08 July 2008

I was imprisoned in a male body, until a surgeon's knife cut me free

By Gazal Dhaliwal
Photo: Sanjay Ahlawat

Soon after I turned 13, my mirror stopped being my friend. The school uniform added a compulsory turban to my head, and nature added hair to my face. Clothes were nice if they were my mother's and long hair was fine when it was in plaits, instead of being wound inside a turban. Games were fun as long as they were 'Teacher' and 'Housekeeping' and not cricket; preferred companions were girls and not boys. But then I was Gunraj from Chandigarh, today I am Gazal, 25.

And if you just looked at my picture again to check how masculine (or feminine) I look now, I will not blame you. It is the most natural reaction from a society, which unconsciously enforces a rigid distinction between genders. Any blur on this line is generally laughed at. Yet, I must tell you the story of my gender change, my liberation. Because there are thousands of people who feel trapped in their bodies. They hide instincts for fear of rejection, uncertain whether it is right to feel and want what everyone around them finds wrong. I want people to know how I survived 25 years in a role I did not choose for myself. A role which I played day after day without any hope of the curtain falling.

When I was often told that I was girlish, I was totally confused. The condescending voices opened taps of guilt deep inside, but somewhere even deeper, rivers of happiness sprang from that acknowledgment of my true self. But the happiness made me feel guiltier because no one told me that it was all right to be happy.

One of my happier childhood memories is of a school drama, in which I played a female character. During rehearsals, I was the most excited actor. Dressed in a pretty skirt for the performance, I told my father that I would be adjudged the Best Supporting Actress, if my performance was good. Best Supporting Actor, he corrected. I argued and tried to pick holes in his argument. But reason and logic were on his side; I only had a mess in my head. A transsexual child is forever trapped in this quest for identity, and in finding ways to evade the mocking laughter and derogatory names hurled by taunting peers. There is a sinking feeling all along that I do not fit in, that I never will fit in.

Puberty is a tough time for everybody, a time when one tries to understand one's sexuality. In that age of unanswered questions, I distinctly remember getting goosebumps watching a provocative music video by a male pop singer. And in the numerous sleepless nights that followed, it dawned on me, for the first time with a sense of absoluteness, that I was different, and would always be. For years to come, I was to think how unfair it was of God to make me gay.

But thankfully God did not leave me without anything. Today, I do not value academics much, but through my growing up years, I was considered a "bright child", "good orator" and a "very disciplined student". But for me my worth was in my singing, writing and histrionics. Recently, when I met my ex-schoolmates and teachers, they had high opinions about my student days. Said one, "Gunraj, I used to think it so unfair that you had every enviable quality in you." While another said, "I wouldn't have imagined you as anything, but a truly happy child."

I give my family the entire credit for still having been able to retain a sane mind. My stress found an equal opposition in the love I constantly got from my parents, my extended family and later, my friends. Initially, my parents could not comprehend how a boy could feel like a girl, yet they never gave up trying to understand, and never gave up on me. They would ask me to try and change the way I thought. I would wail: "It is not about the way I think, it is about the way I am. I do not choose to be like this, Papa. I was born this way. Why don't you go and try living as a member of the opposite gender?"

They did not punish me even when they found out that I would impersonate a girl and chat to strangers over the phone. When I ran away from home before my board exams, they brought me back and loved me even more. My brother, sister and relatives stood by me and held me tight when I teetered at the edge of a precipice.

The board exams went well, so did the entrance exams and I was admitted to a well-known engineering college. Thus I went to spend four years of my life in a boys' hostel. I was prepared to be an oddity there, ready for the remarks-"Always goes to the bathroom to change!" "Speaks so effeminately!" "Walk is so girly!" What I was not prepared, however, was for the severe ragging. Despite those unmentionable horrors of the first year, those four years are the most beautiful time of my life. In the cacophony of mocking voices and laughter, there were a few precious faces, which became my dear friends. I think it was in those years that I started realising that it was all right to be happy with myself. College life gave me freedom and the chance to explore my extra-curricular interests. Besides singing, debating and directing college plays, I would sneak out and watch late-night movies and go on trips with friends.

After completing college, I found myself sitting in the massive office of a software giant, gazing at the computer screen. A studio apartment, the company bus, my desk and the office dormitory summed up my entire world. I was rated among the top 10 per cent of the company's 20,000-strong work force. I never objected to an 18-hour workday because it kept me from the jeering whispers in the corporate hallways.

