This following is a reflexive article written by a cohort of CSGS’s TAARIF (The Transformative Arts and Research Initiatives Fellowship). The first cohort of TAARIF brought together two individuals, for a period of four months (April 1 to July 31, 2023). The fellowship serves as platform for emerging trans* scholars from the subcontinent to bring cutting-edge research into the public domain. Trans* is an inclusive term used to refer to a wide range of gender non-conforming identities (such as transexual, transgender, non-binary and agender identities) as well as several queer trans theoretical frameworks.
TAARIF is interested in incubating and funding scholarship by emerging trans* academics in India.
Last year, when my friend Doel Rakshit decided to opt for Gender Reassignment Surgeries, I was intrigued and wanted to accompany her (with her consent of course) through the process. I was amazed that my friend was opting for the path I had always intended to take, and in a way, she was showing me the path towards it. It felt like we were preparing for a glorious event, until she mentioned crowdfunding. It wasn’t as if I was opposed to the idea, since public healthcare has gradually declined in our nation and medical crowdfunding is becoming a popular option. Over the last couple of years, I have noticed a steady surge of crowdfunding campaigns for Gender Affirming Medical Intervention (GAMI)¹ procedures on social media. Although one of the first crowdfunding campaigns for gender affirmative surgery was started as early as in 2015 by trans filmmaker Joey Paul, the pandemic has popularized crowdfunding in the common Indian ethos², and the trans community is no stranger to it. Crowdfunding makes the perfect alternative, since our government healthcare, despite the directions of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill 2019 (PRS India), is yet to provide adequate and safe gender affirmative healthcare services. Moreover, the treatment costs at private healthcare institutes are skyrocketing, often making them inaccessible for a largely marginalized and oppressed group like the trans community. Yet, I was concerned for Doel. I had been observing several crowdfunding campaigns for Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS) where campaigners had faced vicious cyberharassment in the process. I remembered when, back in 2021, Prakriti Soni was dragged by trolls all over the internet for her campaign to fund her laser hair reduction. People were shocked by her audacity to campaign for something that seemed trivial and merely aesthetic, especially in the middle of the Covid-19 global health emergency. I remember trying to explain to people the significance of these aesthetic and sartorial choices for gender nonconforming people, but it actually made these conversations significantly worse. The writing on the wall was that for the cisheterosexual populace, gender affirmative procedures are elective, optional and not something that one simply can’t live without.
The first platform that Doel had opted for her campaign, interrogated her like a felon, forced her to make several visits to the psychiatrist and eventually ghosted her, while the one she ended up working with, was only marginally better. It was clear that none of these platforms were that interested in gender affirmation to begin with. We often come across advertisements of diseased children crying painfully in their hospital beds and their parents bowing to the netizens asking for help, but have you ever come across an advertisement of a trans person urging the netizens to fund their gender affirmation journey? Would these platforms promote campaigns from gender affirmation surgery ads where they can’t use graphic images of the diseased body parts, and gut wrenching tales of suffering to legitimize the distress of the campaigners to the prospective donors? The answer is not really. As someone who used to work as a medical crowdfunding content writer in their college days, we were trained to make these narratives as harrowing as possible to the extent that even the platform employees used to get mentally afflicted by them. I wondered how deep in tandem the politics of ‘fundability’ and accessibility to these campaigns goes, and whether the plethora of hierarchies in our society, namely caste, class, gender, geolocation etc. have an effect on their outcome. I was greatly inspired by Megan Farnel’s paper titled “Kickstarting Trans: The crowdfunding of gender/ sexual reassignment surgeries” which was an eye opener for me. Farnel marks these crowdfunding campaigns as sites of construction of a trans body as an, “an aesthetic commodity*”, which is built on the parameters of the legitimacy of medical distress of “the precarious trans* bodies”, the aesthetic demands of social media, and the authenticity of gender affirmative healthcare (Farnel 215). Another inspiring read was Chris Barcelos and Stephanie Budge’s article “Inequalities in Crowdfunding for Transgender Health Care” where they statistically proved the presence of racial, ageist and gender-based biases within the crowdfunding campaigns. While these research works had given enough direction and ammunition to my study, making me confident enough to approach people who had used crowdfunding to sponsor their surgeries, I was concerned about this large chasm that existed regarding literature that referred to my cultural context.
