On Sept 5th, I woke up to a message from an old friend from college, “Geeee. I saw your article on scroll.in. So proud of you”. I had no idea what she was talking about. I had never submitted anything to scroll.in to publish so I googled my name and scroll.in. Sure enough, I found an article titled, “How a trans man’s attempt at surgery went horribly wrong” with the byline, “ Let this story also be one such warning to more men who come after me”. I opened the link to find a photograph of me, a screenshot taken from a dalit camera interview of me, uploaded in 2014.
Scroll.in had published an excerpt from a short story of mine, titled ‘Emperor Penguins’ published by Zubaan in the book A Life in Trans Activism by A Revathi. This book, published recently, also has the stories of trans men across caste – Sonu Niranjan, Mookan, Christy Raj, Kiran, Satya Nagpaul and my story.
I wrote to scroll.in immediately.
Dear Scroll team,
I am the author of an autobiographical short story titled Emperor Penguins in the book A Life in Trans Activism by A Revathi, published by Zubaan books recently. Today, a friend of mine from college sent me a link to an article titled “How a Trans man’s attempt at surgery went terribly wrong”, on scroll. You have published my short story in its entirety on your website[ I later realised it was only a large excerpt]. You have made a claim that permissions were given but neither I, the author of this piece nor A Revathi whose book it is, were approached for permission. I would of course have loved for my story to be out on an online platform for a wider,more democratic readership. But you have removed the original title,Emperor Penguins and sensationalised it to be an account of “attempt at surgery which went terribly wrong “. In fact, I believe my story is much more than about my body or surgery. It is about caste, gender, a community, brotherhood, faith. It is the first time that stories about trans men was published in a book from this subcontinent and it is unfortunate that your opportunism worked more than your desire to get this story out. I demand that the title be immediately changed to Emperor Penguins and this letter to be published as a transcript to the piece.
Thanking you ,
Gee Imaan Semmalar
At the same time, I emailed Urvashi Butalia from Zubaan books about whether permissions had been taken. [She responded saying that they had given permission to carry excerpts from the book but were dismayed and apologised for the way scroll.in had carried it]. I also put up the email to scroll.in on Facebook. A friend, Essar Batool commented, “I have been through this too, where a popular magazine while reporting on the lives of the five of us authors[ Kashmiri women authors of the book, Do you Remember Kunan Poshpora?], tried to portray us to fit their idea of ‘girls who have been through much’ to reach that stage in life. My family was said to have excommunicated me, I was shown having solitary dinners and what not. When I protested and called the guy who did the story, and told him that I had not said any such thing to him and that my parents and family have been supportive of my choices, he said that he knew what readers want to read and how to ‘make them connect’ with the story. After I stood my ground and told him I’d not be put in a certain stereotype to fit his ideas, he edited the story online. Next time I will sue whoever does that”.
Meanwhile, I got a call from the editor of the books section for scroll.in, Mr Arunava Sinha who argued with me about “how readers wouldn’t click on the link unless they knew what the story is about”, “why am I hiding my anguish”, “wasn’t my surgery terrible so why don’t I speak about it”, “how is this title sensationalist?, “how I had an attitude problem” etc. He wanted details about my surgery and the words “horrible, perilous, disastrous” in the title. After a long argument about how I don’t want to be frozen into his narrative of victimhood, he changed the title to “How a trans man went on a resilient journey of transformation”. He made sure to send me a final email about the change with a patronising, “I appreciate your conviction”.
The byline which they had used earlier was- “Let this story also be one such warning to more men who come after me”. In the short story, the context of that line is – “Soon after my experience, I put out a warning for trans men about this doctor. Let this story also be one such warning to more men who come after me. I do not for a second, regret the decision to undergo the surgery, I only regret the surgeon I went to.” You see what they did there? As a stand alone sentence, it looks like I am warning trans men about undergoing gender affirming procedures. Read in context, it is plain to see I am warning them against going to Dr Neeta Patel in West Borivali, Bombay. After another email to them, they changed the byline to –”I went back and forth in my head for several years until the choice really became one between life and death”. There are so many places where I had written about structural exclusions, caste privilege, hope, brotherhood etc. But they carefully chose these lines and distorted them out of context to create an image of a hapless “victim”.
This is not the first time this has happened.
