Being transgender shatters Adam Harry’s dream to be a pilot

DGCA says hormone therapy renders him unfit to fly, activist says there is no scientific basis for it

July 02, 2022 09:32 pm | Updated July 03, 2022 09:48 am IST - NEW DELHI

Adam Harry.

Adam Harry. | Photo Credit: Facebook

In 2019, Adam Harry shot to fame as the country's first transgender trainee pilot, set to receive support from the Kerala Government to become a commercial pilot. Two years later, he is a delivery man for Zomato because the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) says he is unfit to fly as long as he is on hormone therapy.

The 23-year-old, a private-pilot license (PPL) holder from South Africa, secured admission to the Rajiv Gandhi Academy for Aviation Technology in Thiruvananthapuram in January 2020 under the Kerala Government’s welfare fund for transgender people. A PPL allows its holder to fly an aeroplane as a hobbyist, whereas a commercial pilot can make a career in flying.

Mr. Harry joined the institute and was soon required to undergo the Class 2 medical test to secure a student pilot's license. Mr. Harry was assigned female at birth. He identified himself as a trans man before the officials and displayed male physiological characteristics such as a beard and a male voice, yet he had no choice but to submit his application as a female because the DGCA's medical examination form doesn't include options for non-binary genders.

Following an extensive evaluation, which included a psychometric test that’s not normally required, the DGCA declared him “temporary unfit” on the grounds of gender dysphoria (unease due to mismatch between sex assigned at birth and a person’s gender identity), and because he is undergoing “cross sex hormone therapy”. He was advised to complete his treatment and undertake a medical review.

The medical examination at the Institute of Aerospace Medicine, Bengaluru, was far from pleasant.

"The officials were transphobic and asked very personal questions about my physicality and how would I marry someone. They were bullying me to undress, even when I asked for a female assistant. I was told how could they risk 200 people's lives by giving me a job," Mr. Harry recounted.

Five months later, when he received a medical clearance, Mr. Harry says it was granted because he was "coerced" into stopping his therapy as the DGCA says that as long as he is on medication, he will not be declared fit to fly. However, since his masculinising hormone therapy is a life-long treatment, the DGCA's current stand forbids him from ever becoming a pilot in India.

"I have been advised by my doctor to not break my transition therapy. And I can't sacrifice my identity for my profession. I want to be able to fly as who I am," Mr. Harry told The Hindu.

"The DGCA is missing any medical or scientific link between being on testosterone lifelong and flying an aeroplane. If they establish a connection, they should ban cis men from flying since they produce the same chemical endogenously," trans-rights activist and Associate Professor of Biology and Psychology at Ashoka University, Bittu Kaveri Rajaraman, said.

When the DGCA was asked why hormone therapy was a ground for denying medical clearance , a senior official said that though the candidate was informed of the reasons, the details could not be shared with the media "as per medical ethics".

Mr. Harry says he is willing to fight it out and open a "window" for others who may follow him, and fighting he has been all his life.

Born in a conservative Muslim family in Thrissur in Kerala, Mr. Harry was assigned female at birth and raised as one. As a teen, when he began to assert his gender identity by refusing to grow his hair long or by dressing up like a boy, his family beat him and forced him to visit psychiatrists. When he came out as a 17-year-old trans man on a social media post while he was in South Africa, his parents forced him to return to India and put him in “house arrest” for close to 10 months during which he was beaten up, forced to dress up as a woman, and made to undergo “correction therapy”. Eventually, Mr. Harry managed to escape and found shelter at bus stands and railway stations for 10 days before finding a trans community in Ernakulum, where he found work at a juice parlour.

The United States aviation regulator, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), allows a person with gender dysphoria who has undergone a gender reassignment surgery or hormone replacement therapy more than five years ago to obtain a medical clearance on the spot from a medical examiner, while in case of persons with under five years of treatment, there is a mental health status report that needs to be additionally submitted, following which the examiner sends the application for a review. The FAA also allows a pilot to undergo a gender transition while still flying without being grounded.

In India, the landmark Supreme Court judgment in National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) Vs. Union of India recognised that third gender persons were entitled to fundamental rights under the Constitution, and held that no third gender persons should be subjected to any medical examination or biological test which would invade their right to privacy. The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019, also prohibits discrimination against a transgender person, including for education and employment.

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