It was hard to trust anyone now. The fear of rejection kept me from accepting anybody new in my life. I desperately wanted to run away again, but I realised that the only thing to run away from was my own self. There were times, however, when the pangs of loneliness were so acute that I would look for a companion in gay websites. I would also meet men occasionally, but they were looking for a 'man' in me-my whole life had been about not being one. Gradually, I understood that gender dysphoria is not the same as being gay. While the causes of stress in both conditions might be similar to an extent, the conditions themselves are quite different.

A homosexual man, for instance, might have no problem in wearing a formal shirt and tie to office every day, while that particular dress code of my company was one of the three main reasons I decided to quit! My extremely peaceful and dull place of posting was the second. The third reason was an attempt to 'fit in' somewhere.

So I moved to Mumbai-my city of dreams. I was doing a one-year diploma in filmmaking. I was I happy that I had made the right career choice, and filmmaking was a sedative to the pain I could never completely learn to live with.

A year passed in a flash, and it was time to choose subjects for our final documentary films, which had to be made in groups of six. When I proposed 'Transsexuality' as a theme, only two friends who knew my condition raised their hands in support. That was perhaps the most important moment of my life. Soon enough, three more friends joined in, and the group was complete. The title suggested was 'To Be or Not To Be'. It sounded perfect, but something inside me said that it would change. The new name occurred to me the next morning-To be… ME.

I had never had any plans of coming out of the closet for the film; but that was the case with all the transgenders we met. Soon I realised that I was expecting others to face the demons, which I could not face. Now it was time to accept, love and celebrate being myself. Almost magically, the day I decided to face the camera, we started discovering others who were willing, and even excited, to share their stories! In my heart, I knew it was God's way to tell me that He supported my decision. To Be… ME turned out to be the best film of the year.

I had been reading about Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS) for many years, but my research for making the film had reassured me that it was not only all right to be happy, but it was my right to be happy. "So, when are you going for it?" was the first question my father asked after seeing the film. And ever since that question, there has been no looking back.

A year-and-a-half ago, I started my gender reassignment procedure, which will probably go on for another year. Frankly, this period of transformation is not one of the most convenient-socially, physically or emotionally. I was fortunate to be hired as an assistant by a veteran filmmaker and the staff at my office is truly godsend. They do their best to understand the issue and go out of their way to ensure my comfort in this period of transition. In the last 20 months my inner-self is slowly, but surely, taking its form in the mirror. I am thrilled to get compliments that I have always pined for, and it is musical to hear the taxi driver ask, "Madam, kahaan jaana hai?"

On October 19, 2007, my male genitals were replaced by female genitalia through vaginoplasty. Dr Chettawut performed the surgery in Bangkok. Currently, I down four tablets a day, a part hormone therapy, which has to be continued throughout my life. I am also undergoing electrolysis for removal of facial hair. This will continue for one more year. Finding myself cost me around Rs 5.5 lakh, including Dr Chettawut's fee of $7,000.

Thailand is renowned for male-to-female SRS. In my three-week stay, I saw patients of different nationalities, races and ages. Dr Chettawut performs around 20 vaginoplasties every month. It melted my heart to see a middle-aged woman accompanying her 'husband' for 'his' surgery. The 'husband' was a transsexual woman. I had read on the internet about such cases, where a spouse turns into a companion for a transsexual person, but to actually see it was like witnessing the purest form of love.

The surgeon's certificate identifies me as an "infertile female". Both are strong words. For most, the first might be stronger; for me, it is the second one. Being a mother, after all, is not just about the ability to give birth. Being transsexual, also, is not just about looking masculine or feminine. And the condition itself is not psychological. The bottom line is that gender dysphoria needs a medical correction. And an SRS is only as unnatural as any other surgery.

The sooner a transsexual person can start their gender reassignment procedure, the easier is the transition, and the better, the visible results. But at the same time, one must be mature enough to understand one's priorities. If 'infertile' is the stronger word for you, or if you're doing this for anybody except yourself, think again!

I still have a lot of catching up to do. I badly need to get some humour and spontaneity into my life. Then there is an urgent need to catch up on clothes, shoes, earrings and makeup. But there is this one thing I caught up with, recently and not many people do that-Life!

Published in 'The Week' dated 09-03-2008
Visit Ghazal's Blog http://gazalhopes.blogspot.com/