On being transgender in a binary world: Interview with Naveen

Photo: Katie Lin/ Aggie, On Being Transgender in a Binary World: Interview with Naveen | Leher NGO in India | Child Rights Organization
Photo: Katie Lin/ Aggie

Naveen Bhat (born Shivani Bhat) discovered the extremes to which his parents could go to force him to behave like a proper girl (Naveen is a non-binary person) when he had to approach the Delhi High Court for protection. In the aftermath of the Orlando attack, Naveen in an e-mail interview with Valay Singh, recounts how he coped with a hostile family and society to claim his right to live as he wants to.

It’s a very nice sounding name! If I may ask, what made you choose this name for yourself over what I imagine must have been several options?

Thank you! I went by Shivy initially, because that was the nickname my friends gave me. However, when I came back to the US, it started to get more and more uncomfortable for me. I knew I wanted an Indian name, because I still wanted to recognize and be connected to my Indian roots, so when I was searching for Indian names I was searching for more gender neutral names. Even though Naveen is more masculinized than feminized, it resonated with me. It also means ‘new’, which I like, because essentially, this is a new start for me in my life.

When was this and are you used to it by now?

I picked this name about a month or two after coming back to the US. I’m pretty used to it! However, sometimes I’m afraid somebody’s going to call me by my birth name which hasn’t happened so far, so that’s good.

For many parents and children, gender-stereotyping becomes a ‘natural’ way of life. They treat girls like ‘girls’ and boys like ‘boys’, do you think this constraints both the girl child and boy child in their holistic growth, this boxing based on sex(male or female), do you have experiences you would like to share about this?

Sex categories have been widely used to assign gender and gender roles to people starting from their infancy. There is so much pressure to conform into these set constraints that are developed and constantly reinforced in society, and honestly I think it is incredibly unhealthy. It seems ridiculous to me that people assume a baby’s favourite toys, hobbies, colors, etc. by the shape of their genitals. It seems nonsensical when looked at from an outside perspective, yet it is so normalized in society. It can also be harmful for individuals whose sex category does not fit into a distinct binary. Dictating how children should and shouldn’t behave and be interested in based on a binary societal interpretation of gender and sex category is harmful to children’s development, and it inherently sets up a very patriarchal power dynamic between the masculine and the feminine (which we associate with male and female respectively). I personally was not allowed to express myself freely and get involved with activities/subjects that truly fit my interests, as they did not fit into the traditional feminine role that someone assigned female at birth should do.

As you well know that largely, India is an extremely conservative society. It is difficult to talk about sex education with children and the state doesn’t even allow it in schools. there’s a lot of suppression even about straight sex forget homosexuality and transgender aspects. In such a situation, what should be our strategy to inform and educate people?
I sometimes feel as though The US and more ‘western’ or ‘European’ countries are seen as progressive, which I think is a false image that they want other countries to believe. I think there are a few issues that contribute to the lack of education and the stigma that surrounds sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Before British colonization of India, sex was not a taboo topic. Infact, the sexual imagery carved in the architecture of many historic Hindu temples can be seen as precolonial artifacts that give evidence to the fact that sex was not taboo. Conservatism around topics of the body, including sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity are very European concepts that still permeate within modern Indian society. Creating safe spaces free of judgement, whether it be online or in person are incredibly important. Unwanted pregnancies, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STD’s), corrective rape, etc. happens when people are not educated and do not have access to resources with which to educate themselves. It is the lack of information that causes problems, because people will try to get answers for their unanswered questions through their peers, or through non-credible sources which spreads inaccurate information which inevitably causes more harm in society. It is shown that areas that have good sex education, resources for reproductive health, and education about other ‘taboo’ topics such as homosexuality and gender identity, do statistically better than other areas. I think because it is such a hush-hush topic, there should be more resources readily available near/in educational systems for students to access. There should be more student groups that congregate to talk about such issues. There should be a group effort to break down the shame surrounding these issues in order to encourage people to educate themselves, and none of this is possible without talking about these topics on as many platforms possible.

Do you know about the prevailing socio-legal situation for transgender people in India, what do you think about it? Why do you think governments deny basic rights to transgenders and homosexuals?
I think the legal documentation surrounding transgender rights means well, but without the education surrounding it, positive change is going to be a slow and difficult process. When I was in India, the police that were protecting me claimed to know what ‘transgender’ was, but they misgendered me constantly and still treated me like a girl. I was also forced into the gender binary, even though the law protects non-binary individuals such as myself. The Indian legal system is left over from British colonial rule, and as a result, it is not inclusive of all types of people. Even here in the US, our basic rights as queer-identified folxs are not held to the same standards as a cisgender heterosexual (cishet) person is. As a bisexual non-binary transmasculine person, I am seen as an abomination by the conservative people in power. Because personal bias is always a factor in every aspect of life, people make judgements based on people they do not know, and as a result, us queer-identified people are heavily discriminated against in the social, economic, and political spheres of life.

