“Paint us in one large brush stroke, I dare you, saffron or otherwise – you forget we’ve gone to war unarmed on the battlegrounds of our own skins. We’ve reigned triumphant. We’ve built armours from the carnage. We won’t back down. You attempt to erase our validity by playing identitty-identitty with your draconian acts, you constantly screw with our existence. You forget we’re war goddesses. We’ll meet you with resistance.” ~ Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju
Trinetra is a 23-year-old trans woman. She is a medical student, activist and artist. In the last few years, she has started a YouTube channel – ‘The Trinetra Method’ to extensively document her transition journey and has fiercely voiced her opinions on Instagram. Anchored at the crossroads of art and advocacy, Trinetra helps millions understand the gravity of topics like gender, sexuality, queerphobia, bullying, mental health and feminism. Her words have indescribable power—they provide comfort, knowledge and hope. They urge you to stand up, call out and resist. They make you want to unlearn and learn, and do better—for the society, for the marginalised and for yourself.
I got the opportunity to interview her and here’s our conversation where Trinetra talks about her childhood experiences, gender, online activism, LGBTQAI+ healthcare disparities, body dysphoria and contemporary politics of exclusion in India.
Shambhavi: What was it like to grow up in a heteronormative society where gender roles are so deeply ingrained? Would you like to share any experience from your childhood and teenage years?
Trinetra: It was suffocating, to say the least. I was called “point-five” by kids in the apartment before I understood fractions and figured out that I was being referred to as half-and-half. I remember being dangled in the air by my ankles and being screamed at to accept that I was a girl by guys thrice as old. I remember being told to brush it off and man up, to give it back twice as hard. I remember feeling powerless. I remember quite literally asking bullies what I’d done to deserve it at age 6, and they’d call it “group unity”. I’d avoid going downstairs to play like the plague, much to the annoyance of my father who went out of his way with the cricket and badminton equipment, often standing by the courts screaming at me to win. I was made fun of for my voice, my gait, my intonations—and roughly at age 10, I’d already been shown to a psychiatrist who declared I lacked a masculine influence in my life and was therefore showing “abnormal behaviours”.
I was thoroughly confused both at the pathologisation and the absurd insinuation that I wasn’t being masculinised enough. One memory comes to mind—my grandfather would take me to General Bazaar, Hyderabad every Sunday to shop. There was a little store selling hair clips that were thoroughly fascinating—always studded with brightly coloured stones. My mother wore her hair too short to be adorned that way, allowing no room for a made-up story to tell my grandfather. With such envy I’d watch women buy them. One fine day, a girl in my class in the second grade showed up wearing one of these prized clips. I lied to her, saying my mother would like to try them on, and she agreed to lend it to me. My class teacher at the time, having noticed the conspicuous clip missing, narrowed it down to me. She then proceeded to tug at my hair and attach the clip, much to everyone’s amusement. The classroom roared with laughter for two whole periods as I sobbed in embarrassment—the intended punishment.
I was taught that day to be ashamed of everything that I was, to never so much as peak out of the closet. I’d try repeatedly to masculinise myself and fail. It would attract comments, active side lining, and molestation by a group of men in Delhi. It was six years later that I’d even allow myself to remember that it had happened. That it was, in fact, sexual violence. The harassment continued, and the refined vocabulary of gender and sexuality only came later. Enough damage was done by then. It would take years of unlearning and therapy to even be able to utter the words “I’m transgender”.
Shambhavi: What advice would you give to someone who hasn’t come out yet or is struggling to transition?
Trinetra: I would definitely say that we ought to give the confusion some space to exist. Being queer is about celebrating the grey areas—of acknowledging ambivalence and non-conformity. The obsession with labels and running behind them does no good. I’d say that we ought to make some peace with not knowing, with questioning, with uncertainty. Right from the time I discovered I was attracted to men at age 13-14 to the start of my medical transition at age 20, I rushed things to the point of complete emotional exhaustion. I wish I’d given the process of self-discovery more time so that I had the bandwidth to cope with everything going on. All of it was made additionally complicated by the fact that a lot of my life was out there on social media for the world to dissect. I’d say, give it time, allow yourself to question and learn, and know that you’re no less valid for not constantly and loudly putting yourself forth. It’s okay to take your time, with yourself, with relationships, with people around you, with your journey. It will eventually get better.
