Meet transwomen who’ve made a place for themselves in the mainstream
Ask a young, urban transwoman what she wants from her government, society and life in general, and she’ll tell you she wants normalcy. She wants to be able to go to work, enjoy weekends out with friends, find a person to marry – rites of passage that most of us take for granted, but are out of bounds for most transwomen.
The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill that was passed last year was considered problematic to these very efforts at integration — the problems began, they said, with the narrow definition of who constituted a trans person. And continued on through clauses that mandated, for instance, that a court order be sought if a trans minor wanted to live with their community family instead of their biological family.
Nonetheless, transwomen are making a place for themselves, assisted by allies.
Two years ago, Rose S, 28, landed a job as a recruiter for Nestaway, a rental housing startup in Bengaluru , which doesn’t have a gender hiring policy. She went through the usual three rounds of interviews and was hired, she says, solely based on her experience as a trainer and programme manager.
“I did face discrimination from my co-workers. They’d say things like, you are not a woman because you cannot give birth. But the management has always been supportive,” says Rose.
At Nestaway, she learned to love her job. “My manager played a big role in my success. She taught me about the business, how to identify the right candidates for job roles and how to enjoy it all.”
They even offered her a separate toilet, which she rejected. “That would be counterproductive when I’ve been through this whole struggle to be identified as a woman,” she says.
Unlike in the West, where the bathroom is a contentious issue for the trans community, transwomen in India have found refuge in this privy place. Kavya, 29, works as a voice coach at a BPO in Mumbai and is also a motivational speaker. She’s had some of her most honest conversations in the ladies’ room, compared to, say, walking the streets where curious eyes follow her.
“In the bathroom, there’s almost always someone who’ll appreciate my makeup or what I’m wearing,” she says. “Once I met this girl who was getting ready for a birthday party. She saw me doing my makeup and asked me if I could help do hers.”
Even at the BPO, where she’s been working for six years, Kavya found the acceptance that she never found at home as she transformed. First came the kajal, then came the lip gloss. Fitting jeans replaced baggy pants, tops replaced T-shirts. She grew out her hair, started wearing makeup and eventually reintroduced herself as Kavya.
“Of course, it didn’t happen overnight, because everyone was used to calling me by old name. I was afraid I would not be accepted, but my co-workers were motivating and forthcoming in helping me achieve my professional goals,” she says. “But there’s nothing like how empowered one feels, when your family accepts you.”
As it is for most trans women, home is not where Kavya’s heart is. “I had to visit a psychiatrist, a pandit, and had to sit through rituals meant to ‘cure’ me,” she says. Her mother still refers to her as Kunal.
Fida Khan, 28, refuses to tell anyone her old name. “It’s lost somewhere in the shadows,” the Mumbai resident says, laughing. She came out to her conservative family at the age of 13. They didn’t take it well, but neither did Fida.
“When they got the barber to cut my hair, I took his blade and cut my wrist,” she says. “At some point we had an intervention. If my family didn’t want to lose me, they were going to have to accept me.”
Fida is a member of the Six Pack Band, a transgender music group launched by Y-Films. Since its formation in 2016, it has released six singles, including Happy, Sab Rab De Bande and Ae Raju, and have collaborated with Sonu Nigam, Asha Bhosle and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, among others. The band also won the Cannes Grand Prix Glass Lion, which awards creative work that positively affects gender inequality.
“My sisters show my parents videos of my work. When they started seeing the band in the newspapers, on TV, they slowly started understanding me,” says the aspiring actress. “The day my grandmother and mother told me they were proud of me, I was over the moon.”
Transwomen are making their mark in other fields. Heidi Saadiya’s moment came when her report on the Chandrayaan II mission for Kairali News TV, a Malayalam television news channel, went viral. The world media hailed her as India’s first transgender television journalist.
“I decided to reactivate the YouTube channel I had made in journalism school, and started vlogging about life as a transgender in Kerala,” says Heidi, 23. She’s posted videos of Kerala’s first transgender couple cooking at home, ‘Happy Transgenderz’ in Kerala, and the mysteries of what’s in a trans woman’s bag. The channel has over 1 lakh subscribers.
One person who features regularly in her videos is Adharv, a transman she married in December.
“Our parents arranged it. His biological and [transgender] foster parents together approached my mother [a transwoman who fostered Heidi] for my hand,” she says. “We had a proper Nair wedding.”
Heidi lost her biological family when she ran away from home at the age of 16, after coming out to them. What she has gained since is a family that accepts her, a job she loves, a dedicated online following, and a husband to share her life with.