Editor’s Note: This post is a part of What's A Man, a series exploring masculinity in India, in collaboration with Dr. Deepa Narayan. Join the conversation here!
The world is full of magic, waiting for our senses to grow sharper. The more clearly we can focus on the wonders about us, the less taste we will have for hatred and discrimination. My name is Sai Rahul. I am a trans man, which means I was assigned female at birth and this is my story.
I was born into a well-to-do family in Palakkad, Kerala. My father, Mr. Vijayakumar was a businessman and my mother was a college professor. My parents were always occupied with their respective careers and I was left in the care of my beloved grandmother. I have vivid memories of feeling very lonely as a child. I couldn’t understand why nor did anyone find time to understand me. Looking back, I feel like I always knew deep down that I was not a girl. I would wear trousers and dress up like boys my age, play with guns and would effortlessly fit into circles consisting mostly of boys. I must have felt so alive and so much closer to the truth of my being when I was around them. My family didn’t make a big deal out of all this. They probably assumed that it was just a tomboyish phase I’d eventually outgrow. A few years went by and I was blessed with a younger sister. Over the course of time, the two of us bonded like sisters usually do and she was my most trusted confidant. But she was too young to understand what I was going through. I was thus left alone with these thoughts and feelings and did the best I could to make sense of it. When we played together we had such strikingly different preferences.
My sister would play dress up with her barbie dolls and I, on the other hand, would run around in denims flaunting big toy guns. Like most things in life, my childhood too seemed to pass by in the blink of an eye. Puberty hit me in the face like a sad reality and my tomboyish antics would no longer be entertained. My grandmother was delighted at the thought of me taking my first step towards ‘womanhood’. But I couldn’t allow it. I couldn’t deceive myself into believing something I was not. My parents forced me into wearing feminine clothing and makeup. I had to grow my hair long and behave like other girls my age. I resisted it as much as I could but I was eventually left with no choice but to give in. I was forced to attend social gatherings and marriage ceremonies in clothes that I couldn’t connect with. They turned a blind eye to my tears and had no time to listen to what I had to say. I pulled through the worst of it. I fought a dozen battles a day trapped in a body that I couldn’t accept as my own.
During high school, I found myself attracted to a girl in my class. I was new to all this and in the heat of the moment, confessed my feelings to her. It was a confession along the lines of, “Hey, I think I really like you. How about you treat me like a guy and we stay together like boyfriend and girlfriend?” I was very naïve and vulnerable during that phase of my life and that was the best proposal I could come up with. The girl was terrified and, like what most girls her age would do, told all her friends about it. The news spread like wildfire and the fact that this was a convent school didn’t help either. I was alienated from my classmates and they would give me weird looks every time I passed by. Nobody was willing to talk to me. If I were to go anywhere near a group of girls having a chit chat, they’d get up and leave at the very sight of me. I had never felt so alone. My parents heard about what happened from the principal but they didn’t bother listening to what I had to say. The only person who stood by my side through all this chaos was my grandmother.
When I started college I came to terms with the realization that this country couldn’t offer me the future that I wanted. I desired with every little piece of my existence to be accepted the way I am. I made it my primary goal in life to reach the US and live boldly, owning up to my truth. It was around that time that I found out about gender affirmation surgery. For the longest time, I was oblivious of the fact that transition was always an option. I persevered through thick and thin hoping that one day I could actually get what I want.
I finally earned my degree in engineering, but owing to the Y2K problem, all the campus placements were suspended. Our family business had just collapsed and they wouldn’t be able to support me if I wanted to study abroad. If I were to stay home, I was afraid that my folks would start seeking for me an alliance in matrimony. I was shattered and left without a sense of direction. I worked for a small company for meagre pay, just so that I could gain some experience. With the help of a friend, I secured a job in Chennai, I worked there briefly and got into a few relationships. It was the same story every time. It would start out hopeful but eventually they’d all leave to marry a cisgender man.
I was at the receiving end of all this and it took a toll on my mental health. I found myself feeling depressed a lot of the time. I decided it was high time to get help and started looking up articles related to the LGBTQ community and found a really good counsellor. I set up an appointment with her. I opened up to her and let out years of repressed feelings. She told me that I was a trans man. The term was very new to me but I was able to identify myself with it and I could clearly see what I wanted. I wanted to transition.
