The untold stories of transgender people in Bangladesh as they navigate misconceptions

Screenshot from a video by Ognie Foundation Bangladesh. Fair use.

Screenshot from a video by Ognie Foundation Bangladesh. Fair use.

About a year ago, when I was about six months pregnant, I was at an event I had designed and organized, which incorporated stories and creative expressions of gender diversity in Bangladesh. At the event, a stranger humbly expressed his curiosity about the topic of the event. After a brief discussion, he hesitantly asked what a transgender person’s genitalia looked like. Assuming that he wanted to know about the sex organs of intersex individuals, I said what I always offer as an answer to this curiosity — it’s a diverse possibility, that it is exactly as it sounds like — anything between the male and female genitalia. Therefore, only an intersex person can tell what their sex organ looks like. He then said that he was wondering if an intersex person could bear a child because he couldn’t help overhearing me talking to my friend, and was very surprised to hear that I was pregnant. That is when I realized that not only did he not know the difference between transgender and intersex, but he also had assumed that everyone working on gender diversity had to be a transgender or intersex person.

The conception of gender identity

Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon scenario in Bangladesh. The sad reality is that the average perception of gender in Bangladesh is quite vague and misinformed. Sex and gender are often used interchangeably, and people rarely know the difference between transgender and intersex, or between sex and sexuality. To add to the confusion, in January 2014, the Bangladesh government officially gave recognition to hijras as the third gender/sex, with no clear definition or explanation whatsoever. Transgenders and intersex individuals are often considered to be hijras, and all these identities experience similar backlash from conservative sectors of society as homosexuals.

Homosexuality is an entirely different and significant debate, given the murder of Avijit Roy, the writer of “Somokamita” (Homosexuality) in 2015, and Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabby Tonoy, the LGBTQ+ rights activists in 2016. Sexuality is a binary concept, and only heterosexual relationships are socially and legally acceptable in Bangladesh. Homosexuality is a punishable offense under the Bangladeshi Penal Code 1860, Section 377. I would like to keep the topic of sexuality aside while I try to clear the fog around gender identities in Bangladesh, specifically trans identities.

Ostracized by the society

In November 2023, transgender activist Hochemin Islam was refused entry to North South University while all set to speak at an event at the private university entitled Women's Career Carnival. A particular faction of students protested her presence, claiming that she was there to promote LGBTQ+ communities. When I was writing this piece, the authorities of BRAC University had already terminated Asif Mahtab Utsha, an adjunct faculty at the philosophy department, after he criticized the addition of a transgender topic in a textbook, which was followed by a backlash, either supporting or criticizing his stand. Such incidents highlight not only the widespread ignorance about trans identity among the general public but also possible deliberate provocations from some quarters, fueled by religious sentiment, which had been seen to be fatal in the past. Hence, It is crucial to find a peaceful balance between facts and assumptions while educating an uninitiated audience on the concept of gender beyond binary identities.

Hijras and gender identity

It is essential to clarify the hijra identity while talking about gender diversity in Bangladesh, because hijra is not a gender identity, to begin with. It is a cultural identity of eunuchs, intersex people, or transgender people who live in communities that follow a kinship system that upholds unique community values, social hierarchy, economic practices, language, profession, religious beliefs, and lifestyles — an independent subculture, in a way. Even though many hijras are transgenders, and some are intersex, all transgenders and intersex individuals are not necessarily hijras. Being a hijra requires a formal initiation and a process of socialization within the community. By recognizing hijras as the third gender, the government has tagged a cultural identity as gender, which inspired further conflict within the communities of gender-based minorities battling for recognition and rights. The general stigma around sex and sex education in Bangladesh makes the matter worse by convoluted discussions that deliberately avoid specific technical details and lived experiences.

Intersex vs transgender

As basic as it might sound, understanding the difference between intersex and transgender requires understanding the difference between sex and gender. Sex is biological, and gender is sociocultural. Male and female are sexes, while man and woman are genders. Trans identity has nothing to do with sex; that is, trans identity is not determined by genitalia. Transgender is as it sounds: a gender identity. It’s a sociocultural and psychological expression of an individual, independent of their physical anatomy or genetic makeup. A transwoman is someone who was born a male (with male sex organs) but identifies as a woman. A transman is a man born with a female body. Some trans individuals might opt for sex reassignment surgery and hormone replacement therapy to change their biological bodies. However, not everyone chooses physical transformation to feel like their true self.

