M. Finally, I thank Gangabhavani M. and Anjali for being such lovely persons to talk to.

Image provided by the author.

We’re supposed to be born, be either male or female, and then, live happily ever after. Sorry, but this binary comfort we hold on to isn’t even half the truth. Babies are born intersex with mixed biological traits and it’s not a disorder or defect that needs ‘fixing’. So, corrective surgery at birth is wrong as it can cause trauma and complications later in life.

The ‘I’ in the LGBTIAQ+ undergo added stigma due to lack of awareness, visibility and a consequent absence of policies. Ignorance also causes intersex and transgender identities to be conflated, further disrupting a nuanced understanding of what intersex is.

Gangabhavani M. has completed her MSc in Nursing and hails from Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh.

Rupsa Nag (RN): Hello Gangabhavaniji, I am Rupsa. Thank you for agreeing to speak with me.

Gangabhavani M. (GM): Hello, my pleasure. At the outset, I want to say that when we say intersex, it does not mean one specific thing. The LGBTQIA+ term is an umbrella for lesbian, gay, bisexual, intersex and more identities, but the intersex identity in itself has several variations.

I was born with no external genitalia — neither a penis nor a vagina. I only had a urethra. My parents were told that I have a small penis that will grow with age, so they thought they had a boy. My parents were from a small village with limited education. My father was an astrologer and I was their first child. And they wanted a male child.

At this point Gangabhavani M. was finding it difficult to express herself fluently in Hindi, so Anjali took over.

“Hello, I am Anjali, Ganga’s friend. I am a trans person. She isn’t very fluent in Hindi. Can I explain this part?”

“Hello Anjali, and yes, please,” I responded.

“They raised the baby as a boy, in shorts and t-shirts. They could’ve raised her as a girl child, but you know how patriarchal the society is. When she turned 14, she started facing issues with urination, had cramps and anal bleeding. So she was taken to Bangalore for a check-up.”

story of stonewall roits
My test report read: “XXY karyotype: not male, not female. Abnormality chromosomes developed.” The USG revealed developed uterus, ovaries and fallopian tubes.

GM: There, I was prescribed an abdominal USG, karyotyping and hormonal tests. My test report read: “XXY karyotype: not male, not female. Abnormality chromosomes developed.” The USG revealed developed uterus, ovaries and fallopian tubes.

My father told the doctor that I should be surgically turned male since he’d raised me as his son till then, and changing things would bring dishonour. The doctor said surgery is risky and suggested immediate vaginoplasty, which would be more helpful since my uterus was fully developed. But my parents wouldn’t listen to the doctor or me.

After that, I stepped out of the home. I knew a nurse who took me to Delhi where I got my surgery and returned six months later. My parents refused to accept me so I took refuge in an orphanage, and completed the rest of my studies there. I went to school till Class 10. In co-ed schools, the boys are very rude. Every time they saw me, they’d question my looks, and how I walk or talk. They’d tease me and ask: Why’re you using the girls’ washroom? Why are you like a girl? All my education certificates had a male name and gender, which became a major issue. So I completely shifted to distance learning.

RN: What products do you use? Do they cause you any problem?

GM: I started menstruating in 2003. Pads weren’t so popular then, so I used cloth pieces for 3-4 years, and got fungal infections. My doctor suggested sanitary pads, which I’ve been using ever since.

RN: What do you go through during PMS?

GM: During periods, I have abdominal cramps and heavy bleeding for five days. Two days before my cycle begins, I experience pain in my stomach, legs and body, with a little bit of fever. Had I not taken hormone therapy, I’d also got PCOS. If I do not take medicines regularly, my ovaries swell or fallopian tubes blacken. Without hormone therapy, my cycle would continue for irregularly long stretches —10, 12, even 15 days of excessive bleeding. So I take hormone medicines and injections as a compulsory monthly 10-day course.

RN: So longside menstruation, you also have added expenses for regular hormone therapy?

GM: Yes, I spend around Rs 6,000 monthly. Blood test results determine my therapy as per hormone levels. My trans-mother, Rachna, an activist in Hyderabad, bears my expenses because I do not have a job yet. Securing employment is difficult because of no equal opportunities for us, and creates a huge economic burden on me.

RN: Are there enough healthcare provisions for intersex persons?

GM: Every intersex individual has different problems according to their physical nature, surgeries and more. Intersex persons have sensitive bodies and require empathetic healthcare.

Government hospitals have no provision for intersex people. Few doctors have a clear idea about what intersex is. I’ve had one doctor for the last 15 years and am very apprehensive about visiting anyone else. When we ask doctors for our intersex certificates, they simply refuse and categorise us as transgenders, handing us transgender certificates. So, I have to forcefully identify myself as a trans woman in all government documents.

RN: How has the COVID-19 lockdown affected your healthcare?

GM: In my surroundings, there are 40 trans and intersex people, including me, who’re struggling to survive the lockdown. I’ve been unable to avail healthcare as I cannot travel to my doctors in Bangalore or Hyderabad because of unavailability of transportation. I went to a local clinic in Anantapur, where, upon hearing that I’m intersex, the gynaecologist was shocked about my identity and that I bleed.

I was asked to show her my bleeding to confirm my identity. That’s how ignorant some doctors are about our identity. I stopped going there because they didn’t have a USG facility, and the alternative vaginal scan is excruciatingly painful for me. They were more curious about my vaginoplasty and internal skin graft instead of treating the problem for which I’d gone there. So, I think twice before visiting local doctors.

RN: Are the medicines you require available amidst lockdown?

GM: At the Apollo pharmacies here, I’m able to get the same drug, but of a different company. Some tablets are available and some are not. That’s how I’m managing right now. Skipping medicines leads to a weight gain of 3-4 kgs per month. I was 75 kgs in January, then 85 kgs, and now, I stand at 90 kgs. So I’ve already gained 15 kgs extra.

RN: Menstruation continues to be a gendered idea. What is your opinion on that?

GM: Our society is so obsessed with the male-female binary. This only creates discrimination towards trans and intersex people. It’s also why we feel pressured to identify as trans/intersex male or female. But gender identity is not important, what is important is equal opportunities and resources for everyone.

Note: This article is the first part of a two-part series. You can read the second part here

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