14 August, 2021, is a significant day in Kerala’s bodybuilding history.
Praveen Nath, Kerala’s first trans man bodybuilder, bagged the title of Mr Kerala for the first time in history.
Bodybuilding Association of Kerala at district and state level allowed Praveen Nath to compete for Mr Kerala competition under a special category for transgenders. After winning the title, he has now started his efforts to compete in the Mr South India competition, which will be held within 2 months. Next year, he plans to do the same for the Mr India competition.
I spoke to him for my story on Youth Ki Awaaz, where he opened up about the training he underwent in previous months and the challenges he faced before heading to his dream competition. The 24-year-old also responded to some of the concerns of the transgender community.
Sofia Babu Chacko (SBC): Praveen Nath, you have made another remarkable history in bodybuilding. Tell us about the journey to the Mr Kerala title. What challenges were in front of you during the training sessions?
Praveen Nath (PN): After winning the Mr Thrissur title, I had started preparing for my next level of dream, Mr Kerala. Due to the second wave of the Covid pandemic, initially, the competition was postponed and finally, it was organised on 14 August.
For the first time, this special category was introduced in Mr Kerala competition for transgender persons. I participated under this special category and won my dream title. In the competition, I had to perform seven compulsory poses and music with body show. So there were around 5 to 10 minutes of stage appearance.
Of course, there were challenges in front of me. It was difficult for me to take part in the competition in this short time span.
Gyms were closed due to the second wave lockdown and it became difficult for me to maintain a proper diet and plan my workouts. We had even taken special permission from the gym owner to open the gym for training during the lockdown.
In the last 15 days of training, I had to prepare myself for the competition three times a day. Unfortunately, there were no sponsorships or funds allocated for me for the competition, so I had to borrow money to spend on my diet. Eventually, it turned into a financial crisis.
As part of treatment, hormone therapy is going on currently in my body, so the impact created by mood swings on me was terrible. I believe it is for the first time I am getting involved in the bodybuilding profession, so there would be curiosity among people to know what a trans man’s body looks like.
My concern was how people were going to accept this. It was definitely a big challenge. But fortunately, people accepted it by giving me tremendous support and love. It helped in my journey to improve a lot from Mr Thrissur to Mr Kerala competition.
The other challenge was many of them told me, “You can’t do this as you are shaped in a female biological body appearance.” They even asked me, “What you are going to do with this body?”
The issue is that a wrongly constructed social notion has been growing in the patriarchal set-up, which allows only a male body with a particular height and weight to succeed in this area of bodybuilding. My trainer also faced a lot of criticisms for training me.
SBC: Mr Vinu Mohan, your trainer, is a former Mr South India and a great supporting person in your life. How did he help you to achieve the Mr Kerala title?
PN: Vinu sir has played a crucial role in my victory. He is currently the professional fitness trainer in RS Fitness hub. He is a URF Asian record holder for maximum push-ups in 30 seconds in 2020 and has also won Mr Kerala, Mr South India titles in 2019.
Ultimately my duty was to maintain and carry out a proper diet, eat well, do workouts on time and take rest. But my trainer had spoken with the association and organisers about introducing a special category for transgender people only.
The association initially told me to perform in the male category. But that was not satisfactory for us. My trainer’s immense pressurising of the association resulted in implementing a category for transgenders. We had tried to get this special category in Mr Kerala competition as well.
Vinu sir was my trainer in both RS Fitness hub and Day Dome fitness hub. Definitely, only because of his training and support have I achieved the Mr Kerala title.
SBC: You have seen and experienced two higher educational spaces in life, the NSS College Nenmara at Palakkad district and Ernakulam’s Maharajas college. How do you think education as a powerful weapon influences the attitude of people towards transgender people? How have these academic spaces helped you to shape your identity transparently?
PN: Education can create great changes. People’s attitude towards the transgender community has been positively changing and it is a good sign. When I was pursuing BA History at NSS College, I did not reveal my identity initially. During the second year, I revealed my transman identity, because of which I lost some of my close friends.
