A couple of months ago, I took an erratic and impulsive decision of accepting my friend Joe’s invitation to go to Nepal. This invitation and decision, both came in the wake of my personal struggle of dealing with and overcoming the horrors of being sexually molested by someone I considered a friend, some months ago. The horrors came with night-time terrors and day-time scrutiny of who I was, how I had been affected and how to navigate this sea of disdain I had slowly come to associate daily life with.
After making a short trip to Darjeeling, I returned to the city and immediately accepted my friend’s offer.
Joe is a professor in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Education at the Asian University for Women in Chittagong, Bangladesh. He was going to stay in Nepal for a couple of months to brush up on Tibetan and excel in translations. Meanwhile, he opened his home to me, another one of his friends from Mumbai and his girlfriend from the Philippines. He had this idea of the four of us co-existing together for a brief while, focusing on our individual art and at the end of the day huddling together over wine to essentially engage in either discourses or nonsense banter- whichever the night demanded. Soon after I reached, we settled into a beautiful routine where it seemed like we had the perfect household and the perfect members to live with in peace.
Generally, Joe would be off all day attending translation classes and was not to be seen before evening. Prajna, the friend from Mumbai, a prolific woman with a wide knowledge and an impeccable taste in music and art, would mostly be off exploring places in and around Kathmandu.
That would leave Joe’s girlfriend and me spending a lot of time together, both too lazy to venture out, too poetic to not capture our thoughts into words while in bed and both too much in love with a good glass of rum- she much more than I!
Lola and I had only briefly met one evening, several months before this, during her trip to Calcutta with Joe. That evening we went to this “hip” joint called The Xrong Place, which I used to frequent once but slowly the attraction dwindled. When I had learned that Joe,Lola and a couple of other friends were drinking there, I swiftly made my way across town to give them a hug and share a drink.
In the course of that evening, what followed was unfortunate, infuriating and just a soddy reflection of the society that we are. A middle aged man kept eyeing Lola and when it became a little apparent that she may be trans, he started taking an intrusive and almost offensive interest in her- which led to Joe and the man getting into an altercation,even exchanging a few blows. The situation turned ugly when the pub people refused to evict this creepy and offensive man, rather wanting the foreigners to adjust, forgive and forget.
I’m not even going to go into the trope of the Irish man getting into bar fights scenario here, but what stayed with me from that evening was Lola’s infectious matter-of-fact dismissal of the man and his lecherous ways. It was at once both very feminine, yet had an archetypal sense of masculine power in the way she handled herself and Joe that evening. Not to mention the brief moments I could steal with her to speak of my then obsession, Nabokov’s Lolita, which I was incorporating into a play. It’s no coincidence that I met a Lola on the path of discovering another.
I knew, hence, that spending time with Lola in Nepal, would be enriching in more ways than one. If not enriching, certainly intoxicating, given her fervent love for her rum and my love for a glass of the same, every now and then!
In the afternoons, after our lazy breakfast making rituals, when we’d lay out in the balcony with a cigarette, a peg and a basket full of thoughts, I would often pose various questions to Lola, looking to her as this sister in arms, possessor of worldly knowledge of which I yearned for a taste. And she would rarely disappoint.
Everyone in that household was elder to me, except Lola who was just right. She was in her late twenties and was the closest to my age group which helped me open up without the fear of judgements with respect to my ignorance on so many things as opposed to the vast knowledge of highly accomplished people like Joe and Prajna.
She was the first trans-woman I had had the privilege of being close to and I knew this could help outline a lot of my ideas and notions regarding trans-sexuality, womanhood and the concept of transitioning itself. And thankfully, it did.
One of my earliest and the most endearing struggle I ever faced while “discovering” and charting my womanhood was my constant sense of duality. I was too sensitive and in tune with my emotions, hence too feminine, for my male friends to completely identify with my thoughts whereas I was too masculine in my day to day approach to life for my female friends to be completely understanding of my actions.
This is a phenomenon I have had the unfortunate luck of experiencing in almost all spheres of life, even today. The concept of a higher, wholesome and the most exemplary form of femininity was just an ideal- a social construct perhaps but an ideal nonetheless.
