Women by choice: Extraordinary tales from the transgender community
Ahead of Women's Day, a wife, a model, an executive and an activist talk about what being a woman means to them.
They’ve inhabited both sides of the gender divide, and it hasn’t been easy crossing the line.
But, as transgender activist Lakshmi Tripathi puts it, “Once you discover the woman inside, there is no stopping you.”
Trans women are those who were born male, identify as female, and made the switch. In a world full of extraordinary women, we spoke to some of the most extraordinary trans women, ahead of Women’s Day.
Madhuri Sarode, a dancer, wife and aspiring mother who loves getting tips on housekeeping from her mother-in-law, is now hoping to adopt and become a mother.
Urmi Jadhav, bullied out of school and failing in confidence until her transition, now helps others navigate this difficult terrain, and hopes that more women will soon begin to embrace trans women as women.
Nayana Udupi, rejected by her father and sent away from home, was so determined to make for herself a life of dignity that she clawed her way out of sex work and is now a marketing executive at a global tech firm.
And Anjali Lama, who journeyed across the gender line and the border, making it to the ramp of Mumbai’s Lakme Fashion Week from a small town in Nepal.
Amid their struggles, they have celebrated triumphs, found new friends and learnt new lessons as they have shaped their lives as women.
“At a time when my family has not yet completely accepted me, my late mother’s words are still my greatest comfort,” says Lama. “She told me that although I was born to her a son, I should not shave my head after her death, because I was now her daughter.”
‘WHEN YOU START FEELING BEAUTIFUL, IT GIVES YOU A DIFFERENT KIND OF CONFIDENCE’
Anjali Lama, model, on redefining perceptions of beauty
In February, 32-year-old Anjali Lama became the first transgender model to walk the ramp, strutting down the catwalk during Lakme Fashion Week in Mumbai.
“When you’re a young girl, you look into the mirror sometimes and wonder whether you could be a model. I never had those moments, but I did make it to the ramp,” she says, laughing.
Lama was born Nabin Waiba. Growing up in a small town in Nepal with six siblings, she was always volunteering to play the bride during dress-up games and trying to learn how to drape a sari just right.
When she was 18, she moved to Kathmandu for college. It was here that she came in contact with the Blue Diamond Society, an LGBT community group. “After all the confusion I had felt about my sexuality and gender, I was finally able to define my identity, and it was like rebirth for me,” she says.
In 2005, she transitioned, and in 2009 a Nepalese magazine called Voice of Women thought she would make for an interesting cover.
Called in for a photo-shoot, she realised that she loved being in front of the camera. She loved posing; she seemed to have an instinct for fashion.
“When you start feeling beautiful, it gives you a different kind of confidence,” Lama says. “Facing the camera for the first time, I thought, maybe this is what I was meant to do.”
Soon, people around the world were talking about Nepal’s first transgender model. But getting work would not be easy. “I went to audition shoots and everything would look so promising, but I would never get called back,” she says.
Lama was rejected for Nepal Fashion Week thrice and had tried out for the Lakme Fashion Week twice before, but never made it to the final list.
“Being a woman gave me the strength I needed to fight these odds as well,” she says. “I persevered; I did my research. I watched YouTube clips and tried to figure out where I was going wrong. I realised that I was not looking confident enough, so I worked on that. And sure enough I made it to the LFW ramp.”
Along the way, she says, she learnt that beauty really is about being comfortable in your skin.
FROM CAST-OFF TO CORPORATE EXECUTIVE
Nayana Udupi, marketing executive, on career and climbing the ladder
Born male in Udupi, Karnataka, Nayana Udupi was ridiculed by peers and by her own father, who hated her effeminate ways.
“He complained about the way I walked, the way I behaved. He called me a eunuch, in a way that felt derogatory. After finishing high school, he sent me away to the mining town of Kolar to learn how to be a foreman, because he didn’t want me in the house. Meanwhile, all I wanted was to be his daughter,” she recalls.
She quit that training programme in a year and moved to Bangalore for a pre-university course. She found friends in the transgender community and began to shuttle between Mumbai and Pune, where she transitioned at age 20.
“But being a woman alone in the city was tough,” she says. “I had to resort to begging and sex work to survive. But through it all, I dreamed of a corporate job in a regular office.”
