Dress has always been a hindrance to my financial empowerment

I’m Hemabati, a trans man. From my childhood, I preferred cropped hair and pants. But as I was born a biological woman, my dress and gender expression was often not socially accepted, resulting in many setbacks to my education and livelihood opportunities.

Till the fifth standard, I wore half-pants like the boys. Because of this many, including some of the teachers, teased me, saying, “Since you are wearing a boy’s dress, you must sit with the boys and not with the girls.” When I attended middle school, I was transferred to another school where I had to necessarily wear a school uniform. But I still kept my hair short. My brother frequently scolded me for cutting my hair short, and once even shaved off my hair totally so that I didn’t go out. But I continued to go to school, telling everyone that I shaved off my hair to make them more lustrous!

Around this time I started karate classes. Seeing my good technique, my teachers selected me for participating in a tournament in Mumbai. I ran home to tell my family. As I was excitedly breaking the news, one of my uncles came to visit. He asked what the hullaballoo was all about, and my sister told him about my selection. This uncle retorted, “A girl taking up such kind of sports is inauspicious. What nonsense is this?”

His objection was not just against my biological identity of being a girl, but also against my firm decision to be true to my actual gender identity, which to many conservative people like him was considered “inauspicious.”

Following my uncle’s advice, my family not only stopped me from going to Mumbai but also from taking up sports. The tournament was a great opportunity which could have changed my life, and so I was very disappointed.

Through the years, I realized that the road is always full of such disappointments and discrimination for the transgender community. After graduation I have tried many jobs. I taught in a school, but they wanted me to wear a sari, phanek, etc. I tried to become a medical representative, but my senior bosses wanted me to wear nice girly dresses to lure the customers.

I left all these jobs as I wanted to be true to my gender identity. One, however, needs money to eat and survive, and earning money has been an uphill struggle for me and my partner. There haven’t been many jobs I haven’t tried – from working as daily wage labourer during my school days to selling toys on the roadside during festivals with my partner.

Many times I hate my situation so much, and even start to hate my own existence sometimes. But I have also learnt to persevere and fight for my rights through Empowering Trans Ability, a support organization for trans men, lesbians and bisexual women that some of us have started in Manipur.

Written by Hemabati with support from Thingnam Anjulika Samom, freelance journalist and gender rights activist.

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Beauty parlour was a stop-gap, my real goal is still ahead!

bonitaI’m Bonita. I’m a trans woman. I’m 30 years old and live in a small locality in Imphal West district.

I was a good student, above average if not a topper. I sat for my high school examinations in 2005 and passed with high marks. At that time I didn’t know what my gender identity was. I didn’t feel myself to be a boy. I wasn’t able to show any masculinity; rather I transfigured myself as girlish. This made people laugh at me, and the laughter became harsh to my mind. So I didn’t want the company of my friends and mates. I felt isolated and became secluded. At the same time my parents also restricted me from playing and associating with girls. They didn’t want me to behave like a girl. They thought of me as their son, which was contrary to my inner sense and feelings.

After my matriculation I was admitted to a co-educational higher secondary school by my parents. But I felt odd sitting with boys on the same bench. I was always silent, never uttering a single word to my bench mates. With each passing day I felt more and more reluctant to attend classes. I wasn’t able to pay attention to my studies and feared expressing what I felt inside. So I started bunking school, telling lies to my parents.

Somehow I passed my 12th standard and got admitted to a premier college in Imphal. Here too, the same thing happened. My classmates started avoiding me because of my gender identity and gender expressions. Even when it came to sitting on a bench, it became a problem. I found it unpleasant to sit with the boys, but also couldn’t sit with the girls. I bore it for some time. But the sense of isolation grew and I dropped out in the second year of college.

I also began expressing my trans identity as I could no longer bear hiding it. I kept my hair long and dressed up as a girl. My family members scolded me and thrashed me whenever they saw me like this. When I couldn’t bear it anymore, I ran away from home and took shelter in a beauty parlour run by some of my trans sisters. I learnt the trade from them and soon after started my own beauty parlour. I also learnt tailoring and made dresses.

When I started earning and helped my family financially, they too started accepting me gradually. But in my heart I knew I wanted more from life. The beauty parlour was a refuge but not my real goal in life. So after a few years, I enrolled myself in another college and completed my graduation. Now I have become a transgender rights advocate, trying to address those discriminatory issues that not only I but most transgender people face in Manipur. It’s a long journey, but I’m not one to run away!

