Vihaan Peethambar is an LGBTQI activist, a media professional, and as he recently revealed to the world, a transman.
“Some men are born in their bodies, others have to fight for it. I fought, I won,” he declares on his profile.
A week since he came out on Facebook, the reactions he’s been receiving, he says, are ‘overwhelming and powerful’. “I cannot believe the love and support I’ve received from both people I know as well as total strangers. I’ve had people messaging me from different parts of India and the world as well, congratulating and telling me how my post has inspired them,” says Vihaan.
Transmen are persons who are assigned female at birth, but as they grow up, they identify as boys or men. Many transmen and transwomen experience gender dysphoria, and may choose to undergo surgeries and hormone replacement, in order to look more masculine or feminine, as they desire.
While there are many cultural identities of transwomen in India, like Aravani, Hijra, Kinnar, Mangalmukhi etc., transmen are relatively invisible, and there is very little awareness about their gender identity.
In Vihaan’s case, his family and friends saw him as a tomboy while he was growing up.
“Since I was a child, I always dressed in boy’s clothes and sported short hair so everyone who knew me saw me as a tomboy. It was when I reached the marriageable age that people started questioning my looks and why I did not have a boyfriend. When I came out to my family and close friends, they understood it because they have always seen me as a guy – my nature, my behaviour, my spirit was always that of a man. But I had to be a little patient for them to get accustomed with using male pronouns,” he explains.
It is vital for a transgender person to have their family backing them, reassuring them that their happiness is all that is important, above society and its taboos, Vihaan explains.
“Having your family’s support helps in freeing you from your internal struggle – a struggle that could and has ended up claiming a lot of trans lives. I consider myself very fortunate to have a family that supported me 100% from the start. Although my mother had very limited knowledge on transgender persons, my sisters played a big role in educating her and later she started reading and finding out more about our struggles. In fact, it was my mother who urged me to start my transitional surgeries as she saw me struggle with depression and anxiety over my body,” he says.
But acceptance from family and society is only one of the challenges that transmen face. In 2014, the Supreme Court in a landmark judgment (NALSA v. Union of India) granted transgender persons the right to self-identification (as male/female/transgender person), and directed the central and state govts to ensure their rights are protected. Following the judgment, the central govt has introduced The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill in Lok Sabha, which has come under severe criticism for going back on the NALSA judgment in many ways.
While the Bill is currently under review, for transgender persons, this means there isn’t yet much progress on ensuring proper housing, education, employment and healthcare.
Vihaan had to move to a different city to access surgeries and hormones. “Since sex reassignment surgeries (SRS) are not publicly talked about, there is very limited information on doctors/hospitals that perform them. All transmen prefer to go to doctors who are aware of transgender people and are sensitive to the cause of transition. I am from Kerala, and although, there are plastic surgeons and gynaecologists in almost every hospital here, I could not find anyone who had experience with transgender persons,” he says.
Meanwhile, getting his name and gender changed officially was another ordeal. While the Supreme Court has ordered that transgender persons have the right to self-identification, and that authorities cannot insist on medical certificates or SRS to provide IDs, the judgment is ignored in most offices.
“I took a year’s hiatus from my work in Dubai to come back to Kerala and get my name and gender changed officially since I knew this would be a time-consuming process. I faced a big predicament with the Kerala Gazette as they insisted that I submit medical certificates from a government hospital confirming that I have undergone SRS,” says Vihaan. “The gazette officials were completely unaware of the NALSA judgement and demanded the medical certificates without which they would not accept my application.”
Since he couldn’t afford to drag this out in court without a job, Vihaan chose to undergo medical tests in a govt hospital, and is awaiting a notification from the Kerala Gazette before he can apply for other IDs.
Vihaan’s journey, his decision to be open about his identity, and his family’s complete acceptance has given hope to many transmen, who have reached out to him, and chat with him regularly about surgery and other experiences.
While he has received some transphobic and bigoted comments, he had his defenders, “I saw people (total strangers) countering those comments with so much positivity. It gave me real hope that the world isn’t such a bad place after all,” he says.
“Like most transmen, I experienced gender dysphoria from a very young age, but didn’t know that there were other people like me. Self-acceptance does not come easy. We are socially conditioned to fit into acceptable notions of others and in the fear of being outcasts, we torture ourselves to become who we are not. It’s been quite a rollercoaster of a journey in my struggle to accept myself. When I was 24, I came out to my family at the brink of attempts to end my life and it was their love and support that freed me and helped me become who I am today,” says Vihaan.