Below The Belt
How society made Apsara regret wanting to be transgender
'I never answered personal questions. I never asked to be accepted.'
- Total Shares
Transgender women remain a social and medical myth in India and Apsara Reddy from Chennai who is India's first transgender Editor and now a BJP member opens her heart about her tumultuous journey and the transition to feel like a woman.
Q. Tell us about your growing up years. Did you always feel trapped in the wrong body?
A. I was born and raised in a very south Indian set-up with a lot of relatives, customs and traditions. My mother was very progressive and inspired me to follow my dreams. My father, an alcoholic and an impediment. Mom would always shield me from the verbal abuse my father used to hurl at me.
It wasn't even a sexuality thing back then, it was more to do with him being totally reckless with his life and the way he chose to spend his time. I would see him come home drunk, raise his voice, say demeaning things or leave us with no money at all.
My mother struggled a lot and banked mostly on her own savings, thanks to the property left by her parents. She never let me feel the heat or realise how bad the situation at home was. Her primary focus in life was me and our life together.Apsara Reddy.
I performed very well at school and I never really cared about the insensitive things some classmates used to say to me, or the unkind gestures they used to make. I felt god always makes women and to punish some folks, he just adds a bit extra. So for the most part I felt trapped, wronged and inadequate. As a child too, I used to wear plaits with towels or try on my mom's heels. I never once thought I was not normal or felt the need to suppress my innermost feelings.
Q. How did you inform your family about your decision to become Apsara from Ajay Reddy? Also living and studying in Australia, did you feel the difference between the two cultures? Coming, as you did, from a culturally conservative city like Chennai, how tough was it to come out?
A. When I was 13 or 14, I browsed Google about a boy wanting to be a girl. Most people in the Indian cultural context perceive it as being gay. I knew I was not gay. I had opportunities to interact with gay people, but there was no connect. I couldn't understand their dynamics. It was a disaster. I hung out with gay friends and went on dates but there was no emotional or physical chemistry.
But I respected them as humans as they brought a lot of mirth, fun and edge to my life. I don't consider myself gay. When I did research online, there was something about transgenders, sex change and hormone changes. It was overwhelming and scary because I wondered how I would get the money for it without my parents knowing.
Then I went to study for my Bachelors degree in Australia. There I found a great set of friends who were non-judgmental. There was a whole new life that opened up for me. I went to a gay club one day and there I met a beautiful transsexual woman called Jacinta. I had a chat with her and asked her how she managed. Our journeys were similar. She comes from a very conservative Italian family. She has a similar alcoholic father, great grandparents and mother and a number of cousins. She wanted to be a girl and ran away from home.
In Australia you have support, insurance covers your hormone therapies, bills and tablets. She could go for gender counselling and not pay for it. Jacinta transformed quite earlier on and she told me that there was a meaningful place for me in society.
The kind of attention she was getting from men was also something that made me realise that not everyone will be averse to me and that I could have a meaningful life. I could get married and maybe adopt kids or have kids with my partner. I started going to a gender counsellor. After a year, I had the courage to tell my parents, but it was the most difficult part of my life.
In Australia, I was studying broadcast journalism with a specialisation in investigative journalism and it was the most exciting phase. The Hindu gave me an opportunity to write from there. I wrote for Bharat Times in Australia and worked with the Indian consulate. The part-time work regimen of an international student in Australia allows you 20 hours a week. The Indian consulate functioned only for 20 hours a week in Melbourne where I worked as a media advisor to the consul general, Dr TJ Rao.
I was going through gender counselling simultaneously and I started going for hormone therapy. The counselling was tough. They would ask very weird questions about the deepest and innermost feelings, physical attraction, about your upbringing. I would be honest about my feelings because that was the only way in which your counsellor can help you gain real liberation.
Q. After working in London and India as a journalist and taking the tough call of hormone therapy, do you feel very little is known of the gender change process here in India and is our perception of transgenders still largely limited to hijras (eunuchs)?
A. London was liberating. In Western countries, gender counselling is a must before you are prescribed hormones. That way there is a mental assessment of your coping capabilities, your genuine desires and abilities to be a woman.
Changing your gender is no child's play. In India, hormones are just sold over the counter and often the gay community abuses hormones. Gay men who face love failure or want partners of a certain kind think hormone therapy and feminisation will solve their problems. One mustn't change to acquire a man or find love. One should truly feel like a woman, emote like a woman and be able to live like a woman.
The reason we see so many suicides by transgender people, animated behaviours and whacky sexual patterns is because most transwomen opt for the instant change option where they do intense over-the-counter hormones or get quick surgeries. It ends up impacting their health adversely.
Q. What were the challenges of working in the Indian media?
A. When I came back to India, I met a doctor here, Dr Usha Sriram - one of my closest friends now. The counselling she offered my mother and me to have the conviction and strength was amazing.
