Meena: a transgender students’ story
‘When I was little, I thought something was wrong with me. There was something wrong with me, but I never understood what it was’, Meena begins. During her youth, she was happiest around her female family members and having slumber parties with her girl cousins. Although she knew that she was a girl too, she was born a boy.
As she grew older and high school began, her classmates were separated into different groups based on gender. ‘It was a big shock,’ she says. ‘When I became more mature and more understanding of the surroundings, I became conscious of being caught if someone knew. Then I became very careful, and I never spoke of it because I didn’t know what it was.’
Uncomfortable in your own skin
Meena is transgender, which is a term for a person whose gender identity differs from what is typically associated with the sex they are assigned at birth. Transgenderism is a form of gender dysphoria, an extreme discontentment with being in your own skin.
After transitioning to a different sex, a person becomes officially transgender. A person may decide to become officially recognised as the gender he or she wants from that point onward, but a person can also choose to continue to refer to him or herself as transgender or transsexual.
And like Meena, it’s also possible to be attracted to the opposite gender from what you were born as, but for it to technically be a same-sex attraction based upon the gender that you identify yourself as.‘I still didn’t know what it was’
‘I always thought I was gay, because I still didn’t know what it was. I am in a sense gay, because I am attracted to women. So I am happy to be able to say that, because I don’t want to lie anymore. I can say that I’m gay.’
Even after she moved to the Netherlands in 2008, it was a slow process of becoming comfortable with being herself. She began joining LGBT groups and attending their events and parties around Rotterdam, where she lived for several years before becoming a student in Groningen. She also started dressing more effeminately, choosing to wear ankle boots, getting her ears pierced and painting her nails.
She realises that the very act of being herself can make her a target, which has sadly happened to her already. When she was living in Rotterdam, she was preparing to bike home after a party one night when a guy pulled a knife on her and demanded she give him her bike. ‘I didn’t want to give it to him, but it was very scary and I couldn’t run fast, so I gave him the bike.’
Yet she didn’t go to the police about the attack, partially because she had been told that stolen bikes are never recovered, but also because of who she was. ‘I was in my early age of self acceptance as a transgender, and I was afraid of telling anyone.’
She is certain that her appearance was what prompted the thief to approach her, even though she had hoped that her choice of footwear and bordeux-painted nails would be less visible by night. ‘From that time on, I was careful not to show myself, to disguise myself as neutrally as possible.’
Now that she is in Groningen, she seems to be daring to dress the way she feels again. She finds the moderate size of the city in comparison to the Randstad area reassuring. She moved here a couple of months ago to pursue her studies and she also joined the LGBT student group, Ganymedes.
‘The society is so nice, and we’re all in the same corner if you look at it in the big picture for gender identity, gender expressions and sexual orientation, including cross dressers and transvestites who dress outwardly as women but they are still me’, she says. ‘So all are included in LGBT, and it’s nice to have support from such a student society. It’s a pleasure and an honour to have met them.’‘I finally looked through the looking glass’
As far as she knows, she is the only ‘T’ member in the LGBT group, and she is also well aware that she belongs to an even smaller minority group. In the Netherlands, roughly 1 out of every 2,000 people is estimated to have gender dysphoria. But through Ganymedes and another transgender group here in Groningen, Meena has been able to find the words to describe truths that she has known about herself all along.
‘It was very gradual, very slow, getting to know the technical terms, but everything I began to know, I already knew it. I was really happy, because I thought it was a figment of my imagination. I finally looked through the looking glass.’
That lack of information or not even knowing what to look for is a shared experience among other transsexual people. ‘A transgender person doesn’t get any information from anyone. Not even most doctors know, only doctors who specialise in working with transgender people’, Meena says.
Transgenderism is not covered in sexual education basically anywhere, and she says that some psychologists can actually decline to work with transgender clients, a resource that is just as important for transgender people as proper medical treatment.
Anyone who wants to transition to a different sex has to take a number and get in line in Groningen, though. It could take up to two years from now before Meena can begin hormone replacement therapy, prior to which she will have to go through a series of mental and physical assessments, all of which will be done in preparation for an eventual sex reassignment operation.
‘I would have liked to begin today, but unfortunately, it’s not possible, and it’s a ridiculously long list. But fortunately, the silver lining in the Netherlands is that it is possible.’
She has become a Dutch citizen at this point, but her family is from India. She readily points out that a third gender option is constitutionally recognised in India, as it is in Nepal and Thailand as well. India even has a word for transsexual people: hijra.
But Meena says that doesn’t mean much to most citizens. ‘The perception of transgenders there is very bad. They don’t see that transgenders are people. They see them as punishment from some god.’
Even though she knows that views like this are not uncommon, she prefers to put her circumstances into the grand scheme of things – the grandest scheme of things, really.
‘I think we are not evolved enough to realise how small we are in the universe. Even just the Milky Way is one of hundred billion galaxies, so even to call us a speck is to say we’re very large. We’re just a speck of dust in the ocean of the universe, and if we see the big picture, the pale blue dot, we would recognise our shortcomings as a species. We wouldn’t pay attention to ideologies, differences, national pride, territoriality, passport policies, borders, but unfortunately, almost no one thinks that way.’
*Meena is a pseudonym to protect the student’s identity.
To read more about LGBT student experiences in Groningen, be sure to check out our in-depth interview with the members of Ganymedes.