A trans man’s battle to become a pilot in India: ‘This is my dream, I have nothing else’

·4-min read
Indian aviation regulator has asked Adam Harry to reapply for commercial pilot licence  (Supplied/Adam Harry )
Indian aviation regulator has asked Adam Harry to reapply for commercial pilot licence (Supplied/Adam Harry )

India’s aviation regulator has invited a 23-year-old trans trainee pilot to reapply for a medical assessment to obtain his commercial pilot’s licence, two years after he was declared “unfit” to fly.

The development comes after the federal social justice and empowerment ministry had slammed the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) for its earlier decision, calling it “discriminatory” and in violation of the rights guaranteed to a trans person.

In January 2020, Adam Harry, a trainee pilot from the southern Indian state of Kerala, applied for a medical examination to be able to convert his private pilot’s licence from an aviation academy in South Africa to India, so he could start his pilot training in the country.

However, medical tests found him to be “temporarily unfit” for six months, on the grounds that he was receiving hormone replacement therapy, he told The Independent in an interview.

“They said, I need to complete the hormone therapy and seek a review of medical examination,” he said. “But there is no completion to this therapy. It is a lifelong transition.

“I wrote to them [DGCA] regarding this but they said, I have to be off medication.”

‘I am doing several jobs to survive,’ says Adam Harry, who was forced to take up the job of a food-delivery executive (Adam Harry)
‘I am doing several jobs to survive,’ says Adam Harry, who was forced to take up the job of a food-delivery executive (Adam Harry)

In August 2020, the DGCA had granted Mr Harry a favourable medical assessment after he went off the medication. Though valid till 23 August 2022, it required him to stop hormone therapy altogether.

However, on the advice of his doctor, Mr Harry resumed medication two months later.

“I cannot stop my medication so I continued my transition in between,” he said. “Since the current DGCA guidelines require me to stop medications, I never went back for a review.”

Mr Harry says he wants to be able to fly without giving up on hormone therapy. “There are lot of pilots who are flying on therapy across the world. The problem is that we do not have particular guidelines for transgender people who are undertaking hormone therapy in India.”

Meanwhile, the country’s aviation regulator clarified that the use of hormonal replacement therapy “is not disqualifying if the applicant has no adverse symptoms or reactions”.

“However, flying duties are not permitted while the dose of hormonal treatment is being stabilised or until an adequate physiological response has been achieved and the dose no longer needs changing,” it added.

Mr Harry is dissatisfied for another reason – because he says the DCGA has invited him to apply under the transgender category, something he terms “an umbrella word”.

“Applying in transgender category, is an umbrella word. There are trans men and trans women under the [same] category. And according to the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, we have the right to change our gender to either male or female.

“I have undergone my surgery. I have changed all the documents to male now. So, this particular transgender column does not help me.”

The regulator also said Mr Harry has not completed the required hours of flying to be eligible for a commercial pilot’s licence.

“Rajiv Gandhi Academy for Aviation Technology [in Kerala] has indicated that Adam Harry was not issued student pilot licence owning to inadequate attendance for ground classes,” the regulator says.

‘When I was a kid, my dad gifted me a fighter toy plane. So, ever since, I have had this dream,’ says Mr Harry, who says he wants to continue flying (Adam Harry)
‘When I was a kid, my dad gifted me a fighter toy plane. So, ever since, I have had this dream,’ says Mr Harry, who says he wants to continue flying (Adam Harry)

Mr Harry says he had discontinued classes from the aviation academy as he had received clearance for flying in South Africa. “In South Africa, they do not have any issues with trans people flying with hormones. So, I got medical from South Africa which is valid till 2026.

“So, I thought, why should I stop my hormones and continued flying in India and applied for academy change from Rajiv Gandhi to South Africa, with the help of Kerala government.”

In September 2021, Mr Harry applied for a scholarship under the Kerala state government’s welfare fund for transgender people. He is expecting the fund to be sanctioned in another two months so he can pursue his dream of being a pilot in South Africa.

Having been disowned by his family in India since starting his transition in 2018, Mr Harry says the last two years were not easy. He had many odd jobs, including as a food delivery executive.

“I am doing several jobs to survive. Not just Zomato [the food delivery platform he worked for]. I am a gender sensitisation trainer also. I used to work as part-time faculty in the aviation academy.

“Actually, I do not have family support. So, there are several jobs I need to do,” he says. “When I was a kid, my dad gifted me a fighter toy plane. So, ever since, I have had this dream.

“Other than that, I don’t have anything else. This is my passion. And I need to continue this, in my identity.”

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