In June, Shivani Bhatt and his family departed for their annual family trip to India. The 19-year-old California teen thought he was going to see his sick grandmother. What he didn’t know was that his parents were relocating them to India permanently so that Bhatt, who is transgender, could learn to behave like a “cultured Indian girl.” “It was supposed to be a two-week trip. I even saw the return ticket,” Bhatt told Refinery29. “Midway [through], I learned from my mother that I wasn’t coming back because I needed to be in India to get ‘fixed.’” As soon as Bhatt reached Delhi, his parents took away his legal documents and confiscated his cell phone and computer, he said. Bhatt, who prefers to be called Shivy, was born female but identifies as male. “My parents thought there was something wrong with me because I wasn’t living my life the way they wanted. I didn’t fit the mold,” Bhatt explained. “They told me that I would eventually get an arranged marriage to a man.” Bhatt said his parents enrolled him at a local college in August, even though he was supposed to return home to study neurobiology at the University of California, Davis. With no access to the internet or phone at home, Bhatt felt trapped.
My parents thought there was something wrong with me because I wasn’t living my life the way they wanted. I didn’t fit the mold.
He saw a window of opportunity when his mother left him with his grandparents for a few weeks so she could wrap up some loose ends in California, where the family had lived since he was 3 years old. Bhatt used the college library’s internet to get in touch with Nazariya, a queer feminist resource group in Delhi. On September 10, Nazariya helped Bhatt escape his family. The activists also provided Bhatt with legal counsel and shelter. That’s when things got complicated. Bhatt’s parents filed a complaint with the local police. Bhatt and supporters said his father, who he says is relatively wealthy and well-connected, used his power and influence to harass the activists. “They tapped and tracked our phones and also threatened to harm our family members if we did not hand over Shivy to his parents,” Rituparna Borah, co-founder and executive director of Nazariya, said. Bhatt said his parents also went to the local Indian media and spread false information, accusing Nazariya with kidnapping and sex trafficking. His parents did not answer multiple requests for comment from Refinery29.
In response, Bhatt posted a YouTube video explaining his side of the story. The cry for help attracted attention from the public as well as international media. It’s been viewed more than 25,000 times since it was first posted last month. Last week, with the help of Nazariya, Bhatt appealed to the Delhi High Court to get his travel documents back from his parents and return to the United States. The court ruled in his favor; his documents were returned and he was booked on a flight back to California on the same day, according to a copy of a court document published by Nazariya. His parents also agreed to stop pursuing criminal charges against his supporters and pay for his education, providing he continue to study neurobiology. Borah cast the ruling as a win for trans women and men, which the court said “have long lived on the fringes of society, often in poverty, ostracized severely, because of their gender identity.” “We’re elated with the judgment as it upholds individual freedom and liberty of gender identity and sexual expression. We hope this judgment helps other people who are still struggling and facing custodial violence from family,” she said.
We hope this judgment helps other people who are still struggling and facing custodial violence from family.
Rituparna Borah, Nazariya
Bhatt is now back in Northern California and is looking forward to resuming his life. He said he’s working with the registrar to make sure he’s still considered a student, despite missing the start of the year. UC Davis media representatives did not respond to requests for comment on the situation. He’s also not interested in continuing a relationship with his parents, who he said have also returned to the U.S., but without facing any charges. “After all the trauma and pain they’ve caused me, I don’t feel comfortable with them,” he said. “If they expressed love towards me after a court judgment, it doesn’t feel genuine.” But he does hope his case can raise awareness about the struggle trans women and men can face in winning fair treatment and justice under legal systems across the globe. “[The judge] basically applied the law rightfully,” Bhatt said. “It’s sad that this had to be celebrated, but a lot of laws don’t get applied justly for LGBT people.”