The first widely publicized gay marriage between two young women, Mala and Raju, nee Rajwinder Kaur, of Amritsar, came apart last week. Three years ago, Raju who dressed and acted like a boy and often drove a tractor for her father, married Mala, a Dalit girl, defying her family. The couple was taken to court by some irate neighbours, but given the vagueness of the 1861 law pertaining to same-sex relationships, the local magistrate permitted them to live together.
Last month, Mala told the media that her marriage was over and that she was soon going to marry a young man, Sonu, whom she had been seeing. Raju was subsequently hospitalized after complaining of uneasiness. It was said that she had tried to commit suicide, but there were also allegations that Mala had tried to poison her with sleeping pills. Mala hotly denied the charges, saying she still loved Raju but she wanted her own house and children now. It was a sad and rather ugly parting, to say the least.
Breaking a long taboo, transsexuals, cross-dressing and gay relationships are increasingly being shown, discussed and debated in the Indian media. But the nature of the enormous publicity this dramatic break-up received in the media, particularly the vernacular media, made one a little suspicious.
A handful of transsexuals plus a few thousand gay men and women who have come out do not quite balance the newsworthiness of the sad and plundered lives of millions of our women who face violence and exploitation daily within homes and at the workplace. Yet, unless they meet particularly gory ends or are implicated in a crime, one hears little about their tragic alienation.
In the case of Mala and Raju’s marriage, there was little violence or exploitation, and even the families and the court had finally accepted the match as a union between two consenting adults. Then why was there so much voyeuristic finger pointing in the media? It was impossible not to see that the harsh and mostly sarcastic remarks about Raju were quite different from the indulgent, half-humorous camaraderie with which Hindi movies and TV comedians routinely portray cross-dressers or male transsexuals like Bobby Darling (of Big Boss fame) and Sylvie, the celebrity hair dresser.
The weekend studio debates on TV now also debate gay rights with a sense of fairplay and political correctness. Questions, for instance, will also be put to people like Sylvie on fashion and hair styling with a certain awe that underscores how a man, even a quirky one dressed in drag, could easily outdo most female hairdressers if he chose. Similarly, Bobby and several other males in drag have been encouraged to recount their brave plans for getting a thorough body makeover in Bangkok, after they have earned and saved enough money to go to a good surgeon and let him carve out a female body out of a male one.
Similar handling was missing, particularly in the case of the “male” partner, Raju. Her being jilted by Mala in favour of a “proper” male was commented upon mercilessly as she lay listless on a hospital bed, while visuals showing a smiling Mala, riding pillion behind her new lover, Sonu, were run and rerun endlessly. The subtext seemed to be that try as she might, a girl could never be a real male. Raju may have driven a tractor, but she was really just another foolish girl from a poor background who had tried to do the impossible: achieve prized manhood merely by dressing as a boy and acting macho. Even as cross-dressers, men will do better and prove to be both more skilful and cheerful professionals.
Male or female, all transsexuals confess to a deep feeling of dissatisfaction with their natural bodies. They all talk of feeling suffocated and trapped in the wrong gender and resent the behaviour society and families continue to thrust on them for years. One can understand. In a male supremacist society, the gender-specific role families thrust on both men and women results in a huge burden on the minds of children who do not conform to sexual stereotypes.
What Raju or Bobby or Sylvie are challenging basically is the mistaken notion that there is such a thing as a clearly male or female mind, and that your chromosomes are your irrevocable destiny. That point is well taken. But must they go further and discuss and promote the extreme act of mutilating their bodies to “become” the other gender, risking grave, irreversible disfigurement and permanent scarring?
Feminist baiters are quick to point fingers at feminism for having started this whole confusion on gender, but while feminists protect the right of all informed individuals to make the decision on how they would like to be identified, they have certainly not been rooting for radical sex-change surgery. All they are asking is that the restrictive man-made societal norms be changed so if they wish to, guys can dance and cry without being made to feel awful, and likewise, girls can act aggressive, play ball, ride bikes and whistle as they work.
It is better to let aggression and desire hang out, than to slave and save, Bobby-like, to make a trip to Bangkok or Singapore and let a surgeon castrate a perfectly good body only to fill it with carcinogenic drugs and pouches of silicone.
After all, if the turban doesn’t fit, must one chop off the head?
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org