The COVID -19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on medical and economic systems worldwide. The regimen that one needs to follow to keep the virus at bay further enforces certain regressive social practices and makes dependencies even more pronounced. Recommending frequent handwashing pre-supposes access to uninterrupted supply of running water or water. Our advertisements show a tantalizing flow of water from taps as hands are leisurely soaped for twenty seconds. The politics of water and the stratified power structures that govern it is well known to us. I am not even going to venture into the subject of soap.
These social vulnerabilities are compounded by deep seated prejudices that seem to show no signs of abating. Divisive politics still continues with an aura of conviction that is both fascinating and nauseating. The murder of George Floyd saw thousands gathering despite the health risks of congregating. At some point, I suppose, one considers some viruses more dangerous than others. The process of undermining the #BlackLivesMatter movement has been going on and as history has shown us, the best way to demolish a thought is to rob it of its focal agency. To make it universal. To dilute it. Ergo, #AllLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter. Looks like everything matters.
It is into this swirl that J. K Rowling hurled her Molotov cocktail when she engaged the world in what soon spun into a TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist) war. Rowling, in a tweet referred to an article that discussed the effect of the pandemic on “people who menstruate”. She called for the article to put a name to these “people”.
“ ‘People who menstruate,’ I’m sure there used to be a name for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”
Earlier, she had come out in support of a woman fired for her Transphobic tweet. TERF propagates the idea that Trans Women are not really women. That they ought not to claim the rights, spaces, political dialogue (whatever there is of that) that belong to women. To interpret Rowling, who claims to be a victim of domestic and sexual abuse, the act of claiming (using) single sex spaces such as restrooms, changing rooms, train compartments, in the case of Kerala- seats on buses, by trans women can unsettle women who are fragile and vulnerable or just women in general. This could lead to the whole purpose of such spaces being defeated. That it comes from a person who created a world that could be a transperson’s dream is just sad. (Just reimagine Harry Potter and you will see.)
As a cis-gendered woman, I have not had a second thought about using public facilities. It is a sort of a version of white privilege. Thanks to Rowling and the TERFs, I recall a very disruptive scene from the web series, Pataal Lok, where a woman prisoner discovers that her cellmate is a transwoman who has not undergone SRS. There is a huge row and the transwoman is assaulted by the police. And then is put in another cell with her male partners in crime. Now the self-identified woman becomes a long-haired man. All by exiting through one door and entering through another. The female prisoner can be heard threatening to sue the Police Department citing the horrible things that could have happened to her. In my conversations with transpeople from Kerala, they tell me about the struggle to get a separate cell for transpeople in police stations and jails. They succeeded. But in the wake of everything, the success seems problematic.
Transkids are often harassed when they try to use the school restrooms of the gender that they identify with. To set a separate restroom for transkids would be the kind of social distancing that qualifies as social segregation. Using single sex spaces is again not an easy choice for transpeople as they have to be mentally prepared to be asked to leave or be given a wide berth or be abused. They end up looking in the mirror less and looking out of the corner of their eyes more.
I have asked a few of my trans friends about which restrooms they use. They answered. At one point, I realised it was not polite. It was not the done thing. Just because they have come out and identified themselves doesn’t mean that their lives have to be roadside hoardings. Their activism is their choice and doesn’t necessarily have to translate to revealing details of their personal lives.
At the most organic level, the Rowling controversy reopens debates around who is a man or a woman and the ideas of self-identification. One can’t expect a transperson to pull down their pants at every given turn to show they have undergone SRS. And to expect SRS of every transperson is to subject them to compulsory medical and mental interventions which is an imposition on their person. It imagines a uniform code for bodies and that all transpeople have the means for SRS- like the aforementioned water and soap.
I am told by a member of the Transgender Justice board that in India at least, the F to M transition is a daunting task with two main surgeries that are carried out in two stages. The first one takes about six hours if not more and the person is placed on ventilator support till the next leg of the surgery. The procedure is risky and painful. Not to mention expensive. Then they have to appear before a board comprising a medical doctor, a psychologist and a member of the community to get an identity card that says Male. The same is the case with M to F transitions. This is what a person will have to go through in order to use a restroom meant for men or women. That’s why passing judgement on what people should and should not do with their bodies is a version of white privilege.
