Banker, model, mayor: Transgenders forge a new identity in India

ByShikha Kumar, Nidhi Choksi and Neeta Chhatwani
Apr 27, 2016 08:41 PM IST

They are getting educated, acquiring skills and conquering the workforce. From living on the fringes of society, transgenders across India are now confidently embracing their identity.

First transgender police inspector. First mayor. First college principal. First music band. First taxi service. All in the span of a few months. All in India. The landmark Supreme Court judgment of 2014, which accorded India’s transgenders a third gender status, has offered a new-found liberation for the four-lakh member community. Many are shrugging off years of stigma and shame to break into corporate, creative and bureaucratic fields. They’re refusing to be relegated to the fringes, and taking their first steps towards their rightful place in the world.

6 Pack Band is India’s first transgender music outfit.
6 Pack Band is India’s first transgender music outfit.

It’s a sea change from just a generation ago. Transgenders (or hijras as they are locally known), refer to individuals at odds with the sex they are born into, and who opt for cross-dressing, castration or sexual reassignment surgery to embrace their true identities. In India, they were granted voting rights only in 1994, and had to cast their votes as either a male or a female until 2009, when the ‘other’ option on ballot forms was introduced. Many see the 2014 judgment as a watershed moment that allowed them the freedom to embrace their identity in public.

Read: No more ‘sir’, I’m ‘madam’: Govt officer reveals transgender identity

“Today, there are so many positive developments in terms of LGBT rights. The ridicule has lessened; doctors, policemen and government officials sit up and listen to us,” says Gauri Sawant, the founder of the transgender rights group Sakhi Charchowghi Trust. Pune-based Sawant, along with fellow activist Meera Gauri, had filed the PIL that led to the landmark judgment. “We fought on the streets, with municipal councillors, ministers, and everyone who had used us as an opportunity [to get political].”

As things look up, and we make our way to becoming a more inclusive society, transgenders are no longer content to be passive observers. They are educating themselves, acquiring skill sets and doing their best to show us (and members of their own community) that no one’s dreams should be defined by their anatomies. “We’ve made employers take notice of the fact that we are a part of the national work force, that we have skills beyond dancing, begging and sex work,” says Sawant.

Read: Shah Rukh Khan dances with transgender band on Fan song

The journey has been long, and there are still miles to go. Sawant stays optimistic as ever, full of hope for what’s to come. “On April 14, we complete two years of this historic ruling, and there are positive stories coming from different parts of India. We were once fighting for the right to vote, today we are talking about equal representation,” she says.

Years from now, in a India that sees transgenders as fellow Indians, colleagues and friends, these are the pioneers we’ll look back on, who took the first bold steps to equality. And paved the way for the rest.

The Banker: Monika Das

After years of anxiety, Patna banking professional Monika Das finally came out to her workplace as a transgender.

On any working day, you will find Monika Das at the Kankarbagh branch of Syndicate Bank in Patna, where she’s a clerk, chatting with her co-workers and visitors, who have become increasingly fond of her. “Many of them ask if they should call me ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’,” she says, giggling. “Senior citizens especially love to come and talk to me.”

In June last year, Das shrugged off years of stigma when she submitted an affidavit to the bank stating that she is a transgender. “It was the biggest day of my life. I no longer had to pretend to be someone I was not.”

Unlike the grief-laced stories among India’s transgender community, Das had steady support from her family. Born Gopal Das, she knew early on that she felt female both physically and emotionally.

“I had very feminine mannerisms. And even if your family is fine with how you are, outsiders ridicule you. I’m very fortunate that my mother never discriminated between my two brothers and me,” says Das, who lives with her family in Patna.

Monika Das submitted an affidavit to her employer, stating that she’s a transgender. (A P Dube)
Monika Das submitted an affidavit to her employer, stating that she’s a transgender. (A P Dube)

After completing school, Das went on to acquire a Masters in Law from Patna Law College. Throughout her education, despite dressing as a man, she was subjected to bullying and teasing. “They would poke fun at me. But being miserable about my identity was going to do me no good. I knew that I had to study and get ahead,” she says.

After college, Das got a job as a clerk with the bank’s Fatuha branch in 2007, where she continued until her transfer to Kankarbagh a year-and-a-half ago.

