Gender, Romance and the Internet

This essay appears in the on Sexuality, Sexual and Reproductive Health & Rights issue of the Arrow For Change Journal, published Aug 2016. Download a PDF copy of the journal.

The making of a Non-Binary, Non-Binary person

I am a transwoman.

This is a statement that I have only recently embraced and owned. For years, growing up in a conservative family in a conservative city, I’ve sought to distance myself from transgender people, the most visible set of them at least — the Aravanis of Tamil Nadu, or the Hijras of North India.

Labels are often ways in which humans create the Other, create a ‘them’ who is not an ‘us’. You are either with us — all that is familiar and comfortable and safe- or you are with them — all that is strange, different, potentially harming. You are with us, or you are against us. Labels come with their stigma, beaten and sharpened over the years into powerful blades that can cut you up.

In this essay, I look at the how I came to adopt labels such as trans-woman, lesbian, and others, after initially rejecting them. I further attempt to explore the granular identities within such labels and the communities around them. Second, I discuss how the internet helped me, and others in similar communities, refine their labels, or reject them altogether.

They call us different names

In the global battle against the HIV/AIDS epidemic, knowledge about the modes of its transmission resulted in the creation of a system of ‘key populations’ or ‘target groups’ that were considered to be most at risk of contracting the virus because of their sexual, and social and cultural practices. Identifying these groups and their risk made it possible to channel money and programmes to manage the spread of the disease.

One such category is MSM-TG: Men having Sex with Men, and TransGender people. While the term TransGender itself is inclusive of other, more diverse identities, in the world of HIV/AIDS prevention, TG stands almost exclusively for transgender women. Hijras, Kothis and Aravanis are also clubbed into this group, though they are all distinct.

However, to the large majority of ‘us’ who have been brought up to believe that gender can only be binary (masculine or feminine) and that the sex organ determines gender (penis =male=masculine, and vagina=female=feminine), transwomen are simply ‘men in dresses’.

Publically available information reinforces these stereotypes. Any number of stories one heard of from friends, colleagues, and both on and off the internet, played on themes of the entrapped man, one who, in ‘good faith’, approached a woman only to be ‘deceived’, that she was, in fact, a he. The Hijras I encountered on the streets and the trains too put on a theatre of gender, playing oversexualised, oversexed women desperate for male company. The medical and mental health industries had their own sets of labels and identities: transsexual, transvestite, pseudo-hermaphrodite, autogynephile. Meanwhile, mainstream and fetish pornography coopted these experiences into a Victorian stereotype of a “Shemale”, and were putting out newer words: tranny, t-girl, and more. Terms that perpetuated harmful clichés, and further stigma.

However, to me the most worrying implication of this clubbing together of Homosexual men and Transgender women was the implicit assumption that both sets of people were attracted solely to “other” men. Are human beings only defined by their romantic and sexual attraction? Is identity, therefore, determined externally?

As a transwoman who was (and perhaps still am) struggling with my gender identity and my sexual orientation, these labels and stereotype created severe anxiety and doubt in my mind. Was I, in the throes of sexual attraction to women, a man then? Was I ‘normal’ after all? Was my desire for, and attraction to the girls in the school then, and to the co-workers and friends later, a playing out of ‘natural’ ‘masculine’ desire? As a teenager, and as a young adult, I struggled with this sameness, this affiliation to the gender I was assigned to. At the same time, I was terrified of the social ostracisation that I saw meted out to Hijras and Aravanis, I avoided acknowledging, even to myself, that I might have more in common with them than with the boys of my school. I not only felt fear and shame in adopting these labels for myself, but also felt the labels themselves were inadequate, incomplete.

It would take me a lot of exploration, and a lot of problematic terminologies sourced from the Internet, to finally arrive at a label I felt comfortable in: A non-binary, non-binary woman.

It happened online…

I am a trans woman. It is my truth. But the basis of this truth is a lie. The vocabulary I have now, to describe myself as a trans woman, as a non-binary woman, is a gift of the Internet. In the mid to late 1990s, accessing a still-new world-wide-web via a dialup connection, I discovered Yahoo! Chat. On chat room after chat room, I presented myself as a girl. As a girl who was attracted to other girls.

Amina Abdallah, the ‘Gay Girl in Damascus’, was not born till much later. A character, a false-persona created by Tom MacMaster in 2011, Amina portrayed herself as a lesbian in a Syria going through uprisings and revolts. Although as a persona, Amina had existed on various chat forums and networking sites from 2006, it wasn’t till the Arab Spring that she gained a large following. Through a blog, Amina ‘reported’ on events shaping up in Syria, including how her father, her hero, stood up to the militia seeking to arrest her. Later, after her alleged ‘abduction’ doubts began circulating as to her identity, and it was revealed that Tom MacMaster was the “real” person behind Amina.

