What does it mean to be trans in India in 2021? It certainly means having thick skin, because India does not treat its trans citizens the same way it treats its cis-hetero citizens. Transpeople in India are subject to a barrage of abuse, hate, transphobia which often escalates into violence in many instances. Offline, it means name-calling and mockery. Online, it means trolling and cyber-bullying. In 2021, it also means transphobic comments, death threats, hate comments. A Pune trans activist, who started an online fundraiser was subjected to the same fate. Rishikesh Raut, who goes by Rishi, a 22-year-old non-binary trans person who uses they/them pronouns became the target of an onslaught of online, transphobic abuse.
In March, Rishi had started a fundraiser online on the popular crowdfunding platform, Ketto, to raise money for their gender-affirming surgery. While most fundraisers in India are met with sympathy, empathy and amplification, Rishi’s campaign was met with hesitation. “It took a lot out of me to even start the fundraiser," Rishi tells News18. “I was putting myself out there, asking for funds, and it took me a lot of courage to even start the fundraiser," they add. While Rishi’s fundraiser got a few donations, they also got negative backlash and a few hate comments. “But they were just a few, so I ignored them," said Rishi.
Then the second wave of Covid-19 hit India, leading to a drying up of funds, and a medical emergency in the country unlike one has ever seen before, causing Rishi to temporarily close the fundraiser. “The health and emergency workers needed the funds more than I did," explains Rishi. Rishi also started two separate campaigns to raise funds for transpeople in Silchar and Pune during the second wave.
In June, which is celebrated as Pride month all around the world, Rishi restarted the fundraiser. This time, the comments were not few or far apart. Rishi’s campaign was picked up by some Indian influencers, who shared it on their pages. But instead of amplification, Rishi got their share of trolls too. Ketto, which does not reveal any information of the person the proceeds are going to, only has an option to email the beneficiary as a request. They do not contain any social media profiles, and Rishi’s Ketto page does not mention any information about them.
The trolls, however, looked up Rishi by name on Instagram, and then began a barrage of transphobic hate and cyber-stalking. “They wrote comments like, ‘This is not a real thing,’ ‘This is a waste of money,’ ‘It’s a scam,’ and that people ‘should donate to something important,’ says Rishi. With the transphobia also came casteism - Rishi is Bahujan, and a lot of the comments were laced with casteist slurs.
After the first two days, the comments blew up: Rishi explains that the trolls hunted down their partner, and sent private Instagram comments with questions like, “Will you suck my d**k for Rs 500?" For Rishi, it wasn’t just a manifestation of transphobia anymore. “They told me I’m ‘e-begging,’ and I should ‘jaake raaste pe beg’ (beg on the streets)" shares Rishi. With that, they also started using death threats. “They told me to kill myself, they told me ‘to die.’ They said I was a ‘disgusting person who didn’t deserve to live.’ That I was a burden and my parents and that they would be better off with me dead.’
For the first two days, Rishi tried to put on a brave face and deal with the trolling. Butthe death threats soon began to take a toll on their mental health. “There were 15-16-year-old kids telling me to ‘die’ and ‘kill yourself multiple times over," they tell News18.
“My anxiety skyrocketed," shares Rishi. Finally, when Rishi mustered up the courage to begin calling out the trolls on their social media, they faced a new kind of backlash from their own friends, who said, “If you can’t afford it, don’t go for the surgery. Your self-respect is more important".
The hate comments also emphasized just that: that if Rishi didn’t have the money, Rishi didn’t deserve the ‘luxury’ of transitioning. For the trolls, their gender-affirmation surgery was not ‘essential’ enough to be a cause. For transpeople in India, sometimes gender-affirmation or gender-re-affirmation surgery is the only way to really fit into society.
“Trans people have body dysmorphia, gender dysmorphia," shares Rishi. “The body we live in doesn’t feel like ours, doesn’t look like ours, doesn’t feel safe."
Transition for transpeople is different individually. Transwomen and transmen usually use gender reassignment to transition. for Rishi, they want to go on Hormonal Replacement Therapy (HRT), which re-distributes the hormones in the body, and will help Rishi to acquire more biologically female traits and femme-passing, which is what they identify as. Rishi also plans on laser reduction surgery to get rid of their masculine hair.
As a queer activist, Rishi has been working with Mist, an LGBTQIA+ collective in Pune, for five years now. Once they started posting the screenshots of hate, Rishi got a wave of support from people, who donated to their cause, advised them to ignore the hate comments, and never give up the good fight.
At the time of writing this article, Rishi’s fundraiser has raised Rs. 2,54,166 of its Rs. 7,00,000 goal. You can check out the fundraiser here.
Rishi shares one hate message that stood out to them. “In my Instagram DM, a person sent a photo of the LGBTQA+ flag, with a small red cross on it. Underneath, the text said, ‘Share this message with 10 people to cure your child of being gay/trans/lesbian.’ The message spoke volumes of how even in 2021, society forces non-cis people into ‘conversion therapy’ and just how deep the bigotry in India runs."