My identity became a great matter of tension, and my teachers and college principal started using an ignorant and harsh attitude against me. So I decided to quit NSS college as I couldn’t stand all those hateful arrows falling upon my transman identity.
Later. I joined one of the reputed educational institutions in Kerala, Maharajas college, with two other trans students, Daya Gayatri and Theertha Sarvika. We had a strong desire to continue higher education in our trans identity.
In the beginning, college authorities said that they did not have the provisions for teaching transgender students, so we sought the help of the Education Minister. After that, the Kerala government implemented 2% seats for the transgender community in colleges.
It was only because of the transman identity that NSS College ignored me. At the same time, another educational space like Maharajas welcomed us with a full heart. The college has taught me to live the life which I want to live.
But the issue we faced in Maharajas was that there were no gender-neutral toilets. So we had to use staff toilets. Soon after, we addressed this problem to the Kerala government and they promised to build gender-neutral toilets. But it has not been implemented yet. The other thing is that the support of my classmates and student political organisations is very much close to my heart.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t continue my studies in Maharajas due to the financial crisis and lack of sponsorship funds. There was no one to support me financially during that time. Scholarships are granted to us by the government only at the year ending. There was not enough money for travel expenses, food and shelter.
Discontinuing my studies is a big loss for me and I plan to do my higher studies in drama. After that, I would like to act.
SBC: How do you think that locational difference creates different perspectives towards the transgender community? Did you experience any behavioural differences in the attitude of people in rural areas and city life?
PN: It’s not only about the location; the ultimate thing is that I am comfortable in a place where I am unknown to the people there.
I am from Palakkad rural area. I was not comfortable there during my childhood and college days, but I might seek comfort in some other rural place because people do not know about my past and will not judge me.
SBC: Is this achievement of the Mr Kerala title a vengeance to the people who said you were not going to achieve anything with your transman identity?
PN: Frankly speaking, it is only because of them I got so many reasons and the strength to win the title. If there are negative people around us, we will soon find a thread to climb towards success.
At a time when I had gone through deep stress, my only intention was to achieve something in life. My mother is a great supportive factor in my life. Many of them insulted and teased me by highlighting my identity. But it was my mother who gave me money to meet my expenses for the Mr Thrissur competition.
We have to find self-improvement techniques ourselves. Using that, we can achieve our dreams and can ignore negative thoughts.
SBC: There was a time when you thought of ending your life. How does your transman identity motivate you not to give up your dreams?
PN: I usually take self-motivation. I used to hear, from my childhood, a lot of motivational classes and talks on life, how to rise above failure and achieve success. But, unfortunately, there was no one to motivate me, so I started doing it myself.
Most of them thought about how I was going to achieve my dream with this body. They also made fun of me by telling me I would become overweight and that I was not tall enough to compete in a competition like bodybuilding. It was during my plus-two (10+2) days that I thought of committing suicide.
Whenever I feel alone, I sit alone and take more time to think productively. There were moments in my life when I felt deeply stressed. I want to achieve more than this and want to make my mother proud. I don’t want her to feel lost.
SBC: In India, section 377 was decriminalised in 2018. After that, do you think the atrocities and ignorance against the transgender community have been reduced?
PN: To an extent, it has reduced. Before 2018, in everyone’s mind, the transgender community was only known for women mostly. People identified only those who did sex work or begging. But after 2018, people started recognising trans persons too. And also, people started recognising us in many fields like the makeup profession, newsreader, pilot, dancing etc.
These achievements are breaking the already constructed pre-conceived notion of the people against trans people. Now we get respect just like a human being after revealing our identity.
SBC: Heard that you admire Aryan Pasha, India’s first known trans man bodybuilder. Tell us about that?
PN: When I felt down one day, I opened my Instagram account and saw Aryan Pasha’s post in my timeline. After that, I became highly motivated. I want to meet him after building a strong identity by myself in bodybuilding.
SBC: After you revealed your transman identity, did you feel that you were getting any sort of privilege set by the patriarchal society?
