INTERVIEW: Vaishnavi Sundar is fighting the transitioning of kids in her film, Dysphoric

Vaishnavi Sundar is an independent filmmaker, feminist, writer, and women’s rights activist from Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India. She is the founder of Women Making Films and Lime Soda Films, and she has recently released a four-part documentary titled Dysphoric, which explores the social, medical, and institutional construction of gender identity. Her film places women and girls front and centre, and questions not only why they may feel uncomfortable in their sexed bodies, but also the myriad of harms involved in medical transitioning. The full documentary is available for free on YouTube.

Genevieve Gluck: Hi Vaishnavi, it’s an honour to be talking with you today. Your film Dysphoric is so amazing — I actually had to watch it in several parts because I had to stop and come back to it. It was so moving and powerful — the animation, the music, and the topics. You talk about the impact of misogyny on girls and the destructive nature of gender ideology. Can you explain the process of making this film and how you decided to organize it the way that you did?

Vaishnavi Sundar: Thank you for having me and for asking this question. So it all started when the previous film, But What Was She Wearing, got cancelled and they dubbed me transphobic. That story is pretty much out online and I still sometimes get an odd friend who writes something hateful to me, and with that behaviour coming from both friends and family, I kind of got a sense that there is something very intriguing about the way people hate on these “transphobic people” they claim we are. The process of making this film was actually pretty elaborate in the sense that I did not have anything planned out when I began. So during the time when I was deciding who to interview, what to ask them, etc. the film also evolved with me.

It all started when I wanted to shine a light on what’s going on [with gender identity] in Anglo-Saxon countries and offer a perspective about how this might impact developing countries in about five or six years. So it was supposed to be a very tiny film — a forewarning of sorts — but as I kept talking to more people and trying to understand how grave the situation is, I realized this could definitely not be a tiny film. I didn’t think of the duration at that point in time — I just continued to have conversations with people.

The only idea that I had from the get-go was to approach gender ideology from a multitude of vantage points. For example, somebody who is a full-time activist like me — what I think about it — somebody who is an academic, a sociologist, somebody who is the parent of a child who may have experienced Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD) at some point, the transitioners, and the detransitioners. So the process of making this film took me through several conversations with all these amazing people who are doing amazing work in their respective fields. In the end, when you lay all the conversations that you’ve had with all these people on an editing timeline, it is then that you pick and choose how to create narratives — how to make sense of a certain type of information. How can we connect narratives about a particular issue, but from different voices. All those things kept evolving as I kept editing. The good thing is, because I am directing and editing the project, it was all inside my head, so it was slightly easier. Because of Covid, it might have been very hard to collaborate with another person.

The choice of making the film in four parts was for exactly the reason you mention: it’s a bit of a hard watch, and I wanted people to have that freedom to move on and do other things. I could have made it into a two- or three-hour documentary, but I also like the idea of it being linked together as chapters, because a chapter can be watched in isolation. For example, if people only watch chapter four, they’ll get a sense of what’s going on at the organizational level — on the political and legal levels. If they watch part three, they’ll understand the troubles detransitioners face, etc. Basically I wanted to put it together so that if people watch just one chapter in isolation, it will still give them something to take home.

GG: It’s a great idea — it’s a lot of information. What I really appreciated was the personalization. You share your own experiences growing up, then end the film really nicely by bringing it back together, talking about all women and all of our experiences together. I actually started tearing up at the end. That was really moving.

I do think a lot of people are not really aware of some of the medical harms that you’ve outlined, even people who are following this issue might not have that kind of information readily available to them or be aware of what happens to women’s bodies when they take testosterone. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

VS: Yeah, even I didn’t know much of what was going on — what happens to our body when injected with testosterone is something that I learned in the process of making this film. I mean, I had a rudimentary idea that it definitely causes a lot of harm. But how devious the whole thing is sort of came to me while I was talking to all these experts.

