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The Journey of a Transgender through a Medical School

The Journey of a Transgender through a Medical School Published Date : 26 Nov 2018
When your name is Zakirhusain, you are by default related with your two namesakes – Ustad Zakir Hussain, the Tabla maestro and Dr. Zakir Hussain, the former President of India. And I was more often called Dr. Zakirhusain in my childhood. So, this title literally pushed me to become a medical doctor. I joined the prestigious Seth Gordhandas Sunderdas Medical College in Mumbai. It was a dream come true for me. But then the things were not that rosy once I settled down and realized what I have signed in for. I was the only transgender student in the entire medical college, but at that time, this was unknown to people around me and I didn’t know that my state of being is labeled this.

How one becomes a doctor is a process largely unknown to the people outside of the microcosm of a medical college and medical profession. One of the most adventurous activities to which a medical student is exposed to, right at the entry into a medical school, is dissecting a human cadaver to understand Anatomy. It is one of the most surreal and spiritual experience, I must say. As I dissected and identified muscles, arteries, veins, and nerves of ‘my cadaver’, I wondered what his name was, from where he came, about his family, his education, profession and so on. And most importantly, I wondered how he died, at such a young age and how his body landed up on our dissection table. Was he unclaimed or was his body donated? I would never come to know the answers to these questions but I would be eternally thankful to ‘my cadaver’ who patiently lied down as we dissected it, part by part till all that was left of him was bones and shreds of tissues. It also made me reflect back on the noble act of donating bodies for medical dissection, by people who understand that the real thing is the soul and the body is the just the outer covering that we have rented out to use in our brief time on this planet Earth. It made me think if the soul can be diametrically different from the body. What if I had a male body and a female soul; is that possible? Now, many years down the line, I know that it is not just possible, it is what I am. It may sound silly but I curiously think, how things would change, if we had a transgender body on our dissection table. A body which was undergoing transition or was ‘there’ – helped by surgery and hormones. What if we had an intersex person’s body up for dissection? Would the authorities allow it to be even dissected by the medical students or they would discard it labeling it as abnormal and inappropriate for the study of a future doctor? I wonder what would happen if all the transgenders and intersex people around the world, instead of burning and burying our bodies donated it to medical schools? Would then, finally, people start to reckon that we exist, that we are a part of the spectrum of normality, and most importantly that we also have medical needs.

In the first year, a medical student studies the subjects of Anatomy, Physiology, and Biochemistry, which entails learning normal structure and function of the human body. As a practical aspect of this subject, a medical student is expected to check the normal human functioning and learn the basics of examining the human body – inspection, palpation, percussion, and auscultation. For this, normal individuals are used, and who can be a better person than a medical student himself to volunteer for the same. So, we have sessions, wherein a medical student strips off his shirt and lies down to be examined by his batchmates to learn anatomy and physiology. I am using the male pronoun for this medical student because it is only the male students who are expected to this, for obvious reasons. It is being done by the turn. And on a one not-so-fine day, it was my turn. The thought of removing my shirt itself was scary. Being mentally a female, I was extremely conscious and concerned about my modesty and the thought that someone could see me shirtless would fill me with dread, forget about someone touching me. But then, I couldn’t say no and it happened. And it scarred me for life; the reason why I not just remember it but I am also writing about it, even after 18 years. And it was not just about me being publicly examined. In fact, whenever a boy touched me, even if it was just a handshake, it would fill me with an indescribable sensation, which was at once, both pleasurable and taboo. I was too confused about why I felt the way I felt; if others felt the same (I knew they didn’t) and why I felt differently. I wonder if things would be better if everyone understands and respects the perceived genders of the individuals rather than simply their sex and assigned genders.

Another dreaded experience of undressing myself was when I had another adventure of my life. Entering an operation theatre for the first time in your life can be a very thrilling experience. It is something worth writing about and going home and talking about. But before one enters the temple of surgery, one has to discard their worldly possession and wear the special attire earmarked for this pilgrimage. The whole experience feels very akin to the journey of a pilgrim who has to cleanse himself and adorn himself with simple uniforms before he enters the sanctum sanctorum. However, in a medical college, the changing room can be a horrifying place for a transgender. To undress in front of a bunch of boys was a horror which I can’t forget till now. Tara, a third-year medical student at a government college in Delhi, identifies herself as a transwoman. Though she is out to her friends, she has not socially transitioned. She too is afraid of the OT (male) changing room. To put it in her own words, “In all my years here in a medical college, I have only been to an OT twice. I fear it (male changing room) so much that I consciously decided never to step inside that place. And I let my batchmates think that I’m scared of blood.” It is not just the bathroom which a transgender person needs to safely pee; it can also be a changing room, locker room, and hostel. Our whole society is so much governed by our sexes that it is impossible to live even a single day without realizing that I don’t fit in the boxes of binaries. In fact, talking about hostels, in my whole five and a half years of medical school stay, I never once went to a boys’ hostel. (and of course not to a girls’ hostel) The fear of the unknown would not allow me to step into the territory which was earmarked for the male species. I didn’t feel like I belonged there; would have felt like a trespasser and made acutely aware of my situation. I was so afraid of getting ragged that for the first six months, I was obsessed with avoiding being seen by any of my seniors, especially the boys. I knew they would realize that I am different and all the abusive and humiliating experiences that I had left behind in the school would come back to me like a déjà vu. All through my life, till I started my transition, the biggest fear that I lived with 24X7, was the fear of being found out; of people noticing the traces of feminity in my body and my behavior and the consequences of it.

As one progresses into the second year of medical school, one encounters a very intriguing subject, called Forensic Medicine. Forensics has been always a crucial part of crime serials and the subject fascinated me a lot. As our study of Forensics started, I thought, I could now claim that I have seen an autopsy happening; that’s something which a non-medical person can only imagine about. As part of Forensics, medicos study the skeletal differences of the human body. We studied in minute details how the male and female bodies are created differently; how they measure, appear and feel different. Once I had read about these differences, I applied this knowledge to my own body and realized that while I had the obvious skeletal features of a male, I also had quite a few which inclined towards the feminine features. I wondered if I am born differently, even physically. I wondered if there is a third sex, something in between the male and female sexes. I wondered if I had a different karyotype. I wondered and wondered, with no definite answers.

While it is challenging to be a trans medical student in a largely cis world, I feel that it is also one of the best places to be in as a student, as one explores their sexuality and gender, shares it with their near and dear ones and seeks to choose a course of action. It was in the third year of my MBBS, when I finally had a label for my state of being. My teacher who was also my consulting psychiatrist had written on my OPD paper, ‘GID’ i.e. Gender Identity Disorder. (Thankfully the nomenclature has now been changed and its no longer called a disorder) The entire team of psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychological social workers were amazing, to say the least. And as I shared it with some of my friends, their understanding and support overwhelmed me. In which other professional course, could a student get such a supportive bunch of teachers and batchmates? So yes, I am very lucky that I landed up in a medical school rather than any place else.

What I have presented here are just some nuggets of my experience as a medical student. There are many other transgenders who are pursuing medicine and some of them are transitioning while they are doing so and they have very challenging lives. The least that the cis majority can do is understand; understand what trans go through and make small but significant changes to make our stay in a medical school memorable.



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