09 December 2005

Heirs How the Gender Bends

In India Transgender surgeries rise across social strata and in states culturally preferring sons

Once sex change was something you'd heard of in the epics. Or happening to some faceless rich who could afford the expensive surgery.
Not any more. The number of transgendered—across the social spectrum—is growing, with sex change operations prevalent widely in Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and parts of Tamil Nadu. And with government-run hospitals and reputed private ones refusing to entertain such requests, quacks and quickfixers are wielding the scalpel with impunity.
Growing numbers apart, what's sinister about this gender twist is that it is no longer individuals trapped in their bodies making these decisions. Parents in their perennial quest for a male heir are forcing such operations on their daughters. They are making a complete mockery of the Pre-natal Diagnostic Technologies Act which prohibits sex determination to prevent female foeticide. Many families admitted to Outlook that they have rung up doctors to simply transform their daughters into sons.

Confirmation comes from Delhi-based plastic surgeon Sukhdayal Singh Sethi, who stopped performing transsexual surgeries a few years ago.He talks about how he had to turn down pleas for sex change from Haryana and Rajasthan families because he was unable to check the authenticity of their claims. "I've had parents requesting their daughters to be changed into sons. As they were not accompanied by their daughters, I had no way of checking the genuineness of their
claims," says Sethi. However, that wouldn't have prevented them from going to some other doctor. "I have performed seven surgeries so far, all of them from female to male, only after ascertaining that the cases were genuine. The surgeries have been performed after getting all the legal documents attested by a magistrate. And all this was done only after a team of psychiatrists was convinced about the individual's desire to change. I have kept all the affidavits as backup," says Sethi. Mumbai-based Dr Kalpesh Gajiwala too has had to turn down requests from families who wanted to change their daughters' sex. It was Gajiwala who handled the case of Aparna Mafatlal, who became Ajay Mafatlal, ostensibly to stake a claim in the family fortune.

It doesn't help matters that the cultural preference for sons has actually led to a skewed population ratio in favour of boys in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Haryana. It is also not surprising that these states boast of neonatal sex determination clinics in some form or the other.

Sethi once handled a case where a grocer with six daughters requested him to consider his 22-year-old daughter who wanted to be a man. "The girl managed the store and I found her literally wearing the pants in the family and behaving like a boy. So, despite the fact that he had six daughters, I was convinced about the genuineness of the claim as was the team of psychiatrists I consulted before operating upon her," says Sethi.
Taking recourse to loans and borrowing money from relatives, these ordinary folks cannot afford the luxury of the rich to fly abroad for a sex change. It's the other way round, in fact. With such operations being cheaper here than in the West, doctors say the number of foreigners coming to India for correctional surgeries has been on the rise in the last couple of years. "While a surgery in India could cost Rs 2 to 3 lakh (800 to 1200 US$), it could be three times higher in the West," says Calcutta-based plastic surgeon Sheila Rohatgi.

She talks of an unfortunate case she had to handle when a girl brought up as a boy by her parents wanted a sex change. "After putting her through an intense psychological test, I had to make a choice. But it was indeed sad that the child did not know what it meant to be a woman," says the doctor who was not happy with the decision made.

While Sethi argues that in most cases his patients were actually lesbians, where one of the partners wanted to be male, Teesta Mitra, 30, a transsexual from Calcutta, finds the whole argument ridiculous. "I choose not to respond to questions about homosexuality," she says.

"It was toxic poison when I grew a beard at the age of 17 and was determined to change all that," she says. So, Teesta underwent a sex change operation to become a woman and is currently undergoing laser surgery sittings to get rid of unwanted hair. Her father, a worker at a biscuit factory, stood by her while her mother strongly opposed the change. Her father had to take a loan to fund the surgery and today Teesta, who always considered herself a woman trapped in a male body, says her ambition is to become a good actress.It has taken Teesta a long time to become a woman and she's determined to stay that way. "If I had my way, I'd clone somebody like me," she says. She is now reunited with her mother who has become her strongest supporter. They will, in fact, be starting a helpline for the transgendered community. Teesta has already taken a bow in cinema and waits for more offers to come by. She says she does not feel discriminated now. "It was painful earlier when I had to lodge an FIR (First Instance Report at the Police Station) against boys in my colony. Now, I am at peace."

Closely following the Mafatlal case is Richa (name changed) who has just embarked on her personal journey to become a man. "I always thought myself to be a boy and nothing else. I also have a girlfriend who understands me and I have explained my decision to her," says Richa. For the moment, she has convinced her psychiatrists of her need to become a man but not her parents who are still in a shock over her decision. "Though my brother has offered me money, I will be taking a loan as the surgery is expensive," she says. Her doctor has explained the pitfalls in the transition from female to male. Possessing a wisdom beyond her 25 years, Richa says sex is not really on her mind. "There is more to life than sex," she says.

But what if you're denied passports, ration cards, or discriminated against in your professional career if you've had a sex change? Even the law doesn't seem to be on the side of the transgendered. The only rights they enjoy appear in Articles 14 (Equality before law) and 21 (protection of life and personal liberty except according to procedure established by law) applicable to all citizens of India.

Teesta will be applying for a passport and accepts the task is both daunting and a challenge. For Richa, who'll be seeking a change of gender in the passport, there are ways to bend the rules. "I have fought too hard for my identity and cannot let a small matter like a passport affect me," she says. Ankur, who works in a software firm in Delhi, is not sure how his office will react to his decision to change from a man to woman. "I am on hormones right now and I am really unsure about how my employers will react," he says. One metro away, Professor Manabi Bannerjee, earlier Somnath Bannerjee, is battling it out at West Bengal's Department of Education. It is yet to recognise her change to a womanthough she intimated her changed status to the authorities than a year ago. Clearly, the courts will have to step in to help out the transgendered till society accepts their choices for what they are.

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