Going forward, my life would be anything but a bed of roses. I had my share of struggles and hardships. I was subjected to abuse as well. My depression got worse and I started having anxiety issues. I was also distant from my family and friends, who could never understand me. It was only a matter of time till all this started affecting my career. I performed poorly in all my assigned projects and was on the verge of losing my job. Life had lost all meaning and there was nothing worth living for. I had lost sight of my dreams. But something inside of me wanted to hold on dearly to life and get out of that shell. I forced myself to snap out of it. I pulled myself together, worked really hard, and people started noticing. I did really well, got promoted, and was offered a H1B visa to go to the US.
It was a dream come true. I had reached the land of my dreams. But I was not yet comfortable with the idea of going out and meeting new people, and, very soon, loneliness was back to haunt me. The thought of transitioning was always on the back of my mind. I wondered how people would react. “Would I lose my job? What about my friends and family? Would they understand?” I couldn’t go on living like this. I had to do something. I did the bravest thing I could do then. I cut my hair. I couldn’t take any more of the loneliness in that foreign land and returned to India. I noticed people looking at me differently. I could read the confusion in their eyes. “Is that a girl or a boy?” My parents were unable to come into terms with it. At one point, they even assumed that I was of ill-mind and took me to a psychiatrist. I was even prescribed medication for this so-called “illness” of mine.
I went back to the US and decided that enough was enough. I was going to transition whether people liked it or not. I spoke to a therapist in the US. I spoke to my parents and let them know what I intended to do. As expected, they were unable to understand what I was going through. They cursed me and I was told to never come back home. Nevertheless, I decided to keep moving forward.
I wanted to come out to my employer even if it meant putting my job on the line. I was ready to take up any job as long as it meant that I would get to live my truth. A good friend of mine, asked me to consult the HR of my company, Cognizant Technology and Solutions. I spoke to the HR, told her everything. I was prepared for the worst. To my great astonishment, I received support and understanding for the first time in forever. I feel so grateful that I work for such an amazing company. They covered the cost for my surgeries and even brought in a new clause for employee insurance. It makes me happy to think that I was able to influence a change in the company’s policies for people like me. They are like family to me now.
I returned to India last year for what would be the biggest day of my life. My transition. I underwent surgery in a hospital in Kerala. I had the support of a few good friends but I couldn’t help but notice the little emptiness inside of me. On March 28th 2019, Sai Rahul was born. It shall forever remain the greatest and most memorable day of my life. It took me almost 4 months to heal. In the beginning, I struggled a lot trying to change all my identity documents and certificates. The term “trans man” was very much new to the people in Bharathiyar University, Coimbatore, where I had to change my name and gender on my college certificates. It was a hectic legal battle. Thanks to an LGBTQ+ activist, who guided me through this process and finally, the court instructed the University to update my certificates. Now it is much more feasible for LGBTQ+ people to approach the university and get their details updated. Even in a very progressive state like Kerala, people were looking at me as if I was from Mars. But I was fortunate to have received the help of a friend who walked me through all that hassle.
I am 36 years old now. I am back to working for the company. I feel so happy and proud when I look at the person looking back at me in the mirror. I am finally living the life I so desperately yearned for the past 25 years. It feels so liberating to be able to dress the way I want and to hear people address me as “sir” when I walk into a restaurant. I feel so thrilled with joy when kids address me as “anna” or “cheta” which translates to big brother in Tamil and Malayalam. I fell in love again with a woman. She was to me the loveliest person I’d ever laid my eyes on. Since the day I met her, I wasn’t standing alone in that future I had envisioned. The thing is, we can dream all we want, love someone with all our heart, and sometimes it lasts and sometimes it simply doesn’t. This relationship was beautiful while it lasted and I have no regrets. It took me a while to realize that I am my No. 1 priority. I owe myself the love I tried so hard to give, and the happiness I tried to offer. As much as I’d love to settle down and start a family of my own, I’m in no haste to do so. I like the new direction my life has taken and the new perspective with which I’m able to see it. I feel the most confident I’ve ever been in my entire life.
I was fortunate enough to find love and friendship in amazing people who raised me up when I was feeling down. I know that I’ll always have the support of these friends. I find myself missing home and my family now and then. But it can’t be helped. I am grateful for this second chance at life and I try to live each day to the fullest. I am brave enough to live my dreams according to my vision and purpose instead of the expectations and opinion of others. That’s the source of my strength. When I love myself, there’s no room for external validation. Owning a tale to tell and loving myself throughout that process is the bravest thing I’ve ever done and I’m really happy about it.
Thank you for taking the time to read my story.
I know that there are a lot of people out there who are like me. I want to use this moment to reach out to you. I want you to know that you deserve love and happiness too. Be bold and fight for what you believe in. Our community deserves the dignity and respect that most people just take for granted. It takes courage to grow up and be who you really are.