I had originally intended to write this after I saw the film The Danish Girl about a year and a half ago. It has taken me so long to gather the courage and conviction to write this, because it is not a review of the film, but a window into my own life story. You see… just like Lili, the protagonist of the film, I too have struggled with gender dysphoria, i.e. discomfort due to a mismatch between one’s internal gender identity and the sex assigned at birth. It means that just like her, I was assigned male at birth, but am now transitioning to live as a woman. The film, set in 1920s Europe, shows Lili’s social and then medical transition from male to female as a pioneering example, so it may seem that our similarities end here, but there are still some important parallels in our stories.
Just like Lili, I was assigned male at birth, but am now transitioning to live as a woman.
Like Lili, I am married to a woman, in a relationship marked with mutual respect, playfully questioning societal norms, and most importantly an enduring love for each other beyond our identities. Like her, my true self was so deeply repressed and hidden for so long that I was barely even conscious of it, until I gradually discovered it in adulthood. Like her, I started my transition with small, tentative steps, and then moved with more certainty, gradually gaining confidence along the way. Like her, I have been out in public as my true self in places where I could afford to, mostly when I was around complete strangers or with those who knew about me.
However, being neither fully out nor fully closeted requires a constant balancing act between femininity, androgyny, and masculinity, in terms of clothing, physicality and behaviours, in order to be able to pass as female or male in different scenarios depending on the extent of my dysphoria, where I am going and who I might run into.
Gradually, though, it has stopped being a choice as I am more frequently perceived as female irrespective of what I wear and how I behave. It has been especially difficult in gendered spaces such as security queues and public restrooms when I began to realize that I was no longer credibly ‘passing’ as a man even if I dressed, behaved and sounded like one.
Being neither fully out nor fully closeted requires a constant balancing act between femininity, androgyny, and masculinity.
Like Lili, I have met or heard of several doctors, ranging from those who did not understand my situation or had outdated views on it, to those who have been extremely helpful. To be fair, my personal experience in this regard has been far nicer than is the norm, because I took my time, educated myself, searched for options, and ruled out the unhelpful ones. That’s not always possible for others like me, so far too often they might end up with horror stories.
Also, like Lili, and in fact like most women, I worry about my personal safety around strangers, especially when there is unwanted attention from men. Like her, I too have struggled with drawing the line beyond which such attention stops being validating and becomes dangerous.
However, our stories are not exactly the same. A century ago as shown in the film, the medical process for gender transition itself was experimental, gender roles were much more sharply defined in society, and cases like Lili’s were treated as tragic anomalies. On the other hand, my experience comes at a time when the understanding of gender itself is far more nuanced, when the protocol for medical transition is much more clearly established and standardized, and when awareness about our existence is greater than ever before.
Also, like Lili, and in fact like most women, I worry about my personal safety around strangers.
There are also several more personal differences. For example, unlike Lili, I have no ambiguity about my sexuality. In fact, my identity as a queer woman is not only relevant to my relationship with my spouse, but it also affected my journey of understanding how my gender identity differed from my orientation. Unlike Lili, I do not consider my profession a reminder of my past life. In fact, I want to stay in my profession and preserve as much of my life as possible even through transition. Unlike her, I did not simply imitate other women in public as I started coming out, but just allowed my natural expression to appear after decades of repression. Like Lili and Gerda, the journey that my spouse and I have shared, especially after my ‘coming out’, has been one of tears and confusion and yet unstinting love and support for each other, but unlike them, it has also been interspersed with a lot of shared joy and beautiful experiences with each other just like before.
Of course, I understand that the film was just a fictionalized account of a more complex story, as the real Lili and Gerda lived for a much longer time together than is shown in the film. My objective in writing this, therefore, is not just to compare the film with my story, but to open a conversation into the complexity of gender transitioning even in this supposedly modern and progressive era. After all, I am not the only one in such a situation, even in India. There are many others like me.
Moreover, the issues mentioned above, such as self-awareness and self-acceptance, relationships, freely expressing oneself, personal safety, medical care, social awareness, professional opportunities, and media representations, all affect most queer people, not just those who are gender variant or questioning. When I question myself which gender I ‘pass’ as better and whether or not I may face trouble on any given day, it is an experience shared not just with other gender variant people, but also with others who express themselves in non-conforming ways, despite stares, comments, questions, threats or even worse.
It is not even a queer issue alone, as gender norms regarding self-expression apply even to cisgender, heterosexual people, placing limits on all of us. When my spouse and I worry about any possible backlash to my transition, its impact on our lives together, and the continued legal status of our relationship, we know it is a question relevant to other queer couples too. More broadly, in fact, the question of what relationships should be socially accepted is relevant even to other couples who defy boundaries of caste, class, religion etc.
It is not even a queer issue alone, as gender norms regarding self-expression apply even to cisgender, heterosexual people, placing limits on all of us.
We do not know all the answers, but we do know that there is a need to break the silence, to start conversations to show that we exist, that families like ours exist, even if all of us do not fit into neat little boxes with clear labels. After all, what makes someone a man or a woman? What makes someone queer or not? What makes a relationship queer or not? Is one’s identity or the validity of their love or their relationship completely determined by the individuals involved, or do others’ opinions matter? There are no easy answers, but hopefully, breaking the silence will help in figuring some of them out.
Featured Image Credit: A still from the film The Danish Girl