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Interview – Daniel Mendonca

Photo of Daniel Mendonca

Shikha Aleya interviews Daniel Mendonca who identifies as an intersex person and is a gender rights activist who has engaged with diverse groups of people in India and other countries, to expand awareness, build empathy and foster an environment that is accepting of diversity. Daniel wants an equal world with equal opportunities for all and focuses on issues of creating inclusive and safe spaces for all genders. Having been a representative of intersex persons from India and a speaker for the LGBTIQ+ community at National and International forums, Daniel says, “A safe space for me is where I can express myself, I should not be judged for what I am, a space where my humanity comes before my gender. A space where my bio data and my achievements should matter more than my gender. If I walk in here, nobody looks at me to say, ‘Who is this person? Why is this person here?’ I speak about the rights of everyone, the rights of all men and women, not just LGBTI people, to safe space.”

We thank Daniel for the time, energy and sharing of experiences and insights contributed to this interview.

Shikha Aleya (SA): Daniel, beginning directly with the theme of this issue of In Plainspeak, what are your absolutely top of the mind thoughts around the idea of masculinities, and labels such as ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’?

Daniel Mendonca (DM): My first thought is: I don’t believe there is any masculinity or femininity. Everybody can do all the work society thinks is done by someone because of being male or female. I may be man, woman or intersex, and this has nothing to do with what I can or cannot do. I believe this masculinity, femininity, does not exist. We can switch between male and female roles according to the need at the time. These labels came from patriarchy, it made men feel superior. But there is also a concept or label of the “third gender”, no? So from somewhere it has come to be that man is the first gender, woman is the second gender and all else is a third gender. So a label makes someone more powerful and makes someone else weak.

SA: Do you know other individuals, who do not identify as intersex, but who question the gender-based labels put on them? What do you think are some aspects in common amongst those who question these labels? At the same time, what is it that makes life experiences very different for some individuals, including, for example, you?

DM: A lot of people – I would say everybody – ask, why am I supposed to do this? Or not supposed to do this? Till the age of 5 or 6 years, all children are raised the same, there is no difference. After the age of 7 or 8 and especially when puberty happens, in a family where there are sisters and brothers, boys and girls are told to do things differently. Girls have to sit like this, behave in a certain way, and boys can play with cars, but girls have to play with dolls. So all children ask,why? In the Stone Age, men and women had equal roles. Both hunted and did things together. When we became so-called civilised, there was more gender difference, with man being labelled as breadwinner. So even if the woman is a breadwinner, she will either not get the title, or she can’t be a single woman.

So everybody has questions. Even my friends in heterosexual relationships, they question. Men ask,why can’t men cry? A female friend of mine, who is heterosexual, liked to play with toy aeroplanes and cars as a child. People called her a lesbian. Taking my own example – I was going to get a job in a computer school, I had to teach, and they laughed at me and said they thought I would not be able to lift a computer. I said, if this is my job, I can do it as well as you. See, at home if a bulb has to be changed, the boy has to do it, automatically, a woman does not do it.

Look at mythology. This idea of weak and strong has come from it. Actually you have two sides. Kali and Durga. Bold and strong. Women. But then you have Parvati and Savitri and also Mohini, who are sensual. We don’t speak of men as sensual, even though Kama is the lord of lust. Where has all this come from? Lust is common to both male and female. We have not shared stories of how brave women were. We are told stories of how the woman is devoted to her husband, stories that bind women to the home. In all this, religion has a big part to play. So there is ideological debate in families. Even when I want to raise my child differently, I worry about what society will think. The more we develop, in terms of money, status, etc, we are not developing our minds.

About some people being different, there is one thing – being male or female is considered normal. Normal means there is also abnormal. Whatever the majority feels is right is normal. If it is not right, it is not normal. So if the majority feel that eating something is wrong, it is wrong, it is unnatural. Labelling comes from different aspects. Life teaches you a lot of things. I think life is about knowing more about yourself. When you start knowing more, life finally tells you what you are, male, female, intersex, a trans person, and so on. You accept this fact or stay in denial. The choice we make now is where the difference lies.

So, acceptance or denial. A woman may be a PhD in psychology, may have a career before marriage, but then after she gets married, she has to choose between her family and profession. She thinks, “If I go to work I will never be able to handle a family”, as she has been taught to think. So she stays in denial. This same choice is not given to a man. He goes on staying the breadwinner. But then, there is pressure put on him. He is told to have a child. That is also pressure, told to have a child whether he wants to or not, is ready for it or not.

This is also true for LGBTQI people. You can live in denial. Again you choose, whether you deny or not, come out of the closet or not. Many deny and live a so-called ‘normal’ life, get married. Acceptance and denial are the two major factors of everything in life, and both come with a lot of pressures. Pressure from society, or pressure from ourselves. The pressure of acting straight when I am gay. If I am open about being gay, then the pressure is when people say all sorts of nonsense – but I still have to live.

SA:  Please tell us about your name, Daniel Mary Francis Mendonca. Have you chosen any part of this name for yourself?

DM: So my name was Daniel Francis Mendonca. The name Daniel was given to me by my godfather. There was a lot of debate because I was intersex. I would say, the question then was, “Will he grow up as a girl or will she grow up as a boy?” The name Daniel comes from the Bible. Francis is my father’s name. When I grew up, I always asked, where is my mother’s name in all this? Why only my father’s name? Am I not the product of both my father and my mother? Mary is my mother’s name, and I took her name. This also goes back to the issue of patriarchy. Everyone asks about my father’s name, not my mother’s, in every document. This shows how society treats women and treats mothers. If you don’t have a father, people make you feel shame. Society makes you feel ashamed. I chose my mother’s name to make society aware that my mother and father are both important. Because I spoke like this and did this, many people in my college and institute began to use their mother’s name too.

