'Being aware is the first step towards gender equality': Excerpts from 'Gender Talk – Big Hero, Size
With gender issues hitting the news hotspots more and more, there are questions and doubts, and the answers are covered by a smog of stereotype and convention. How do teenagers make sense of all this?
As part of our ongoing Pride month series, this week, we’re focusing on sex, gender, attraction and identities. In the first part of this two-part series, we bring to you an extract from our award-winning non-fiction book ‘Gender Talk — Big Hero, Size Zero’ written by Anusha Hariharan and Sowmya Rajendran.
“The everyday examples and references to popular culture and news makes it a book that youngsters ought to be able to relate to easily… ‘Gender Talk: Big Hero, Size Zero’ is a very important book. It should be made compulsory reading for all teenagers...” — Goodbooks.in
Uncovering truths, untruths, semi-truths and myths using everyday examples as well as references to popular media, this book ‘talks’ directly to teenagers on all aspects of gender, lifting confusions and creating awareness with empathy and in a language they would understand. Alongside is Niveditha Subramaniam’s visual commentary that prods and provokes, even as it makes you laugh!
These exclusive extracts can help young people find some answers, and raise more questions with better information.
Not just a boy-girl thing
So, biologically, there are two sexes — male and female, right? Wrong. There are also those who are born with a combination of organs that are associated with both female and male bodies. They are referred to as intersex persons. Doctors often surgically modify their bodies so that they contain only female or only male organs, not both at the same time. While this allows them to fit into a more socially acceptable sex category, it is still a controversial issue as it is not clear whether the outcomes of surgical modifications are positive. Men’s and women’s bodies have characteristics of both sexes to different degrees, depending on the levels of testosterone, progesterone and oestrogen present in them. For intersex people, it isn’t just about having both sets of hormones — they actually have both male and female organs. There is a growing medical and social consensus that intersex bodies are a perfectly normal form of human biology, even if rare. In nature, there are many species of plants and animals which exhibit this pattern and these are referred to as hermaphrodite organisms. As long as this applies only to plants and animals, no one is uncomfortable. However, when it comes to human beings, it is upsetting not to be able to slot someone in the standard roles. What gender characteristics will the intersex person have? Problem!
Why does any kind of difference from the majority quickly become a ‘problem’? Should being different from the mainstream make you unequal? Like disability or race? ‘Unusual’ doesn’t mean ‘abnormal’. Just different. Sometimes, a person’s gender does not match the sex that was assigned at birth. That is, someone who is born biologically male or female feels very strongly that he or she belongs to another gender, not the one assigned by the sexual organs. This is not simply a question of preference but is much more complex. Such people are known as transgender persons or the third gender or as hijra, aravani, thirunangai, kinnar... Once the decision has been taken to make the transition, surgically or emotionally, into another gender, you have to refer to the person by the identity chosen by him/her. This is the story of a transgender person in her own words. She speaks of what it means to be transgendered, with all its battles and victories. I joined IIT Bombay in 2007 as a dual degree student. Although I knew I needed (yes, needed) to be a girl, I had decided that ‘too much’ was at stake. The reputation of my parents, their dream of seeing their son graduate from an IIT and continuing the family legacy (my father had done the same in 1985) seemed so valuable that I had decided that I would never let this secret get out. This was partly why I never touched alcohol throughout my five years on campus. But the inner conflict, the constant war going on inside my head, the pressure of being a girl from the inside but a boy from the outside made my life very difficult. Since I had vowed never to touch alcohol, I resorted to eating — and eating heavily. I would get lost in the parantha and chilly chicken from the hostel canteen because it made me forget my plight for a short while. While I wasn’t a student in the CSE department, I was inherently a talented programmer, making me the ‘go-to’ person for any assignment that involved coding. But apart from that, since I was dealing with a lot from inside, little things upset me greatly. This affected my social interactions and some of my batchmates believed that I was reclusive and that something might be wrong. Years later, when I told them, they were shocked but very supportive. The war inside my head became unbearable during December 2011. I had just cracked a job in an IT firm and I loved coding. I should have been on top of the world. But I wasn’t. I was still a girl inside that no one knew. Five years at IITB had greatly changed my priorities. When I had entered the campus, I was just a girl trapped inside a male body trying hard to live up to expectations. But after years of living and interacting with the people here, I knew that I should rather strive to be happy. I knew that I had to make the transition and let people know.
