Queer people feel excluded, wary of visiting docs
There is little to no conversation around menstruation that involves queer people in India, say people across the gender spectrum.
Menstruation is the biological process when people with uteruses bleed every month. Traditionally, the process has been associated only with cis-gendered women (those whose gender identity is the same as the sex assigned at birth). The National Family Health Survey 5 has statistics about the percentage of women surveyed who use hygienic menstrual products. However, the classification is only that of women; it does not involve ‘‘menstruating people’.
The notion that only women menstruate is widespread not only among policymakers and the government, but among the general public as well.
The Rotary Club of Seshadripuram, Bengaluru, had initiated Project Sthree, a menstruation awareness campaign. “We weren’t aware of the fact that there are menstruators apart from women. Additionally, our programme earlier included only adolescent girls. Only now have we begun to include adult women. Likewise, we haven’t found that people in general also are aware about it,” said Lavanya E, president of the club. But a menstruation awareness campaign inclusive of queer people is in the works.
Sreya Mallick, a transman from Bengaluru, informed The Observer: “It was initially tough for me to accept going through the menstruation process. When you are struggling to find comfort in your own body, it becomes a hurdle to accept bleeding every month…. You will tend to hide as much as possible. I still remember I once struggled to ask for a sanitary napkin from a friend as I couldn’t accept the fact that I was bleeding like other ‘females’.”
Sanjana S, a copywriter from Thane, said the hetero-normative environment (a concept that heterosexuality is the preferred or normal mode of sexual orientation) around her doesn’t help. “Growing up, I didn’t relate with the typical period symptoms people around me had. I still played sports, because I thought it was normal. That was until my mother told girls shouldn’t. But I wasn’t willing to be called a girl. Now that I have come to terms with being gender-fluid, I wish there was more inclusion in advertisements; I want a ‘tomboy’ or a ‘femboy’ to be shown experiencing pain and playing sports rather than a long-haired girl scoring a goal while on her period.”
The psychological aspect is just one side of the story.
Asked about access to healthcare, especially related to periods, Mallick added: “As you are not comfortable talking to even your close ones about this, you won’t be able to make doctors or specialists understand the problems you’re having.”
The dismal amount of discussion about menstruating people has led to very few people approaching doctors.
Dr Gayathri, a Bengaluru gynecologist, said: “Any person with a uterus is going to bleed, as simple as that. But in my ten years of practice, I have only come across transgender persons for sex-reassignment surgeries. And a majority of them have been people of male origin wanting to be female. I have almost never come across transmen with issues related to periods or even other healthcare problems.”
Kanmani Ray, a Delhi lawyer and transwoman, said this might be because gynecologists aren’t equipped to deal with people apart from cis-gendered women. “Let’s say I am transitioning, wanting to be a woman, and so undergo hormone medication. In that situation, I might be experiencing those monthly cycles because of the hormonal changes, but I would not bleed. However, I might still be exhausted, experiencing cramps, etc. And when I go to a gynecologist, or even a general physician, the assumption is that I am a fertile woman with a uterus.”
Uma, a transwoman from JEEVA Organisation, Bengaluru, spoke about another aspect. “While transmen face issues because they get their periods while not wanting to, some transwomen face issues of not getting periods. Because in this hetero-normative society, everyone associates menstruation and the ability to give birth to a child with womanhood. Not undergoing the process creates a feeling of lack among transwomen, as if they aren’t feminine enough to identify as women.”
Sana Suman, a transwoman, however, thinks this is an individual issue. “I think I am better off without the monthly pains and the traditional notions of femininity. I am comfortable not bleeding and with wearing my T-shirts and jeans.”
Mihir R, a junior researcher at the Centre for Law and Policy Research (CLPR), Bengaluru, said there is a major policy vacuum with regard to queer healthcare. “When there are campaigns related to menstruation, like giving out free pads, automatically it is only about cis-gendered women. Because the conversation around menstruation in itself is nascent even for women, it is only natural that queer people will not be a part of it. During Covid, basic healthcare like hospital beds were denied to transgender persons. How will such specific concerns be addressed?”
Mansi Singh, a research associate at CLPR, however, thinks such efforts should be localized. “Since menstruation itself is exclusionary for women, considering the lack of access to clean water and safe spaces and privacy to change pads…, the added stigma attached with queer people menstruating never makes it to the mainstream. In such situations, inclusion of healthcare provisions, especially regarding menstruation into policy, though necessary, won’t bear results. The effort would rather be helpful when it is from within the community.”