From my experience as an activist and facilitator, I have seen many people believe that being transgender is a disease, that it is “curable” by medication, or it is a sexual perversion that marriage can “fix.” I met Moumita, a transwoman whose family made her take medication when she opened up about her gender identity, despite doctors explaining how perfectly natural her trans identity was. The medication would keep her drowsy and immobile. To free herself from this house arrest and the side effects of the medication, Moumita started to pretend to be masculine before her family. However, when given the chance, she would dress and live like a woman, and inspire others to live as their true selves.

Unheard voices of transgenders

Neelima, a transwoman, visibly lives the life of a typical married man but, deep down, yearns to be validated as a woman. In her words, “I don't look like a regular woman. I don’t have supple skin, long hair, or any feminine features in my mannerisms. But it is true that if given the opportunity and a suitable environment, I would like to change myself completely. A few days ago, I took contraceptive pills recklessly for a few days. Knowing that it contains estrogen, I might have hoped that it would help me have a little delicateness or a little femininity, even if there was no drastic physical change. However, due to some fear and some physical difficulties, I could not continue it for long. The difference between my desire and reality may be responsible for my persistent depression, knowing that self-acceptance is real. Yet I crave validation and acceptance as a woman, desperately.”

Or as Piu, a transwoman, said, “As a child, I used to love dressing up. I used to play with dolls. People used to say that I behaved and smiled like a girl. I used to hear bad things about my hair. I felt bad. So, to save myself from getting hurt, I started trying to become a man. I know martial arts, used to exercise. I changed my walk and made it masculine. I also did theater because I was interested in acting and art, and this made it easier for me to mold myself into a male persona. I acted well enough to pass as a macho boy to survive.”

Shammyo, a transgender man, had grasped the significance of his hormonal changes during his adolescence. As his chest began to develop, he pressed it beneath thick volumes of books, hoping to stifle its growth. Sometimes, he used to take the “Shiil-Pata” (mortar and pestle) from the kitchen and place it upon his chest, and pray the whole night till dawn appeared: “It wasn't a pleasant sensation; I cried often during those times. The mornings and their colors often felt dull, even meaningless. Yet, I have lived through thousands of burials of mine.”

Nayantara is a transwoman. She has seen herself as a woman since childhood. She has yet to reveal her identity publicly. She intentionally drops occasional hints about her womanhood on social media so that people will warm up to her identity slowly and not get pushed away at once. She believes that emotional support from family is crucial for individuals like her, and disseminating knowledge about sex, gender, and sexuality to families, especially in rural areas, is essential. This resonates with Moumita who believes that acceptance should start from the family; hence, it is important to change society’s mindset.

As Shomudro, a man trapped in a female body, told me, “How would you feel If you were wrapped in an air-tight box? I have been feeling suffocated the exact way throughout my life. You know what? If you showed us just a little love, we could live fully for the rest of our lives!”

The person who assumed me to be a trans individual left the event without knowing my gender identity. I deliberately did not try to change his opinion about me that day. I did not want to “other” my transgender fellows in Bangladesh with my privileged identity, especially when speaking for themselves put their safety and dignity at stake.

I dream of an inclusive future that nurtures kindness and tolerance for all lives. In the age of social media, when it is so easy to spread hate and misinformation like wildfire, I believe it is important to have the courage to question our assumptions and have the empathy to see the human behind an idea that might sound alien at first. It is necessary to step out of our bubbles and try to see that gender might not be a choice like our taste in food or clothing — something that people can acquire or change. If gender were a choice, probably no person with a male body would have dreamed of living like a woman, and no female individual would have gone through so much suffering to be known as a man in a heteronormative, patriarchal society like ours.

Trishia Nashtaran is a feminist activist and foresight strategist living in Bangladesh

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