The Supreme Court ruling in 2014, giving the community a third-gender status, gave her the confidence to embrace her identity. “I feel happy when I read about so many transgenders getting comfortable with their sexuality in their workplaces. We need to stop apologising for who we are,” says Das, who has been undergoing gender reassignment for the past two years.

Das, whose love for Bollywood music and ghazals is known amongst her friends and co-workers, is quite popular at her corporate parties. “Last year, we had a big cultural programme in Patna, where all the employees of nationalised banks were invited. I got a big applause after my dance performance,” she says.

A yoga enthusiast, she practises for an hour every morning and then studies her office literature before heading to work. “Education matters. You need to keep learning. It’s easy to hold out your hands and succumb to the traditional ways of earning by begging, but it doesn’t allow you to prove yourself,” she says. “If you’re not educated, work with an NGO but don’t beg.”

Deeply attached to her hometown, Das dreams of becoming a law officer, but would still want to continue working at Syndicate Bank. “I’ve even got all my [transgender] friends to open their accounts here,” she says, laughing.

— Shikha Kumar

The Model: Rudrani Chettri

Once barred from entering a mall, Delhi model Rudrani Chettri has set up India’s first modelling agency for transgenders.

Rudrani Chettri says there was never a defining moment in her transition towards being a woman. “It’s not like one day I wore a sari in front of my parents and told them I wanted to be a woman.” She never even had to have a conversation with them about the matter; they knew and they were all right.

The rest of the world wasn’t so understanding. Chettri, who lives in Delhi, remembers the time she was stopped from entering a mall. “The security guard shooed me away, saying I wouldn’t get clothes for myself,” she says. “It got me thinking about how differently we dressed or wore make-up.”

In her head, Chettri felt no different. She’d pose with the flair of a model and show her photos to other transgenders. “They would tell me I’m photogenic, that I pose well,” she recalls. So what about others like herself, who felt beautiful but were kept out of the glamour world? “I wondered why transgenders couldn’t be models, or be accepted by the fraternity and treated with respect.”

Rudrani Chhetri was fascinated by how transgenders were discriminated against because of the clothes they wore and wondered why they could not be models. (Nishant Shukla)
Rudrani Chhetri was fascinated by how transgenders were discriminated against because of the clothes they wore and wondered why they could not be models. (Nishant Shukla)

Her question found answers in 2015, when two UK filmmakers, in Delhi to film a documentary about transpeople, learned about her idea. They set up a crowdfunding page to help her create India’s first modelling agency for transgenders. The firm conducted its first audition this year with a straightforward criteria: applicants who identified as transgenders, were confident, and could work under pressure. The panel included Chettri herself, and also photographer Rishi Raj. Three models were picked, who will be groomed for a professional portfolio and take their first steps into the spotlight.

Offers have started coming in. Filmmaker Subhash Ghai expressed an interest in casting two models in his next project. “It’s not a stereotypical, comical role.” Chettri says they’ll play the lead’s friends.

The crowdfunding page has collected £1,485 so far, and Chettri, who lives with her boyfriend, is busy trying to make her project a success. She plans to rent office space and set up a studio so their models can submit portfolios and get shoots done. “When we talk about transgenders, it’s all serious,” says Chettri. She’s put to prove they’re as fun as anyone else.

— Nidhi Choksi

The Mayor: Madhu Bai Kinnar

Born poor, shunned by her family, Madhu bai Kinnar stood as an independent candidate and won Raigarh’s mayorship.

Madhu Bai Kinnar speaks in a gentle but assured voice: “Everyone on the streets knows me now. It’s a wonderful feeling!” It’s been an eventful year for Kinnar, who scripted history last year by becoming India’s first transgender mayor. Kinnar, standing independently, beat her BJP opponent by over 4,500 votes, securing the seat in the Municipal Corporation of Raigarh in Chhattisgarh. “When I took office, I was quite unfamiliar with the political world. But I’ve got a good grasp of everything now,” she says.