PN: No, I am not receiving any special privilege set by a male-oriented society. I am the one who is always stubbornly fighting against privileges. There is a misunderstanding among the transgender community itself that one needs to have bass in their voice, a long beard and a muscular body to prove that they are a transman.
These all are socially constructed things and are not always right. According to me, privilege means to be a kind human being. To me, privilege means helping and supporting others in my community to come forward in the mainstream public sphere to achieve their dream.
Privilege can be used in a positive sense by giving a helping hand to my fellow humans to fulfil their expectations in life.
SBC: There are scars and stitches on your body, the same that many people around us who want to follow their dreams have. What is your message to them?
PN: I have achieved the Mr Kerala title. This is not only for me, but the opportunity has opened doors to show platforms where many of them like me can explore. Utilise the maximum and there is no gain without pain.
SBC: How has the Kerala government been helping the transgender community to come forward and confirm their participation in the public sphere?
PN: Yes, there are schemes set up by the government of Kerala to help us in the field of education, sports, etc. But it is somewhat delayed as of now. The government has been implementing laws, but we are not receiving the benefits on time. So if we file a complaint about some issues, it takes a long time to receive a response.
We are organising awareness campaigns and classes among the public. In that, we will discuss various government schemes and opportunities for transgender persons. At the root level, we need to have Panchayat level awareness campaigns along with school and college-level programs.
The government has to make sure whether trans people are getting the proper education, employment, and shelter facilities. Right now, there is only one recognised shelter home in Kerala for transgender people in Trivandrum.
SBC: Can you talk about the role played by the organisation Sahayathrika in your life journey?
PN: I am becoming a part of Shayathrika in 2019, an organisation in Kerala catering to lesbian/bisexual women and transgender persons. I also revealed my identity through Sahayathrika. I am currently working as an Advocacy coordinator of Sahayathrika.
It is because of the organisation that I came to realise how important my identity was. The organisation has given me the strength to shape my identity. Also, another initiative by Vimatha gave me a chance to speak publicly with my identity once in Palakkad. It was a memorable day.
SBC: I heard that you dislike when someone speaks on “normal” and “abnormal” differences. Can you elaborate on that?
PN: Yes, it is an absolute blunder to use the terms “normal” and “abnormal” when describing the identity or personality of a person. Some of them even ask me, “Can you live a normal life?”, “Can you afford a normal life with this identity?”, “So, does that mean all transgender persons are abnormal?”
First of all, they should tell us what is normal and abnormal. These are irrelevant socially constructed terms that are used on a person. This cannot be promoted at any cost.
SBC: Have you experienced fake sponsorship promises?
PN: Of course, I have experienced many fake sponsorship promises. Some of the popular persons in Thrissur came in the beginning by giving their helping hands for my bodybuilding competition. These were all unfulfilled promises. The ultimate thing is that they need media attention and publicity.
Once we ask for our educational expenses, they will say a big “no”. For this competition held recently, I took all the expenses, and I am in debt now.
SBC: Do you think that transman health awareness is lacking in our medical system?
PN: Right now, there is a provision to refund the amount after Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS). SRS is mainly done only in private hospitals. Private hospitals are compelling us to give heavy amounts as they know we are ready to spend any expense on our health.
The government should set up a healthy shelter facility for transgender people. After Ananya’s death, the government has promised to help us with health-related surgeries. But it has not been implemented yet. Moreover, awareness should be given to members of the trans community itself as they lack knowledge about proper health treatment.
SBC: Lastly, some are eager to insult transgender people by using language. How do you want to dedicate this victory to those who discriminate against you by using inappropriate terms like third gender and others?
PN: See, the ultimate thing is that people have to value others’ privacy and choices. I do not understand what pleasure they are getting by using bad words on our identity. They won’t even accept and encourage our talent. However, they want to highlight our private life.
Tell us that “you can do it” instead of “you are a failure”. Laws have to be implemented strictly so that we can reduce the insult using language to an extent.