Gazal Dhaliwal on Gender Dysphoria
Gazal Dhaliwal is an Indian screenwriter who has written for some widely appreciated Hindi films and series over the past five years, including Lipstick Under My Burkha, Qarib Qarib Single, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga – India’s first mainstream film about a gay woman – and a popular Netflix India series Mismatched. Dhaliwal is also a public speaker and LGBTQ+ activist, who has spoken openly about being a transgender woman in several talks and in the media – most famously in an episode of the Indian superstar Aamir Khan-led talk show ‘Satyamev Jayate.’
The following interview was conducted by email.
Could you please give us a peek into your early childhood? The community you came from and your family background.
I come from a state called Punjab which is in the north of India and my family belongs to this religion called Sikhism. My early childhood was marked by a lot of sadness. I would say at the age of around 4, I realized that I was in a wrong body. I used to love to play with my mother’s clothes. I used to love to dress up and just ran around the house wearing her dresses.
This one time, this aunt of mine who was visiting found it very odd that I was in my mom’s clothes, and she kept asking me to stop but I wouldn’t do that because it didn’t feel anything out of ordinary to me. And so finally, she just gave me a really tight slap on my cheek. And that’s the first time it dawned on me that there was something wrong about the way I was behaving.
That suddenly made my gender dysphoria too real to me and thereafter, day by day, year by year, I started to sink into this darkness within me where there was extreme loneliness because I felt that I was the only one like myself in the whole world. The only one who doesn’t feel like they belong in their body. I was being told to be a certain way, to wear a certain kind of clothes, to act and walk and talk a certain way like boys are supposed to do. I could not relate to any of that. So yes, it was extremely suffocating and like I said, it was really lonely.
The community I come from – Sikhism – is one of the most secular religions in the world. I would say it’s very welcoming towards people from all backgrounds, all religions. Sikh people are known to be people with huge hearts and perpetual open arms, but it is also a fact that Sikh men are generally supposed to be super masculine. Our stories say that Sikh gurus and Sikh soldiers fought these really hard battles against Indian enemies and defeated them. So, there’s this whole aura of manhood around Sikh men. Which was very hard for me to live up to because, obviously, I absolutely didn’t identify as male. The pressure of performing like a super masculine man was pretty traumatic. Till date, I feel like when I’m back in my hometown, I feel those gazes piercing through me. People still taking those side glances to see what a strange “being” I am.
What was your family, friends, and society’s attitude towards you when you were young and before you had the sex reassignment surgery?
My family has always been very, very loving towards me. They’re kind and warm-hearted people. So, I never felt a lack of love, but yes, there was a lack of understanding because the fact of the matter is that trans people are rare. My family had never seen an example of a trans child, so they were just not able to wrap their heads around this reality of mine.
I came out to my family at the age of 14 and my father was very confused. He said, “I don’t understand how a boy can feel like a girl. However, I’m not saying that since it doesn’t seem like a problem to me, it is not a problem for you. But maybe it’s a phase, maybe it’ll pass.” So that’s where we left that conversation. I never had that conversation with him again because I used to feel guilty about hurting my family. So, I kept it to myself for many years to come, but yeah, throughout those years I did feel my family, despite themselves, [was] struggling, and yet, trying to understand.
They finally understood when I made a documentary film about trans people, and I showed it to them. That was the final nudge they needed. After that, they were ready to support me in the gender reassignment process. Thankfully, I’ve been lucky with friends. I’ve had a select few friends but whenever I came out to a friend, they were supportive, and they were understanding. The ones who were not close might have got left behind but I genuinely don’t regret anything.
The general society’s attitude is obviously the most difficult to deal with. In my school, I knew that everybody used to laugh at me. They used to call me names. People used to mimic how I spoke, how I walked. In my college, I also suffered violence at the hands of some boys. Whichever school or college I went to, I knew that the moment I turned my back, people used to laugh at me. And when I was working in Mumbai before my transition, I used to live alone in this neighbourhood where there were these really mischievous kids. They would always create a sort of a scary atmosphere for me. Every time I left the building and I came back, they would threaten to come too close. They would perform antics.
Then, it used to be quite scary whenever I was in public transport. It was very natural for people to try to take advantage or to push me over and stuff like that. Basically, I’m just extremely fortunate and grateful that I did have family and friends who made up for this kind of attitude by the society.
You said you have known you were in the wrong body from the young age of 4. What was that struggle like for you?
Ever since the age of 4, it was an eternal struggle. It was endless. It was like this sinking feeling was constantly there with me that I just don’t fit in this world. And worse than that, that I will never fit in this world. I might live for 50 years, 60 or 70 years, but there would always be this loneliness that would tag along. There was this one time when I thought I should take my own life and I went to many medical stores asking for sleeping pills. Thankfully, I was too young, and the shopkeepers were sensible enough to not sell me the sleeping pills, and hence, I’m alive and answering these questions for you today.
What was your family’s reaction when you told them that you wanted to have the reconstructive surgery?