Written by Bonita Pebam with support from Thingnam Anjulika Samom, freelance journalist and gender rights activist.

Evicted from my own house because I’m gay and HIV positive

I’m Khaba, a college student. I’m 23 years old and a person living with HIV. I’m gay.

Both my parents were also infected with HIV. My father passed away when I was very young. My mother too has passed away. She used to be a government school teacher, and struggled single-handedly to feed and clothe me and my two sisters. When I was young, I would throw tantrums when my mother fed me a white pill every day. At that time I would question her why she fed me the pill. It was only after I threw the pill away one evening that she explained how the pill was my life, and if I stopped taking the pill I wouldn’t see her and my sisters again. After that I agreed to the daily medication.

As a result of my HIV status, stigma and discrimination was part of my life from an early age. There were times when my schoolmates would tell me not to turn my face towards them in the school van fearing that I might infect them. As I grew up I realized the meaning of my friends’ fear and the white pill, and became determined to live long and support my mother. I would go to the market to purchase items for the small grocery shop that she also ran.

At the same time I started avoiding friends who discriminated against me and by the time I reached secondary school, I found a few understanding friends who accepted my HIV status. Many among them were also gay. With them I was happy and felt as if the world was with me.

My happiness was short-lived. In February 2016, my mother passed away, and with that started a new path of difficulties and hindrances in my life. Less than a year after mother’s death, I came to know that she had mortgaged our land. The money-lender now insisted that we pay up five lakh rupees, which included both principal and interest, within a few days to free up the land.

Somehow my aunts and uncles collected the amount, and gave it to my eldest sister. But the next day itself she eloped with her boyfriend, taking the money with her. When she refused to return the money, my second sister, then already married, paid the money-lender and retrieved the land patta from mortgage. Thereafter she insisted that the land deeds should be transferred to her name. Though I offered her the daughter’s share, as traditionally given in Meitei society, she wanted to own the entire property.

Seeing no way out, I sought help from my trans aunty who gave me two lakh rupees which she had been saving up for her sex change surgery. I thought of mortgaging my father’s pension book for another three lakh rupees. But this too was in my second sister’s custody. Even when I offered her the two lakh rupees and requested her to give me back the pension book so that I could mortgage it and repay her money, she didn’t agree. Rather she told me that she had discussed the matter with my eldest sister and they both had decided not to register the land in my name as I had relations with males and they feared that one day I would give away all the property to them.

I had never expected such words from my sisters, especially to a brother who was always downtrodden by the society. Their attitude affected me so much that many a time I even forgot to take my antiretroviral therapy pills (the same white pills).

I’m in mental torture day and night. Without telling anything to anyone I just collected some personal stuff and left my house. Now I don’t know what to do and where to go. My trans aunty, who always supported me, asked me to live with her. But I’m human. I don’t want to leave my house with which all my memories are associated for so long just because of my sexual identity.

Written by Santa Khurai with support from Thingnam Anjulika Samom, freelance journalist and gender rights activist.

What is a normal couple?

I’m Meme. I’m 49 years old and a lesbian. I live with my partner, a trans man in a small village in Imphal West district.

I met my partner through a common friend when I was around 27 years old. Initially my parents didn’t say anything when he used to visit my house, eat with us or even stay overnight at times, perhaps because he is ‘biologically’ a ‘woman’. But later when neighbours and locals started commenting on his gender identity as trans man, my family started showing signs of annoyance, and tried to distance me from him. They tried to find male matches for me, and once even tried to forcibly get me eloped with a man [marriage based on elopement]. Luckily my partner heard about it and rescued me.

Matters came to a head when I stayed at my partner’s house for a few days to nurse him during an illness. My family was very angry with me, and locked me up for the day when I returned. That decided things for me. I came out of the house and stayed with a relative. My partner too came to stay with me and we have stayed together since then.

In between we stayed at my partner’s house in an adjoining village for a few years to help his younger siblings. When they grew up a bit, we built a small shop-cum-home in my own village to survive. I sell cigarettes, biscuits, toffees and paan. In a lean-to adjoining the house, he sells fish and chicken.

Initially friends and relatives would tell me, “Get married, it is sad to see you living like this.” I would tell them, “Right now I have no thoughts of marriage. Later when I do, I will ask you to find me a match.” Now they have stopped saying all these things to me.