I had never had the comfort of being fully understood, until Lola, that is.
When Lola would vaguely and sometimes in vivid details take me on a trip into her experiences of being a woman- acting, thinking and even dressing like one- I would feel like I could finally connect to that duality that exists within me without in anyway infringing on my identity of being feminine.
She once told me how back in her homeland, femininity or womanhood was largely prescribed in terms of one’s practical performances in the sphere of day to day life. It’s considered in terms of one’s performativity more often than not. Lola mentioned how her being drawn to cooking, staying home and taking care of the family was a major factor in her early moments of navigating the femininity. At the same time, a lot of her habits and traits were not considered to be the perfect depiction of the “ideal femininity” that she at one point struggled with.
For me, she is very close to my idea of femininity, perhaps because she resonates most with my internal duality which manifests itself in myriad manners.
I have reflected a lot on the phenomenon of trans-phobia and the historically rampant “Othering” and violence that has been meted out against the trans-community. A lot of people try to define it as a pathology whereas others call it plain and simple hate. And not to forget the vehement ideals of trans-womanhood itself that can be extremely bothersome and frightfully harmful.
In my conversations with Lola, I came to discover the inherent discriminations that exist between a lot of trans-women themselves. And these same discriminations are echoed more profusely within the cis-het majority, which really reflects little to no understanding, or rather a very flawed understanding of womanhood in itself.
Apparently, a lot of trans-women judge one another regarding “incomplete” transition. This in itself, I believe, defeats the whole process of accepting the identity one is attuned to irrespective of how they are born. If the concept of femininity is largely defined by our bodies then where exactly does the mind and its feelings and intuitions come in to act as a larger indicator of femininity?
I believe Trans-women are an example of how understanding femininity requires a broader perspective that defies just the rudimentary divisions of body, its organs and its relation to our mind.
When I see Lola dress up and head out, or cook for everyone or simply put on some lipstick and pose for the camera, I don’t see the social constructs of femininity within me being projected on to her in a systematic manner to help me identify her as a woman. She is as much a woman to me when she curses, is unruly, drinks like a sailor or takes charge or for that matter, how she uses the fucking bathroom!
To the trans-phobic, Othering trans-women becomes easy when their transitions are not complete because it gives them a card to call out on the disconnect between their body and their mind, relegating them to being pathological and in one single breath even perpetuate ridiculous stereotypes or notions to solidify a ground for mind-numbing hatred and singling out to oppress further within the patriarchal context.
In the face of such trying times, my only relief is in the search for the refined notions of femininity that is less about the superficial and superfluous demarcations and more about encompassing the concepts of the “Ideal Femininity” and its various rough edges and sides within everyday conversations thus, consistently refining, redefining and expanding at the same time.
In Joe’s recent book Trans*am- Cis Men and Trans Women in Love, he notes the experience of loving a trans woman as a cis het man and often refers to how it’s imperative to enlarge the conversation in a manner where the heteronormative ways of identifying as who we are do not inherently take precedence while talking about transamorous love. He writes :
“Cis men have largely devised and profited from the gendered economy of external validation in which the “Real Man” is the referential gold standard that sets terms for the “Real Woman,” and so many other fabricated metaphysical terms to label those who are Other, or less, than the “Really Real” (White) Man. While raking in the rewards of this economy, cis men are expected to be consistent, at least, and repose in our unassailable Manhood—a simple truth about reality—and imagine anything Other to be something with a significance relative only to their own.”
This same notion is so vital to keep in mind even as a cis het woman while engaging in conversations about our Othering of people who in theory, identify with her, so as to not alienate them from the discussion. This is one of the major drawbacks of modern day feminism when put to practice, and our systematic alienation of trans women, women of colour and of backward socio economic classes while engaging in day to day discourse.
May be when we expand our own vision of what it means to be a woman, only then can we reach out to the Other.
And only when we reach out to the Other, can we essentially understand, examine and even attempt to obliterate the archaic demarcations that keep us divided and ignorant about our own dualities of femininity and feminism as a whole.
Trans*am- Cis Men and Trans Women in Love by Joseph McClellan can be purchased here
Written by Navamita Chandra