For as long as Kabir Maan can remember, he has wanted to be recognized as male. These photos were taken by his father Yashwant and compiled by Vandana Bansal for this article

As long as I can remember, I have wanted to transition – from my female identity [assigned at birth] to being recognized as male. In 2014, when I was 24 years old, I renamed myself ‘Kabir’ after the 15th-century mystic poet, Kabir Das. I would no longer be called ‘Manisha’, the name my parents had given me as their daughter. My old surname carried my Dalit antecedents – we are of the Balai community – and I replaced it with ‘Maan’, derived from my nickname ‘Maani’.

I recently found out that I could apply for an official name change on the national portal for transgender persons [under the Ministry for Social Justice and Empowerment]. This portal was launched on September 29, 2020 and offers an identity card [I-Card] for people like me. My application is still pending; each time I try to track it the portal is unresponsive but I’m looking forward to whenever it may happen.

Growing up as ‘Manisha’ did not feel right. When I was very young, girls’ clothes made me feel uncomfortable and I preferred wearing pants and shirts. I never grew my hair out like other girls, and preferred keeping it short. When I became a teenager and my menstrual cycle didn’t start, I was happy, but my mother took me to a gynecologist who gave me tablets to induce my periods.

I remember when I was 17, I rented a cycle after school and went to a cyber cafe four kilometres from my house to search online about ‘operation change female to male’. I struggled to frame the sentence, but the search engine was forgiving and led me to several platforms with answers.

My daily life as a teenager was not easy. For example, going to the girls’ washrooms in school was an ordeal for me and I would hold on till I reached home. I have ended up with a urinary tract infection twice because of this – and the total cost of treatment was around 40,000 rupees. Even now, I prefer not to use public washrooms and wait till I reach home. I felt if I transitioned to a male, these problems would stop.

Life in his birth-assigned female identity was hard, and that as a trans man continues to pose difficulties. Photo by Vandana Bansal

Family life

My grandparents migrated to Delhi from Bharatpur district in Rajasthan during the Partition, and settled in old Delhi’s Kishan Ganj area. They had been farmers there, but in the city my grandfather found work at the Delhi Cloth Mills. My father Yashwant was a freelance photographer and would get occasional wedding assignments; most of the time he never went to work and would be drunk at home.

My mother Sarla was the only earning member in our family. She worked as a government primary school teacher and earned 30,000 rupees a month. Every day, she would travel from our ancestral home in Kishan Ganj to Okhla where her school was located – three hours each way by bus.

Although my father was the villain of our lives – I remember a lot of domestic violence in our home – a part of me secretly admired him for his artistic side. He exposed me to the creative arts, music and movies. I remember replacing the film rolls in his camera. He took all my pictures and he never treated me like a daughter; perhaps, he had wanted his first child to be a son.

The ‘tomboy’

I spent five years (Class 6 to 10) in an all-girls’ school and I felt suffocated. In Class 11, I moved to a co-ed institution and things changed. School became an escape from home. I was part of the girls’ team and I enjoyed playing sports. I didn’t feel judged because of my identity.

Kabir started his hormone therapy last year and has started getting facial hair. He plans on starting his sex reassignment surgery next year. Photos by Vandana Bansal

I developed a romantic relationship with a girl in my class; who I will call Sonakshi. She broke it off one day saying, “Where are we going? Will we get married?” I felt insecure about my gender identity and went into a depression.

After school I joined a Delhi college to pursue a degree in media studies. I didn’t reveal my gender as a trans man in college; I chose to remain a tomboyish ‘Manisha’. Life seemed quite carefree, but it didn’t last long. Rumours began to spread about me. I used to travel to college with a friend on his bike. People began to say that he was my boyfriend. Others would say I was dating other women. I am neither straight nor lesbian, and all this talk disturbed me. Unable to handle the social pressure, in the last year of college [2015], I dropped out.