Our relationship is full of love though we fight too sometimes. But we also make up as we realize this is our destiny in this life. Our sole worry now is who would look after us in our old age. We have discussed adoption for a long time, but are yet to come to a conclusion on whether we should adopt a relative’s child or an orphan. We don’t even know if we would be allowed to legally adopt a child as people still don’t look at us as a ‘normal couple’.

Even the house we live in now is built on village common land. People from our village can stay here but not outsiders. We have requested for a house number so that we can avail of social security schemes like food security, but we have been told that it may not be possible since we’re not a ‘normal couple’.

What or who is a ‘normal couple’? We love each other, we live together like husband and wife, and we want children. Is that not normal enough?

As told to Thingnam Anjulika Samom, freelance journalist and gender rights activist.

Trans women are raped too . . .

I’m Santa Khurai, 38 years old and live in Imphal East district. I’m a trans woman. For the last 10-15 years I have been working as a gender rights activist, striving for recognition of the rights of the gender and sexual minority communities.

During the course of my work, I have come across many happy and sad moments. However, since the last few weeks, my mind has been deeply troubled by frequent incidents of rape of minor girls. Altogether five minor girls were brutally gang-raped in separate incidents as per news reports.

These incidents remind me that rape and other sexual violence is an integral part of the lives of many trans women too. Many of us have been raped and/or molested at an early age – mostly by neighbours or even family members.

I too was raped when I was in class VI. I don’t even know how old I must have been then – maybe around 11 or 12. As children we would play around in the neighbourhood, and taking advantage of this, a male neighbour called me in and asked me to massage his back. He too stroked my back as people do with children. I must have dozed off briefly when I woke up with an intense pain and found that he was raping me.

Terrified and in great pain, I somehow ran away from the room and stood trembling near the open pit latrine nearby. I was weeping copiously. My mother came and asked me why I was crying but I couldn’t even say a word – in a way I was too young to even understand properly what he had done to me. Blood was trickling down my leg. This man came rushing and told my mother that I had problem defecating and hence the blood.

My mother thought I had piles and tried all kinds of home remedies. I was still too scared to tell her the truth. Even today when I recall the pain and horror of that moment I feel very angry. I feel disgusted sometimes with men thinking of their lust which makes them blind to the pain of others.

I’m sure that there are many more cases of sexual violence against trans women, which remain hidden and unreported due to fear of backlash, stigma and discrimination in our patriarchal society. The nature of men taking advantage of our expression and preference of female identity is condemnable.

It needs to be recognized that such heinous acts increase our vulnerability, thereby curtailing our development in all sectors including education and economic activity. This is the reason why I shall continue my fight for gender justice.

Written by Santa Khurai with support from Thingnam Anjulika Samom, freelance journalist and gender rights activist.

Note: Santa Khurai is fourth from the left in the photograph above.

Queues and toilets scare me!

I’m Thoibi, 46 years old, and I live in a small village in Imphal West district. I am a trans man and I have a fear regarding queues and toilets. This might sound weird to other people, but to me this is a genuine feeling. For example, when I go to a hospital to get treatment for myself or someone close to me, just the thought of standing in the queue for OPD tickets makes me want to forget about whatever illness or pain I or my family member has, and run away instead.

Biologically I am female but my gender identity and gender expression are masculine. But there are queues for men and women only, not for trans men or trans women. So where do I stand in the queue? Do I stand in the line for men as my gender identity demands, or do I stand with the women as per my body organs? Most times I have to stand in the line for women but this makes me feel embarrassed and uneasy.

Once when I was actively practicing karate, I had gone for a national competition along with many of my friends. There, during our free time, we decided to go for a movie. It was Mission Kashmir starring Hrithik Roshan and Preity Zinta. We were all very keen as we do not get a chance to see Hindi films in a cinema hall in Manipur because of a ban on Hindi films by an underground outfit.

When I stood in the women’s queue for the tickets, the women started scolding me, almost beating me up even, and drove me away, saying “Why is a man standing in the ladies line?” It took some time for me to make them listen to me and understand. Responses like these are quite common because of my physical appearance.

It is the same in the case of toilets in public facilities such as hospitals, airports, markets and educational institutions where there are toilets marked only “Men” and “Women.” If I go into the men’s toilet, I find it awkward seeing all the men peeing there. But when I go into a women’s toilet, it’s the same. Hence many a times, I hold myself from urinating till I reach home, no matter how strong the urge is. Sometimes I wonder whether this has contributed to the frequent occurrence of stones in my kidney.

I also often think that if there were separate queues and separate toilets for trans men and other transgender persons, then a lot of these health issues and social embarrassments would decrease.