Shambhavi: Your Instagram page has in depth information about gender affirming surgery. You have covered everything from your personal journey, legal requirements to medical information. When did you decide to use this platform to bring social change through online activism?
Trinetra: The tumultuous journey of medico-socio-legal transition, the nitty-gritties of our everyday lives aren’t often talked about in too much detail. Our lives are erased from the mainstream, even more so if you don’t come from class, caste and religious privilege. The uncertainty of it all had always been terrifying. Joining medical school and realising how horrifyingly deficient a “noble” profession such as mine was in understanding queerness, scared me. Every day was about navigating a foreign, hostile space. Talking about it on social media was an outlet, a release that allowed me to make sense of things I was going through. Only when people began reaching out saying it helped their personal journeys did I realise it was much more than a journal of sorts, that my content could do good. Around this time, at the start of medical school that is, I began to actively document, create, and share.
Shambhavi: You have been actively giving a voice to the issues the queer community faces for more than two years now. Along with the positive impact that your content has on the society, you must have been subjected to a lot of harassment and trolling. How do you handle that?
Trinetra: I’m only starting out; I’m only beginning to understand how to make my feminism and politics more intersectional and inclusive. Nonetheless, even in the last few years in both online and offline spaces, the harassment and trolling has been overwhelming. My DMs are routinely flooded with right wing trolls, unsolicited nudes, and the vilest of transphobic threats. Accounts and posts specifically targeted at harassing me seem far more common now than they did two years ago. That said, one learns to shut it out and focus on all that one can control.
The emotional stress fractures are healing, and I’d be lying if I said I was unaffected by all of it. The breakdowns, the panic attacks, the clinical anxiety is real—and therapy isn’t always readily available. My mental health most certainly takes a toll, but I’m constantly learning to deal and seek help when I need to. The simple act of disengaging, blocking, turning off my phone and watching a movie instead, difficult as it is, can be supremely therapeutic. Regularising my sleep cycle, practising a breathing technique or two, doodling—these are some of the things that work for me. One eventually learns to dissociate from the toxicity of it all, and I’m still definitely learning and getting better at it every day.
Shambhavi: What do you have to say about JK Rowling’s recent trans-exclusionary take and how such comments could trigger dysphoria?
Trinetra: Rowling is quite the queen of slippery slope arguments. She seems to believe that to actually listen to trans narratives and acknowledge them is to open the doors for cis men to enter women’s restrooms to harass them. Rowling’s statements go beyond triggering dysphoria—they engage in rhetoric that has, in the past, made gendered spaces such as washrooms, single-sex housing, etc., hugely unsafe and inaccessible to trans people. The hyper focusing on hypotheticals instead of addressing how to strengthen sexual harassment law only dehumanises trans people and denies basic rights. Her usage of the terms ‘woman’ and ‘trans person’ as exclusive, her interpretation that the trans movement seeks to annihilate the concept of biological sex, her constant reference to trans women as men that believe they’re women because they wish to behave/dress as such—it all goes to show how she goes out of her way to seek attention now that she’s past her literary prime by stating half-truths/slippery slopes.
Her arguments are absurd and unscientific and operate entirely on fueling unfounded fears. We’ve never wished to reduce the biological experiences of cis women; we’ve only ever argued that our experiences of womanhood are just as valid. Trans womanhood isn’t easier simply because we were assigned male at birth. It is marred with the traumas of dysphoria and transphobic violence, within the family, within institutions, within society at large, au contraire. The recognition of trans experiences of womanhood as valid in no way diminishes the experiences of cis women, who enjoy structural cis privilege. For her to use her experiences of sexual violence to justify her transphobia is if anything, perverse. To take offense at enby/transmasculine inclusive terms like “menstruators” only goes to show how biologically essentialist one can be, how much patriarchy one is capable of internalising. It’s awful that an author who (accidentally) created a safe haven for countless queer kids across the globe could so nonchalantly demolish it this way.
Shambhavi: The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 states that a transgender person can identify as male or female only after a gender affirming surgery. This is clearly flawed. Being a medical student, how accessible do you think are these surgeries in the Indian Healthcare system? Do you think that they have taken any steps towards making it easier and more accessible?