In 2014, OPEN magazine had published a story about my passport change process under the title “Sexual Harrassment” when the article had nothing to do with that at all. The byline for that piece was “The author underwent female-to-male sex re-assignment surgery, but has been unable to switch his passport gender. The story of his struggle in his own words”.
On 6/4/2014 I wrote to the OPEN magazine editors-
Dear Mr Prasannarajan and Mr Madhavankutty,
I am writing to you regarding a piece on my life as a transgender person, titled “Sexual Harassment” that was published on May 30, 2014 in Open Magazine. None of the experiences I have recounted in the piece are about sexual harassment, so when I first saw the article, it bewildered me why the magazine would pick such a title. I spoke to Shahina KK , the journalist from Open Magazine who took my interview, and she said that she was not aware of the title and the editorial team has put it together. She advised me to write to you about this. I would like to know what the motive behind such a misleading title is? Is it to sensationalise our lives like the media always does? I find the title extremely demeaning and demand an explanation for the rationale behind it, if any.
Gee Imaan Semmalar
The next day, Mr Madhavankutty, the editor wrote.
The ‘sexual’ in the headline refers to ‘sex’ as a synonym for gender. So read it as ‘Gender Harassment’ and it will make sense. ‘Sexual Harassment’ is merely a creative play on the standard term: that somebody has been harassed on account of his ‘sex’. Headlines are usually thought of in this fashion. The strap below the headline then explains what the story is about.
There is no intent to sensationalise because putting a headline which has no connect to the story would be absurd. Open has done a large number of articles on LGBTs and we have always been extremely sensitive. (You can look them up on our website.) I don’t think you need to be upset about it but our apologies if it has hurt you in any manner.
To which my reply was-
“Sex”cannot be used as a synonym for “gender”. Even if you read the terms on the basis of second wave feminism in the west and the collapsing of sex ( earlier meant to denote biology) and gender( denoting cultural constructs), I don’t see how “sexual” can be used Instead of “gender”. A lot of people who have read it also commented on how absurd the title is. So it indeed has no connection with the rest of the article. I think Open editors should just accept the mistake. It is not about a personal hurt, it is a political question. And I do not think editors have any locus telling people from marginalised communities whether there is a need to feel upset and for what!
Open magazine’s recent coverage of Modi tells us a lot about its politics. Hope you will rectify the mistake and cross check with people whose stories you publish what the title should be.
Gee Imaan Semmalar
Predictably, there was no response from the editors after this email.
Apart from the similarity in cisplaining and caste arrogance that the Sinhas and Madhavankuttys display when questioned, there is a particular way in which narratives of trans people are carried by media, both print and visual. Brahmanism/white supremacy always function by creating and defining themselves against the “other” with no respect for our lived realities or articulations. It is how these systems of oppression perpetuate themselves discursively. It is plain to see that brahmanical print and visual media love to depict trans experiences through their own violently imposed meta narratives of suicide, our body, surgeries, sexual abuse. The victim categorisation is especially designed by brahmanical indian media for kashmiri women, dalit and adivasi people, trans people across caste etc and is an oft used device of othering, to mute our articulations while speaking on our behalf.
So, I am going to list out some of the common depictions of trans people so that this can be used as a primer on how NOT to write/make films/do interviews with us.
Reversing the gaze; What are the dominant representations of trans people ?
- Obsession with our bodies/surgeries- Non trans people writing about trans issues always tend to focus on our bodies/surgeries. The “truth” about our gender, according to them is to be unraveled by focussing on our bodies.
- Before- after stories – The other “pitch” they try to work out is “before- after” stories as if our lives are scripted on the basis of some bad fairness ads. They ask for photographs of us “before” and “after” as if to illustrates the “transition”. For the same reason, they consider trans people who have medically transitioned as more “authentic” voices rather than people who have no desire to or don’t have access to these interventions. And so you have scoops like “10 handsome men you won’t believe were women” or “20 gorgeous women you wouldn’t believe were men”.
- Disclosing birth names [trans people often call this practice, dead naming] and asking questions like what is your “original” name. As if the names we choose are deceptive/duplicate.
- The media always focuses on the stories of those with privileges of caste, language and class. Even as I write against the depictions of us in media , I am complicit because I know my voice will be heard and my words will be published because of my privileges which translate into access.