She moved back to Bangalore and got an advanced diploma in multimedia design. But no one seemed keen on hiring her. She finally found a job as administration manager with NGO Sangama, which works for sexual minorities in Bangalore. She kept applying to corporations.
To her surprise, she was finally selected by global tech firm ThoughtWorks, which was looking for a graphic designer.
“I feel like I have empowered myself and finally made my mother proud as a daughter who leads a dignified life and has a respectable job,” Udupi says.
Tina Vinod, diversity and inclusion lead at ThoughtWorks India, says Udupi’s sheer sense of determination is what impressed the interviewers. “We could see the resolve in her to break out from the mould and enter the mainstream,” she says.
She made so many friends at work and became such a people person, in fact, that she was soon moved to the marketing department, where she works in vendor management.
Three years on, she says all her colleagues know her and love her for who she is. “When I walk in in a sari,” she adds, “my colleagues always notice and compliment me.”
‘I LOVE BEING THE GOOD WIFE’
Madhuri Sarode, wife, dancer and social worker, on marriage
Hers was hailed as Mumbai’s first open transgender marriage, completed with all the rituals, in a temple. On December 28, Madhuri Sarode tied the knot with Jay Kumar Sharma, the man she’d been dating for five years, before a gathering of close friends and relatives.
“It has been more than a dream come true,” she says, grinning. “I love wearing sindoor and the mangalsutra. Jay loves it when I wear a sari.” “I love her in anything she wears,” he interrupts, “she’s my Madhuri Dixit.”
Sarode and Jay met on Facebook. “I was suspicious at first,” she confesses. “I kept asking if he knew about my past and he kept repeating that he didn’t care much about it. Eventually I fell for him and his charming ways.”
When they decided to get married, Jay arrived at her house with two of his sisters to ask for her hand. From picking out invitation cards to hiring wedding photographers, the couple went the whole hog.
His mother, who lives in a village in Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh, was initially afraid of a backlash from the community, but when they sent her pictures of the wedding, she replied saying she was thrilled to have a daughter-in-law. She will be visiting the couple next month.
“I call her every day and she gives me tips on how to run a household,” says Sarode, 35, laughing. “One of the most important things marriage has taught me is multitasking. I love mundane domestic chores, like pottering around the kitchen. I love juggling my schedule to make sure I’m home from my dance classes when Jay gets back from work. Life feels complete.”
Up next: Motherhood. The couple plans to adopt soon.
‘I WISH MORE WOMEN WOULD ACCEPT THAT WE ARE WOMEN TOO’
Urmi Jadhav, research assistant, on dealing with harassment and rejection
Urmi Jadhav was raised by her paternal grandmother in a Mumbai chawl, after her mother died when she was two.
All through childhood, she was bullied and harassed for being an effeminate boy. “Even my teachers would scold me,” she says.
With her grandmother, she had an unspoken understanding. “She knew I identified more as female. She would see me putting on kajal, and never stop me,” Jadhav says.
Jadhav says she was a good student, even made monitor in Class 7, but the harassment and bullying took a toll.
“I started making excuses to skip school. My grades began falling. This has been one of my biggest regrets — that I let it cost me my education.”
Jadhav failed her Class 10 exam, dropped out of the system and joined the Hijra community in Mumbai. “It was on the streets that I learnt to respect myself,” she says.
Four years later, at 20, she joined the NGO Humsafar Trust as an outreach worker. “It was there that I began transitioning. The confidence that gave me was very empowering. I met others who had faced physical and sexual abuse and started working to help them. I realised that I was not alone.”
One of the most challenging aspects of becoming a woman, she says, is not being accepted as one by other women.
Loving and losing has been another big challenge. “It was when I was transitioning that I fell in love for the first time. It was a great feeling,” she says. “Once, when I was sick, he came to meet me at night, for just a few minutes, because my grandmother was also there. He came back early the next day. Then he confessed that he had spent the night outside my house so that he could meet me first thing in the morning,” she recalls.
Their love story ended after six years; he married another girl. “It took me months to get over the heartbreak. But it also made me stronger,” says the 40-something Jadhav. “The thing about women is that they might be more emotional, but they also heal faster… maybe because they just have so much more to handle,” she says, laughing.