When thinking about transgendered people, the image which comes to most Pakistanis’ minds is of transwomen: the country’s ubiquitous yet beleaguered khwaja sara community which has been at the forefront of seeking basic human rights for themselves while facing horrific instances of violence and discrimination. Indeed, even outside of Pakistan, transwomen tend to dominate the discourse when the subject of discussion is South Asia’s transgender community.

However, this conception of transpeople is flawed, because it overlooks individuals who were assigned the female gender at birth, but identify as male in their minds. These are ‘transmen’, the largely invisible counterparts of transwomen. Nandini Krishnan’s book Invisible Men: Inside India’s Transmasculine Network attempts to document the journey of India’s transmen while they seek alignment of their bodies with their inner perception of themselves. The author traverses the country’s communal, caste and state borders to shed light on a community which is almost hidden from our eyes. In doing so, she narrates heartbreaking accounts of the problems they face from childhood to adulthood.

While there has been some progressive legislation for transpeople in India — the Supreme Court’s ruling on Section 377 of the Indian penal code in 2018 and its decision to allow individuals the right to self-identify as male, female or transgender in 2014 come to mind — the author finds that the community, by and large, still faces discrimination because implementation of laws has been inadequate.

A book delves into the largely invisible phenomenon of transmen in India and attempts to highlight the discriminations faced by the community, but is itself accused by its subjects of insensitivity

For instance, transmen complain that medical practitioners’ attitudes are extremely unhelpful and patriarchal. Under Indian law, approval is needed from a psychiatrist to officially change one’s gender in identity documents. But most psychiatrists ask transmen why they want to transition from “healthy” female bodies to a male body, making the process of approval doubly traumatic. Doctors are largely unapproachable and, when they do agree to meet a transman, they act as if they are doing a favour by providing a consultation. Krishnan finds that mental health is a real issue for the community, as are frequently botched surgeries and the painful and costly hormonal therapy. She laments that transactivism is so concerned with trans rights that, often, the community’s health issues get pushed to the backburner.

Some problems are specific to those around transmen — their wives and extended family. In particular, Krishnan contends that female partners of transmen suffer silently on various levels: in marrying a transman, they forgo the choice to have children, even as society judges them for not choosing a cis-man as a husband. As the transman goes through painful surgery and hormonal treatment, he is susceptible to mood swings. Furthermore, having experienced misogyny as children, some transmen display toxic masculinity, buying into stereotypical gendered notions of gendered division of labour and household responsibilities. But the wives find there is little sympathy for their plight, with some people saying, “You chose to be with him” or, “He is violent because he has had a difficult life.”

Krishnan notes that, contrary to common belief, the majority of transgendered people are not congenitally intersex (ie born with some sexual ambiguity). Rather, most transgender men and women are born with perfectly “normal” female or male bodies, but feel trapped inside a body which is not theirs to begin with. This is truly a horrifying notion, and impossible to relate to for someone whose anatomy is not at odds with their idea of themselves. Indeed, the book calls out the reader for their “cis-privilege”: how people who are not trans cannot understand the problems that members of the community face in going about their day-to-day lives. In parallel is the concept of “cis-curiosity”: how well-intended people from outside the community indulge in a kind of voyeurism, by trying to piece together transpeople’s lives through hurtful probing about their earlier lives.

It is ironic, then, that the author arguably appears to indulge in the same sin, even as she says her book is about her own journey of learning about transmen and overcoming her initial prejudices and misconceptions. In talking about transmen, she does, sadly, end up otherising them even more. There is a discernible couched exoticisation of transpeople in the book, which reveals the author’s own “cis-privilege.” When she accosts an interlocutor, she remarks she mistook him for a “guy.” She describes another as having nothing feminine about him. Coming from her mouth, it sounds patronising for her to validate someone’s gender when their whole life has been a struggle to be accepted as a man.

Which is why the feedback from some of her interlocutors — the transmen she interviewed for her book — has been scathing. It is never a good sign if the people you interview start railing against your write-up and accuse you of misrepresenting them and being guilty of the very ills you are trying to raise awareness against.

Her interviewees also do not like the book’s evocative use of Hindu mythology, which allegedly marginalises other communities. In one place, for example, Krishnan says she is vegetarian and thus she supports the beef ban, because “(at least) one species of animal received some kind of protection (from being killed).” In an increasingly polarised Indian society, they find her views problematic.

That knowledge production is inherently a source of power is a known fact. Indeed, prominent feminist Gayatri Spivak — who visited Karachi in 2014 — questions the ability to give an authentic voice to marginalised communities in her essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’. Krishnan’s book once again brings to the fore the delicateness with which one should address ethnographic writing. The trans community’s gripe with the book is that it could have been more sensitively written. They object when the book introduces individuals saying “[X] was born a woman.” Rather, they find it insulting for anyone to talk about their pre-transition identity; they feel negated and erased. Perhaps Krishnan could have shared her final manuscript with her interviewees before it went into print? Her defence is that she couldn’t have shared the write-up with each individual and only the publisher sees the final manuscript before it gets published. But there has to be a solution, especially when writing about so sensitive a subject.

The reviewer is a political economist and has taught social sciences at various academic institutions in Karachi

Invisible Men: Inside India’s
Transmasculine Networks
By Nandini Krishnan
Penguin Random House,
ISBN: 978-0670090143

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 14th, 2019