A lot of people said cruel, nasty, horrible, harsh, uncharitable and baseless things to me when I came back, from my mental state to allegations of how I was treated by people when I was a child, to weird things like hot water fell on my legs and so I got castrated. None of it was true! It was me, a happy young boy who always wanted to be a girl and I was taking medicine to help be that.
My mom was there with me, but it was a very hard journey for her, because she was in the city for so many years. She had friends and people knew her. Things were said about me. I would come home and cry and ask why people said such things about me.
If I walked in, people would giggle or turn the other way. At parties, they would be nice to me, but said things behind my back that came back to my mom. People would come at our home, planning their times of visit when I would either be not at home or would be sleeping. I realised that the only thing that would help me was success.
I was extremely hurt. I worked at The Indian Express as a features editor and had a successful column. I wrote about parties, lifestyle, gender, anything that came to my mind on a given week. Being in the press changed everything.
Discriminating, discouraging and dissecting voices became friendly voices. I never answered personal questions. I never asked to be accepted. I never sat to make a case for anyone to love me or like me. People slowly understood I was capable and intelligent. The people who said negative things about me started trying to be my friends now. That's how life changed.
The Indian Express was not an easy place to work. My boss, Aditya Sinha, was very supportive. But people around me made it tough. I would walk into the canteen and people would walk out. I would pitch a story I wanted to write and my peers would dismiss it. There would be situations where I would submit a story without errors, but in the final stage, they would introduce errors in my copy. My car tyres were punctured on the premises.
Then I was offered a very senior job at the Deccan Chronicle as the features editor first, and then promoted to senior editor. I was handling supplements. I have to thank AT Jayanti, the editor-in-chief at the Deccan Chronicle. She understood me as Apsara, although I was still transitioning and there were so many questions unanswered in my head. She gave me a book, Fifty Shades of Grey, signed, "Welcome to the World of Women, Love, Jayanti".
Even here, when the staff celebrated someone's birthday, I was not invited by some of the senior editors. I was not a part of some of the friendly meetings, if some of the editors wanted to hang out or have a drink together or have a Deccan Chronicle staff day at someone's apartment, I wouldn't be invited. But my team rallied around me.
While working at the Deccan Chronicle, I used the female toilet. Women were okay with it. Men would make nasty comments about me using the female toilet. I looked very much like a woman when I started working at the Deccan Chronicle; I had long hair that was blow-dried and I was transitioning. For me, it was the most natural thing. I could never go into a male toilet.
There have been instances where we did political stories especially during election time. When politicians came to office to meet other senior editors, I would meet them too. Once, I had a very interesting conversation with a politician who is powerful, backed by a powerful surname, and he shared some interesting viewpoints.
He told me that I was very beautiful and that it was great I was transitioning and that he liked women like me. At that point, I got the drift. I asked what he meant by "woman like me". He said "a woman with a difference" and "a woman with a twist".
I was taken aback and he very matter-of-factly, without any thought or nervousness, said that he had a farmhouse and we could spend a weekend there if I liked. Someone proposing to you in your office, a media office at that, would think twice to be so direct. I said, "Sure, definitely, let me know when you have time and we will catch up."
I couldn't rub him the wrong way, he was part of a party in power nationally at that time. I was upset. I went back home and told my mom. I didn't realise there would be men like this. My mom said it was not just me, a lot of women go through this. She tried to make me feel better. But I took it badly. I felt like I had put myself in this situation since I had chosen to be a woman. How do I protect myself? There was a lot of fear and insecurity. I have my parents now, but how would I protect myself in the future? What if I had no support system? Luckily for me, I grew in my career and this politician fell in his career.
Just because I am a transgender woman, I do not have low standards. I have learned the art of beating them down and I don't let the same man wag his tail a second time. I know where to draw the line very politely.
Even the media is to be blamed for presenting transgenders from the angle of prostitution or begging. The root cause of prostitution is people who solicit prostitutes. When you drive down any transgender-prostitution stretch anywhere in the world, especially in Chennai, there would be rich people in their BMWs, Porches and SUVs waiting to pick up the women. These are the same people passing judgments on transgender women.
A lot of portrayals of transgender women come from the society that wants to see them that way. Nobody wants to see them as empowered individuals. Nobody wants to give them jobs. Nobody wants to treat them as equal. How do we then empower ourselves to rise and be part of the mainstream when there is no opportunity?
In India, there is a fixed position for transgender people. Today when I am an editor and an activist and I am breaking that norm, people say "Oh! You are not a transgender woman. You are not like the rest of them!" Why should everyone be stereotyped?
Q. Considering the sex change operation - the journey and the trials and tribulations - what are your hopes and dreams now?
A. The medical procedure to be a transgendered woman doesn't cost much. When I was at the Deccan Chronicle, I was going through my hormone therapy. There were remarkable changes. In the last two months at DC, I went to Thailand for consultations. I had my gender reassignment surgery after that. It was the best decision of my life.