As a child, what in your view is the basic support and understanding one needs to confidently and healthily form one’s gender identity?
I think that we need to analyze how we raise our kids. We need to deconstruct gendered toys, clothes, and activities and let kids form their own interests independent of societal pressures. It seems ridiculous to me that parents confidently assume their children’s interests, toys, fashion sense, future careers, sexual and romantic orientation, etc. by the shape of the children’s genitals. It is highly unnecessary and restrictive on many levels. Kids form their understandings of gendered activities by advertisements, what they see in TV/movies, the genders of children depicted on the packaging of their toys, etc. It is important for parents to constantly encourage their children to try many activities and come up with their interests themselves. This creates a safe space wherein children are encouraged to grow and develop without feeling unsafe or pressured by parental figures to conform one way or another.

What is the difference between the USA and India in your view when it comes to LGBT and Q issues and concerns?

I mean, I can’t speak for the entirety of both countries, but I can speak of my own experience with the LGBTQIA+ cultures in both countries. I feel very privileged to be in a fairly liberal part of the US, as I can comfortably have discussions on topics (sometimes in my lecture classrooms) that would otherwise be considered taboo. The history surrounding the communities under this acronym is vastly different, and therefore the dynamics between the groups are different. However, I feel as though, in terms of representation in the media and the access to resources, USA is a few steps ahead of India. This doesn’t necessarily make the US better or more progressive as a whole, as the US still has major conservative ideologies in charge of the law.

How has life changed since you returned to USA? Here you can talk about your personal life etc…if you wish to of course!
There have been positives and negatives. I definitely had to- and continue to- work through a lot of trauma, both from my captivity in India and from 18 years of child abuse. That has not been a smooth process in the slightest, and I am definitely privileged enough to be able to access mental health resources and to be around people who support me wholeheartedly. I also am out of contact with my younger siblings, who I love very much. However, it definitely feels as though I have a heavy weight lifted off of my shoulders. I feel free to express myself and to make life decisions on my own. I feel a sense of personal autonomy that I didn’t feel at all before this. I’m just lucky that I have a support system that picks me up when I’m feeling down, and encourages me to do what I want to do in life.

In the context of your personal experiences as a transgender person, do you recall any one particular, specific memory when your gender identity was ‘crystallised’?
I feel as though recognizing and crystallizing my own gender identity was a long process. My sexual orientation was more apparent to me than my gender identity, in part because there is little to no representation of nonbinary people. I didn’t know there was any other option than ‘man’ and ‘woman’, and as a society we are trained to not question and critique norms, so I thought that I would have to conform as much as I could to womanhood. I remember starting puberty around 11 and 12 years old, and being really uncomfortable being seen as a girl. I would look at the other guys my age and confused my desire to look like them with attraction. I remember looking down at my chest and being really dysphoric and uncomfortable with how my chest was growing and the way my clothes outlined my curves. Although trans people do not need to feel physically dysphoric in order for their gender identity to be valid, I was one of the unfortunate ones that did feel dysphoria. I remember in high school (around 11th and 12th grade) I wanted to be a flamboyant queer man when I grew up. Basically, I wanted to aesthetically look like what society deems a cisgender man should look like, but not identify as a man. I didn’t know this was possible, and as I learned more about the gender spectrum, I began relating more and more to being nonbinary. I didn’t know about hormone replacement therapy (hrt) and that testosterone was even an option for me, but once I did more research, I realized that the changes from testosterone were the exact changes I needed in order to be more connected and comfortable with myself.

Was this crystallisation in any way affected/ influenced/ tinged by experiences/ encounters with close friends/ family members?
Without befriending nonbinary and other trans people, I would have come to the realization of mynonbinary identity a bit later in life. However, as I did not feel safe and comfortable discussing this with my parents, and I did not have many friends growing up, my own self discovery regarding my gender identity and sexual orientation was a very silent and internal process.

Why do you think gender continues to be a topic that evokes such strong, public reactions from parents, relatives and society in general, despite its intensely private orientation?
People are afraid of the unknown. People are largely uneducated about gender, whether it be lack of available resources or their own unwillingness to be open to learning. Their own lack of awareness leads them to believe falsehoods and fear tactics of people in positions of power that profit off of the subordination and marginalization of various groups of people.

What went through your mind when you realised that your passport and green card had been confiscated by your family when you were confined to your grandparents’ home in Agra?
I have never had control over my own documents of identification, and when I asked, my mother would sternly refuse, regardless of the legal consequences. Therefore, when she left for America with my younger siblings while I stayed back in Agra, I only had pictures of my green card. She called my grandfather and had him confiscate the only photocopy of my passport I had available to me at the time while I was at the university.

How did you deal with the verbal and physical violence that centred around your non-conformist gender identity? Where did you find the strength to overcome such traumatic experiences, perpetrated by your own family?
If it weren’t for my partner, my friends, and my internet following, I would not be alive today. I think it helped that I was 100% solid in how I identified, and I was comfortable with myself. I knew that I didn’t need to be ‘fixed’ and that I was not doing anything wrong –I was neither hurting others nor myself. Therefore, my mother couldn’t break me completely. However, there was a period of time where I lost hope and was brainwashed by the gas lighting and other emotional abuse from my mother. My friends and my partner gave me the hope to live on and fight for my right to live a better life. I don’t know if that classifies me as being ‘strong’ necessarily, but it was what I had to do in order to survive.

