Trigger warning: Mentions of abuse, depression, self-harm, transphobia, and gender dysphoria.
“What is masculinity? Who is a man?” A swift Google search yields a seemingly arbitrary definition: “Qualities or attributes regarded as characteristic of men or boys.”
Naseer Mohammed laughs. Who establishes these “characteristics?” he questions.
“I don’t drink, I don’t smoke. There have been numerous occasions when I’ve been questioned about my manhood simply because I don’t partake in these activities often labelled as ‘manly,'” he shares.
Growing up in a remote town in Ariyalur, Naseer recalls feeling stuck and struggling to understand his identity.
“It’s tough when the internal struggle remains unspoken when there’s no space to express your true feelings. My parents lacked exposure and awareness, and I couldn’t confide in them. But, the truth is, I didn’t understand it too,” he reveals.
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Upon moving to Chennai in the 8th grade, Naseer found himself grappling with the added challenge of poverty.
“I worked in households before and after school. Already, it wasn’t easy to fit in with a group because my identity was perplexing to me. Coming from a low-wage family only widened the gap. Those years were harrowing,” Naseer reflects.
What compelled him to open up to his mother was an impending engagement.
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“In our village, there was a tradition of an unofficial engagement during childhood. As we grew up, these engagements often turned into marriages, typically within extended family relations like uncle’s daughter and aunt’s son,” he explains.
Similarly, Naseer’s marriage was arranged with his relative’s son.
“I wanted to put a stop to it at all costs. During this difficult period, I resorted to self-harm by repeatedly hitting my head against a wall. Determined to ensure I didn’t have to go through this, my mother stood by me. The wedding was soon called off. However, that didn’t mean people understood,” he painfully recalls.
Fighting gender dysphoria
As the years passed, troubles persisted, and a pervasive distrust lingered in his life.
Reflecting on this, he says, “How could it not? Anyone I confided in either took advantage of me, dismissed my concerns, or labelled it as a mental illness. Even when my mother was willing to support me, she too was influenced to believe it was solely a disorder. It is only furthered by gender dysphoria,” he shares.
He pauses, taking a moment to let out a sigh. “But everything changed when she came into my life,” he says, gesturing towards his wife, Nasreen.
Naseer and Nasreen’s love story boldly challenges numerous constraints. From the limitations of time, societal stereotypes, and norms, to even the conventional notions that typically define love itself.
“It was my younger brother who introduced me to Nasreen. I had never met or spoken to her before, but I felt a certain affinity as he described her. It was like finding a safe space. Somehow, I developed trust and felt comfortable sharing my story with her,” he recounts.
Despite several attempts to reach out to Nasreen over a few months, he faced disappointment. Finally, on New Year’s Day about six years ago, he received a reply from her.
“I started conversing with her and confessed my feelings. I explained that I was assigned female at birth but didn’t identify as one.”
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Soon, Naseer met Nasreen and bared his soul, revealing everything he had kept hidden within himself for over two decades. What transpired was a poignant narrative of trust, acceptance, friendship, love, understanding, and marital bliss — in that precise sequence.
“She took me to a medical professional and ensured I comprehended what I was going through. It was during that time that I first encountered the term ‘trans man.’ My feelings and experiences were affirmed through that journey, providing me with a sense of peace. I had finally unearthed my true self,” he shares.
A shared journey
Despite facing significant opposition, the couple decided to get married.
Five years on, their love remains as vibrant as when they embarked on this shared journey.
“We had to relocate to Kerala for a while due to strong opposition, even from within our own families,” says Nasreen.
The couple has faced threats, trolls, sexual advances, lack of safety, deceit, financial instability, and an overwhelming sense of destitution.
“It’s disheartening to see our job opportunities, respect, basic dignity, and safety compromised simply because of my identity as a trans man. Why? Am I not a human being, just like everyone else?” asks Naseer, an MSc in Nutrition.
As for Nasreen, a BA in English Literature, she faced discrimination when pursuing her BEd degree.
“A very prominent university in the city asked her to discontinue it, expressing concerns that her marriage to a trans man would tarnish its reputation,” reveals Naseer.
Carving a path
Having encountered disrespect and deceit in various workplaces and even those whom they looked up to as role models, the couple decided to carve their paths.
In 2019, with just ₹200 in their bank accounts, they launched CaNas Fizzy Hangout in Madipakkam, specialising in homemade mojitos. Their Vallarai mojito, in particular, has garnered attention for its uniqueness.
“Having previous experience working in cafes, I knew how to make mojitos. When we realised that normalisation and fair treatment weren’t forthcoming, we decided to start our venture,” says Nasreen.
So, the couple bought some fruits, experimented with homemade mojito essences, and promptly launched the business.
“I still vividly recall our first day – we earned ₹150. We were elated. That ₹150 was entirely ours, and no one could take it away from us. In other workplaces, we often felt cheated. The initially discussed salary would differ from what we received. Sometimes, we’d get paid later than other employees, or the employer would belittle our efforts, saying things like, Idhu kudukradhe perusu (Even this amount exceeds your worth), undermining our hard work,” Nasreen shares.
As I engage in conversation with the couple, it becomes evident that their relationship is founded on the principles of equality. In a true partnership, they protect and support each other.
“I’ve experienced the pain of menstruation. Today, when my wife goes through those days, I understand the extent of that pain. Many men don’t want to comprehend the struggle. Nasreen has stood by me unwaveringly as I transitioned into the person I always wanted to be,” he shares.
“Who defines what a man is?” Nasreen raises the question again.
“My husband protects me, shows love, cares for me, and treats me as an equal. He stands up for me. I’ve learned about feminism mostly from him more than anyone else. Coming from an orthodox family, there are ingrained beliefs I’ve been conditioned to, and he ensures I unlearn what I’ve internalised as the norm. So, if Naseer doesn’t fit society’s perception of a man, then who does?” she asks, making her perspective loud and clear.
Naseer has been sharing his journey as a trans man on his social media handle. “I began opening up about my experiences publicly because I didn’t want anyone to endure the kind of isolation and gender dysphoria that I experienced,” he shares.
However, a glance at the comments on his page reveals the presence of transphobic remarks that are hard to ignore.
Yet, amid the negativity, positive comments shine through, offering a glimmer of hope.
“There are people who will misuse any situation. I try to ignore them and focus on the greater good. However, when there are comments like, ‘How can YOU grow a beard’ and so on, I try to respond politely with science,” he explains.
“In our society, there is more awareness about being a trans woman. Many are unaware of what it means to be a trans man and keep their identities a secret due to fears of judgment and safety, especially in places like where I grew up,” he says.
Thanks to Naseer, individuals identifying as trans men, from remote pockets of the state have started reaching out, seeking solace and understanding.
Celebration of equals
“He always celebrates me with sweet gestures. On International Men’s Day, I want to celebrate my man,” says Nasreen.
Naseer responds with a joyous giggle, “I have been fortunate to have her in my life. I hope that the definition of who a man is broadens. There is more to the narrative, and I hope anyone who identifies as a man is celebrated today – as equals,” he expresses.
Currently, also accepting food orders from their home, the duo aspires to expand their business. “We have experienced life without a roof, without money or food. Our goal is to be in a position to provide food for at least 100 people a day,” shares Naseer.
“Even now, our situation isn’t the best. We live in a rented house, uncertain of what the future holds for us. But, we are dreamers. We will continue dreaming — for a better future — for us and all of humanity.”