Interestingly, Rowling says that had she been born thirty years later, she too would have transitioned to “escape womanhood.” This again positions the trans identity as an escape route meant for those who feel powerless (Transmen) or don’t know how to handle the power they have been given (Transwomen). Not only does this train of thought push for gender binaries, it also forces one to unconsciously validate certain power relations. It also enforces spaces of solidarity between restroom using men or women by ‘protecting’ them from assault by trans people. I would imagine this is all happening in Hogwarts where there are no Lesbian or Gay people using bathrooms. Or where cis-gendered people won’t rob men or women in a place where they are at their most vulnerable. Of course, we need to understand that these views are shared by Rowling and a lot of people the world over which has necessitated the observance of IDAHOT (International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia).
Our poet for this post couldn’t be featured at a better time. Daya Gayatri is a transwoman who made history by being one of the first transpeople who joined college in Kerala. Daya is pursuing a Bachelors Degree in Malayalam at Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam and is a very vocal part of the student governing body. Assigned male at birth, she experienced gender dysphoria from childhood. This coupled with harassment and abuse caused her to leave one college and join Maharaja’s, where the situation was not very different. Finding no way out, she decided to kill herself, an attempt that was thankfully, unsuccessful. Later, she eked out a living doing odd jobs and at times even drinking water out of restrooms to fill her stomach. Increased interactions with other transpeople helped her understand herself and this gave her life goals. She had her first surgery done and was setting money aside for the second one.
That was when disaster struck in the form of a police raid on the lodge where she was staying. Though she was not present at the lodge during the raid, she was summoned and framed for alleged unlawful activities. The police allegedly took away the money she had saved. The case came to the notice of transgender activist and celebrity makeup artist Renju Renjimar who posted her bail. She took the young Daya straight from the police station to the theatre workshop being conducted by the National School of Drama, where the play Parayaan Maranna Kathakal (Never Told Tales) was taking form. She was given a part and also composed a song. We have featured it here. She has performed the play at several national and international festivals. She reveals that one of the turning points in her life was when she was reunited with her parents after they watched one of her shows. It speaks volumes about the transformative power of art.
Renju Renjimar, has taken Daya under her wing and has sponsored her surgeries- something that Daya insists people should know about. Daya rejoined Maharaja’s College after actively petitioning the Government to introduce provisions for transpeople in courses in colleges. She built a platform in spaces she was laughed out of. This is the resilience that a part of society is attempting to flush away. Literally.
Daya writes under the pen name, Mazhapennu on account of her ardent love for rain. She writes in Malayalam. I have translated the same. Her works bring to the fore, an ardent romantic. She has a Vlog and her YouTube channel is quite popular. Her poems belong to a soul on a quest to find its mate. The tone is mellow and patient. Her lament for her people touches the heart as she very gently addresses the plight of a people who have no place to call home. Her dreams and the hopes she has for her future are a far cry from the militant call for textbook definitions of male and female. She is a woman and she revels in the power this knowledge provides. Her Woman represents her struggle for life and acceptance.
The art accompanying this post is a photograph taken by ace photographer Mr. Harikrishnan G. who is currently with Manorama Publications, Kottayam. His photo exhibits- EMO, Alien and Secret Garden opened to favourable reviews. Most of his works present human and nature-oriented subjects in their vulnerable and fragile state. The photo is part of his series titled Trans which featured Sheethal Shyam, Deepti Kalyani and Sonu from the transgender community. This photo is of Sheethal, one of the spokespersons of the community. SamyuktaPoetry thanks the photographer and the model for granting us the permission to use the photo. We think these poems and this photo bring about catharsis. As for men, women and fantastic beasts and where to find them? RIDDIKULUS !!
Sonya J. Nair