“When you are a man, you experience the world in a completely different way,” says Siddharth Baniwal, 25. There are three other men present there, in their twenties and they nod in agreement. All four identify as trans men. They were assigned ‘female’ at birth but gradually realised their own internal gender identity doesn’t match the sex assigned to them.
Baniwal hasn’t started his hormone therapy yet—not all trans people undergo hormone therapy or surgical procedures—but is going through something unique. That of understanding and viewing the world at first as a woman, and now as a man.
The usual focus of the transgender narrative has been on trans women. Be it the fashion choices they make, the pageants they participate in or the communities they create for themselves. To balance the conversation, I spoke with a few trans men to understand what their lived experience was like. Having witnessed the world as a woman and now having transitioned to the other side, what shifts of perspective have they noticed at their workplace, amongst their families, and in their dating lives?
“No one wants to talk about trans men,” says Ritwik Dutta, a 22-year old engineering student at Noida International University. He was born and raised in Dibrugarh, Assam, as a woman, expected to keep his hair long and wear a kameez and salwar. When he came to Delhi for higher education two years ago, he made the decision “to transition”. Dutta has been on hormones for seven months now moving closer to his male identity. “Trans women have a community, hijras have a community, a summudai, a safe space. Trans men don’t have one.”
Vivek Azad, 36, says, “Trans women were brought up as men. So they can come out and say they are trans but we were socialised as women. It is harder for us to come out. Women are always told to behave in a certain manner. We are taught to be shy, and demure, and not speak out. Society doesn’t accept us.” In this culture of silence around trans men, most of their stories therefore remain unheard.
Baniwal works at a garment shop in Madangir Central Market in Delhi. He was known as Sandhya amongst family and friends before he started transitioning. After he started work as a salesman in the garment shop, his owner couldn’t make out if he was a trans man. He treated him as “one of the boys”. He made penis jokes. One day he commented on the breasts of a female customer. “He muttered something nasty in my ear. I was shocked. I couldn’t say anything.” Baniwal now understands how men talk about women. How penis jokes and rape jokes are a part of that conversation.
Ritwik Dutta had a similar experience in his classroom. There were only three girls in his class. “One was healthier and the boys made such mean comments about her. Other girls were judged for wearing tight and short clothes.”
All four men present also spoke about how much more responsibility was given to them once they were thought of as male. RK Singh, a 24-year-old trans man, works as a manager at a petrol pump in Sadiq Nagar in South Delhi. “I would never have been made a manager if I was a woman,” he says. “ Un ko lagta hai ladka hai toh sambhal lega. (They feel that because it’s a man, he can handle it [the responsibility]”.
Vivek Azad, 36, works as a commercial driver and a field worker for Nazariya Foundation, a non-profit organisation that works with the LGBTQ community. He hasn’t come out to his family yet. But because of the changes they see in him—he prefers wearing his hair short, wears clothes traditionally thought of as men’s clothing, and assumes a more masculine role in his relationships—they suspect he is lesbian. His brothers sent some goons to rape him as a “corrective measure.” “It [Corrective rape] happens amongst trans men too,” he says.
But there are subtle ‘positive’ changes on a day-to-day basis. Going home late used to be a problem once. “I used to be scared,” says Azad. “Now I feel safe. Because I know I look like a man.” Baniwal shares a similar story. “When I came home from work on my scooty, neighbours would make nasty jibes.” He was talking about the time when he was Sandhya. “Even my parents would worry. Now even if I come back at 11 at night, they don’t worry too much.”
Other trans men also speak of gaining more respect in their everyday lives. RK Singh who lives with his family in Tigri in Delhi says, “It’s like the world thinks men deserve more respect, more authority. Before transitioning, everyone was forcing me to get married. They made decisions for me. After I started changing, there has been less pressure. I have told them I won’t get married.”
GOING ON A DATE
“Everyone leaves us,” Azad says, half joking. The dating life of a trans man is complicated. “I date a woman and after some time she feels pressure to start a family, and then we break up,” he adds. The cycle keeps repeating. Other trans men, even those who haven’t undergone a surgical procedure, face the same dilemma.
Baniwal had his heart broken for the same reason. “I was in a relationship with a girl for many years. Even before I started transitioning. Then one day she told me society won’t accept our relationship. That she wants a family. So we broke up.” RK Singh joins in: “So many people ask me this question: How will you have sex? I tell them sex can also be of many types.”
Baniwal looks at his phone and says. “There is just one hope that once I transition completely, her family might accept me. I still pine for her.”
All of them bear witness to the fact that they have observed shifts in the way people treat them post transition, be it at work or in their everyday lives. The four trans men we spoke with are aware of the privilege they have accidentally gained as male members of society. But with it comes the additional burden of witnessing and being unwilling participants of rampant sexism too. Transitioning might bring them closer to their identities and goals, but it seems harder to escape the dual weight of toxic masculinity, whether you’re a man, or a woman.
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