Though posted in November, this post was written in July, a few weeks into my study abroad experience.
. . .
“Women only! Women only!”
I’m at Imliban Park in Hyderabad with two other international students, both of whom are cisgender women.
“Women only! Women only!”
A man is walking towards us, holding a stick. It takes us a second before someone understands what he’s saying; we hadn’t seen any signs declaring “women only.”
“This is the women’s only section of the park,” one of my friends says and we quickly move towards where the man is herding us.
It’d been a while since I was scolded in a women’s only space. Specifically, it had been maybe two and a half weeks, since I left the United States, where I usually use women’s restrooms, since I’m assigned female at birth and the way strangers perceive my gender is inconsistent. While it’s generally uncomfortable when cis women in restrooms ask me if they’re in the right bathroom or do a double take with unguarded shock, it always felt safer to me.
I knew in studying abroad, leaving my cherished queer community and exploring a new place, my gender identity would need to be a negotiation. In some ways, a literal negotiation (i.e. is it legal to take testosterone to India, how will I transport 6 vials of T and 50 some needles through customs) and in other ways a negotiation with myself (what sort of expression will keep me safe in the external world, but also safe within myself, and not lead to intense amounts of dysphoria). It became apparent in my preparations that presenting male full time would be best for my internal and external safety.
I emailed my program director, who was supportive. They found a host family that would know I’m AFAB (assigned female at birth), so I wouldn’t have to be stealth in the home. I would have to deal with a decent amount of bureaucratic outing (i.e. professors calling me by my legal name until I correct them, my student identity documents saying “F,” etc.) but otherwise, I could be Charlie, a male student from the United States. Before I left home, I put clear plastic retainers in my piercings, cut out the red in my hair, and chose the clothes in my suitcase based on what wouldn’t make me look gay. U.S. American queer aesthetic doesn’t necessarily translate to Indian culture, but my queer friends who had been to India recommended I go as discreet as possible, not draw attention to myself, lest someone stare too long and realize that I can’t grow facial hair and don’t have a penis.
I was prepared to leave my queer community, to explore other aspects of myself while navigating a different culture from my own, but I wasn’t prepared for all the gender segregated security checkpoints that exist in India. The first I encountered was in the Delhi airport. At the start of airport security, all travelers were integrated, taking out laptops and sending bags through scanners. Then I had to choose one of the lines for the metal detector and pat-down. I stepped up to the “Ladies” line. This wouldn’t be my strategy elsewhere in India, but being at the airport, I didn’t know when they would next check my passport and discover the “F” marker inside, or what the consequences were if they checked my F identity documents while I had opted into a male-only line.
As soon as I stepped up to the line, several other travelers in the gents line scolded me, saying “That’s the ladies line - that’s the ladies line.” I paused, looking at the closest man scolding and said, “I know. I have…” and I cupped my chest, covered by a sports bra instead of a binder with the intention of confusing less people while I traveled with female gender markers on my documents.
While I could let go of the public scolding at the airport, the first week of trying to pass full-time was stressful. After arriving in Hyderabad, my program took us around touring on several days, and I took to using the “Gents” security lines at parks, malls, museums, and wherever else the lines occur. I make less of a scene this way, but I feel a trace of panic flash down my spine whenever the security guard passes his hands over my chest or the sides of my binder. So far, they haven’t said anything.
That first week, I found so much of my emotional energy going towards thinking about being trans, wondering if I was passing well enough, who knew and who didn’t know, if someone who did know would accidentally out me, when next my program advisors would out me in front of the other international students, calculating how long I’d been wearing a binder, wondering if I would get a rash from sweating in my binders or if binding was contributing to the knots in my upper back, hiding my binders and pads so my host family’s cleaning people wouldn’t find out, wondering when next there would be an unexpected visitor at the house who I should be passing for, and so on.
It’s been getting easier, though. As classes start, my schedule is more predictable. For the most part, I know who I might see each day and if I’ll be encountering gendered security lines, and as a result, I’m finding more grounding.
Last week, a local student in one of my classes asked if I knew much about the non-binary movement in the United States and responded “I knew it!” when I told her I use they/them pronouns in the U.S. Hopefully, other queer people keep finding me.
I’ve kept writing about it, kept reaching out to people who affirm and validate my gender identity back home, and reached out to another international student. I’ve danced and meditated and found support in my various spiritual practices.
I wish it didn’t feel like I was going through this alone, though. I wish there was more support from the program to educate advisors to commit to being accomplices to trans and gender variant folks. Traveling while trans might never be comfortable for me, but it would help if I had mentors from this program who I didn’t have to educate, who used male pronouns for me consistently, who investigated the experiences of LGBT people in the area to better advise me and know the potential risks I am taking in being a trans foreigner.