For Kinnar, the victory was a double triumph – she is not only a eunuch, but also a Dalit. Born Naresh Kumar Chauhan, Kinnar grew up in a poverty-stricken family, and studied only up to class 5. “When I was in school, everyone would tease me and ask, ‘How can a boy be so feminine?’” she recalls. After leaving school, Kinnar worked as a daily-wage labourer, and at the age of 17, left home to live with the eunuch community. “My family shunned me. I wanted to escape the poverty and discrimination and getting out was the only option,” she says.

School dropout Madhu Bai Kinnar beat her BJP opponent by over 4,500 votes to win Raigarh’s mayorship. (HT Photo)
School dropout Madhu Bai Kinnar beat her BJP opponent by over 4,500 votes to win Raigarh’s mayorship. (HT Photo)

After she left home, she made a living performing on trains running between Howrah and Mumbai, and even participated in street plays and folk dances. “Dance was my life. Now that I’m the mayor, I don’t have time for it anymore,” she says.

Kinnar was always curious about local politicians, whom she would frequently spot in the district. In 2014, when she discovered that the district office was accepting applications, she applied on a whim, and decided to run for mayor. With no prior experience, she went campaigning from ward to ward, asking locals about their problems, most of which comprised basics like electricity, roads and water. “The public voted for me as they knew I would do good. People tend to believe that blessings from the eunuch community go a long way, but in this case, it was because of their blessings that I won.”

Kinnar now lives in the government-alloted bungalow with her eunuch friends, who are her family. She has been making good on her election promises, and continues to visit residents to solve their issues. Having observed problems from the ground up, given her own distressed background, Kinnar’s topmost agenda remains securing dignity and respect for her community. “Transgenders should take advantage of the jobs and opportunities that come their way. To avoid humiliation, there can be different schools for them, but most importantly, they should not be discriminated against. We’re all the same people.”

— Shikha Kumar

The Band: 6 Pack Band

Six eununchs from Mumbai are singing stigmas away in a first-of-its-kind musical outfit, 6 Pack Band.

Earlier last year, a version of Pharell Williams’ Happy, took the Internet by storm. YouTube was filled with videos of Indians performing their versions of it. But one adaptation, Hum Hain Happy, stood out for its unusual theme – the featured singers were eunuchs. Dressed in bright lehenga-cholis and jewellery and strutting like models, the transgenders crooned ‘khush raho, nacho, gao, aao bajao taali’, as they visited corporate and public spaces, confidently braving the uncomfortable stares and sending a message for inclusivity. The video went viral, and has crossed 17 lakh views.

The group is the country’s first transgender music group, 6 Pack Band, and is the brainchild of Y-Films, the youth wing of Yash Raj Films. The six members, Bhavika Patil, Ravina Jagtap, Fida Khan, Asha Jagtap, Chandni Suvarnakar and Komal Jagtap, were chosen after multiple rounds of auditions and were then given voice training workshops.

“I was terrified when I first entered the recording room. All the fancy equipment, the singing on the mic while wearing headphones…,” says Patil, a qualified nurse who has done small roles in TV. “But the team was very supportive.”

The members of 6 Pack Band were chosen after multiple rounds of auditions, and were then given voice training workshops .
The members of 6 Pack Band were chosen after multiple rounds of auditions, and were then given voice training workshops .

Actor Anushka Sharma’s narration in Hum Hain Happy, describes her community as “ignored by some, tolerated by most, misunderstood by all”. The members certainly vouch for it. Patil began cross-dressing at an early age and while she was supported by her family, visits from other eunuchs didn’t go down well with their neighbours. “My electricity would be cut off,” she says. Fida Khan, a worker with Kinnar Maa Trust, which helps older eunuchs, says hers was a tormented childhood. As a boy, she was frequently humiliated by her school teacher for her ‘pansy ways’. She only confronted her identity at 14, after meeting the LGBTQ rights group, Humsafar Trust.

Watch 6 Pack Band’s popular video, Hum Hai Happy

On YouTube, the support for the video far outweighs the negativity. But 6 Pack Band’s best memory is of recording the album’s second song, Sab Rab De Bande, with Sonu Nigam. “I’m a huge fan of his and my phone is filled with his songs. When he sang for the first time, I just watched in awe,” says Khan. Patil recalls how humble the star was. “He spent a lot of time with us. Even at meal times, he wouldn’t lock himself in his vanity van. He ate with us.”

