I’m welcomed to the Mitr Trust, an LGBTQI charity based in West Delhi, by a bevy of beckoning beauties, leaning over the balcony, smiling and blowing kisses as I get out of the car.
‘Are you going to see the gays?’ asks Ravinder, my driver. He is eyeing the modest building cautiously, as we approach in the afternoon sun.
‘Be careful’, he says.
In India, the practice of homosexuality is still a criminal offence, however, despite this, in the realm of sexual politics the country has taken significant steps forward, particularly in its approach to transgender rights. During the last 18 months India has seen positive statutory developments in the recognition of the trans or ‘third gender’ community.
Since 2009 transgender people in India have been able to choose their gender as ‘other’ on ballot forms. In 2014 Hijras, India’s transgender minority, were officially, legally recognised by a landmark ruling when the country’s Supreme Court passed a law recognising transgender people as a ‘third gender’, giving them to equal rights and protection. 2015 saw the election of the first ever transgender person in India to public office when Madhu Bai Kinnar became mayor in Raigarh, while trans citizens also acquired other prominent civic roles in the police force and education system.
2016 will bring more progress, hopes Rudrani Chettri, the founder of the Mitr Trust who identifies as Hijra, which is about to launch India’s first transgender modelling agency, following in the footsteps of Trans Models in New York and Apple Model Management in Thailand.
‘We want to provide an alternative source of income for the trans community, aside from begging or sex work’, says Chettri, who is resplendent in a shiny red Fila puffa jacket.
The community she speaks of is both blurry and complex, as capacious as it is marginalised. According to the Times of India, the first count of the third gender in a census in 2014 put numbers at around 490,000 while transgender activists estimated the figures to be six or seven times that. It includes both individuals who identify as trans, and the hijras, a thousand year old, hierarchical and secretive group of transgender females.
Hijras, who, historically, can be eunuchs, intersex or transgender, have been part of South Asian culture for thousands of years. Eunuchs are celebrated in sacred Hindu texts such as the Mahabharata and the Kama Sutra, for instance.
Now, for the first time, there are quotas when it comes to government jobs and college places for hijras. The decision was applauded by campaigners around the world, who say that, despite its long history, the community has been sidelined, too often facing violence and harassment.
Under the British rule of India Hijras were considered a ‘criminal tribe’. With their property confiscated, hijras were driven into prostituion and poverty. Today they are treated with suspicion, their primary function is to arrive at birthing ceremonies, a bit like Maleficent, to bless or curse the new baby.
‘Surely you don’t believe in all that?’ I ask Chettri, who describes hijras as a ‘separate ethnicity’.
This is a very personal issue for me. I was travelling through India on a train recently, when my fellow passengers forced me to hand over my last Rupees to a group of Hijras, precious money I was saving for water. ‘They will curse us’, they said. I spent the next sixteen hours chugging into central India with only my own saliva to swallow, cross with the whole carriage, confounded by the systemic discrimination I had witnessed: the hope that the trans community will edge off if you pay them 10 rupees (about 10p).
‘Isn’t the cursing question a dehumanizing tool, designed to keep trans-women outcasts and begging?’ I continue.
‘Difficult to say’, says Rudrani. ‘I do believe hijras have special powers. ‘Of course’ she smiles, ‘they are all welcome here.’
The bookshelves and wallcharts of the modest headquarters all confirm the excellent support the Mitr Trust provides to this diverse third gender. Books on sexual health, on rape and on gender identity line the shelves, there are also maps of Delhi -- this is clearly a place to reorient. The comforting smell of Chai tea, the counselling booths and soft sofas provide a refuge for vulnerable individuals who have been shunned by their families and are rejected by mainstream society.
But financially speaking, the Mitr Trust is on its knees. Under Narendra Modi’s government, funding for HIV awareness and prevention has fallen by almost 25%. Chettri and her team hope the modelling agency will raise awareness for the community and have launched a campaign to receive donations from supporters.
Unlike Trans Models in the US, the promotional images for the Trust’s agency are unconventional, even transgressive. They feature trans women with stubble, bald spots and lipstick which bleeds over black liner, completely debunking the idea that you are only ‘successfully trans’ if you confirm aesthetically, meaning that you ‘pass’ as a cisgender man or woman.
‘Close your eyes and think of Hijras', says Rudrani, ‘They have beards and dark faces. We want to challenge hetero-normative ideals of female beauty. No more Fair and Lovely. Next fashion week, I will see my girls on the catwalk.’
Downstairs, I meet some of the girls who will be auditioning for the agency. I enter a room where transwomen and Hijras laughing and drinking tea together. As soon as she enters the room, my money is on Anjulie for next top model; her round derriere in black lacy leggings deserves its own Kimoji. She struts over to me, burps audibly and lights a fag.
‘Anjulie is my Master’, explains Nitesh, a man who is sitting next to her. ‘I’m her disciple. She’s teaching me the Hijra rituals, as soon as I’m ready I’ll follow all the culture’.
‘What are the rituals?’ I ask. About this, Nitesh is vague; he says something about dancing and wearing a shawl.
‘And you’ll give up your job, your regular salary for hijra life when you’re ready?’
‘It depends,’ he says, ‘if my family, my co-workers, my manager accept me, then I’ll continue. If not, I’ll do what Anjulie does.’
The great achievement of the agency will be to unite the socially isolated Hijra community with people like Nitesh, who are transitioning. Cooperation between the groups who make up the broad trans community in India—both ancient and contemporary—is essential to progress. And, there is some way to go. If Nitesh’s immediate circle fail to accept him as a woman, his options are to join a band of beggars; a community who are treated like witches. What’s more, the chances of someone like Anjulie occupying Nitesh’s world—a middle class existence with a government job - remain slim and occurrences such as these still make national news.
And what about trans men, I wonder? ‘I would be surprised to see any trans men audition for the agency,’ says Rudrani. ‘We don’t see much of that around here.’
Before I can probe any further a Bollywood dance performance begins. I watch as a band of excellent movers subvert the soundtrack to famous hetero-numbers. They perform a long medley of songs, stopping only when, hilariously, and at a crucial moment, the power cuts out.
‘How was it?’ asks Ravinder in a small voice as I leave the building and return to the car. ‘You were a long time there.’
I am beaming. I have had a wonderful afternoon. I replay him the dancing videos.
On the drive home he remains very quiet.
You can pledge your support for the Mitr Trust and India’s first ever trans-modelling agency here
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.