“What does it mean to be a man or woman?” In Conversation With LGBTQ Crusader Bismay Mishra
There were 3 of us and 1 of him. Sounds unfair, but we were all intrigued to hear about what he had to say. On first glance, Bismay Mishra’s journey is like many other Odias before him: a bright guy who studied at NIT Trichy, worked in Pune, moved to the US and has been in California since.
We connected with him through mutual friends. He was enthusiastic to speak to us. A Zoom meeting invite soon ensued and the 4 of us, all from different corners of the world, proceeded to begin our conversation.
He surprised us from the start. “A lot of people think that I moved to the US for my career” said Bismay. “But if you are a smart person there are a lot of opportunities in India.”
He further explained, “I knew I was gay since I was in school. But it was very difficult being myself. Just imagine the late 90’s. At the time being, there were no positive examples of gay people in our society. The only exposure people had, was to the transgender community, and not in a good way.“
We couldn’t help but remember our school days. While we were dealing with homework, there were others who were trying to figure out their identity. We asked how he handled it, “I shelved that part of my life and focused on studies”, he answered. “I consciously pushed it aside. Coming from a low income background, I was focusing on making a good career.”
Currently Bismay works with Gilead Sciences, California, one of the world’s leading biopharmaceutical companies.
“The people who came to Gilead came because the company was supportive of the LGBTQ+ community from the get go. Five years ago, I could’ve never imagined I would be doing this because I am not a very public person. I never thought I will be putting my personal life out there but gradually the cause became a driving factor for me, something that I am really proud of.” And by the cause, he refers to creating more awareness and sensitivity around the transgender community.
“I don’t think I will ever fully understand the experience transgender people go through but that doesn’t stop me from being an ally and speaking out in their support. A couple of years ago, I realized that while Gilead played an active role in educating people about the transgender community in the healthcare space, there wasn’t that much awareness internally. And I kept looking around for people or resources that others can access for educational or informational purposes, but couldn’t find muchSo instead of waiting for someone else, I started working on it and focusing on how to create awareness within Gilead. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t like there wasn’t support. Once we started the work, I saw more people come out to participate and contribute to the efforts and that was the best part- that was my goal.”
He further added, “I was not trying to do anything revolutionary, but just wanted everyone to be treated fairly. The transgender, gender non-conforming and gender non-binary community is one the most marginalized communities out there, and not understood or well supported even within the LGBTQ+ community. But I believe that there cannot be equality without everyonebeing treated equally. There cannot be LGBT equality without gender equality (women’s rights), without racial/regional equality. Because the moment you start separating people into groups or dimensions, you are focusing only on one group’s issues and not the problem – which is lack of equality in our society.”
“After that Gilead started telling stories of their employees outside, they did one on me around my work on Transgender benefits and policies within Gilead. I may have just planted the seed but there are so many people in the company working on it and now it’s a big movement within the company. There were many who put in a lot of work and went above and beyond to create a global policy that extended beyond just our US offices. It was amazing to see how many people believed in the idea and were willing to take it a lot further.”
“With my friends and family I was trying to change some minds but I think through Gilead could bring about a bigger difference. Changing the minds of people and changing the culture has a more lasting impact than say, going to the leaders and asking them to implement a policy. The point is to make other people believe and understand. We have policy changes in India but the culture is not there completely. Taiwan is a stellar example of a progressive society, both legally and culturally, way ahead of many countries even developed western societies . Having said that, Odisha and Tamil Nadu are at the forefront of supportive actions, policies and laws that are very progressive especially towards the transgender community. That’s pretty phenomenal.”
As of now he along with his colleague are the global co-lead of their LGBT Group. Since the past few years they have been working to raise awareness for the community within Gilead and beyond.
Bismay is incredibly self-aware. He did not shy away from factors that helped him adapt. He touched upon India’s inherent racial/regional/caste/color biases. “I have the privilege of having lighter skin and being a man in India. I realized how much more difficult it is for women, for Transgender people. Stigma, discrimination, verbal/physical abuse is common. It even leads to murder.”
We asked Bismay about how his family handled the change. As Odias we could imagine how our parents would react if they hear about their kids being gay. But we were in for a pleasant surprise.
“I am very proud of how my family handled the news, they were supportive. They definitely struggled in the beginning as a lot of the information I was sharing with them was completely new and was dismantling a lot of the societal conditioning that they had been exposed to. But their journey in understanding my situation was amazing.” We wanted to understand the practicality of such a change. We asked about the conversations at home: “I talk about LGBT issues at home, not just my issues. My family understanding the situation was a step in the right direction.” He spoke more deeply, “People malign others because they are ignorant. Growing up, a lot of people used to joke about effeminate behavior and/or transgender people,not knowing I was gay. It was a lack of their awareness. It’s not necessarily a malign intent. Sometimes, they would see certain proclivities or behavior in me and would make fun of me. But when they got to know me, they realized they were wrong. And yet, it still took time and effort to get over the hump, and start growing and understanding and educating others. For example, my brother now pushes back against derogatory or mocking dialogue against transgender people on social media. I’ve also been fortunate to have a sister-in-law who provides mental health services to the local people in Odisha, including education and information around LGBTQ+ issues.”
At this point, all 3 of us were learning more than we initially anticipated. We could see firsthand, how difficult the journey becomes when a person first tries to understand himself, and then proceeds to explain it to his loved ones, and then the whole world. Many a times it becomes too much.
We then moved to a granular discussion of the LGBTQ+ community itself, and that is where we stumbled upon an astonishing reality. “A lot of gay/lesbian people don’t fully support transgender people as they feel it’s not their experience.”
“Others do not readily accept Transgender people who have not yet transitioned. There is a feeling of ‘Imposter-syndrome’, pushback and a lack of complete acceptance by the community.”
Bismay explained it further. “What does it mean to be a man/woman?” he asks us. “Men can have feminine traits and woman can have masculine traits. Unfortunately physiology is a big part of how we understand gender and that’s why it’s been difficult for men and women to understand the Transgender community. Disassociating the physiological from the psychological is paramount.”
He gives the example of women losing their breasts or men losing their genitals to cancer. “Do we no longer consider those cancer survivors women and men?”
“Imagine someone who has to first understand their own identity, then experiencing the painful process of transition and ultimately not being accepted in the community. It’s heartbreaking.”
Bismay beautifully illustrates through an example of how we can relate with their experience. He says, “Remember when you dress up really well for a party or work, and when you come back home, you just want to take off your clothes and slip into something comfortable. But not everyone can do that. Now, imagine how would it feel if instead of clothes, that was your skin. Imagine feeling like that your whole life; you are stuck in the wrong body and can’t just change out of your body like you can do with your clothes. That’s how I empathize, knowing I can’t ever fully understand their experience.”
We came into the interview thinking we had an idea of the LGBTQ+ community, but we realized that there is so much more to know. The intricacies of these complex social changes should be learnt by everyone in order to better understand our fellow human beings.
Bismay mentions a simple formula to help us do that, no matter how we feel about the subject “Some people have empathy, some people can learn empathy and some people can’t. For those who can’t, all we are asking is to treat all people equally with dignity, as humans.”
That isn’t asking for a lot now, is it?
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