During the pandemic, Dr. Aqsa Sheikh was the first transgender person to become the nodal officer of a COVID vaccination centre. This is a remarkable achievement due to the severe lack of representation of trans people in the medical community in India. In a country where very few trans people get primary school education, and face the most sever bullying, deprivation and marginalization, Dr. Aqsa is an inspiration and a stalwart in her field.
Why should I hide when I have not done a crime?
In a field dominated by men from upper castes and classes, Dr. Aqsa is a rare exception. Very few trans folks have been able to make inroads into STEM, although the ones who have succeeded have undoubtedly challenged their stereotypical portrayals in the media.
Dr. Aqsa has no interest in romanticizing her journey as a medical student. Her experience at her medical college led to severe internalized hate and self-doubt. In her third year, she started suffering from depression and high blood pressure. At one point, she almost decided to leave the medical program. But the hope of escaping her background of poverty if she became a doctor kept her from leaving.
In the face of Islamophobic, transphobic, and sexist hate, Dr. Aqsa has shown remarkable resilience and calm. Shockingly, Dr. Aqsa had to face online bullying even as she presented information on COVID precautions and protocols as part of her duties as a doctor.
Trans people were said to have gender identity disorder. In the textbook of forensic medicine, we were called sexual perverts. Medical science looked at people from a very pathologizing lens, from a lens of criminalization, from a lens of disease.
However, not all was bleak as she received support from other doctors and teachers, who kept pushing her towards success. She was counseled for a month at her college which helped her understand her own transness. Now she extends the same support to others in the profession.
I and other professionals who are trans are able to help other trans medical students who are also facing similar challenges so that they don’t have to go through what we had to go through. I am a small part of a large movement of queer and trans folks who have been putting in a lot of effort to create a future that is more accepting of diverse people.
She is hopeful that future medical students will make their respective university environments safe for queer folk. In her opinion, present college students are much more open-minded and are able to hold open and honest conversations around gender, and intersectionality. When asked how students can help improve their institutions, Dr. Aqsa shares some of the initiatives she undertook during her studies. A more recent initiative that she is driving is an intervention program where medical students pair up with faculty members to drive advocacy and lobby issues such as gender-neutral washrooms. Dr. Aqsa believes such interventions can re-engineer the spatial acceptance of the queer community in educational institutions and begin to lay the framework for inclusivity in its tourist sense.
Dr. Aqsa also considers it imperative for all to deal with homophobia and transphobia in their intimate circles - amongst family and friends.
As advice to young queer people, she says that it is most important to love ourselves before we start asking for love from others. Dr. Aqsa’s life has been a gamble, so she asks us to take calculated risks. Mental health crises have become an issue among queer folks as they are put in exceptionally stressful situations. Dr. Aqsa advises that both counseling and conversations around mental health are required to address these existential concerns.
It is extremely inspiring to hear Dr. Aqsa when she talks to us about the role institutions and the government can play in changing ground realities. In this regard, she is firm in her stance regarding affirmative action or reservation. In a society that has excluded trans people from all fields and actively criminalized transfolk in the past, Dr. Aqsa contends that reservation is a necessary tool for repatriation and compensation.
Dr. Aqsa circles around something that trans persons universally experience to a significant extent: familial estrangement and displacement from the natal home. Although the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 has been put in place, judicial steps are not enough according to Dr. Aqsa's opinion to protect trans persons from the harsh realities of a hostile and cis-heteronormative society. She encourages queer activists to keep lobbying the government to uphold the rights of transpersons as citizens who deserve the protection of the constitution.
Dr. Aqsa ends the conversation by speaking about the Shaheen Bagh movement where queer and trans folk stood shoulder-to shoulder with Muslim women, against a common enemy. This created solidarity across boundaries. She is proof that persistent resistance and diligent work can shift the unjust foundations of reality in your favor. We hope other members of the LGBTQIA+ community are able to find inspiration in her story as she continues to forge ahead.