Written by Thoibi with support from Thingnam Anjulika Samom, freelance journalist and gender rights activist.

No share of family property for me because I have a vagina . . .

I’m Hemabati. I’m 39 years old and live in Imphal East district. I’m a trans man. My partner Nanao and I have been living together for 13 years now in my house. But some of my family members still do not treat us like a couple.

Since 2005, a year after Nanao came, my brother set up a separate kitchen along with his wife and two children, even though we continue to live in the same house. My mother who used to eat with me and Nanao also started cooking her own food since late 2015, after I asked her to give me my share of the family property.

We might be trans men, but first we are human beings!

Nanao and I want to live properly, in a small place separately to call our own. My father died in my childhood. The registration of the homestead land was transferred from my father to my brother’s name a few years back as he needed a loan. But now, my brother is adamantly refusing to transfer back some land to me.

Whenever I insist on my inheritance, a major quarrel ensues. He verbally abuses me, and even says things like “You with vagina, why would I give to one with vagina? You can stay in this house till your death, you can even die here, but I won’t give you even 25-paise worth!”

The neighbourhood is supportive, but my mother is not understanding enough. I want this to be resolved while she is alive because the frequent quarrel among us siblings is only providing entertainment for the neighbourhood. I tell her, “Ima, while you are living, I want to build a house separately of my own. And when there is some facility available for trans people, I want to apply for loans, etc. So please transfer at least a small area to me.”

But every time I say this to her, she vanishes for a few days without telling us where she is going. Now I want to take legal recourse but I am also hesitant as this is a within-the-family affair.

As told to Thingnam Anjulika Samom, freelance journalist and gender rights activist.

I was told not to knit

I’m Prem Angom from Thoubal, and I’m 41 years old. My father had high hopes from me as I was the first son among his six children. I was a good student, but left school after Class XII because we were poor and my parents were not able to pay for my education.

I have always been skilled with my hands – picking up hand embroidery and knitting from my mother and aunts from a young age. From my early teenage days, I was already earning money by knitting sweaters for others.

But my father didn’t like it; he wanted me to be more man-like. He would scold or beat me, even rudely shouting at those who came to meet me. “Is there no woman in this whole locality who’s able to knit a sweater that you are asking him to knit?” he would tell them.

Due to the frequent tensions in the house, I left my house a long time back and since then have been living in rented rooms – making a living by going to Moreh and bringing back cosmetics and other such things for sale.

Around 1997-98, I borrowed a wig from a Shumang Leela artist to wear at a thabal chongba event. It had a small tear and while fixing it, I saw how the hair was knitted together. So I started making wigs of my own without any proper training.

Today I earn as much as Rs.2500/- from each wig I make and sometimes rent it out at Rs. 200-300/- a day during festivals. One of my happiest moments was the warm welcome and respect I was given when I went to deliver a wig ordered by a woman from an affluent family in Imphal. She had lost her hair because of medical treatment. They treated me as though a doctor was visiting. I realized that this was because of my profession, and in my heart I was so happy.

As told to Thingnam Anjulika Samom, freelance journalist and gender rights activist

I was told I cannot be a nurse . . .

I am Naresh from Imphal. I am 24 years old and have completed B.Sc. (Nursing). When I applied make-up and danced in school and college functions, I had full support. But when I tried to work as a nurse, I found no place for myself as a trans woman. My first proper job, in a private hospital in Imphal, lasted just about a week. Some of the staff members and the patients were initially accepting, but one day a senior doctor scolded me in front of everyone in the ward saying, “You look like a woman, you keep your hair long, and on top of that you’ve become a nurse . . . people like you are useless!”

If he had wanted to say anything, he could have taken me aside and talked to me. I felt quite bad and just stopped going. The hospital people too didn’t call me once, even to ask for an explanation for my absence.

Later when I applied for state government recruitment, I was shortlisted as I had fulfilled all eligible criteria, but I wasn’t selected. I could hear the security persons snickering amongst themselves, “Eh, nupi saabi are also nurses?”

As it is, there are very few trans people in Manipur who are technically or professionally trained. If we can get proper jobs, then it will help our community more. Trans people have lots of health problems, but a lot of us feel shy going to the doctor or hospitals as we often face discrimination and ridicule. But in this NGO where I am presently working, trans people feel more at ease telling me about their health problems than to a male or female nurse.

As told to Thingnam Anjulika Samom, freelance journalist and gender rights activist