I’m going to preface this by saying that I am not a writer. My job does involve writing, but it is an identity marker I do not claim. I am a performer, a performance maker, a live artist. So I’m going to treat this writing as live art: a form-queered staging of letters on paper. I’m tempted to write words that look good side by side as opposed to words that make sense together. But I hold back. I’m cautious and aware that this is something to be consumed by others, that this needs to make sense to them for it to have any value.
This is how I often feel about my gender. It is to be consumed by others and needs to make sense to them for it to have any value. I’m now too far in my transition to be actively invited into women’s spaces, but not far enough to be invited into men’s spaces. Not that I want to be a man – not even slightly – it is simply the by-product of needing to stop people seeing me as a woman.
I’ve always shunned gender roles: I’m not a woman, and I never want to be a man, and yet I have this colossal need to be both. From as young as I can remember, people have called me a tomboy. It’s a term that resonates with me, but not something I necessarily identify with. I feel the same about terms like ‘woman’ and ‘man’. Instead, I like the idea of being an amalgamation of experiences.
I grew up in a matriarchal family, which is an ancient tradition where my family comes from – Kerala in India. I like to brag about that. I like to say I was a feminist as a seedling in my mother’s womb. The women in my family are literal warriors: our surname, passed down from our maternal side, comes from a lineage of the ‘warrior class’. Although I don’t entirely know what the term means (knowledge lost through millennial ignorance) I assume it’s terribly classist. I do like how it sounds though.
At birth I was pronounced a girl but bestowed a male god’s name. I will never know why my mother felt the need to give me a gender-neutral name with masculine attributes, but I will forever be thankful for not having to deal with the bureaucracy of name change.
At six years old, my uncle took me to my first demonstration – an anti-arms protest. I was the only child there, holding a placard bigger than me (and in my school uniform!). I was photographed and that picture made it into newspapers in forty-two countries.
At seven, I proudly started telling people that I was a feminist. I don’t think I knew (exactly) what it meant but I’d heard my elder sister say it, and I believed everything she did or said was the final word.
At eight, I declared myself an atheist. I refused to go into temples or buildings of worship because I’d seen my uncle do the same and I genuinely didn’t believe God existed (and nor did my uncle).
At nine, I was taken to see Desmond Tutu speak. I was looking forward to writing about it for an article in my school magazine. I fell asleep, front and centre. For years I thought Desmond Tutu hated me. I vowed then never to fall asleep in the audience ever again. I’ve seen too many bad theatre shows since to have kept my word.
Somewhere between ages eleven and seventeen, I lost myself. But all the years of being schooled at an all-girls Catholic institution could not keep me from my difference.
All through my childhood, I felt the need to be the family’s protector, to be chivalrous and tough. I thought of this as a sense of ‘manhood’. I thought the women in my family needed protecting when, in reality, they were protecting me. From them I learned to be strong, resilient, empathetic and generous. From them, I learned a perspective that refused to accept obstacles – though there are many obstacles for me in this world.
So the women in my family taught me their collective female gaze. And at the same time, from the men, I learned to become a better ‘man’. My uncle not only took me to my first protest but also showed me how to treat people right. He never spoke over women; he listened. He was and still is the least macho man I know. He used to wear my sister’s old T-shirts and I remember making fun of him for it. His response was that clothes are just clothes and it does not matter who is wearing them.‘Besides,’ he’d say,‘why throw out a perfectly good T-shirt?’ He supported my gender nonconformity from an early age. If we went shopping, he’d ask if I wanted to go to the men’s section with him. Whenever he donated his old clothes to me, I saw it as a sign of his approval and solidarity.
The world beyond my family began to see a young boy in me when I started taking hormones at twenty years old. But I soon realized that I had begun to embody an identity that I intrinsically fear. And I’d started to be feared by others too. Where once I would not have moved out of the way for people on the pavement (because feminism), or I would have purposefully taken up more space on public transport, I now found that this was no longer acceptable behaviour. What the world now saw was a teenage boy being an entitled little shit. I wasn’t just transforming in physicality but also in social status. I knew that this new-found shell came with certain responsibilities.
In Beauty and the Beast, the Beast is portrayed as aggressive, violent and threatening only after he is ‘cursed’ and transforms into a creature that is hairy (and brown). Since starting on hormones, I feel like I’ve gone from being the Beauty to being the Beast. While before I was seen as an exotic arm candy (which is how most brown women are fetishized), now I am feared. Now I am the person that people move away from on the bus. Now I am the person that cops stop for no real reason. I have to try twice as hard not to come off as intimidating.
And these days, as the world sees me as increasingly masculine, I find myself holding on to my feminine expressions. I love wearing dresses and make-up. I’m automatically drawn to the feminine. Perhaps it’s because I’m more comfortable in my skin since starting to look more masculine; perhaps it’s my need to belong with the feminine as a community.There is a protection, alliance and familiarity that come with the acknowledgement and acceptance of other femmes, queers and nonconforming people. I am happy to participate in that identity as I do in several different identities. Like my loving, unconventional, matriarchal family, there is much about me that doesn’t fit the mould, the stock image; and like my family, I am functional because I am given the space to be unconventional. My family is my politics, my family is my feminism and my family is my queerness.