I stayed in Bangkok for eight months. I went for boot camp sessions and lost the weight I had gained following the hormone therapy. My mom and dad were with me for the surgery. My dad made it incredibly difficult. He made me cry three days before and three days after the surgery saying a lot of insensitive and rude things and referring to me as "he", quite knowingly, and wasn't supportive at all.
It was hard for me. On one side there was excitement that I was finally going to do this. I wanted to have my parents with me. When I went for the surgery, three days before, I was very nervous because the survival rate of these surgeries is low. You won't know if you will have sensation after the surgery, there is no guarantee. There could be prolonged pain and complications. For me, it was important. I wanted to do it myself, to be a woman completely, organically and holistically.
I conditioned my mind, three days before the surgery that it was going to work out. I went with my mom to a temple. But my dad said some nasty and unfortunate things: "We will never be able to lift our head again, why were you born to us," and stuff like that.
The reason I took him along was because my mom would never travel alone. She is truly, deeply and madly in love with my father and that is the only reason I respect him. She brought him along. She needed that extra person with her in the hospital. She couldn't handle it by herself. He said some nasty things. I steeled myself and didn't shed a tear. He tried to break me but I thought that I had come so far and I would not look back or let people like him bother me. I would face things with dignity.
Before I was wheeled in for surgery, mom came to the door and very emotionally held my hand and said I could still change my decision. I told her I would come back more beautiful than I ever was, so just wait.
It was an eight-and-a-half-hour-long surgery. I was really excited. After anaesthesia, about eight-and-a-half or nine hours, I was brought out and placed under observation for an hour-and-a-half. When I became conscious, it was painful as hell. I can't even verbalise the pain.
Deep down, I felt good, despite it all. I came out of the operation theatre and my parents were outside. I looked at mom and gave her a big bright smile. I went to the room and had a nice, long chat with mom. Dad was being his usual harsh self. A nurse and doctor told him not to visit me for a few days because the tension with him around was palpable. I was discharged in three-four days and stayed in the apartment. In the surgery, they use your private parts to create a vagina without any artificial substance. The skin and flesh is reworked to create a vagina with sensation. That is the complication.
Thailand is the centre for transition as so many gender surgeries are done there. It cost me Rs 2,20,000, including the hospital stay and food. I was on painkillers, and there were times when I couldn't move. For 15 days after the surgery, I was on bed rest. Dad and I didn't speak. I decided to shut him out and not speak. A lot of friends called me, saying that people thought I had my stomach stapled or was going through health problems. I told them that I had done the most liberating thing in my life and the last thing I wanted to know was what the party circle in Chennai was thinking of me, so I rather not know.
When I came back, it was initially awkward because people asked very weird and hilarious questions, like "How do you have sex now? How does it work?" Telling people how a vagina works was not my ideal dinner date conversation. I would say I was glad for what I did, but could we talk about something else, but it would come right back.
No woman would ask another woman how her vagina was doing in front of a man, but they found it okay to do it with me. I would always look at their boyfriends and say, "better than hers, I'm sure". They were difficult. How do you explain it? Really, what do you say to them?
Q. You have said you don't believe in gay pride marches. What are your thoughts on Section 377, and womanhood? Why are you ashamed of the transgender community?
A. I don't believe in gay pride marches that are held around India. All those who host these events, what do you achieve apart from visibility? If you're wearing colourful wigs and cleavage-baring saris and carrying placards basically saying "Bugger off!" it is not opening a window for dialogue or opportunity for sensitivity.
I think the law still says, under section 377, gay sex is illegal. Transgenders, on the other hand, are lucky to be recognised and get passports and to be factored into the system to get PAN cards and ration cards. The law is far more understanding and conducive towards transgenders rather than to gay people.
But the transgender community does very little for itself. I think it is a sisterhood that promotes prostitution, begging and harassment. Why can't there be self-help groups? Why can't there be like a small-scale industry on arts, crafts and weaving? Why can't these people be more productive?
What do you see in gay pride marches in India other than these people holding placards and gyrating to cheap music? I feel ashamed to say I am a part of the transgender community. I know I will draw a lot of flak from the community, but it is shameful to want evolution and to find yourself in such a beautiful way and then give it all up by doing what you do.
Q. On politics, why did you choose the BJP, and do you think political parties have done enough for the transgender community in general? What do you wish to change?
A. The BJP demonstrates a strong commitment towards diversity and equality. To be inducted into the party with such great stature on International Women's Day was a validating experience. Most political parties induct transwomen as token photo-op members or to be used during LGBT pride marches.
But to be invited by national leaders and to join the party with national general secretary Muralidhar Rao and state president, Dr Tamilisai Soundarajan was a huge honour. Later, when BJP national president Amit Shah met me in Chennai too, he was very welcoming and encouraging.