India’s LGBTQ+ communities are continuing to raise the bar in their collective efforts to be thought of as “normal” human beings. In India’s male dominated, cis-cultured society, these efforts are akin to be constantly running a desperately tiring, endless marathon. And, at the very mention of the word “transgender”, the first image that pops into the majority of Indian minds is one of biological males who transition to female – M-to-F – partly because M-to-F trans people are far more visible than their F-to-M, transman counterparts.
Which leads us to the story of Praveen Nath, a 24-year-old transman from Kerala in south India who fought the odds of cis-cultural barriers to not only become India’s first transman bodybuilder, but who also won the Mr Kerala crown.
Praveen was born a biological female and attended an all-girls school. In high school, even the school authorities noted his sexual orientation and unconventional mannerisms. He was traumatised by relentless bullying and even contemplated cutting off his own breasts. Fortunately, someone who Praveen looked on as something of a mentor was able to talk to him about his sexuality and educate him about the broad range of identities that sit under the “queer” umbrella. This was the first time that Praveen realised that he was queer and – believe it or not – only learned the word “lesbian” from Google. He was 15 years old at the time.
Assuming he was a lesbian, Praveen came out to his parents at the age of 18. His family disowned him and threatened to kick him out if he “continued to be queer”. Consequently, the young Praveen had to deny his own identity until he could become independent enough to fend for himself.
No category for transmen
Praveen then sought help from a queer organisation in Kerala called Sahayatrika that, though counselling, helped him understand more about the diversity of gender identity. It was only then that Praveen realised that, rather than being a lesbian, he was trans. After he turned 20 and had begun to earn some money, he was able to afford gender reassignment surgery. But, despite the surgery, Praveen was not fully comfortable with his body as, despite the surgery, he had gained a lot of weight. He began attending a gym where, once again and despite his transition, he was subjected to more bullying from cis-men. However, his coach Vinu – a former Mr Kerala – offered his support and Praveen not only lost weight but was on the path to making history. Vinu advised his to compete in the district bodybuilding championships but there was a hitch: there was no category for transmen. Vinu was determined to continue to support Praveen and actually persuaded the governing body to create a category for transmen.
Throughout the training process, many people – including some from his own family – discouraged Praveen, continuing to contend that he was a girl despite his surgery. This did not deter Praveen, who continued to train ardently. It was an expensive process and completely unaffordable for someone on Praveen’s salary. However, his mother – who by then had reconciled herself to the fact that Praveen was a man – sold her jewellery to fund her son’s training.
Her faith paid off! In 2020 Praveen made history by winning the Mr Kerala title – the first time that a transman had won a bodybuilding competition in India.
Praveen now has the ambition to create fitness spaces where queer people can work out comfortable without having to face to hazards presented by cis cultural norms. He now works as an activist while training for the International Sport and Fitness Festival (IHFF) which is die to be held in Mumbai in October. It is fair to say that Praveen’s tireless work for queer – and especially trans inclusivity – continues to inspire India’s queer communities as they strive for equality and acceptance.