Her bangles clink when she bends her hands to search for her phone inside her bag. A sense of unusualness fills my mind when her muscles plump up as she stretches her arms, caked with foundation and decorated with pink nail polish. Usually, a combination of what is considered to be a “masculine arm” and “feminine hand accessories” is a rare thing to encounter for a person like me who belongs to a community which strictly abides by gender roles. My baffled feeling brings to me a thought about whether this sensation has to do anything with dismissing trans-individuals like her from contemporary Bangladeshi society. My thinking gets interrupted when she hands over her phone to show me her dance performance. While she unlocks her phone, I catch a glance of the home screen. A picture of a young man riding at the front seat of a rickshaw beams at me. When I ask about his identity, Shathi (false name) gives a shy smile and says, he is the love of her life. She informs me that he lives with his wife and children but often visits her. He brings her “tiper pata” (packet of bindi) and tells her that he loves her. She further adds, she feels lucky that he loves her in spite the fact that she is a hijra (a transgender individual).
I met Shathi when I was conducting interviews in the hijra community of Rajshahi for an organization I cofounded; 12 Vaja. The organization aims to create a social platform for people who do not fit into the gender binary roles of the society.We started our journey through interviewing the trans-individuals of Rajshahi and transcribing their stories for publishing in social media to spread the hardships faced by them. As Shathi was one of my very first interviewees, I thought her story was an anomaly. But eventually, as my number of interviews increased, I found out that this is a common phenomenon in the hijra community. Almost all the members of the trans-community have lovers who love them unconditionally. Only sometimes (usually twice or thrice a week) these lovers need financial support from their hijra partners and very frequently, they stop contacting them (usually when they get a new job or some old friend pays back their due debts). But that is all fair because otherwise where will they go for help if not to their loved ones? After noting a very common pattern in the love stories I encountered in the hijra community – trans-lovers getting financial support from their transgender partners and abandoning them when they seem to do well financially – I could not stop myself from making a swiping generalization that every man involved with a trans-person is a fraud or a “tranny chaser.” I dismissed any possible chance that some of the trans-persons might actually be in romantic relationships until I read the book Trans*Am: Cis men and Trans Women in Love by Joseph McClellan.This book has largely affected my very own view of gender thus I will be presenting a very personal account about it.
The book opens up with a confession of the author about being attracted to transwomen. He gives a convincing and detailed account of the difference between a tranny chaser and a person who does not fetishize a trans-person but is genuinely attracted to them. Later on, he uses Buddhist theories to shed light on how he perceives the idea of gender and sex and how the existing ideas regarding these issues have evolved.
While explaining the distinction between tranny chasers and non-fetishizers, the author identifies the need for appropriate words to describe the latter individuals. Further, he suggests the term “transam” in this regard. He explains that “the noun transam combines two words. Trans is a truncation of trans-person. Grammatically, the accusative case denotes the object of the Latin verb amare, to love.” He further argues that sometimes it becomes very important to make such a distinction in certain circumstances as it is wrong to use derogatory remarks to address a person who does not deserve the disparagement, for example, calling a non-fetishizer a tranny chaser.
At this point, I feel the necessity to mention that, as an individual working with the trans- community in Bangladesh, the lack of words to determine situations or individuals in this rapidly changing idea of gender spectrum is a very relatable crisis to me. I have faced similar situations while working with the transgender community. Due to lack of existing vocabulary, I had to use the same word to identify two very different individuals in multiple cases. Thus, this section of McClellan’s book does not only present new vocabularies but also makes readers aware of the need for new words in the existing literature of various languages.
The author further surprises the readers when he challenges the idea that religion and trans-rights cannot be discussed on the same table by using theories from Buddhism to justify his flexible perception of gender. He dwells on five concepts of Buddhism; form, feeling, perception, volition and consciousness to elaborate that gender is not an “essential metaphysical category.” Although I was aware of the openness of interpretations which can be done for different religious texts, it took quite a while to absorb the author’s unique readings of Buddhism. To be honest, just like other religions my interpretations of Buddhism was largely shaped by how the religion is practiced in different regions (such as discriminating against menstruating women). Also, I never questioned my own perceptions about any religion because they more or less matched with the majority of the people around me as their understandings were the result of the same context as mine – Bangladesh. This became a hindrance in my ability to comprehend the author’s analysis. But when I grasped it, I finally understood how popular religious beliefs are shaped in our society and therefore, as an aspiring gender activist in a Muslim majority country who encounters this statement very often, how to address the erroneous claim that “our religion does not support trans rights.”
Apart from the abovementioned arguments, the author also offers the explanation of how sexed bodies have evolved. He starts with how the female sexual organs were perceived as an inverted version of male sexual organs and women were simply viewed as imperfect men in ancient science. In addition, he informs readers that famous philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato, and Paul Augustine justified women’s subordinate position and symbolized their “inverted” sexual organsas the punishment for “original sin,” creating a hierarchy between men and women. The author asserts that these early understandings discerned sex as a metaphysical essence which later affected the comprehension of modern findings of science. This gradually developed sex as an intrinsic identity of an individual. Through this argument, he provides the rationale of policing trans-individuals as they are thought to violate the essence of a “true man/woman”. That is, one has to own a vagina to be a woman and contrarily, a penis to be a man. Otherwise, as popular perceptions go, they are pretending to be what they are not. Finally, after recognizing the problem in the existing interpretations of sex and gender, the author provides a solution based on their interpretation of the sexed terms and body features which will lead us to a less discriminatory world.
Now, as a reader who grew up in a post-colonial era when postmodernism is flourishing, I knew about how transgender persons were treated in pre-colonial eras and how colonialism has shaped ideas of gender across borders. But little did I bother about the formation of the concepts of sex and gender among the colonizers themselves until I finished reading this book. In the section of “Worlds of Interpretation,” when the author gives ample examples of sexed terminologies (for example: sex hormones), I identified that although the ideology of sex being a fixed essence originated from “the west,” the dogmatic ideas are very frequently used and implied in “non-western” contexts with similar sexed connotations. Here, I would like to reflect back to my bewilderment of seeing bangles on muscular arms. I, being a person who is born and brought up in South Asia, carry very similar perception about bodies and sexes. This is because I am not only taught about two sexes but I have also been taught to discriminate between them since the day I was born. Thus it can be concluded that the problem of thinking sex as an intrinsic character of human nature is no longer divided between the “west vs rest” dichotomy. In fact, it can be termed as a global problem because almost all sources of knowledge are dominated by “the west” these days, which injects these sexed terms in lives of individuals living in the rest of the world. Therefore, the idea that sex is a metaphysical element of human beings is spread all over the globe and is affecting almost everyone’s lives. Hence, it is necessary to know the aforementioned information in this era, when feminism and gender equality has become a popular goal, and it is essential to know the root of this discrimination and start addressing it.
When I first picked up the book; Trans*Am: Cis men and Trans Women in Love by Joseph McClellan, I expected to read just another “western” theory of gender which will have little or no implication in South Asian contexts. But, if it is read with an open mind, this book has the capacity to change one’s idea of gender drastically, no matter where in the world one may reside.
About the Writer
Mashiat Mowshin Hossain is a final year student of Economics at the Asian University for Women. She will be graduating on 17th May 2018. She is passionate about Gender and Development related issues. She has co-founded an organization named 12 Vaja which aims to create a bridge between gender conforming and non conforming individuals.