Crowdfunding is a deeply understudied platform, especially in the Indian context, and if I soldiered through, my paper would be the first to look at it from the perspective of gender affirmative healthcare for the Indian trans community. Moreover, to study the creation of a trans body from an aesthetic and sartorial purview, is even a lesser ventured area by Indian scholars in trans studies. Thankfully, team TAARIF at CSGS, saw some merit in my initial and very sketchy research proposal and assured me with a thorough guidance through a team of mentors, scholars, activists etc., which made the ‘venturing into the unknown’ a little less intimidating. In my paper, I decided to question the aesthetic and commodified position of the trans body on crowdfunding platforms and its attempt to fit into the parameters of the legitimacy of medical distress. I explored how the trans body caters to the public perception of a fundable and livable trans body and life, and if the campaigner’s socio-economic position played any role in molding that construction.
I took a queer, feminist and decolonial approach to look at the law, society and social media and how they have contributed to the creation of trans aesthetics in South Asia. I have used Shae D. Miller’s definition of trans aesthetic as, “the symbols, language, and cultural meanings stereotypically associated with transness” (Miller 327), as a guiding principle. But how do we define transness in an Indian context when we have two very disparate yet converging ideas of gender nonconformity?
The first being, the older indigenous communities, like the Hijras, Kothis and Aravanis. Second, being the modern trans individuals who are not associated with the communal lives of the former. I started noticing how different these two groups look, dress, live, work and more importantly how differently they affirm their identities through their aesthetic choices, right down to the medical and surgical interventions they choose to opt for. I recently watched the OTT shows, Taali and Made in Heaven and observed the aesthetic distinctions of the characters of Shreegauri (an indigenous trans person) and Meher ( a modern transwoman) respectively. The shows made visible the sartorial differences of the older GNC (gender non-conforming) communities and modern age trans women on screen. For example, Shreegauri, who is a member of the hijra community from the slums of Mumbai, is portrayed in heavily ornate Indian saris while Meher, a suave urbane wedding planner, moving through the territories of the ultra rich, has a fashion sense that is more western and understated. If you look around, aesthetic choices play a key role in gender affirmation and personhood for each one of us. For trans individuals, aesthetics can be a site of presenting a version of their most authentic and unique self to the world. But often, these modes of identity creation can result in conflict as the society has a penchant for watertight, bounded and stable categories of an aesthetic ideal. Just like society dictates what a cis man or a cis woman must look like, they have similar expectations from GNC individuals as well. If you look into the Transgender Persons Bill of 2019 (PRS India), the bill defines a “transgender person” as someone whose gender does not match the one assigned at birth. The Bill clubs together all trans and intersex identities in India ubiquitously under the label of “transgender” and mandates State approved identity certificates (PRS India). The Bill’s extensive but limited bureaucratic medicolegal model for trans individuals, implies that law has a definite presumption of what an ideal trans person looks like.
I was studying the array of paperwork that people opting from gender affirmative surgeries at a certain private institution of Mumbai have to undertake and it implored the clients (not patients) to remember that the results of their surgeries will never be, “as good as the original”. This posits cis bodies as the “original” aesthetic ideal which will merely be replicated onto the trans body and the ‘success’ of the surgery will be determined by how closely the replication has been made. When prepping for Doel’s surgeries, I realized how the medical industry has commodified trans bodies All the top notch service providers of SRS in India serve these “success” stories of ‘Before’ and ‘After’, where they sell one ideal body, one perfect ‘look’, one combo package of surgeries that every trans person must aspire for. Gender affirmation is no longer a personal experience, but a collective desire to conform to a certain standard of beauty that such places market. It’s almost like Cinderella, but the fairy godmother has been replaced by a new age cosmetic surgeon who produces a fat bill at the end of the tale.
As I had chosen ethnography as my research methodology, I started approaching people, mostly friends, who had chosen to crowdfund their gender affirmative procedures and requested them to share their insights and experiences. As a matter of fact, if it wasn’t for my friends, Doel, Tanvi and Seher, I would neither be confident enough to take up this project, nor would I have the motivation to continue it. There were times when I had considered if I should do it at all because I felt that I run an adequate risk of looking like someone churning the experiences and stories of trans individuals from a place of entitlement. I am a trans non-binary person, but as a person whose social perception aligns with their assigned gender at birth, I am well aware of the layers of privileges that protect me as opposed to my friends. I questioned if I am qualified enough to conduct this research but thankfully my friends yanked me out of these doubts. It is often frowned upon for researchers to form close bonds with their interlocutors and research participants, sometimes for correct moral and ethical reasons, but as Lisa M. Tillman states, “Perhaps the most important aspect of this [ethnographic] methodology is that we research with an ethic of friendship, a stance of hope, caring, justice, even love” (Tillman 735). I believe friendship has been the driving force behind this project. Doel wanted to talk about the difficulties of crowdfunding for trans healthcare in our country and the close friendship that I have shared with her through the years has allowed me to build my capabilities to carry her message forward. The affection that Tanvi has showered on me has made her trust me enough to know that I will do justice to her story and Seher had faith that the judgment and scrutiny that she had faced during her campaigning would enrage me as much as it had infuriated her.
