New Delhi: Life is not easy for a trans person, the struggle starts the day they realise that they are different and it just never ends. This is the story of Abhina Aher, 44, a resident of Delhi who struggled while coming to terms with her gender identity. She is the daughter of a single mother who is a dancer. In her childhood, Abhina was skinny and feminine, although she was a boy back then. She cherished wearing her mother's sarees, doing makeup and dancing exactly like her mother.
Abhina said, “I wanted to learn dancing just like my mother but due to rigid gender roles, I was not allowed to dance or play with dolls. Right from early childhood, my mother was worried about me as I had fallen prey to hatred a lot. I was bullied and traumatised during my schooling. A bunch of older guys raped and abused me. I faced issues related to washrooms since all the washrooms in my school were binary, which gave me a urinary tract infection and constant pain in my abdomen. Teachers hardly gave any support to my gender congruence since they were also not aware of what was happening to me.”
During college life, Abhina started hating herself as her body was not developing as a woman but instead turning masculine.
“I used to envy all the girls in school and college who had amazing bodies and was always at the centre of attraction for the same boys I used to have a crush on. I started experimenting with my sexual desires as I came to know that I wanted to be with men. It was not a great experience since I was looking for love and several boys/men used me only for sex. After those sexual encounters, I didn’t feel great as I did not have friends. Everyone who used to have sex with me was not comfortable been seen with me in public,” said Abhina.
After completing college, Aher became a teacher and started teaching in a computer institute. Life was still not easy for her as the centre manager used to bully her and often gave disrespectful statements in front of other students.
“Students never used to respect me as a teacher since they came to know about my gender identity from the remarks passed by the centre manager. It was difficult for me to manage my professional work since I used to feel traumatised going to work every day. Public transport was a big issue as I wanted to travel in female compartments and was not happy being touched and harassed by other men in the railway,” said Abhina.
She also said, “Mental health was a huge challenge for me due to two major issues: my gender incongruence and my sexual identity. I faced hatred and humiliation from an early age which impacted my self-respect. I was suicidal and attempted to kill my life almost three times. I used to punish myself whenever I had any sexual desires. I had no one to talk to. When I started having continuous headaches, my mother took me to a public hospital, however, they could not understand my issues. Life was difficult for me since I was looking for dignity and support. Lack of information was killing me, and I just wanted to connect with someone like me who can understand my struggles.”
Abhina started transitioning in her twenties, but still, she was not considered as a woman. In the middle of it all, she lost her job and for three years, she had to survive on sex work.
“Financial situations become precarious since several male partners who promised to love me took away all my savings and left. Life was lonely and I lost my motivation and goals. Complexities of gender transition were taking a toll on my mental and physical health. Expensive surgeries and hormones were giving me the pleasure of having body transformation, however I started losing calcium from my bones, my mental health was impacted and my physical energy to do the things was drained. As I started transitioning, I have been shunned down in public places, I face huge stigma in public spaces, public transport and my residential area as well,” said Abhina.
She also added, “People used to throw pebbles at me and used to call me Gud, Mamu, Chakka, Hijra while I passed by them. I could not manage to attend any of my family functions, all my cousin brothers started keeping their distance from me. I did not want to meet anyone, or to be seen by anyone. I was in a dilemma whether I should run away from home and leave others. My mother and I were not on speaking terms since she was not happy with my gender transition issues and was unable to answer the questions raised by my relatives and neighbours. No one was willing to employ me and if they were, they were putting conditions on my attire and behaviour.”
Whoever Abhina loved was not ready to accept her in public or spend their life with her as a husband. She said it was her huge mistake for trusting such men from whom she looked for affirmation on her gender as a transwoman. She realised an important lesson that one should love themselves as no one can affirm anyone's gender other than themselves.
After getting such hits from her life, Abhina came to know about the Humsafar Trust which is an LGBTQIA+ organisation. From there, she started working in that organisation and also met people of LGBTQIA+ community from India and outside. “I spoke to several mental health professionals and discussed my issues with several trans leaders. Initially, I was extremely worried about my mother since she was quite disappointed in me during my gender transition. We did not speak to each other for almost six years, even while we were staying in the same house. Finally, we broke down and cried in front of each other. She mentioned that she was worried about me and that I won't get respect and inclusion in society. I assured her that I will be working for the community and will make her proud. Once she started accepting me, it gave me a lot of courage and encouragement. Once my mother stood next to me, I was not afraid to face society at all,” said Abhina.
Abhina shifted to Delhi in 2010, she was later chosen to become the national program manager of the Global Fund Program which is working with 4,00,000 sexual minorities in India. It was Sonal Mehta, Director of Policy working in Alliance India who chose her to become the national program manager. Abhina started meeting international trans activists and shared her story. Through this, Abhina got in the eyes of several platforms who wanted her to be a part of trans initiatives. Later, Abhina applied for the chairperson position with Asia's largest trans network APTN (Asia Pacific Transgender Network) where she got selected. Along with this, her initiative in India to start a trans-led dancing group called 'Dancing Queens' got an award from the Human Right Association in Washington.
“My mother never taught me dancing though she is a professional Kathak and folk dancer. I used to go to all her shows and observe her. I used to practice her moves silently in private and at the age of 19, I performed in front of her on stage. I was also involved in a dancing group in my college. It was a big surprise for my mother and she asked who teaches you dancing? I smiled and said – I am your Eklavya, you taught me dancing and you didn’t even know,” said Abhina.