On 22 September, the Delhi high court directed the Delhi Police to provide protection to an 18-year-old student of neurobiology from California, US, who identifies as a trans-man. Trans-masculine persons are born female and do not identify as women. The court passed the order after hearing a writ petition filed by lawyers Arundhati Katju and Menaka Guruswamy, seeking protection from harassment, intimidation and coercion by the teenager’s family.
Justice Siddharth Mridul said, “How is it that we are so quick to pass judgement on a sexual orientation that may not be our own? This is nothing but bigotry and this has no place in India, which is a tolerant country."
The teenager, accompanied by his mother and younger brothers, came to India on 24 July to visit his maternal grandparents in Agra. They were supposed to return to the US on 5 August. His mother told him he would have to stay in India and marry a boy of her choice. She took away his phone and computer, and kept his green card and passport. She also enrolled him in a college in Agra.
The 18-year-old is a non-resident Indian and a permanent resident of the US.
The Indian law recognizes his transgender identity, after a landmark Supreme Court judgement in April 2014, which granted the legal status of third gender to those who don’t identify as man or woman. The National Legal Services Authority (Nalsa) judgement addressed the discrimination that transgenders face in India.
The teenager, who will turn 19 in November, wishes to retrieve his documents from his parents and return to the US to complete his education. He spoke to Mint on the phone about his parents, who have not accepted his sexual orientation and gender identity. This is his first-person account:
I have lived in California since I was 5, but we visit India each year to meet my mother’s parents, who live in Agra. Usually, it’s just my two younger twin brothers, my mother and I who make this trip. My father rarely accompanies us on these visits. Earlier this year, in June, I had left home and had started staying with a friend. It sounds pretty innocuous now, but it happened because I wanted to cut my hair and my mother strongly disagreed with that. She has always been very conservative in her outlook—boys should keep their hair short, girls should wear it long. Things like that. She confiscated my computer and my phone. She also went through my phone and realized that I have a girlfriend. This made her even more hostile towards me. I didn’t see why I was being treated this way, and being in that environment was taking a toll on me. I didn’t eat for days on end. So I decided to leave home and this made her incredibly angry. I feel that this also fuelled her decision to bring me to India, as she felt that she had lost her power over me.
I have known about my sexuality and gender identity for the past four or five years. I identify as a trans-masculine person and do not subscribe to the binaries of gender. My mother has held conversations with me about how disgusting being gay was. Then she began telling me, almost like a maxim: “Think straight, be straight, live a straight life."
In July, she sent an email asking if I would visit Agra with the family like we do every year. She said that my grandmother was ill, and that this may be the last time I’d see her. It sounded critical. Initially, she said that this would be a one-week trip, but then she told me the dates and I realized that it was a two-week trip. But she argued that she pushed the dates only because she wanted to book the more economical flight. I felt secure because I saw return tickets.
Her plan was to move my brothers and me permanently to India, and my father condoned her actions. I heard them talk on the phone. We were supposed to leave India on 5 August, but on 3 August, my mother said that we are not leaving. My brothers were also shocked—this was news to all of us. My mother enrolled them in a school in Agra and my grandparents began to look for a house for us to live in.
I was shocked and incredibly upset. I didn’t know what to do. I knew that if I stayed in India, I would be completely dependent on my mother. In Agra, I couldn’t use my computer or phone, and between 23 July which is when we left the US, and 6 August, the day we were supposed to have returned, I didn’t have any means of contacting my girlfriend, who consequently thought that I was dead. My mother said I should continue my schooling here. She said I could keep running away but I would never be able to get away. That was a terrifying thought. I remember feeling very defeated. She said that the time that I spend in India would fix me and teach me how to behave like a cultured, respectable girl. She didn’t let me cut my hair, and she would pull it and say it needs to grow. I have become good at cutting my own hair in the bathroom.
I finally managed to get some Internet and when I spoke to my girlfriend and friends, they asked me if I thought it was the right thing to stay on. I realized again, there was no reason why I should go through this.
I was enrolled in the Dayalbagh Educational Institute in Agra, in a BSc computer science course. The syllabus of the IT course I had to study was something I had already covered in high school in the US, so I wasn’t really learning anything new. Back in the US, where I was studying BSc in neurobiology with a minor in theatre, I would get As and Bs (grades). I simply didn’t see why I needed to stop going to college there.
Towards the beginning of September, my mother and brothers left for the US to sort out visa issues. They were to return on 12 September. My friends in the US talked to some people who connected me to Nazariya, a queer feminist collective and resource group in New Delhi. I started planning a way to leave Agra with their help. The only thing that was worrying me was if I would make it out of Agra before my mother returned. The other option was to wait till my mother came back, so that I could take my documents with me, but that seemed next to impossible since she would have monitored me 24x7, and had my green card and passport. So I decided to leave without my documents. I don’t have any ID right now, but at least I know that I’m in a safer environment.
I came to New Delhi, and everybody has been really nice. The Delhi high court order that offers me police protection is great, because without it I would feel highly unsafe in retrieving my documents from my parents. I feel like the legal protection will compel my parents to give me my documents so I can return to the US. I plan to go back to school. I have a little bit of money saved up and of course, I will take up a job.
I rarely go on to Facebook, but the one time I did, my friend messaged and asked if I was okay. I hadn’t told a lot of my friends that I was in India. He said that there were a couple of articles written about me. He sent me a link of a story that was headlined something like “NRI family sends daughter to be reformed". That is when I got to know that the cops have launched a search for me and my parents have filed an FIR in Agra which states that I have been kidnapped. I sent this article to my friends in the US, Nazariya and my girlfriend. They advised me to not access social media in case anyone was tracking me.
I couldn’t sleep after reading that article. My folks would never admit that I have a girlfriend so publicly. It makes me think that they filed the FIR to try to scare me. My mother had been emailing my girlfriend and friends asking them to tell me to come home; she also told them that what they are doing is illegal, so I know exactly how far my mother is willing to go to harass my friends, and disrespect my privacy.
When I got to know that the Uttar Pradesh police were in New Delhi looking for me and those who helped me leave Agra, I got even more scared. I felt like this has gone too far. The only people who have done wrong are my parents who won’t give me my documents. Why do I have to go through so much trouble when I haven’t done anything wrong?
At this point, I don’t know what to expect. The Delhi high court judge who delivered the order on Tuesday (22 September) said that India is a country that practises great tolerance. I found the court order to be relieving, but despite the order, my father continues to use the UP police to harass the Indian activists who have helped me.
My mother has been emailing me from both her own and my father’s email ID. I can recognize her distinctive style of writing. She told me that my father was in New Delhi and that I should go home with him. A lot of the mails that she has sent me are manipulative, and I don’t want to read them. I don’t want to have any contact with them. I just want my documents back so I can return to the US.