For better or for worse, people think in boxes. They have boxes for things, and they have boxes for people: Bengali, westerner, Muslim, Hindu, atheist, Asian, White, Black… Curiously, one pair of boxes seems to play a particularly important role in people’s lives: Think about it… What was the first-ever question that anybody has asked about you? Likely, the answer is: “Is it a boy or a girl?” And, likely, that question was asked before you were even born. But does it really matter whether you are a man or a woman? And should it matter?
A day after being sentenced to serve 35 years in federal prison for leaking classified information, the United States Army soldier formerly known as Bradley Manning ignited a media firestorm by announcing that she considers herself a female and wants to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. “I want everyone to know the real me,” the 25-year-old said in a statement. “I am Chelsea Manning.”
Manning is a transgender person. According to the American Psychological Association, “transgender is an umbrella term for persons whose gender identity, gender expression, or behaviour does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth. Gender identity refers to a person’s internal sense of being male, female, or something else; gender expression refers to the way a person communicates gender identity to others through behaviour, clothing, hairstyles, voice, or body characteristics.” Note that transgender people may or may not have a desire to alter their bodies hormonally or surgically, and that Manning hence only represents part of a wide spectrum.
Manning is not “pretending to be a woman,” or merely “acting as if she was a woman.” Rather, being a woman is an integral part of her identity. We respect that, as we believe everybody should, and hence refer to the soldier using the female pronoun. Being recognised as who we are is important, for our well-being, and for our self-esteem; just as it is important that we feel at home in our own skin.
If you are not a transgender person yourself, and if you are a woman, imagine you wake up one morning and have a male body: a body with male chromosomes, male genitals, and so on; if you are a man, imagine you wake up and have a female body. Imagine going through your daily routine in that body. Imagine going to school, university, or work. Imagine hanging out with your friends. Imagine having sex. Imagine having an organ between your legs that you feel does not belong there. Imagine the change in your body hair, skin and fat distribution. Imagine you had to spend the rest of your life in that body. How would you feel? Do you understand why Chelsea is seeking hormone treatment, why she is trying to get her body more in line with her mind?
Nobody knows how many transgender people there are, but we do know that there are transgender people in every community. Some are Muslims, some are Hindus, and some are atheists. Some are poor, and some are rich. Some hold doctorates, and some are illiterate. Some are Bangladeshis.
Masud (not her real name) lives in a small town in Bangladesh, located a few hours’ drive from Dhaka. Like Manning, Masud is a biological male who identifies as a female, in short: a transgender woman. Unlike Manning, Masud never talked about her gender identity in public and still uses the male first name her parents gave to her shortly after she was born, the same name that is on her National Identity Card, her school certificate and her Facebook profile.
“From a very early age, I realised that the body I was in just did not feel right. I did not have similar interests like the boys, such as in sports and outdoor activities. I realised that I did not talk or walk like the other boys and, as a result, would often get teased by many of my classmates and even random people on the street,” she says.
Even though Masud learned to cope with her predicament and the vices and difficulties that society would put upon her, she has always had a strong desire to express her gender identity. “I wanted to have long hair like the girls did, and I felt like I didn’t belong in this body!”
It took Masud many years to find her true self, and there was a time when she thought she was gay. “I didn’t feel attracted towards girls, but rather guys,” she recalls. Only later she started to identify as a straight woman. She becomes visibly angered, her voice shaking, when she talks about her past relationships with men who had given her “false hope, only to turn their backs when I wanted something more serious and meaningful.”
Masud has yet to tell her parents about her gender identity, but she realises that they “sense I am a little different. And they have come to terms with it.” She does understand that society is mostly to blame for what she is going through, and her biggest gripe is with how people generally perceive her as someone who is “mentally ill.” To be clear, that perception is wrong. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – often called the psychiatrist’s bible and widely used among Bangladeshi mental health professionals – does not list being transgender as a mental disorder.
“As I grew older, I did come to terms that this was not any illness, and that I was perfectly normal. But I had moments where I wanted to give up, after numerous failed relationships with men. I did contemplate committing suicide a couple of times,” she reveals.
Masud’s struggle and despair should be no surprise. In Bangladesh, as in many other places, both society and the state have little regard for the rights of transgender people. They consequently face discrimination in nearly every aspect of their lives, resulting not only in material disadvantages, but also in a significant amount of psychological stress. Transgender people who are open about their gender identity often find it hard – if not impossible – to find housing, or a decent job. They do not get admitted to schools or universities. They are ostracised by their families. And they have limited access to legal services and adequate health care. According to the Sexual Rights Initiative, there is no legal stance on sex reassignment surgery in Bangladesh. Nor is there any medical establishment providing for the needs of transgender people. Clearly, Bangladesh has a long way to go, and so do many, many other countries for that matter, including those in the West.
Being transgender is just another way of being human, and transgender people deserve to be treated accordingly: as human beings with rights and dignity like you and us. Giving people the respect they deserve is the moral and decent thing to do, and that is not too much to ask for. Is it?
Shahnoor Rabbani is a sub-editor at Dhaka Tribune, a freelance writer and a sports analyst at Radio Shadhin. Rainer Ebert is a graduate student of philosophy at Rice University, a founding member of the Bangladesh Liberal Forum, and an Associate Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics.