Last month, when Nisha sat in front of the mirror outlining her lips, she did not experience the glumness that floods her whenever she decorates her face. This time she felt exuberant – she wasn’t heading out to dance and gather alms. She was going to be the showstopper for India’s first ever fashion show for transgenders.
Nisha is full of hope that this could be an opportunity for her to rewrite her destiny. “I don’t like dancing and begging. I desire to be a model,” says the 22-year-old who grew up as a boy (Zohaib Khan) in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh. Born in a conservative family, Nisha could never express that she is a woman trapped in the wrong body. Nisha left home when she was 16. She joined a group of transgenders in Delhi. Two sex-change surgeries, extensive laser therapies and three breast implants later (the first two ruptured), Nisha looks the way she always dreamt of.
If it were not for transprejudice, it wouldn’t have been tough for Nisha to make an entry into the world of modelling with her pretty face, slim figure and 5’11’ height.
Globally, it’s a different story. Gender non-conforming fashion models such as Australia’s Andreja Pejic and Brazil’s Lea T have challenged the traditional notion of beauty. But in India, transgenders face ruthless ostracism by the society. Rupika Dhillon, director, SPACE, an LGBT rights NGO, says there are many talented transgenders who wish to enter the modelling world, but with no one to give them work, they end up as sex workers. “Transgenders face the worst kind of harassment when looking for work. They are asked for huge money and sexual favours in return of modelling contracts that never happen, they are called names such as hijra and chhakka,” says Dhillion.
There have been several instances of sexual exploitation in the name of getting them work. “I paid Rs 15,00 to an agent who promised me a jewellery shoot. He later sexually exploited me and threw me out of his office. Hijre ko koi achchi company kaam nahin degi’, tu sabkaa mazak udwayegi’ he told me. My spirit was crushed. I came home, tore all my pictures and cried for hours,” shares Noor, 25, a transgender.
Another transgender, Chahat, shares a similar story. Born Danish Khan, the 28-year-old won the title of Queer Queen in a beauty competition organised by an NGO in 2010. For the last five years, Chahat has been struggling to get a break in modelling. Despite her photogenic face, tall height and svelte figure, Chahat hasn’t got a break. “As a kid, I would spend hours posing in front of the mirror. Winning the pageant made me believe in myself. I sent my pictures to city based agencies. One of them called me for an audition. When I confessed my gender, he was aghast. He abused me and said that I will never get any work,” recalls Chahat.
Often, the gurus (the head of hijra families) create hurdles to deter transgenders from getting into mainstream jobs. Kashish, 26, a transgender, auditioned for a TV ad four years ago. But all her hopes crashed when her guru found her portfolio hidden in her room. “My guru kept me locked for days. She beat me up and burnt me with cigarettes,” recalls Kashish. Her guru warned her that she will be killed if she ever tried to challenge the traditions of the dera (the hirja family). Gurus say their resistance stems out of their deep rooted mistrust for the society. “It is not that we don’t want our betis (daughters) to have a good life. It’s because we know that they will end up getting exploited. The society has such prejudice against us that it will never accept us,” says Sharda guru from West Delhi.
Leading modelling agencies agree that it not easy to fight the society’s intolerance. “Unlike the West, we are very regressive. Brands are very conscious of their image. It will be impossible to convince them to use a transgender as a model. They might agree to do it as a CSR campaign but won’t have a transgender model for a product they are selling,” says Pranav Awasthi, director, Glitz Modelling. Awasthi stresses that the upholding of Article 377 has been a big blow to the cause of transgenders. “It undid a lot of good work that was done. In a country where homosexuality is a criminal offence, how do we even think of breaking bigger barriers?” he asks.
LGBT activist Shashi Bhushan agrees. “People are very scared to help transgenders. When the country’s law is against you, you can’t do much. A friend of mine was recently shooting with a transgender for a NGO project. Someone called the cops and they forcibly stopped the shoot. It’s tragic that transgenders are treated like criminals,” he says.
Nonetheless, Transgender Models, a modelling agency that works exclusively for transgenders dares them to dream. “There are many gorgeous and talented transgenders who are denied a fair chance. All that comes their way is hatred, thanks to the bigotry of the society. It’s about time we learnt from the world that when it comes to fashion, the categories can’t just limited to men and women anymore,” says Rudrani Chauhan, founder of the agency. The agency has enrolled 15 transgender models who will be groomed in body language, posture, ramp walk, makeup and styling to be a part of the modelling world. They will also get help in networking so that they do not get exploited by unscrupulous coordinators.
Many in the fashion industry seem positive about using transgenders as models. “A person’s gender is irrelevant to me if he or she can do justice to my creation. Abroad, transgenders are doing fabulous work. We must give up our narrow-mindedness. It’s high time they got the respect they deserve,” says designer Anupama Dayal. Designer Rina Dhaka agrees. “If a transgender fits into my concept, I will work with her. It’s cruel to discriminate on the basis of gender,” she says.