Dr. Will Malone, the endocrinologist, is probably one of the few people speaking out about this, especially in the US (and probably getting a lot of vitriol for it), but when he explained certain things, it was really scary how, without knowing any of this information, women and girls are [pushed] into this as if it’s some sort of miracle cure for their dysphoria. A couple of things that stood out for me were when Dr. Malone said that when we inject [female] bodies with testosterone, their chances of heart attack increase. Apparently, endocrinologists tell [females] who want to transition that their chances of heart attack will be same as males, but that’s not true. If a female injects testosterone, the chances of her having a stroke, heart attack, or cardiovascular issues is actually much higher than that of a [normal] male adult. This is something that I hadn’t known before I talked to Dr. Malone.

I also learned that puberty can cure dysphoria, and that many people do feel better afterwards. It was really striking how parents are willing to put their children through something this dangerous, just because the hospital says it’s ok and reversible. There have been cases where children being treated for precocious puberty have ended up bound to wheelchairs. This can also happen to people put on puberty blockers, because you prevent the body from developing properly.

All these dangers are not openly advertised on websites that claim to provide gender treatment. Those were truly devastating things to hear and also such a revelation. I had very little understanding of this and I think this is true for most of the detransitioners who spoke in the film as well. They were saying the same thing: that when they were looking at transitioning, a lot of information they found online was very pro-transition. The damages and the dangers were presented as though they could be controlled or mitigated, and that these youth will be monitored — not just given hormones and abandoned. They are told they will be constantly checked on, but none of those things actually happen. If people watch the film, they will get a sense of just how bad it is. And anyone with the slightest amount of common sense wouldn’t put anybody through this process, in my opinion.

GG: I think that point is really important to highlight — that this is actually an ongoing experiment on children and on women. Because I think regardless of anyone’s politics, we could all come together to agree that this is not right. This is a human rights abuse. So I really appreciated you shining a light on that. There were things that I wasn’t aware of in terms of the health risks.

VS: Some of the conversations I’ve had with parents who wrote to me after having watched the film also prove that point, because you’re in a position where, in the West, 18 year olds can just walk up to Planned Parenthood and do whatever they want. It is really scary for [the parents]. When their kids are 16 or 17, parents are practically terrorized about the fact that the child is getting away, because in about a year, she could just walk up to any centre and do this irreversible thing to her body. Parents have written to me, and the way they feel so helpless about it is… really something I cannot describe in words. I’ve been moved to tears while having conversations with parents and detransitioners… They talk about how it was all so alluring in the beginning, but they wish they had known better. So it hasn’t been easy for anyone. All the people who are concerned with this — parents, girls who opted [to transition], psychologists who work with these girls — they’ve all been traumatized by this weird phenomenon that has taken over.

GG: In your documentary, you spoke with Raquel Rosario-Sanchez, who is a member of FiLiA, and she pointed out something she’s written about before: [how] people who speak up against this ideology are often accused of colonialism or “colonization,” as they say sometimes. Or they’ll be called white feminists for suggesting that this ideology is harmful and dangerous.

But as you’ve pointed out, this really seems to be something that’s coming from the global North, from academia, from pharmaceutical companies, and being pushed on people who are going to experience major repercussions. In your country — India — for example, losing privacy in restrooms is a serious and grave issue for [women]. I wonder what you think about this framing of colonization through resisting gender ideology.

VS: I mean, obviously I think it’s absurd. It’s just a way of shutting people down whenever they have an opposing view. It’s just a way of accusing people of something so they shut up. People accuse me of being bought by Western feminists or [criticize me] because of the unique position that I have in India. India is riddled with the caste system. And I think it’s now well-known via Western media, that caste politics [are] something that is a grave issue when it comes to Indian people in general, and women in particular.

Things are bad in India: there are about 84 rapes in a day — probably more. Nobody considers the position of Indian women from the perspective of how badly misogynistic the country is and their [consequent desire] to flee womanhood. What I have tried to do in the past — and continue to do — is bring attention to that aspect and that is why, as you mentioned earlier, I have included my own personal story in the film. Because I’m not talking about privileged girls who are from the upper caste or who are upper class who have all this education and the potential to speak in English and communicate with people worldwide.

