(Photo courtesy of Tista Das)
An important step in the process of self-affirmation for many transgender people is to adapt their physical appearance to align with their gender identity. Many transgenders face significant challenges in accessing transition-related services in India. Government hospitals seldom offer services like Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS) and the private ones are too costly for many community members to afford. Without other options, many turn to quacks and other unlicensed practitioners for help.
SRS Solutions is a community-led and self-funded initiative that provides SRS-related information, counselling, and referral services to trans people in Kolkata. It was founded by Tista Das, a self-identified trans woman. In an interview with Alliance India’s Ankita Bhalla, Tista opened up on the tough times she has faced as a trans woman and what motivated her to found SRS Solutions.
Q: When did you acknowledge your gender identity? What was the response from friends and family?
Tista Das (TD): My parents always insisted that I was a boy, but I always felt like a girl. All my childhood playmates were girls. I used to behave and dress like them. I felt discomfort among the boys, and I was always forced to use the boy’s toilet. When one of my closest schoolmates was undergoing menstrual changes, I had an inner desire to be able to do so too. I missed the same changes in my body.
I came face to face with my trans reality when I saw a photo of female genitals when I was in Class 8th. I was perplexed. The question ‘why was I different from girls?’ kept playing in my mind. I was desperately searching for a way out of this anatomical cage. I wanted to align my body with my psyche. Then I came upon an article of postoperative trans women in a leading Bengali fashion magazine. I jumped in joy, but my entire family and most of my friends were strongly against my desire. In my first medical intervention, I was taken to a psycho-therapy clinic. The clinician there was understanding, and she requested my parents to let me live my way. My parents were against this and searched for a new psychiatrist, who gave me six electric shocks to cure my ‘disorder.’
I was lucky to have some supportive friends. Every day I changed from male to female at my friend Nupur’s house. My friends never refused me, even after they became subject to ridicule by neighbors because of me. Most people only consider two genders in life: male and female. They are seldom think beyond this conventional gender frame.
Q: What prompted you to start SRS Solutions?
TD: While my peers were going to college and checking out career options, I was denied admission to university because of my gender identity. While my friends where enjoying gully cricket, I dealt with insults from neighbors who took it upon themselves to make my family’s life and mine miserable. I was scared, upset and totally at a loss.
There was a strong urge in me for surgical intervention, but I had no money. I was introduced to the eminent author and professor Nabanita Debsen who told me about an executive opening at a sister concern of Indian Oil Corporation for a trans woman. I successfully made it through. Now I had a job and an income, but no place to undergo my physical transformation. Government hospitals were just playing with my emotions and wasting my time. Private care was not what I could afford. I underwent the same agony each day.
I underwent psychometric testing—a primary diagnostic procedure to conform whether a person is really suffering from gender dysphoria and is eligible for SRS—and was recommended for hormone replacement therapy. But again my resources were limited. I approached government hospitals in vain for genital reconstruction. I lost all hope. Then my parents came to my support. My mom sold her jewelry and my father took some loans. I got donations from school teachers. Still it was not enough. Finally, a miracle happened. I got an opportunity to act in an English short film as a protagonist girl. This income helped my desire come true.
The hardships I had faced seeded within me the idea of an organization where people in gender distress can get proper solutions. My desire was made stronger by the suicide of one of my transgender classmates. I finally established the SRS Solutions in Kolkata in 2012.
Q: How do you feel post transformation?
TD: I have chosen to be a woman neither to get any socio-legal and political advantages nor to get a sex partner. It was unbearable for me to live in an unwanted body, and every day I desperately hunted for a way out. I always loved to see myself as a girl physically in front of the mirror. I always felt trapped in a male body. I felt incomplete and wanted to align my body with my psyche. I only wanted to be a beautiful, decent girl, nothing else.
Q: What are the common problems faced by trans people in India related to SRS?
TD: Trans people in India who want SRS face problems in arranging the finances needed, identifying qualified facilities for surgeries, and gaining social acceptance for their transformation. A large number of us are oppressed because of the alarmingly low level of awareness at all levels of society. Few doctors are skilled in SRS, and most don’t understand gender identity issues. The pressure of having to fight society at every step, along with our own discomfort of being stuck in bodies we wish to change, is highly traumatic.
Readers can learn more about the challenges faced by transgenders and hijras in accessing gender transition services in India in our recent publication,Transforming Identity, which presents findings of our recent research on this topic.
The author of this post, Ankita Bhalla, is Communications Associate at India HIV/AIDS Alliance.
With support from the Global Fund, Pehchan builds the capacity of 200 community-based organisations (CBOs) for men who have sex with men (MSM), transgenders and hijras in 17 states in India to be more effective partners in the government’s HIV prevention programme. By supporting the development of strong CBOs, Pehchan will address some of the capacity gaps that have often prevented CBOs from receiving government funding for much-needed HIV programming. Named Pehchan which in Hindi means ‘identity’, ‘recognition’ or ‘acknowledgement,’ this programme is implemented by India HIV/AIDS Alliance in consortium with Humsafar Trust, PNRO, SAATHII, Sangama, and SIAAP and will reach 453,750 MSM, transgenders and hijras by 2015. It is the Global Fund’s largest single-country grant to date focused on the HIV response for vulnerable sexual minorities.