“Yes, I look down on men”
At 6’1’’, Shonali Gujral towers over most men she meets. “I end up looking down on men all the time, not my fault,” she jokes. Seven years ago, she escaped her family who were going to ‘honour kill’ her for running way from home to live like a woman. Now, Shonali lives alone and has enough money to support herself. From fancy restaurants to glitzy night clubs, she is hired to ‘add life’ to parties. Shonali’s ex-husband, a straight man, left her because he could not face the social consequences of marrying a transgender. “He wasn’t man enough,” she says. After the traumatic breakup and a phase of depression and substance abuse, Shonali knows what she wants in life. “When I hang out with men, it’s only about fun. No emotional attachment. They are just not worth it,” says the 26-year-old who wants to be a super model. “You get life only once, isn’t it? You can’t waste it. I have big dreams. I will live them some day,” she says.
Shonali has her own way of getting back at the bigoted society -- she catches people unawares and shocks them to the core. “I once took part in a beauty contest held by a beauty brand. When they handed me the prize, I declared on the stage that I am a transgender. Everyone’s jaw dropped. The organiser almost fainted in panic. I can’t forget their looks. It was a sight to watch,” she laughs.
“I love to dress up”
Born a man, 26-year-old Nikki used to work for a call center in Noida. She was forced to quit her job as she couldn’t pretend to live like a man forever. She realised the sacrifices she was making to fit into the norms were not worth it. “Living like a male was slowly killing me. The reflection that I used to see every morning in the mirror wasn’t mine. I had severe bouts of depression. I love to dress up, I love putting up makeup, but I had to give up everything. Now I live life my way,” says Nikki, who has been doing odd jobs to survive ever since she quit her job. After taking part in the fashion show, Nikki is optimistic that she can work as a model. “I could not believe that so many people cheered for me as I walked on the ramp...I felt so happy! I have never been appreciated like this before. I am confident I’ll do a good job as a model,” she says.
“I deserve a break”
Born Zohaib Khan, 22-year-old Nisha wants to quit dancing and begging on the roads. She desires to be a famous model, and is waiting for that one lucky break.
Blurring the lines
The first-ever fashion show by transgenders organised in Delhi recently by the NGO SPACE (Society for Peoples’ Awareness, Care & Empowerment) attempted to break gender barriers in the fashion industry. Twelve transgender models walked the ramp in high-heels, with their wigs, hair-extensions and fake lashes in place, as Bollywood numbers played in the background. They showed off outfits picked from their own wardrobes — figure-skimming gowns with thigh-high slits, embellished sheer saris and tie-and dye dresses paired with metallic boots and quirky fascinators. The makeup and styling too was done by the models themselves. Dark smoky eyes teamed with strong lips, dramatic fake eyelashes, neon orange lips and purple-blue contact lenses — the looks created by them were fun, adventurous and rebellious. It took about a month for the participating models, and their choreographer, Rakhi, a transgender, to put the show together.
First person account of a transgender sex worker
My mother died soon after I was born. When I was six, my father died in an accident. I was left alone with an elder brother and two sisters. None of us ever went to school. We did odd jobs to survive. When I was 10, I once saw a beautiful dancer on TV. I realised I want to wanted to live like a girl and become a dancer one day. Once, my attempts at applying lipstick got me ruthless thrashing from my brother. When I was 17, he caught me with my boyfriend. He punished me by tying my hands and feet and rubbing red chilli on my private parts. I was broken and tried killing myself but I was saved. I ran away to Delhi in a train. I roamed on the streets for weeks looking for work. Soon, I met a few hijras near Kashmiri Gate who took me home. The head of the house taught me how to sing and dance. I started going out to beg with the guru. But I was sick of her anger outbursts. I met a pimp who shifted me to a transgender sex worker’s house. She was nice to me and even got my breast implant done in a private clinic. She got me into prostitution. It helps me make money but it is not an easy job. I often come back home bleeding and bruised... some clients are abusive and perverts. But my regular clients are good to me. They include businessmen, cops, small time politicians and government officers. I get paid between Rs 1,500-Rs 3,000 per deal. But work is often not regular.
I need to save money for my sex change surgery. I got to know that my brother’s wife is unwell. I want to send some money to them. Don’t know if they will accept it...haven’t met them in ages.
Quit prostitution? No, I don’t think I can do that now. How will I meet my expenses? Once, a makeup artist promised to marry me. He asked me to quit the trade. We lived together for two years. But he ditched me and married someone else. I don’t trust anyone now, I don’t need to. I am independent and happy the way I am.