“Access to medical facilities doesn’t end with gender affirmative surgery. There are pre-surgery procedures and even post-surgery procedures which are equally important. For us, it’s a new beginning and there are many things we need support for. But there’s general prejudice against us which becomes obvious when we approach doctors for any medical guidance,” says Rajesh (name changed), 28, member of a growing network of trans masculine persons in Odisha.

This is one among several messages and experiences collected by Bhubaneswar-based community organizer and past Varta Community Reporter Bana for Varta. Odisha has some of the most progressive policies with regard to transgender rights – for example, the draft Odisha Transgender Policy of 2017 and Equal Opportunity Policy for the workplace (2021). These policies have raised expectations among the state’s trans masculine collectives, who want faster and better implementation.

The healthcare system in Odisha is yet to be universally equipped to address the specific needs of trans masculine individuals. Availability of gender affirmative care and access to it is still limited, leading to disparities in healthcare outcomes. For many trans persons, access is limited by financial constraints. The challenges that came up at an age when they first realised their gender identity continue in the context of gender affirmative care.

Going hand in hand with healthcare challenges are concerns around legal recognition. Trans masculine individuals in Odisha face hurdles in obtaining accurate identity documents, which impacts their daily life, employment, and travel. In many cases, a change of name becomes a hindrance in availing benefits.

“I’m a teacher by profession and am 40 years old. I’ve been a teacher for the last decade and more. But my name on the renewal contract is my birth name. Every time I ask the authorities to change it, they tell me that there’s no procedure to do so. How will I justify my current work experience if I switch jobs and the name on my contract doesn’t match the name I now have?” asks Nitin (name changed). He shares that though his colleagues, students and staff members at school have started identifying him by his new name, official apathy continues to threaten his professional future.

To add to Nitin’s worries, his younger brother has severed ties with him. His parents have been supportive, but not his brother. When it comes to familial and social rejection, Nitin’s case is not the only one, and the lack of recognition is not just legal, it is sociolegal in nature. This reality is also reflected in the workplace.

“I work for the implementation of a government scheme in my village area. I’ve been working here for the last 12 years. For all these years I have struggled to find acceptance from my colleagues. It’s very difficult to express this. The name calling, sly laughter, everything puts you down and makes you question yourself. Things changed a bit after 2020 when I underwent surgery, but still, there’s a long way to go,” says Ritesh (name changed), 42.

Quote: Be it physical health, mental health, education, livelihood, legal protection, or social status, Bana’s respondents want a change in every aspect of life. They are not happy with policy changes alone – they want change on the ground, including trans affirmative spaces and a supportive environment.Inadequate and biased media representation was also picked up by the community members Bana spoke to. “The use of words is very important when the media comes out with stories concerning trans persons. I remember a news reporter shouting, ‘Are you a male Kinner or a female Kinner?’ It was highly insensitive. The larger public watching such news tends to pick up such words. Positive and accurate portrayals are essential for fostering understanding and acceptance,” asserts 29-year-old Amish (name changed).

Be it physical health, mental health, education, livelihood, legal protection, or social status, Bana’s respondents want a change in every aspect of life. They are not happy with policy changes alone – they want change on the ground, including trans affirmative spaces and a supportive environment.

Samarth collective of trans masculine individuals in Odisha

Not only are trans masculine persons in Odisha articulating their dreams and demands better, they are also organizing themselves for self-help, capacity building, and advocacy. Samarth, of which Bana is a founder member, is one of the youngest collectives of its kind in India. Though the collective started functioning a few years ago with support from SAATHII, it got registered as an NGO only in 2022. Advocacy on health, education, legal rights, and social security are its primary areas of work.

Samarth members along with the SAATHII team have started gender and sexuality sensitization sessions with all cadre of healthcare providers. They are demanding availability of mental health professionals in each district of Odisha, and trained plastic surgeons in the state for gender affirmative surgical procedures. They are trying to identify pathological laboratories where trans masculine individuals can access relevant tests for gender affirmative care at inexpensive rates. They also want the state government-funded health insurance scheme (Biju Swasthya Kalyan Yojana) to cover gender affirmative care expenses.

This illustration is a graphic created to mark the 10th anniversary of ‘Varta’ webzine on August 1, 2023. It shows a stylized horizontal scroll, unfurled, with “10 Years, Varta Webzine” written on it in large letters in the centre. In the figure 10, the digit one is represented by the graphic of an open fountain pen with the nib visible. To the left of the writing two feathers are sketched as symbols of writing instruments, and to the right is the Varta Trust logo with the tagline “Gender, Sexuality, Intimacy, Publishing”. The logo is presented in a manner that it looks like a postage stamp pasted on an envelope on the top right corner. The entire graphic, made with shades of creamy white, deep brown and yellow, is placed inside a black horizontal rectangle with a thick creamy white outline. Graphic credit: Arkadeepra Purkayastha

Graphic credit: Arkadeepra Purkayastha

On the education front, Samarth wants inclusion of chapters on trans persons in the higher secondary syllabus. Towards this end, the collective has been conducting sensitization sessions in some of the educational institutions, pointing out the need to respect the desire of both students and faculty members who want to change their gender identity in official documents. The collective seeks reservation for admission of trans students in all educational institutions, and a trans friendly environment in the institutions in terms of gender-neutral toilets and uniforms.

The collective wants changes in property laws to ensure trans masculine individuals are not denied property rights. Reservation in government employment is another strong demand of the collective. Many of its members are seeking easy access to low-interest loans from banks for starting or expanding small businesses.

Perhaps the simplest and yet the most telling of their demands is that the government social security programmes and legal documents should have gender sensitive language. For instance, they should use the term ‘transgender’ rather than ‘Kinner’ (which is applicable to a specific trans community, but not to trans masculine persons).

Will the next 10 years be enough time for all these aspirations to be fulfilled?

About the main photo: Members of Samarth at the ‘Puri Rainbow Pride Walk’ held on June 13, 2023. Photo courtesy SAATHII