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Born this way: When men turn women

in INDIA, 08/05/2012

Bidhan Barua, 21, has been holed up in a Mumbai hotel for the past few weeks. Bidhan is a man who wants to be a woman. His parents don't approve of it; Bidhan claims they have frozen his bank account, and have tried to obstruct the surgery that'd enable him to realise his dream. He has moved the Bombay High Court and sought its intervention because the authorities at Saifee Hospital, Charni Road, have refused to perform the operation unless he gets legal permission.

Whatever the finer details of the case might be, Bidhan, like so many transgender people, says he feels trapped inside his body. And, odd as it might sound, there's nothing abnormal about what he feels, because several people have felt the same down human history. All Bidhan wants to do is to become a woman and marry his partner, an Indian Air Force flight lieutenant.

Phenomenon

As our middle class grows, as India becomes a relatively prosperous nation, it faces new questions, secular questions, which are less matters of caste and religion and more to do with individual identity. Live-in relationships, homosexuality, divorce, premarital sex - these are facts of life now, and although there are too many things going on for there to be a national debate on all these issues, we are increasingly being forced to think in new ways about what's right and what's wrong, the moral questions that underlie the choices we make.

This is a society in flux where the parameters are constantly shifting; there is resistance to change but, the good news is, there is also fluidity and flexibility.

Bidhan's case is fascinating because ours remains a society obsessed with the male child. The average Indian family craves sons; it's bad enough if your son wants to make love to another man, but for your son to want to become a woman and then make love to another man? What could be worse. Surely we are being sucked into the black hole of Western decadence, the warped lifestyle choices of mad white men. Except that sexuality has nothing to do with being white or brown or black. Sexual identity is a universal issue that has little to do with race and class, and only to do with gender.

A natural question to ask at this stage is: is it really possible? Can a man become a woman? The answer is: yes, it is. Well, they can't give you a womb, so you can't bear children, but, for all practical purposes, modern surgical procedures and hormone injections can bring you to a stage where you can have a sexually fulfilling life.

In India, we haven't had a high profile case yet; the Bombay High Court's response to Bidhan's plea might just set a precedent. In Canada, the case that brought the matter to public attention was when the stunningly beautiful Jenna Talackova, a transgendered Miss Universe Canada contestant, was debarred from the final round. The rules stated that the competition was open only to 'naturally born women.' Gloria Allred, one of Canada's betterknown attorneys, took up Jenna's cause. She won a victory for her, and for transgenders around the world, when the laws of the competition were changed to allow the participation of men who had undergone sexual reassignment surgery. In a conversation with the legendary interviewer Barbara Walters, Jenna said, "It was terribly painful, seeing something on your body for that long, and not being able to look at myself in the mirror because I couldn't stand seeing the other part..."

Before Jenna, there was Renee Richards nee Richard Raskind, often called the world's most famous transsexual. An eye surgeon and an amateur tennis player (she coached Martina Navratilova among others), Renee underwent sex change surgery in 1975, then fought for and won the right to compete as a woman on the court. From an early age she felt an "unsettling urge" to dress as a girl, but that didn't prevent her from developing her masculine side: she drove fast cars, chased skirt, excelled at tennis at Yale, joined the navy, got married and produced a son, Nick. It was only after she'd had her son that she realised that she was a woman trapped in a man's body. After the surgery, like many transsexuals, she retained her heterosexual side; in an interview to People magazine, she said, "I didn't have a sex change operation to date women." The pain she caused her son remains a regret though. Again, from People, "He still suffers from the loss of his father as he knew him. The confusion and shame I put him through have been awful. He will carry those scars for a lifetime." For the record, Nick still calls her Dad.

Surgery

At present, Renee resides in Carmel, NY, but the town that enjoys the reputation of being the sex change capital of America is Trinidad, tucked away in the Rocky Mountains of southern Colorado. A frontier town of about ten thousand people, it has, as its reigning deity, a lady surgeon called Marci Bowers. Formerly Mark Bowers, she underwent sexual reassignment surgery in 1998. In 2003, she took over from Stanley Biber, credited with having started America's first private practice for sex change surgery in 1969. In an interview to CBS News she said, "Gender is from the shoulders up.

It's what you think of yourself inside. So the hard part and the discomfort and the reason why people pursue hormones and surgery is [when] those two things don't match." More than 300 Americans flock to her clinic every year.

In the literary world, perhaps the most famous example of a male becoming a female is that of the travel writer James Morris who reinvented herself as Jan Morris.

Prayer

She underwent the surgery in 1973 in Casablanca. In those days, it was a risky procedure, and fatality rates were high. A year later she published a book, Conundrum, about her lifelong conviction that she had been born into the wrong sex, and about her eventual change of sexual role.

In an essay called "Casablanca: A Change of Sex", in a passage of great lyrical beauty, she recounts walking through the noisy streets of the city, the last city she would see as a male, "I saw myself.... as a figure of fairytale, about to be transformed. Duck into swan? Scullion into bride? More magical than any such transformation, I answered myself: man into woman."

Resolute and fearless, she enters the surgery, and does a Times crossword puzzle before being injected with sedatives. She is told to go to sleep, with the operation to follow later. But, once the nurses have left, she can't resist the temptation to take one last look in the mirror, "We would never meet again, and I wanted to give that other self a long last look in the eye, and a wink for luck. As I did so a street vendor outside played a delicate arpeggio upon his flute, a very gentle merry sound which he repeated, over and over again, in sweet diminuendo down the street. Flights of angels, I said to myself, and so staggered back to my bed, and oblivion."

Let us say a little prayer for Bidhan. Let him emerge from oblivion and become the beautiful woman he wants to. In a free country, he has the right to choose his gender. It won't hurt anyone.

- The writer's new book The Butterfly Generation was published recently.

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