Trinetra: The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 and Rules, 2020 have several flaws. The first, in complete violation of the NALSA Judgement, is the placing of one’s gender identity within an individual’s anatomy. It then sets up a screening process whereby a District Magistrate shall declare an individual transgender if so convinced by their application. Only upon having sex reassignment/gender affirming surgery (what form of surgery remains unclear and unspecified), and upon submitting oneself to a medical examination by a Chief Medical Officer, will a District Magistrate grant the status of “male” or “female” to a trans person. This not only sets up an unnecessary two-step procedure but paves the way for the system to deny trans persons the fundamental Right to Privacy (Justice K. S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) and Anr. vs Union of India and Ors.). It further denies the right to equality, by making a trans person prove their gender identity medically and/or otherwise, a demand never made of a cis person.
Gender identity can never be fully determined by a doctor, a District Magistrate, or anyone else. This is elucidated in the NALSA Judgement, which upholds the idea that gender identity is self-determined. No one can dictate to you based on your appearance or anatomy what your gender identity must be. The judgement allowed me to change my legal name and gender through an affidavit and newspaper advertisements. For many others, a Central Gazette notification was additionally necessary before changing any other document. While not entirely smooth, the process wasn’t nearly as complicated, dehumanising and invasive as described in the Trans Act.
The additional issue, despite provisions for gender affirming genital reconstructive surgery in existing schemes in states like Karnataka and Kerala, is that doctors simply aren’t trained in gender affirming care, particularly surgery. Complication and failure rates are extraordinarily high, with no governing body to enforce quality control. Quacks often get away with poorly performed surgery, and much of the trans community only has access to sub-par medical intervention. This mandating of surgery to access legal recognition paves the way for enormous medical negligence and malpractice with no accountability. While some states have taken the first few steps, undergraduate and postgraduate medical syllabi still require dramatic changes with respect to gender affirming care. Conversion Therapy may be interpreted as illegal in the Navtej Singh Johar v UoI and NALSA v UoI Judgements but is still practised. There is much work to be done.
Shambhavi: Do you think the current feminist movement hasn’t been an inclusive space for trans persons’ activism? How far do you think we have come in recent years and how far do we need to go?
Trinetra: Contemporary feminism in India often side-lines trans experiences and lives, particularly when it intersects with caste, class, disability and religion. Even when feminist spaces allow for the visibility of some degree of queerness, the cisgender, upper caste, rich, lesbian woman is still entitled to far more space and a louder voice than a Dalit trans woman sex worker. Pathologisation of trans identity, stigma that makes them invisible, laws that seek to voyeuristically examine and erase—all play into the exclusion of trans voices in queer/feminist spaces. Even Pride for example, remains a largely capitalist and cis-gay dominated space in India. I’ve had the privilege of meeting and speaking to prominent trans Dalit activists such as Grace Banu, founder of Trans Rights Collective, who do incredible work—who argues that there is still much work to be done in making feminist and queer spaces more intersectional and inclusive. Trans voices are only beginning to find their rightful space in the mainstream.
Shambhavi: What are a few ways allies can make trans people feel more comfortable?
Trinetra: I’d say the emphasis shouldn’t be on a performance that makes a trans person feel comfortable, but instead on a radical change in how trans people are seen. Doctors need to take an active interest in understanding trans lives and gender affirming care and shift entirely from a medical model to a social model of gender/sexuality. I’d say that the most poignant way of making yourself an ally is to listen—without judgement, without advice to give, without debate, without retort. Listen to the nuances of trans lives and acknowledge intersectionality. Avoid the slurs. Avoid the jokes. Respect pronouns and privacy. Acknowledge that much of what you’ve known and believed about transness may very well be false and be open to criticism and correction without turning defensive. Acknowledge that gender and sex are rigidly assigned, and this has devastating consequences, and therefore allow people within your family or otherwise to express as they wish, freely.
Further, it’s important that we cultivate a culture wherein hatred simply isn’t tolerated. It isn’t enough simply not to be transphobic; it is important to stand firmly and actively against transphobia—when it is expressed by friends, parents, relatives, teachers, professors, governments. It is important that a cis person uses that space of privilege to amplify our voices and stand by us as we fight for our rights.
Featured Image Source: @doodleophile