I am coming from a thorough understanding of how deeply casteist this country is and how, by supporting gender identity ideology, the people they claim to save are the ones they are throwing under the bus. By stating how caste plays a huge role in gender identity ideology, I get sidelined because people think that because I am from an upper caste, I don’t understand what I’m talking about.

Similarly when I talk about the Dalit women suffering at the hands of upper caste men, I get sidelined — told I don’t understand what I’m talking about because I’m not Dalit myself. And that’s where the problem is. So most of the anti-caste communities in India are also subscribing to this approach because they think that by supporting [girls’] gender identity, whatever it is — fluid, non-binary, male — they are helping lift up from the other shackles of oppression they face. But they don’t realize that they’re actually binding them even further. I understand the structural inequalities in my country acutely well, which is why I’m screaming louder than before that I want to engage in conversation with people who are running these anti-caste communities to stop supporting gender identity ideology.

Another aspect of this is the way the cultural historical phenomenon of the Hijras and the eunuchs get pulled in too — people use this to claim transgenderism dates back to pre-colonial times. And it does date back, but it has nothing to do with modern-day transgenderism. By conflating these things, what these people are doing, again, is thinking that they’re helping people who are poor, marginalized, and uneducated. This compassion is a good thing, but a eunuch wanting to cross dress is not the same as, say, a 10-year-old going on puberty blockers. By [conflating] these [ideas] they are justifying young girls getting puberty blockers, and that’s where I have a problem. Because the eunuch phenomenon is a completely different phenomenon, with a grave, dangerous, dark history, and by [coopting] their stories, these people make it difficult for the Hijras and eunuchs, as well as for the young girls who are just feeling uncomfortable in their bodies, which pretty much how every girl in India feels.

GG: Yes, absolutely. I find it remarkable that children are being used in this way as a kind of shield for the proclivities of adults, which we could speak in great detail about in itself. But the fact that children are being used to rationalize something that adults do — which you went into detail about, in terms of the grooming aspect — is that also happening in India? In the sense that children are being exposed to this ideology younger and younger, or say, the media glamorizing it?

VS: Definitely, it’s happening in India, too. In fact, while I was researching for this project, I watched a lot of YouTube videos of these YouTubers who are now “transmen.” The comment sections include some really disturbing things — comments that appear to have been written by closeted autogynephiles. They search for these videos on YouTube and try to interact with people who have commented on it with genuine requests: “Where did you get this done? How did you go about it? I’d like some information.” So these men go there and have conversations with [girls in the comment sections] and then maybe take the conversation to private dms. And also when a girl in India is experiencing this really rampant oppression in her home — no freedom to wear what she wants, no freedom to talk to who she wants, etc. — then they get this kind of attention from a stranger who says things like, “You’re so beautiful. Oh, totally you’re so independent and fierce, you’re too mature for your age,” one does, I guess, feel a sense of validation, which motivates them to have conversations with these people because they don’t get that kind of validation at home or in school or college anywhere else. So, the psychology of these young girls and what they are experiencing and why they choose to have conversations with men who are grooming them makes a lot of sense.

I used to be one of those girls. I mean, I haven’t been groomed by anyone, but I’ve had people write to me or approach me saying, “Oh, you’re so young — how come you can make all these amazing decisions for yourself? Why are you so good at sports?” Then they sneakily get information about your parents — they find out if both of them are working, so know when you are home alone, things like that. That happens even today. Parents have told me that their daughters, who have their parent’s cell phones, sometimes come to their mothers and show them a message from some guy, asking, “What do I do about it?” But not a lot of girls do that. Many keep chatting with the guy. And in the YouTube comments I’m talking about, you also find really perverse comments by men who say things like, “I am actually a man but I want to be an Indian housewife and wear a sari and a bindi and I want my drunk husband to abuse me.” It’s really disgusting.

Also, with the advent of cheaper and cheaper smartphones and practically free data, everybody has cell phones. And India is one of the largest consumers of pornography. So you take all these things and put them into a bowl and the ones that get burnt are girls. This is unfortunate because the girls tend to fall victim to this very easily, given all the other circumstances that are also not going their way in their home and in their social circles. It’s just a really really sad situation.