The band is working on their next album and hopes to set an example for transgenders who struggle with their fate. As they croon in Hum Hain Happy, ‘Khush raho, duniya na tere saath rone wali’. They know that change begins with them.

— Neeta Chhatwani

The Student: Sandra Nandeibam

Manipur-based Sandra Nandeibam is one of the first persons from the north-east to acquire admission under the third gender category.

On her first day of college in July last year, Imphal student Sandra Nandeibam was a nervous wreck. It wasn’t just the anxiety of a new beginning that was getting to her. Nandeibam was in a dilemma about which toilet to use, the men’s or the women’s. “Transgenders clad in women’s clothes are frequently seen across town. I was the first one who was actually going to college dressed like that. I kept thinking that if people laughed at me while I entered the ladies toilet, it would really dishearten me,” she recalls.

Instead, Nandeibam was received warmly by her classmates and hasn’t had a difficult moment since. “The principal even gave me a phanek (a girl’s college uniform) and asked me if I was comfortable using the girls toilet,” she recalls.

Last year, the 18-year-old became the first person from the north-east to select the third gender category during her admission to one of Imphal’s premier institutes. “It felt like a rebirth, after having to identify with a gender I wasn’t comfortable with,” says the Sociology Honours student.

Sandra Nandeibam has walked the ramp for many local designers in Manipur and was recently the ambassador for Sanagee Likphang, a fashion event that champions the rights of Manipur’s transgenders. (Somba Pukh)
Sandra Nandeibam has walked the ramp for many local designers in Manipur and was recently the ambassador for Sanagee Likphang, a fashion event that champions the rights of Manipur’s transgenders. (Somba Pukh)

Born Nandeibam Sandeep, she was in class 2 when she realised that she wanted to be a girl. “My father would lock me outside the house on winter nights for roaming around cross-dressed. They thought that things would change when I grew up,” she says. They didn’t. It’s only when she started college that her family came to terms with her identity. The move makes Nandeibam feel short-changed: “Why was this acceptance missing when I was younger? This feels like a compromise.”

In 2013, Nandeibam was participating in Thabal Chongba, a popular Manipuri folk dance event, when a local fashion photographer spotted her. Standing tall at 5 feet 10 inches, with striking cheekbones and a slender frame, she had all the makings of a model. “He said he wanted to feature me in a photoshoot. When he actually called a few days later, it felt like a dream,” she says. Since then, Nandeibam has walked the ramp for many local designers and was recently the ambassador for Sanagee Likphang, a fashion event that champions the rights of Manipur’s transgenders.

Transpersons, or ‘nupi manbi’ as they are called in Manipuri, abound in the state and are more financially independent than those in other parts of India. “There’s a big space for us in art, theatre, beauty and beyond,” she says. “In fact, everyone prefers to employ transwomen to do their make-up for weddings and design costumes in the film industry.”

Though she asserts that she got her “dignity back” after she became a model, she harbours no supermodel dreams. “Challenging my own weakness is what motivates me as a transgender model. I want to become an IAS officer and live in a prejudice-free country.”

— Shikha Kumar

The Taxi Driver: Sanjeevani Chavan

Mumbai-based Sanjeevani Chavan is on her way to becoming one of the first transgender taxi drivers in the country

When tourism agency Wings Travel joined forces with Pallav Patankar, director of Humsafar Trust, to start a Mumbai taxi service chauffeured by the LGBTQ community, sexual equality literally took the front seat. The initiative gave Sanjeevani Chavan, a Mumbai-based transgender and HIV/Aids counsellor with Humsafar, hope not just for herself, but for others. “You’ll notice that when people from our community beg, people say things like, ‘Aren’t you ashamed? Can’t you work?’” So when a respectable job came her way, she didn’t think twice. “I thought I’d be able to stand on my own feet again.”

The taxi service, Wings Rainbow, launched this January and Patankar is working towards acquiring learners’ licences for the five-member crew and getting them to complete their training for the All India Driver’s Licence. The drivers have also finished basic training that includes etiquette, language and social skills.

For Chavan, a foot on the accelerator is a step up from her previous job at a shipping company. “I felt uncomfortable with the way my boss looked at me,” she says, explaining why she left soon. She’s no stranger to discrimination. Chavan was in the first year of college when she joined the hijra community and told her parents that she identifies herself as a transgender.