But even before then, I was constructing an identity, I was building up Nadja whose aspirations, dreams and hopes were entirely mine. However, her face, body, life and history, were an amalgam of fact and fiction, culled from friends’ lives, from books, and from every image resource I could find on the internet. Like Amina, my Nadja too needed photographs, needed plausible truths and believable lies in the construction of identity. Chat friends needed a picture of me, to help them sustain the fiction of my life. Yahoo Profiles and Groups needed biographies and hometowns and schools studied in to present a complete person, a ‘true’ person. So I ‘stole’ images freely, not worrying at all about copyright, consent, privacy and authenticity. As an Indian, I studiously avoided sending my friends pictures of white women. Finding an image closest to my dark brown skin, and using all available tools to make it as ‘authentically south Indian’ as possible. As Nadja learnt, and as Amina too discovered, photographs that were closest to the identity one constructs help sustain the deception.

This deception, this half-lie, half-truth, was easy in the early Internet. It was expected too, perhaps. You could be who you claimed to be, and no probing would be necessary. This was essential for some of us who were expressing desires and opinions that had little offline, ‘real world’ support. This was plausible deniability, a cloak to hide under.

Years later, I discovered Second Life, a multiplayer game that allows users to create a virtual world. Avatars — digital selves — interact with each other, exploring ideas of what makes humans, what it means to be a man or a woman, what it means to desire other men and other women with no ‘real world’ rules to play by. For me, it became more than a game, more than an addiction. It became an existence.

On Second Life, I created a me that was more me than I could be. The Nadja of Yahoo Chat was slowly becoming the Nadika that I am today. As someone who struggled with her own body and how it was perceived, the women I pretended to be and the avatars I created became necessary crutches. A body shaped for, and by, the Internet.

As a boy questioning gender, and as a trans-woman, I experienced desire and rejection. I experienced crushes and unrequited, unprofessed love. The question I asked myself: are trans-women exclusively attracted to, and seek sexual relationships solely with men? Would someone like me — who felt a deep attraction to women, both romantic and sexual — therefore be ‘still’ a man, even though I felt deeply uncomfortable with being one?

While there were forums and chatrooms dedicated to homosexual desire and attraction, and while terms like Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual were not unfamiliar, perceptions and understanding were limited by the filters of one’s own society and peers. Therefore, only a ‘born girl’, a GG — genetic girl — could be a lesbian. ‘Men’ like me, could only be sissies, gay men in dresses. I had to navigate further pools of perversion and illicit desire to find the perfect label for me.

Still unsure of my gender, ‘still’ a man, I worried about the best time to disclose to the person I was chatting with, my doubts and anxieties over my gender. Would a woman accept the me I wanted to be, without questioning her own likes and preferences?

I was unaware, till recently, of lesbian only dating spaces. Now there are options — Brenda, LesPark, Her, and many more. OkCupid and Tinder allow one to limit visibility, allow one to be discovered by people of only certain genders.

Would a trans-woman be allowed into these spaces? My identity, as a lesbian trans-woman, was genuine. But would my physical body, my voice, belie this?

In a web series called Her Story, the protagonist (and in real life one of the writers of the show) Jen Richards, as Vi, falls in love with a queer, lesbian identified woman, Allie. In a beautiful scene, Vi explains why, for her, having relationships with men is easier than with women. Vi happens to be transgender, and she therefore feels her femininity, her womanhood, is not questioned when she sleeps with, and has sexual relations with men. Next to their body, Vi is obviously feminine. But, even in a coffee shop, in a casual setting, Vi unconsciously debates her womanhood when talking to Allie. Set in Los Angeles, California, the lives of Vi, Allie, Paige and their friends would seem very different to the lives of a lot of transgender people — especially trans-women — in India, and elsewhere in Asia. However, as a transgender woman deeply attracted to other women, this scene struck a chord with me all the way across the cultural divide. Like Vi, like other trans-women I know, I have had to constantly reinforce my gender and sexuality to potential partners.

In recent months, I have found acceptance and community. Social Media and queer forums online and offline are spaces to add layers and depth to my identity, allowing me to tie my various lives and loves together into a coherent narrative. Having learnt to be more aware of my privileges and my oppression, and having an outlet to broadcast my politics and my personal life, I now am able to tell the world all about me. I am Nadika. I am a non-binary, non-binary person.