For four months, I studied their campaigns, conducted several interviews, engaged in engrossing discussions over a plethora of issues regarding trans healthcare in our nation and bugged them with every fleeting thought that crossed my mind. I studied how their caste, class, gender, professions, geolocation, family status affected their campaigns, how they presented themselves in campaigns, negotiated with these crowdfunding companies, wrote down their stories, strategized the promotion of their campaigns on social media and communicated with their donors. From the photographs they used for their campaigns to the compromises they made along the journey, everything melted into this pot of a complicated, diverse yet grand construction of an aesthetic commodity. In these four months, my research has brought forth only a speck of the reality of the negotiations that trans people have to undergo to survive the expectations of cis heterotopia everyday, to access something as basic as affordable healthcare. Whether the increasing popularity of crowdfunding in the trans-queer community (not only for gender affirmation, but also as a method of mutual aid) is actually a good thing or simply a deferment of State responsibility back onto a particularly vulnerable community, is a part of a much larger discussion. But in future, a much larger scope of researching these campaigns will pioneer a shift from the corporeal aspects of trans studies and venture into the aesthetic lives of trans-queer people.
¹ “Gender affirming medical interventions (GAMI) are interventions that some, but not all, transgender or gender non-conforming (TGNC) individuals seek in order to bring their primary and secondary sex characteristics in line with their own affirmed gender. These interventions can include hormone treatments, genital surgery, chest surgery, hair removal, tracheal shave or speech therapy” (Society of Clinical Psychology).
² Jhangiani, Anjali “Crowdfunding Activities See Major Rise as Compared to Pre-Pandemic Times: Pune News – Times of India.” The Times of India, TOI, 27 June 2021, timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/pune/crowdfunding-activities-see-major-rise-as-compared-to-pre-pandemic-times/articleshow/83880095.cms.
Barcelos, Chris, and Stephanie L. Budge. “Inequalities in Crowdfunding for Transgender Health Care.” Transgender Health, vol. 4, no. 1, Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., May 2019, pp. 81–88. https://doi.org/10.1089/trgh.2018.0044.
Farnel, Megan. “Kickstarting Trans*: The Crowdfunding of Gender/Sexual Reassignment Surgeries.” New Media & Society, vol. 17, no. 2, SAGE Publishing, Nov. 2014, pp. 215–30. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444814558911.
Miller, Shae D. “Trans Aesthetics and Similes of Oppression.” Transgender Studies Quarterly, vol. 8, no. 3, Duke UP, Aug. 2021, pp. 327–48. https://doi.org/10.1215/23289252-9008982.
PRS India, “The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2019”, PRS Legislative Research India, The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2019
Society of Clinical Psychology. “The Relationship Between Gender Affirming Medical Interventions And Social Anxiety Among Transgender Or Gender Non-Conforming Individuals”. Division 12: American Psychological Association. Society of Clinical Psychology, 6 Aug. 2019. The Relationship between Gender Affirming Medical Interventions and Social Anxiety Among Transgender or Gender Non-Conforming Individuals | Society of Clinical Psychology.
Tillmann. “Friendship as Method.” Qualitative Inquiry, vol. 9, no. 5, SAGE Publishing, Oct. 2003, pp. 729–49. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077800403254894.
Dipanwita Paul is an independent researcher, a freelance editor and translator, and a Bahujan Non-Binary Activist. They completed their Bachelors and Masters in English Literature at Jadavpur University, earning the University medal for the latter. Their Masters dissertation is titled Nagarika: The Female Citizen and the Feminine City of Bengali Modernist Poetry. They have presented their research papers at various national and international conferences,conducted several ethnographic projects, and organized two international seminars. Their research interests lie at the quaint intersection of Queer Studies, Feminist Theory, Popular Culture, and Urban Studies.