- They always want us to tell stories of victimhood. Even if we write a narrative that defies their frames of victimhood, they will appropriate and distort it by adding their own titles and bylines until we fit the category of a victim.
- Opening shots of most films about trans women/hijras/aravanis/mangalamukhis will show them putting on make-up, in front of a mirror, clapping hands at signals. The script is already written and it implies that we are performing in a particular way. These depictions imply that once you strip us of the costumes and make up, we will be “exposed” for who we actually are. This view of gender variant expressions as mere performance also informs the choice of male actors in most films on trans women.
- The few videos or films I have seen on trans men, will show us shaving, smoking cigarettes, going into men’s toilets. Again, we are reduced to a stereotypical performance scripted on their understanding of masculinity or what manhood means.
- Coming out narratives- “When did you first know you were like this/different”. This is a standard question in most interviews. As if, you could point out that one epiphanic moment when you realised your gender. This “coming out” narrative is a borrowed obsession from US media and doesn’t really make sense in different contexts across the world and especially for trans people because of the publicness of gender.
- Trans women /hijras/aravanis/mangalamukhis in films are either mocked, ridiculed or feared. They are shown as parodies of femininity. Because femininity is seen as a weaker trait under hetero patriarchy, they are mocked and made into objects of ridicule. The uncomfortable laughter in cinema halls reassuring the non trans people in the audience that the binarian gender system is safe from “infiltration” or disruption. Trans women are seen as phantasmagoric beings, half man-half woman or parodies of femininity or simply as “emasculated” men.
- The peripheral presence we are ascribed to, in visual and print media through these problematic/derogatory depictions creates, reflects and perpetuates the attitudes, prejudices and violence towards trans communities off screen.
- Trans women are most often depicted as sexually perverse. Immorality is permanently ascribed to them. The reason for their gender expression is seen as a result of lust or sexual depravity. This sexually loose, immoral trans woman figure who is the object of ridicule or fear helps to reinforce and create the “purity”,chastity and good morality of the endogamous, dominant caste woman. The figure of most subaltern women in cinema functions in this way as argued by Jenny Rowena in this essay.
- With trans men, a lot of academicians/activists/media persons see us and our gender identity/expression as simply, a desire for patriarchal power. These are some of the common prejudices and meta narratives created around us.
- Language issues- misgendering, shifting between pronouns for the past and present of a person, using transgender as a verb, saying “a transgender”, the judiciary and news articles using “eunuch” etc are some of the issues that persist even after repeated criticism.
- A lot of white ethnographic filmmaking that have an ubiquitous colonial gaze exoticises the “hijras of india” as bangle breaking widows who are rooted in Brahmanical myths and legends. As if a reference to Hindu myths legitimises their existence.
- And for those of you who are academics influenced by gender theory by white feminists, here is a quote from Judith Butler from an interview with Cristan Williams in 2014, “Gender Trouble was written about 24 years ago, and at that time I did not think well enough about trans issues. Some trans people thought that in claiming that gender is performative that I was saying that it is all a fiction, and that a person’s felt sense of gender was therefore “unreal.” That was never my intention. I sought to expand our sense of what gender realities could be. But I think I needed to pay more attention to what people feel, how the primary experience of the body is registered, and the quite urgent and legitimate demand to have those aspects of sex recognized and supported. I did not mean to argue that gender is fluid and changeable (mine certainly is not). I only meant to say that we should all have greater freedoms to define and pursue our lives without pathologization, de-realization, harassment, threats of violence, violence, and criminalization. I join in the struggle to realize such a world”.
Othering, exoticisng, patronising and victimising groups facing particular kinds of oppression are old, old devices of Brahmanism/white supremacy. They do not want to show our struggles for dignity. They want to freeze us in frames of victimhood. They do not want to see us an individuals from different caste, gender, class backgrounds with political articulations, understandings and aspirations. They want to see us as single box categories who should be indebted to them for so generously “granting” us space.
All such self appointed patrons in media portals, film, academia should work on their own brahmanism/white supremacy instead of attempting to liberate us. Liberate your minds of how you see/ think about us first. We know you love the trans person-trapped-in-the-wrong-body narrative. In fact, it is your mind that is trapped, colonised and subjugated in its understanding of us. For gender justice to be actualised in this subcontinent,we all have to transition from brahmanism to an egalitarian view of the world.