Things at home had not been good for a while. My father had developed pancreatic cancer. My mother spent all her savings on his treatment, but we couldn’t save him. We had to borrow money from relatives, and we spent around 35 lakh rupees on hospitals and treatments. My mother’s provident fund and medical benefits as a government school teacher helped, but it took us six years to finally clear our debts.

In our society only sons can perform the death rituals, but when my father died, I carried his bier with three other men. At the crematorium, my uncle objected saying, “Manisha cannot do this” but my cousin dismissed him saying, “Ladki kahin aur se nahi aati hai (Girls do not emerge from anywhere different)”. Performing the rituals made me feel empowered.

Here and now

In 2019, I was travelling by a local train to Karnal to give my first year examination at Kurukshetra University. As I boarded, some fellow travellers commented on my appearance. I got into an argument with them and things started to heat up. They ended up pushing me off the train. Luckily for me, the train had slowed down and I was able to jump onto the platform. However, I missed my exams and the chance to further my education. I escaped with a few minor injuries, but after that I couldn’t gather the courage to travel the same route again.

Kabir bought a bicycle with his savings to avoid traveling by metro and to reduce the transphobic interactions he has had to have, at least during his daily commute. Photo by Vandana Bansal

I recently also stopped travelling by the Delhi metro. At the entry gates for security check if I go to the female section they deny me entry. If I go to the queue for males they say, “Aap yahan se nahi ja sakte (you can’t pass through from here).”

There have been times when I have wanted to end my life – I attempted it once and immediately regretted it. When I was around 27 years old, I got in touch with an NGO working on sexual literacy. I could speak freely about who I was there, and my identity as a trans man began to slowly develop. They helped me pay attention to my mental health. [Please see the note at the end of this story for details on suicide prevention helplines.]

In view of these daily slights and strains, a year ago I decided to start hormone therapy at a clinic in Dwarka in west Delhi. I feel this will sort out my worries about travelling on the metro and being wrongly identified in public spaces.

Last year I began hormone therapy and it will go on for life, and comes with multiple potential side effects. I have to visit the clinic every three months for an injection of testosterone undecanoate; each shot costs around 360 rupees, but the expenses including oral medication, regular comprehensive blood tests and abdominal ultrasound adds up to around 4,000 rupees each time. The treatment is said to cause side-effects including mood swings, anxiety, blood sugar imbalance, and is also known to affect the liver and kidneys.

I plan on a ‘sex reassignment surgery’ next year [2022]. This surgery is not just about a change in personality or being able to use ‘male’ as the gender on my Aadhaar card. I want to live my truth, my reality as a trans man. It will cost around 7-10 lakh rupees. It involves three surgeries – the removal of breasts, creation of a penis and hormone therapy. I am already saving for the first surgery.

A supportive family: Kabir with his brother Mukul, 26 (extreme left), his mother Sarla and his sister Namrata, 24 (extreme right). Photo by Vandana Bansal

Despite the high cost of doing this at a private facility, I have never considered a state-run option. People there tend to be judgmental and consider my concerns to be a ‘problem’. Once when I shared my case with a government doctor, he asked “Do you have a boyfriend? Have you ever had sex? Try it, it will help.”

I am thankful for a supportive family. My mother is understandably nervous and feels I should just continue to keep my female body but dress in male clothes. My younger brother who works in advertising and my sister who is preparing for competitive exams are supportive of my decision.

I now work a 10-hour day in the warehouse of a popular e-commerce firm and earn around 20,000 rupees a month. I dream of opening a cafe where everyone is welcome. I want to offer space and peace to help people get away from their chaotic lives – something I sought but never found.

If you are suicidal or know some in distress please call Kiran, the national helpline, on 1800-599-0019 (24/7 toll free), or any of these helplines near you. For information on mental health professionals and services to reach out, please visit SPIF’s mental health directory.

Editor's note

Vandana Bansal is a final year student of journalism and mass communication at Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies, New Delhi. She reported this story while interning with PARI Education. She says, “We rarely hear stories of trans men as patriarchy doesn’t give them any space. Talking to Kabir made me examine issues around caste, gender, and the deep rooted transphobia in our society.”