In this case, the parents were extremely supportive. They convinced friends and neighbours of the need for the sex-reassignment surgery and accepted that their son would become a daughter. In a society like ours it takes a lot of courage to do this. It also goes to show that our own attitudes become a mirror for those around us. Being accepting and understanding is half the battle won. Her own attitude was also positive — she decided to speak openly about her sex change. Clearly, education and family support gave her the strength of mind to deal with the issue and to resolve it. What she says at the end of the blog post is a powerful message: You were born different, but by no means are you inferior. Never, ever even think that you are inferior to any of those who are in the mainstream. After all, being mainstream is too...mainstream. Being different is good. Be proud of it.
If gender biases against males and females run deep in society you can imagine the pressures on intersex or transgender people. In 2008, Tamil Nadu became the first Indian State to allot a box marked ‘T’ for ‘transgender’ in the ration cards distributed by the government. And in 2014, the Supreme Court passed a landmark judgement on transgender rights. Will laws like these instantly remove the prejudice that transgender persons face in society? Probably not. Changing people’s attitudes is not easy. But recognition by the State in itself is progress and it can help create a more equal society in future, if not immediately.
Can you escape your gender?
Since sex is one of the very first identities of a person and gender goes along with it, gender identity becomes very hard to change or escape. It is defined by the people around you, according to the body you have. You may be able to hide other identities by getting rid of markers — changing the way you speak, dress, behave and so on. If you are a Christian but don’t wish to be identified as one, you may remove the crucifix that you wear around your neck, adopt the markers of other religions (like wearing a hijab or a turban), and at a passing glance escape the identity temporarily. However, most people can be identified immediately by their sex and a gender identity is assigned to them at once. Your body has a solid physical presence and is an intrinsic part of your existence. And so your gender identity is almost always constant, influencing the way you experience life and look at things around you even if you are not always conscious of it.
I don’t know whom to talk to about this... I dare not tell my friends. If they find out, they’ll surely stop talking to me. I know what names they call people like me. Even I feel sick about the kind of thoughts I have sometimes. But the other day, on TV, there was this programme in which a doctor said there’s nothing wrong if a boy is... if a boy is attracted to another boy. When I watch movies, I feel like looking at the hero more than the heroine. Am I some kind of freak?
What if you are attracted to a person of the same sex? You may end up feeling like Praveen — troubled, ashamed, wondering if you’re a ‘freak’. This is probably because same-sex relationships are swept under the carpet in our country, as if they don’t, and shouldn’t, exist. You hardly ever see homosexual relationships being celebrated or even represented in the media. Even if they are, it is mostly in a negative or comic light.
The general belief is that such attractions are ‘unnatural’ and should therefore not be ‘allowed’. The fact is that same-sex encounters have been recorded across species, not just in human beings. How can something which occurs in nature be considered ‘unnatural’? Same-sex relationships are also not a result of ‘modernity’. People of different sexualities have always existed, across time and culture. Several ancient texts make references to it. It’s not a disease either. As of 17 May 1990, homosexuality was removed from the WHO’s list of mental illnesses. The American Psychological Association, too, has declared that both gender identity variation as well as same-sex sexual orientation are perfectly normal. Shakespeare was bisexual and he wrote some of his most romantic love sonnets to a young man. Leonardo Da Vinci who painted the ‘Mona Lisa’ was believed to be gay, as was the writer Oscar Wilde. Talk show host, Ellen DeGeneres, is lesbian. In India, too, there are many accomplished people who don’t identify as heterosexual but cannot be open about it because it’s a taboo. Can all these people be considered ‘sick’ or unsuitable for society?! A large part of the resistance to same sex-relationships comes from the fact that most human beings are heterosexual. As in many situations, the views and beliefs of the majority hold true. Had there been as many books and movies celebrating homosexual relationships as heterosexual ones, there would perhaps not have been so much prejudice. Whatever is less visible seems less normal, and because a lot of homosexual people fear the backlash from an intolerant society, they hide their true selves. A vicious circle. June 16, 2021