Do you think it would have been easier for your family to accept your transgender identity, had you been born a biological male and wanted to live life as a woman? In other words, is greater discrimination and harassment shown towards women transgenders vis-a-vis men transgenders?
Honestly, I think it would have been even harder. I personally believe that while sex category and gender identity are two separate things, they are both socially constructed. Because we live in heavily patriarchal societies where masculinity is built to oppressively be superior to femininity, and that we associate ‘masculinity’ with ‘man’ and ‘femininity’ with ‘woman’, it sometimes is more acceptable to identify as a man, or as a more masculine person rather than the other way around. While the transgender community is heavily discriminated against as a whole, atleast in the US, trans women usually face more violence. When the intersections of race, class, and sexuality come into play, it is usually trans women of colour that are statistically at higher risk to face violence. My parents would probably not accept me regardless, but if I identified as a trans feminine person, or a trans woman, there is no doubt that I would face more societal, as well as familial discrimination.

What is your message to young persons who are currently facing the same gender dilemma, and the accompanying harassment, intimidation and coercion, as you did?
I would say please be safe. If possible, try to find friends that will love and accept you regardless of your gender identity and sexual orientation. If there is one thing I learned from my experiences, it is that there are always multitudes of people who will love and support you for you. I had many people I didn’t even know coming to me with words of support online and in person. There is a great pressure that cisgender heterosexual people put on us to “come out of the closet” and announce who we truly are, but they do not understand that our safety and security comes at stake when we do come out. Be true to yourself. Be as kind to yourself as possible. I know that there are so many people that tell us to be ashamed of who we are and try to convince us that we are disgusting, but just remember that people who are so filled with hate and prejudice are the real disgusting ones. You are not wrong. You are beautiful just the way you are. Whatever you do, do for yourself. Don’t try to make anyone else proud except yourself. I believe in you. Please be safe.

How could parents be guided /counselled to understand the issue…they need as much support as the child and does Naveen have any thoughts on how parents could be supported especially in a conservative Indian community. They are as much victims of ignorance as of rigid social codes.
I think it should be brought to the attention of many parents that society makes parents love their children for the ideal model of how they are supposed to be, instead of loving children for being themselves. Having parents understand that regardless of gender, their child is still their child and that they haven’t changed in any significant way- it’s just the parents’ understandings of their children have become more true to how the child actually is. I think many Indian parents think that the conservatism comes from Indian values, when in reality, this type of conservatism is a very British/European way of thinking, and that if you look at Indian history, the culture used to be more open and comfortable with self expression. I think there needs to be more information – in the school systems, workplace training, in support groups, online, etc. about topics such as gender identity and sexual orientation, because deconstructing preconceived toxic ideas starts with education. There needs to be more non-judgmental spaces that are run by queer-identified people in which people, especially parents, can ask questions freely. While parents do not suffer as much discrimination as their queer child might, it is their responsibility to create a safe space in which their child can grow in a loving supportive environment, and in order to do this, education is necessary.

The April 2014 Supreme Court landmark judgement for India’s transgender community has made it officially recognised a third gender, giving this community a legal identity. In your opinion does this historic win have any bearing on ground realities?
I have read the judgement, and it is actually really comprehensive and inclusive of binary and nonbinary trans people. However, there is still so much misinformation, even in law enforcement, that injustices are bound to repeatedly happen. When I was under the protection of the police in Delhi, the police claimed they knew what transgender meant, yet still referred to me as a girl. The entire court document uses ‘she/her’ pronouns when referring to me, when I have adamantly stated that my pronouns are ‘he/him/they/them’. The lawyers referred to me as ‘she’ in the documents because they knew that law enforcement did not know the first thing about trans issues, and if they viewed me as a girl, it would help my case because in this patriarchal society, girls are seen as needing protection from a stronger male figure. I find it sad that we even need a law stating that trans people deserve the same rights as any other person. It shows that society values some lives over others, and it is not a nice feeling to know that my life mattered less than a cisgender heterosexual person’s before this judgement. I think this judgement was a step in the right direction, but the struggle is far from over.

Any suggestions on how this legal identity & historic win, could make the passage of integration and acceptance of the transgender community by the family/school/community and society at large a little easier.
I think that the more we talk about issues and deconstruct what we think is ‘normal’ and why we think of things as ‘normal’, it opens up conversation and is a great way to spread education and reduce prejudice and discrimination in our communities. The more attention we bring to the topic, the less ‘taboo’ it becomes, and we are able to have honest discussions with our peers and mentors. Inclusivity starts with communication and education, and I only hope that we are able to break down toxic ideologies that permeate our societies.

Photo Credits : Katie Lin/ Aggie

Words By : Valay Singh

Valay Singh

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