Sanjeevani Chavan didn’t think twice when the opportunity of a respectable job, that of a taxi driver, came to her. (Kunal Patil/ Hindustan Times)
Sanjeevani Chavan didn’t think twice when the opportunity of a respectable job, that of a taxi driver, came to her. (Kunal Patil/ Hindustan Times)

Her parents respected her decision, but wanted her to stay with them. “My mother was supportive, but it was tough for my father. He barely spoke to me.” Eventually, though, her father turned around. She remembers when work pressures caused her to fall sick, it was he who asked her to stay home so he could take care of her. “I felt so good to know that my father cares for me.”

She’s had a fulfilling job as a monitor and evaluator for Humsafar since 2013. But it’s her decision to be part of Wings Rainbow that is making her family, friends and colleagues proud. When the service launched, one of Chavan’s former colleagues saw her pictures in the paper and immediately called her up to say, ‘Tum toh chamak rahi ho, newspaper mein aa rahi ho!’ Now, strangers in her residential area have started recognising her. “I’m on cloud nine; I can see that I’m growing,” says Chavan, who lives with her parents and younger brother.

Wings Travel plans to have an app service for the radio cabs and keeping in mind licencing procedures, expects that the service should be functional by next year. “Many women feel unsafe going out late at night, but with us, they will feel protected,” says Chavan.

— Nidhi Choksi

The Actress: Kalki Subramaniam

The Coimbatore-based social activist has been an author and entrepreneur. Films are just one of many recent avenues.

In 2011, when director Vijayapadma was looking for the lead for her film Narthaki, on the transgender community, she found Kalki Subramaniam’s face in a Tamil magazine. Subramaniam was being interviewed for her contribution to the transgender community through her organisation, Sahodari Foundation. Vijayapadma asked Coimbatore-based Subramaniam to come for an audition and later, offered her the role. “I was afraid that I would panic in front of the camera, with forty people watching,” she recalls. “But I was used to facing the camera for TV interviews, so it was easy.”

The film chronicled the trials of a transgender woman who comes to Mumbai to make it big. The director was so happy with Subramaniam that she told her to write her own dialogues for the climax scene, where she ends up counselling a former lover who doesn’t want his cerebral-palsy-affected child. “I had a great time. I was lucky that both the producer and director were women, so there was no casting couch,” she says, laughing. She went on to receive an acting award from Cinema Kalai Mandram and has since signed films in Hindi and Tamil.

Kalki Subramaniam has directed short films and published a collection of Tamil Poems, (Kalki Subramaniam)
Kalki Subramaniam has directed short films and published a collection of Tamil Poems, (Kalki Subramaniam)

Born a son, in a family that already had two daughters and was relatively well-to-do, Subramaniam bought her first red lipstick when she was 10. At 13, her mother found some poems she had written on her feelings. “My parents were shattered but I promised them I’d live a dignified life.” To rid her of such thoughts, they enrolled her in an all-boys school where she would be teased for being effeminate. There, she met Apsara, a transsexual teacher who introduced her to others like her.

Subramaniam went on study media and communications, picking journalism as a career because “the regional media was mocking us and the portrayal was abusive. I wanted to tell the real stories myself.” And in order to tell those stories, she even started her own magazine, Sahodari, in 2005, and distributed 200 copies within the transgender network. “It had information on where to seek medical help and even community gossip,” she says. The magazine was a hit and helped many transgenders come out. At the age of 23, she got a job at an MNC as a media specialist. It let her put aside money for her dream: reassignment surgery.

Subramaniam has been busy. In 2010, she was invited by the US government for a human-rights activism and awareness programme. She has directed short films and is working on one that features a mother-in-law who is unaware that her daughter-in-law is a transgender. In 2014, she published Kuri Aruthean, a collection of Tamil poems covering her journey to becoming a woman – an American student even translated it into English. She is now writing her memoirs, her first book in English.

As for her parents, they’re proud of her achievements. The friends who would bully her in school now send her texts full of praise. “It’s sad that people’s outlook towards you changes once you become popular,” she observes.

— Nidhi Choksi


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From HT Brunch, April 3, 2016

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