GG: Something you said just reminded me of this Instagram account I saw a little while back, which was an LGBT group based in India full of “sissy captions” or “TG captions.” There are these images talking about how to become a real woman or a prostitute and be sold for sex and things like that. I think a lot of people aren’t seeing that aspect of it — we’re presented with a story of “affirmation” and positivity, but the real misogyny of not only just the idea that a man can become a woman, but what womanhood is, is so narrow and cruel. I mean it almost seems like it’s a feedback loop where the men are saying, “Women are like this,” and then the women are saying “Oh, if that’s true then I can’t be a woman.”

VS: You’re absolutely right. When I was young that is exactly how I felt. And that’s why I felt that maybe I am not a woman — maybe I should have been a boy, and I’m seeing that my brother and my cousin — all my male siblings — are definitely getting an advantage, and that’s another aspect of it as well. Some privileges they get — having longer curfews, the freedom to wear what they want, talk to women… whomever they want — all those things contributed to me thinking, “Oh, okay. It sucks all these things people are saying constitutes being a woman,” and then there is this additional benefit that if you are not a woman, you get XYZ privileges, and it sounds great to not be a woman and to be a man. That’s exactly how I felt growing up.

Thankfully it was a village and it was many years ago and the influence of social media or Internet porn hadn’t reached there. But if it had been now, I would have totally transitioned. I would have been a boy right now — whether I would have regretted it is a different story. I’ve also been totally gender non-conforming in a way that I get ridiculed. There’s this funny thing in India: you are expected to perform certain femininity, and if you don’t, you get called a boy as an insult. And I used to think, “Wow. He’s calling me a boy. That’s such a cool thing. I wish I was really a boy.” So I would sort of play on their ridicule in a way — it was gratifying for me. I would continue to dress like a man so they could ridicule me that way, and feel good because they believe that I’m a man, which means there is a potential that I could truly be a man.

GG: It makes so much sense that girls would want to opt out of what it means to be a woman in this world. And I think you mentioned that a clinic in India also was advertising transition as a way to avoid menstrual pain.

VS: Yeah. This activist clinician who has a YouTube channel, among other things, was demonstrating what happens during an FTM [female to male] surgery and what happens in an MTF [male to female] surgery. He explains what happens in the FTM surgery — the skin grafting, how they make the penis ending, etc. He talks about whether orgasm is possible and how orgasm can be induced by further surgeries, and then at one point he says many girls who suffer from period cramps don’t have to anymore because the uterus and ovaries go away. He said it in a way that made it sound even more alluring for girls — who would want period pain anyway? For me, it’s the worst time of the month and we have to deal with it every month and continue doing whatever it is that we’re doing. So it seems to me if I was young enough I would say, “How do I sign up?”

He’s not associated with a clinic per se, but he constantly posts these YouTube videos and includes his contact number and what city he operates out of so people can contact him and get the surgery done. No questions asked, no scrutiny. He does mention a certificate from a mental health professional, but every mental health professional asks for pronouns these days over here in India — we get that from the West — so you can imagine it’s not hard for a girl who thinks she’s a boy to get a certificate or letter of recommendation to go to the endocrinologist and get testosterone.

There is also a push for surgery — even before testosterone — here in India. There are clinicians who talk about how a person is assigned female at birth and feels distressed by this, so need to change their “gender.” And these are doctors — people who have graduated from premiere institutions in India and are working in really highly reputed hospitals and clinics, and these people are using terminology like “assigned female at birth” and they reference the DSM in order to back up what they’re saying. And the DSM does say really bizarre things, like if a boy wants to play with female-associated toys then he must be a girl. But this still isn’t reason enough to inject [a child] with hormones. That’s totally wrong.

But these Indian clinicians constantly reference the DSM-5. So it appears as though they’re coming from an authoritative position and that they know what they’re talking about because it’s in the DSM. And that’s really wrong, because we know what the DSM says, but those qualities shouldn’t alone qualify somebody to be injected with testosterone. I mean, they could be dysphoric because of those reasons, fine, but what they need is mental health support, not immediate medical intervention.