SA: As an intersex person, how do you challenge the typical idea of masculine and feminine to bring about a change of attitude? Please share some stories of your interactions with people and with diverse audiences, when you work with them to challenge these concepts. 

DM: One of the most powerful tactics I use is this: One day I dress up as a complete woman, with ear rings and sarees and make-up, and the second day, suppose it is a long meeting or event, I will wear all masculine clothes, or sometimes gender-neutral clothes. So people always say, “Okay you are intersex, but why do you change dresses so much?”I reply, “Dresses are made so that people have their dignity, meaning you hide your private parts, or to look beautiful, or handsome if you want, but dresses have no gender. Humans have gender.”

Then another thing is, I always say, “I am Daniel Mendonca and I identify myself as an intersex person, my sexual orientation is towards men, my gender identity is intersex.” Then there is a lot of questioning. So I use these two ways to start conversations and make things clearer. Even in our history and mythology, men dress up more than women. Look at an idol of Krishna, we all believe he was a man, married to 16000 women, and we never question the way he dresses, with the most beautiful payals, sophisticated eyeliner and kajal, those beautiful eyes, the red alta on his hands, and the most ‘feminine’ manner in which a man can stand. The slim body, slim waist, nobody questions that. So he is shown as a man who was very ‘feminine’. When it comes to masculinity, India, actually the world, is so weird. Look at Shiva’s photo or Vishnu, they are so masculine, and then there are these slim, trim goddesses. And Mother Mary is a slim, trim woman with a baby in her hands? Why is there no goddess who is fat? Where has all this come from?

When you make such points in front of people, it’s ideology versus reality. You point out things like the use of the word mardani (like a man, bravery), like Jhansi ki Rani, when did women being brave become mardani? When did bravery become mardani coming from mard (man)? We have to question these things!

SA: In 2014, your activism and efforts resulted in the construction of a toilet for intersex and transgender persons at the University of Mumbai’s College of Social Work, Nirmala Niketan.  If you had to define safe and inclusive spaces, spaces that are sexuality affirming, accepting of diversity, how would you define them?

DM: Firstly, there must be a lot of awareness and sensitivity about gender issues that we do not know about. A safe space for me is where I can express myself, I should not be judged for what I am, a space where my humanity comes before my gender. A space where my bio data and my achievements should matter more than my gender. If I walk in here, nobody looks at me to say, ‘Who is this person? Why is this person here?’ I speak about the rights of everyone, the rights of all men and women, not just LGBTI people, to safe space.

A space where there is not only acceptance by mouth but acceptance by action.

SA:  Daniel, at a TEDx talk you gave, you asked, “Why can’t we accept people the way they are?” Do you know why there is acceptance or the lack of it, across homes, families, school, colleges, workspaces, overall in society?  Do you have an insight into this?

DM: I am going to say something strange. I believe people don’t accept others, because they have not really accepted themselves. Again the whole thing of living a life in denial.

In our inner self, we hide so much, it makes us fear this in someone else. We think, “It took me 22 years to accept myself, how can I ask my parents to accept me in two days? How do I tell them not to believe in things they believed all their years?”

It’s a slow process. Like the Supreme Court judgement on Section 377. Change will come, but slowly. People have not accepted the reality of who they are. There are too many engineers studying engineering because they are forced to do so, not because they want to study engineering. There is forceful pressure by parents, friends, family. This is the reason people cannot accept their own reality. We have two faces, different in front of the world, different with ourselves. Those without a mask are out and openly talking about themselves.

Then there is fear of losing our image in society. People think, “What if tomorrow I tell someone, I have a friend who is a transgender person? They may think I am also like that. What if introduce a gay friend to my mother, she will think I am also gay.”So fear of losing status. Before the 377 judgement, companies were afraid to hire LGBTI people. They were afraid of being attacked, of losing money, funding, whatever. But after the 377 judgement, companies are accepting LGBTI persons. So it’s about the fear of what will people say and what will happen.

I want to say this, I am often asked this question, “When is the time that you came out?”I say, “The only time I came out was from my mother’s womb.”

Sexuality is gifted by nature, at the same time as there are social and experiential aspects that impact sexuality. You’re a woman not just to provide children but to enjoy your sexuality, to enjoy an orgasm. You were gifted this being, of being a man, so that you can cherish yourself, and as a man, not save and protect women, but respect women. You were born as any and all sexualities, gay or straight, not, as some people believe, as a punishment or curse for your parents, but because you are a part of nature. It is all a part of sexuality.

I am a resource person making churches inclusive for LGBTQI people. I was at a conference, with the National Council of Churches in India. At the conference, a member of the panel said that, if LGBT people keep increasing, the population will decrease, and that god created male and female for reproduction. So I said to this person, Suppose there are two apple trees in your garden, one gives fruit, the other does not, what will you do? Will you cut the tree?” He said, “Why will I cut the apple tree? It is also giving shade and oxygen and all these things, except fruit.” I said, “So is this human being. If a woman does not give birth to a child will you throw her out of the family and divorce her? This is also a balance that comes from nature. All women do not give birth. And some women choose not to. People can also adopt children.”

When we associate marriage with reproduction, there’s a problem. Marriage is about companionship, cherishing each other and being a support to each other. Marriage is not just two bodies, but two souls, and I know the soul has no gender. They say, now you are married, you are not two bodies but one – this is not said because of a sexual relationship, but because of the concept of ‘us’. Everybody should have the right to this, irrespective of gender.

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