I came out to my family when I was about 14, at which time my father said that he can’t understand me, but he would still love me just like he always has, and that he’s with me through whatever I’m going through. It was at the age of 25 that I finally made a documentary film about trans people. The film is called To be… ME. It’s on YouTube. I made that as a part of a film course that I studied. When I took that documentary home and showed it to my father for the first time, the moment the film got over, he simply just turned to me and said, “Okay, so when are you going for this surgery?” And that was that. There was no turning point after that.
After the operation, was it easy to be accepted in society?
Yes, and no. Yes, because all the people who truly matter to me, whether it was my family members or my close friends, or some colleagues, they all came on board. I came out to them through a detailed email explaining everything about myself. I got total acceptance. Some people also put in the effort to try to understand what gender dysphoria is. My parents went one step further. They went to every house in our neighbourhood, in the lane in which I live in my hometown. They went to every single household, and they informed every neighbour that their son was now a girl, they had a daughter now and that’s how they would like everyone to treat me. Of course, there were people who said, “What is wrong with you? You should have just given him a thrashing and he would have gotten fixed.” But yes, there were also a few neighbours who were very welcoming, and you know, accepted me with open arms.
You are now a well-respected screenwriter. How has the industry reacted to you as a trans person?
I would say that early on in my career it was probably a bit strange for people to understand what a transgender person is and why somebody would go for gender reassignment. That was also more than 10 years back. There was very little information. There was no social media.
I remember this one incident when I had gone to meet a film producer. He had read some sample work of mine and he wanted to give me feedback on a couple of scenes. We generally got chatting. He said, “Your name is beautiful. Who named you?” Now, I’ve always been out by choice, so I didn’t see a reason to lie to him at that point, and I said, “I’ve named myself sir, because I am a trans person.” He was completely baffled because he had never met a trans person before that. Then, he said, “You know, now I’m confused because if you were a guy, I would know how to tell you how to write this scene better. If you were a girl, I would know how to explain the scene to you. But now, I don’t know what to do because you’re neither.” Even though I was just a nobody at that time, but this really got my goat. I said, “Sir, I’m a girl and that’s how you need to respect me and treat me.” To his credit, he immediately understood and was completely respectful after that. In fact, today, we look back and laugh at that incident.
I would say that largely, in my industry, there haven’t been any obvious sort of pros or cons of my being a trans person. At least on the surface of it, it doesn’t seem like people care. Although… I do believe there are whispers and sometimes sniggers, or at least these really curious glances that come my way from time to time, but I believe the industry is far more progressive than the rest of the society. So, yeah, I wouldn’t say I’ve had any sort of trauma within my industry on account of me being a trans woman.
Could you talk a little bit about the difficulties of the LGBTQ2+ community in India and the society’s attitude towards them?
You know, the family structure in our society is very strong. The entire genetics of the social formation is completely family-oriented as opposed to the West where there is a lot of independence. Like, for the West, after a certain age, it is completely natural for an individual to move out, grow into their own self, and need not be that answerable to other people. Whereas that is not the case in India. In fact, most people stay in joint families. They live with their parents and extended families in one house for almost their entire lifetime. So, the answerability for every decision of your life becomes that much more. The pressure of just being your true self is immeasurably more for a queer person in India, in my opinion.
It’s also particularly harder for gay women because India is extremely patriarchal. Women and girls, anyway, have a much more oppressed life in general. On top of that, if the girl says that she is a lesbian, or if a female-bodied person says that they identify with the male gender, that they’re a trans man, that is blasphemous to most families. There are all sorts of torture that females are often put through to. Simply because they just want to be themselves.
The most prominently visible transgender community in India is called the Hjira community. It’s a sort of a family structure in itself. So, when a trans woman is rejected by her family, often, at a young age, sometimes, even 10 or 12, these kids run away from home, and many of them join the Hijra community, where they find acceptance and it has its own social structure, its own rules and regulations. This community doesn’t really get much respect from the society at large. They are only left on the margins, and the only way for them to earn a living are either begging or doing sex work or dancing at people’s weddings. Nobody truly sees them. Everyone just looks through them. I was reading that the Hijras were among the worst-hit in this recent pandemic because they don’t have any organized ways of earning a living. It all depends on how many people are out there on the road because that’s what begging depends on. That’s what sex work depends on.
Where does the industry stand when it comes to making films with LGBTQ2+ themes?
About 20 or so years back, there was a film called Fire by Deepa Mehta which was the first-ever film in India about two lesbian women. And then, there was another film called My Brother Nikhil by Onir which was about a woman and her gay brother. These were just a couple of films which came a long while back. But these were believed to be more in the space of niche cinema.
About 3 years back, I wrote possibly the first mainstream Hindi film which was about a lesbian girl, her family life, and the woman she’s in love with. This film is called Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga. The film came out just a few months after homosexuality was legalized in India. Since then, there have been about three mainstream films which have predominantly queer themes, and they are well-made, well-meaning films. Also, on streaming platforms like Netflix India and Prime Video India, there have been quite a few series which have done a good job with queer characters and queer themes. So, the future looks bright to me today. I hope to be able to contribute to this future even more. I am trying to do that with this Netflix series called Mismatched that I’m currently lead writing. The industry’s stand has certainly improved over the years. Early on, you only saw queer people as subjects of mockery, or horrible scary people. But today, we’re starting to see them as human beings. As a real person and not just somebody to laugh at or be afraid of.