GG: It really seems like trying to cure a societal sickness by treating the individual as the one with the sickness.

VS: Yes, exactly. Take patriarchy away, and every girl would love to be a girl. I believe that. That’s why in the film — in the fourth chapter — I talk about how our job as feminists and activists is to go back to the roots and talk about the amazing things that women have done in this world. The way women have contributed to the economy, to democracy, to just the individual liberties that women are enjoying these days. I mean, what would I have done? I wouldn’t have had any education if the women before me hadn’t slaved themselves on the field, protesting, getting beat up, getting killed, getting raped by men — not because they thought they could win those rights during their lifetime, but so I could enjoy [rights and freedoms] many years later. And I feel the same responsibilities now. Because I don’t think — I’m saying this regretfully — this tide is going to turn very soon. It’s going to go on for a while. Things are going to get really bad before they get better. So all our work right now is not for any benefit that we can enjoy during our lifetime, but we must just keep doing it, because at some point in the future girls will probably think it’s amazing to be a girl.

GG: That’s really inspiring. Again, I kind of teared up there hearing you talk like that. Have younger women reached out to you in response to the film? Have you received feedback from the younger generation who are being most indoctrinated or impacted right now by this?

VS: Yes, it’s heartening because I do know this small spot of radical feminism in the younger generation, and it is very promising to me, because these are girls probably just out of college, just out of school, about to go and do their undergrad or university or something like that. For them I think the greatest astonishment is the fact that there are other people who feel this way. Thankfully these girls have found a community for themselves, and found other girls who also feel this way, have formed groups and are talking to each other. They’re talking about Andrea Dworkin and how pornography and prostitution are wrong and things like that. So I feel extremely happy — it really makes me cry.

Sometimes these girls reach out to me saying, “Oh it’s so amazing you made this film. Those are my experiences — that’s how I felt when I was growing up,” and I think, Wow, a generation of this and literally nothing has changed. Young women today are facing the same thing I felt 30 years ago, and the fact that they are now reaching out to me and have found radical feminism at such a young age is the best thing that has come out of this film, I feel.

GG: That is the main reason why I think we should all be brave enough to stand up against this.

VS: Yes, absolutely. I feel like there’s some sort of a monstrosity in me that makes me want to speak out more and more about it. I actually feel like I want people to have trouble with me. I want people to have issues with the films I produce because that’s how you can bring in dialogue. Then you can talk about why they think there is a problem with the film.

Also, I have made the film so that people really cannot find any problems with it, because de-transitioners themselves speak in the film. So if you have a problem with their personal story, you’re going against your own community. Don’t you want trans people to have the best medical facilities and services? If you do, then you must listen to people who didn’t get that. They didn’t get the medical attention they should have received. So if there has been a problem in the process for even one person, it should alert the trans community to want better services for themselves. Whatever it is that they’re looking for. I mean, I wish dysphoria could be cured with just mental health support. I wish we didn’t have do any bodily damage at all. But there are some people who do it and they have found some form of peace in that, so, good for them.

But if there are people saying these are issues their issues, and I shouldn’t be concerned, then watch this film, they will understand that I have not weaponized anyone.

GG: I was kind of shocked that your film hadn’t been censored yet. But you’re absolutely right in the fact that it’s framed in a way that makes it really impossible to go against, because, first of all, just the the sheer amount of facts that you have — it wouldn’t make any sense to argue against that and wouldn’t look right to go against people who have suffered so much.

VS: When I used to have conversations with people who are very pro-transition, it always felt like I don’t have enough ammo. I don’t have enough links because this is not a conversation where you can say, “No, it’s bad,” and be done with it. They will have a hundred reasons why they think it’s amazing: “It’s how they express themselves. It gives them bodily autonomy. For the first time they feel seen and heard.” All of that is ok — I’m not against them being heard or seen. I want them to be heard and to be seen, but they don’t have to change their body to do so. I want them to be heard and seen as they are — as women as girls, which should be remarkable in itself.

