Through childhood, Aryan Pasha presented as a boy, with short hair and masculine clothing. His friends and teachers knew him as a boy, though he had been assigned female at birth. At age 11, when his coach told him he had been entered to compete in the girls’ speed skating events, he burst into tears.
Pasha, now 29, lived this double life through school, competing as a girl, scooping up national medals and facing scrutiny for his gender identity. Following years of grappling with himself and battling suicidal thoughts, he began transitioning in 2010. Skating fell by the wayside. “I love sports but when you are not comfortable in your body, you can’t give it your best,” says Pasha, who lives in Delhi. “It was difficult to leave skating but it was better to live.”
In 2013, in a bid to stay fit, he turned to bodybuilding. He loved the sport, and the sport loved him back.
So far, he has participated in five national and international events in the men’s category, and placed in the top five in three. “I wasn’t sure whether I would be allowed, whether I would be good enough,” he says. “But I never quit; I wanted to prove myself.”
Pasha is among a handful of trans athletes in India trying to find a niche for themselves, whether competing professionally or for fun, self-expression or visibility.
Discussions on trans athletes have animated the West for years. The International Olympic Committee allows those who have transitioned to compete if certain conditions are fulfilled. There are no restrictions for those who transition to male; for those who transition to female, testosterone levels have to be below a certain limit, though surgical transition is not mandated. Last month, in a first, Laurel Hubbard, 43, a trans woman weightlifter, represented New Zealand in the women’s event at the Tokyo Olympics. Hubbard, who came out in 2013, had participated in the men’s category earlier.
The news raised questions of inclusion, fairness and the very concept of gender-segregated competition. Such debates are, however, almost non-existent in India, where there are few competitive trans athletes—or at least few who are out. Conversations about gender in sport here have arisen only when athletes fail the “sex verification test” and challenge arbitrary rules. In 2014, when sprinter Dutee Chand was barred from competition as a female athlete owing to her hyperandrogenism, she went to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. It ruled that she could compete in the women’s category as the Athletic Federation of India and the International Association of Athletics Federations could not prove that naturally occurring testosterone enhances female athletic performance. Nearly a decade earlier, Asian Games medallist Santi Soundarajan had been stripped of her silver because she failed a similar, stringent test. Both these athletes identified as women. So far, no Indian athlete who identifies as trans or has transitioned genders has sought to play high-level sport.
Despite the personal challenges, the lack of support and the absence of clear administrative policy, athletes like Pasha are now trying to find their space. “A lot of work is to be done in sports when it comes to trans athletes,” says Sadam Hanjabam, founder and head of Ya_All, a trans youth network that has been organising Queer Games for the North-East since 2018. “Sport is still binary. Often, queer and trans people don’t take part because they are bullied or don’t have the confidence. We thought, let’s do something to create awareness and break stereotypes.”
Last year Ya_All FC, a club team of 20-plus trans men under the age of 30, was born. “There was no platform to play so I thought this would be an opportunity to compete with trans men who identify the same way and belong to the same community,” says Miller Ng, an Imphal-based defender who captains the team. “It was a good platform to come out as ourselves and feel free.”
But the team faced a dilemma: Which league would have them? “The state football federation said there were no rules for trans people but since members of this team had been assigned female at birth, we should register in the women’s division,” says Hanjabam. But the players were not comfortable with this. So far, they have found no teams to play against.
“We need a separate trans men’s category,” says Ng, 26, who has also played on girls’ teams. He believes this category should be based on how the players identify themselves, not on the basis of their legal documentation. “There are only two categories for team sports…. Since there is no other option, we have to go to the category we are born into.”
Where do trans men and women fit in gender-segregated sports? Sharing locker rooms or being obliged to wear certain types of kits, where the body is front and centre, is a deterrent. Athletes may also quit while transitioning, or hesitate to play in the gender category they were assigned at birth.
“It can be uncomfortable, even traumatic,” says Hemabati Yambung Oinam, who heads Empowering Trans Ability, a forum in Manipur that has organised sporting events for trans men. “They face discrimination and body shaming but there is no choice since there is no trans category. And if they want to play as men, they may have to undergo surgery or body checks.”
A few, like Pasha, played competitively, then left while transitioning, or to deal with psychological issues, before attempting to return.
“I would have loved to keep playing but I had to leave for a reason,” says Nakshatra Rajput, 25, a Delhi-based trans cricketer who opened the batting for women’s state teams in his teen years. “I felt this space of women’s cricket is not for me. It was like I was playing a role.” Rajput quit around 2015 but has not played on men’s teams as he is transitioning. “It will take time for my body to heal, to get back into the rhythm,” he says. In the meantime, he hopes to participate in long-distance running or bodybuilding at the Gay Games in Hong Kong in 2022. Unlike Ng, he would prefer to compete with and against cis men. “I would prefer that. That is inclusion. I am a man.”
The challenges are daunting even for those who have transitioned. Pasha says he had to train harder than his cis men friends, given that cis men’s bodies produce higher levels of testosterone, which is crucial for building muscle.
But his participation in competitions is already having an impact. Watching Pasha has been an inspiration for Praveen Nath, who won the Mr Thrissur bodybuilding event this year in the trans category. “Through bodybuilding, I got a lot of happiness,” says Nath, 24, whose sense of self and body is linked to the sport. “I felt valued. I wanted everyone to see me as a man.”
Nath, who transitioned in 2019, spends up to six hours a day training and won a prize at the Mr Kerala competition earlier this month. He hopes to eventually participate in the Mr Universe contest.
But he has faced prurient, if ignorant, curiosity about his body. “Even judges have asked, what is inside you, have you done surgery?” he says. “Having ‘bottom surgery’ alone doesn’t mean one is a man,” he says, pointing out that the term “complete man” itself carries a whiff of transphobia.
Kerala, Nath’s home state, has been among the more progressive states on trans issues and held a transgender sports meet in 2017. Trans women participated, but I did not find any trans women actively competing while reporting this story. Those participants seem to have competed in the meet as one-off event.
“Women’s sport in India is itself not as prominent as men’s and trans women face additional challenges related to transitioning and livelihood issues so sports may be secondary,” says Aqsa Shaikh, a public health activist and trans woman. “Sports in India is mostly associated with men and perhaps that is a factor for those who transition; trans women may want to prove their femininity in their new identity.”
Trans women and trans men face different challenges, with trans men slipping into society unremarked upon, points out Rajput. For most of society, the word “transgender” brings up certain associations. “When people imagine transgender people, they only think of sex workers or beggars,” says Nath, who works in a community-based organisation. “Now society’s view is changing. We have more visibility because we are raising our voice and showing our talents.”
Sport is one way to do that. “Manipuris have an emotional connection with football so they respect the game and those playing it,” says Hanjabam. “We realised this is something that could unite people and bring forward our movement. We saw how sports can be a medium of inclusion in society.”
Bhavya Dore is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist.