I’m listening to a seventh semester medical student who is on stage. “I was thrown out of Anatomy dissection hall because I attended class with a nose-piercing.”
‘Well, I would have thrown out any guy if they came so unprofessionally dressed to class too!’ — I’m thinking.
“But hello!” the speaker shoots back, “The incongruous thing is that the professor who threw me out had had her nose pierced as well!”
My face breaks into a wide grin and I cannot stop laughing. Stereotypes. How they invade our lives and minds! And before we know it, these notions have set into concrete mindsets.
The person who completely shook up my notions of normal and abnormal that day was Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju. Trinetra was born and raised as a boy — then named Angad Gummaraju. Half Bengali. Half Telugu. Until she realized that she was a woman trapped in a man’s body. “I suffered from gender dysphoria,” she says. I had never heard this term before, and I am a doctor. It goes to show how little medical textbooks and our curricula teach us about transgenders. “Gender dysphoria is the discomfort one experiences if one has a psychological gender that differs from one’s biological/physical sex,” Trinetra explains, “I was born male, but I realized eventually that I was always a woman, and that’s what the discomfort was pointing towards.”
So twenty years later, she gave herself a new identity and named herself Trinetra- after Goddess Durga. “I named myself Trinetra because it represented the awakening of a fierce, fiery, invincible, feminine force of nature that was the only answer to overwhelming injustice and evil. Durga to me, represents a warrior goddess capable of transcending all social rules, norms and barriers, capable of breaking unbreakable shackles,” she says.
Illustration by Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju
She goes on to narrate how rough times were— making family realize that their eldest son was no longer a son. I hear stories of bullying in medical school and in the boys hostel, where her effeminate nature made her the butt of jokes. As she speaks, I find her assertive at times, aggressive at others- but always articulate. I wonder if this outspokenness might have come in recently. In her own words, “Understand first, that your sexual orientation is something you can choose not to make public. Your gender identity however, isn’t something you can hide. It is perhaps easier if you’re a more “convincingly female” transwoman, or “convincingly male” transman, but visibility is still a lot more than a non-heterosexual sexual orientation. You express your gender in a thousand ways: your name, your choice of clothing and expression, your mannerisms: a large number of external manifestations of gender exist, unlike sexual orientation. This automatically means, you’re more visible if you have a non-normative gender identity, as opposed to a non-normative sexual orientation. In other words, if you’re not “convincing”, you’re obviously transgender.”
Illustrations by Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju
Trinetra aspires to be a surgeon. Behind the surgical mask, when you are saving lives, your gender does not matter. She is an artist and as I see her illustrations, it occurs to me how talented she is. Her work is stunning and draws your attention to the things you choose to brush under the carpet. She gave a TEDx talk last month. I spend some time talking to her during the break. About life in the hostels. About how medical teachers treat her. And how patients react to her. “I’m easily able to build a bond with patients. I communicate easily in the local language,” she assures me. As we talk, we discuss how despite Trinetra’s “privileges”— of having an education, of having parents who eventually understood and accepted her for what she was, of being in a respectable profession, of being articulate and outspoken— she has had a rough journey, and only now a happy ending. What about others like her who are stuck with different bodies, but no voice?
That evening as I take the metro, I realize that in all the time that I spoke to Trinetra it never occurred to me that she was different from any other person I knew. And yet this was my first communication with a transgender person. Never for a moment did I feel awkward or squeamish. Then as a child, why was I taught to be scared of the transgender community, or to look away if they appeared before you? I didn’t even know the difference between intersex and transgender before I met Trinetra. Knowing about your ignorance can be humbling. There is no shortcut to learning. The more we interact with different people of all kinds, the more the darkness in the mind is dispelled. It is time to transition from ignorance to knowledge.
Today is the first day of Navratri, and I feel it is the apt day to celebrate Trinetra. Wishing her strength in her journey of educating us. Of teaching us to accept each other for what we are.