But their motivation seems to be rooted in something so far removed from reality. And the medical repercussions makes me sad. I wanted to make something that I can use as a response to all these things that these people have said to me over the course of many years, and I think that’s why I could make it in a way a lay person can understand and take something out of it. A militant trans rights activist can watch it and still not find anything wrong about it. Unless they want to say, “This is all wrong. This is all false. There is no science, sex is a spectrum. There are a thousand genders.” That’s the kind of argument you cannot have and win so that’s a different thing. But otherwise, I think the film has sort of approached the subject with a lot of compassion and empathy and I’m pretty pleased with that.

GG: And we’re all really grateful to you for giving us more ammo, so to speak, so thank you so much.

VS: It’s a pleasure. I think I want all of us to use this “ammo” — any part of it, just feel free to download it, use it wherever you want, put it on your website, tattoo it on your body. I don’t care. I’m gonna do that. I’m going to use this film everywhere. I’m going to start lobbying locally and try to bring some changes on ground as well. Meeting politicians, members of parliament — something beyond just talking because often it comes across as just me being against somebody, which is not the case.

I am for women. I’ve spent about a year making this film, so hopefully people will watch and realize that I’m not opposing anybody’s personal life choices, but want people to understand the repercussions. I don’t want one movement to hijack another movement — don’t take from somebody to give to somebody else. You always want everybody to have their basic needs met in a way that we try and produce it for them, not take it from one oppressed community and give to another oppressed community. That is not a political movement, that is just capitalism. That’s what’s happening right now.

These people don’t want to admit to themselves that they have been wrong all along. Even in the film, if you remember, Dr. David Bell quotes Theodor Adorno, who says that, the way group mentality works, it’s not that they don’t know that this whole thing is problematic. They just don’t want to admit to themselves that they know that it is problematic. And that’s what’s happening with the media publications using “correct pronouns,” and those kinds of things. It all seems to me like they’re just going in a direction that they have been dictated to go in and not really using common sense. They know that if they do, what happened to me will happen to them. It’s set up so any outlier will be punished in a way that those who have those concerns will shut up because they are afraid something will happen to them.

GG: Yeah. I’ve had more than one friend say to me that they don’t want to discuss this when I’ve tried to bring it up — that they don’t want to have the conversation at all. I think there’s a real fear there of asking questions. I think a lot of people don’t want to be shown to be wrong to believe something so absurd that a man can be a woman, and then admit they were wrong about that.

VS: You’re absolutely right, and that’s what’s happening here as well. A bunch of my friends who I have spoken to over these many years, they say they see sense in my arguments. But they’re not vocal. But when they share the film with their liberal friends, they are not even willing to watch it. Forget having a conversation with me, or trying to do a debate of some sort — they won’t even watch the film because they think that it is going against the cult, or worry they will change their mind, and don’t want to. I don’t want to watch your film. She’s a problem. I don’t want to have anything to do with her — that’s what’s happening. I know so many people who openly say, “I hate her. She’s a bitch. She’s transphobic. I don’t want to have anything to do with her.”

So if that’s the case, it’s hard to win this battle. Right? When you can’t even have the openness to approach something. These are really well-educated people, with top positions in academia and in corporate organizations. These are qualified, amazing, critical thinking people, but just with this one thing, they have found themselves in this box and are refusing to step out of it. They are refusing to even want to step out of it maybe because they know that if they do it will be evident that they have been following something really stupid all along.

GG: Well, with any luck, your documentary can get people to understand the many complex problems with all of this and to hopefully stand up and say something about what’s going on with children, at the very least. So thank you so much for speaking with me today. I’ve really enjoyed it.

VS: Oh the pleasure is mine, conversation with you is always amazing. Thank you so much.

Genevieve Gluck
Genevieve Gluck

Genevieve Gluck is a writer and advocate for women's sex-based rights and creator of Women's Voices, an audio library dedicated to bringing awareness to feminist texts and speeches.