"We're Treated Less Like People, More Like 'Things'..."
Hitting hardships out of the park with daily rigour has given this power-army of trans women the game-face you see on them today—and while their stories divaricate from grating to galvanising, they do have one thing in common—they're unbreakable.
Styling: Samar Rajput; Text: Saumyaa Vohra; Photographs: Ashish Shah
"I think I'll be the only trans woman to say this—and maybe I'm only speaking for myself—but I've developed a sort of 'male-phobia' over the years. Don't get me wrong—I started wanting the boys in my class from seventh grade onwards—I was even transfixed by this one boy, only to be rebuffed by him in time. It's become a pattern, one that has haunted me for a while; the men in a lot of trans women's lives treat them like a fetishist object. A liaison with us is regarded as some sort of dirty little secret, a shameful little aspect to their sexual preferences that they don't want the world to discover. I press that I only speak from my perspective, but I've come across this stereotype that trans women fall in love too easily—on the contrary, no one is more wary than us. It's why we have so many more friends that are women. They just understand us better than men ever will..."
"One of the defining moments of my life was having a panchayat meeting called in my village where it was decided that I should be expelled from school, because I was the rotten apple spoiling the bunch of boys in it—and being too little to know what all the grown-ups were talking about. Being a trans woman was that organic for me—it started before I understood myself, or my surroundings. I think, if a trans woman is reading this, there's a chance she might be going through her breakdown period—we all have one. And you have to use the debris to reconstruct yourself. So if you feel like a big pile of gravel right now (and maybe even always have), you'll rebuild. Give yourself time. If their families are reading this, please be part of the help we need. The world is cruel enough, and it's worse when stones are thrown within the walls of your own home."
"It wasn't just that I started having sexual feelings for boys from when I was eight years old—it was this insurmountable gap between them and me. We had so little in common. I was called a fair amount of names in middle school, because that's when kids are at their most vocal. They'll be nasty to your face, and they were. It was high school that was tougher, because it had an air of slander about it. Both those forms of bullying led me to being an intensely isolated person—I sat alone all the time, I had zero friends, and I bottled things up in every aspect of my life. But at this point in my life, I've done my struggling and adjusted my life so it has the right people in it—and it's left me with this disparity with the world now, because I've stopped seeing myself in terms of my gender. My life has normal movement. But the minute I step outside my closed circuit, I realise, the world isn't over it."
"Growing up, it was the idea of these 'weirdos' in fashion, like Amanda Lepore, Alexander McQueen and Iris Apfel that gave me this wild amount of confidence that it wasn't me that needed to change—it was other people! I've been born and bred in small towns, and it's not easy wanting to transition in places like Chandigarh, but man, I had so much confidence. I was dressing how I wanted to—which at the time was inspired by '90s women in hip-hop, to the point of trying to explain what a jersey was to flummoxed tailors, saying, 'Bhaiya, please make this two sizes bigger.' Even when I was little, I was this effiminate boy that didn't give a f*ck—people would be nasty and I'd just think, 'Man, I've got to get the hell away from these hillbillies! I think, even now, men look at me like I'm failing at masculinity, like I'm just not 'man' enough, and that foments this sort of 'toxic' masculinity in them—it makes them so angry. It's the same with the government's stance on us. I find 377 almost laughable—how pathetic is it that you care so much about who I'm sleeping with?"
"I think my sensitivity (and the excess of it) was a dead giveaway of the fact that I wasn't 'a real man' all my life. It got me mercilessly teased when I was a child. And, in a vicious circle, because I was so sensitive, the mockery would rattle me to my very core. 'Girlie' was the phrase they would throw around like an insult, until I realised it wasn't a slur, it was just the truth. I can't deny having felt anger about it, though—anger and broken-heartedness are staples in any trans woman's life—but you'll find that a lot of us harness it, and try to turn it into strength. Sometimes it's forced bravado—we'll be extra fierce, or extra sardonic, but it's the only way to deal with the world when you feel like your chips are down. But that inflated, almost steamrolling tenacity is hugely mixed with real mettle—and it makes us bloody tough. Because, when dealing with opposition becomes a daily routine, you just start crafting an armour, and you pretty much never take it off. "
"When I tell people my story, they're shocked at how devoid of turbulence it is. I fit the bill in a lot of ways—I primarily hung out with girls at school, I loved playing dress up and I thought boys were so not me. But I was never ripped apart for it. I realise more and more with every time I meet another trans woman how extraordinarily blessed I was—I never once felt misunderstood. Society welcomed me in with open arms, and it was almost alien to me that other people hadn't been treated the same way. My family was supportive in the most natural of ways—like it was just another character trait. It was like 'Samaira likes black tea in the morning, Samaira loves parties, Samaira is a trans woman...' I've had a pretty normal life—I've been happily dating somebody for two years, and it's never crossed my mind that it should be different from a heterosexual relationship, or that my life should be different from a heterosexual life—I mean, should it?"
"I hated 'boy's things' as a child—Hot Wheels and GI Joes held no interest for me. I'd always to walk in the company of women; I was always more drawn to them and they made me feel less uneasy than men did. I never dressed differently though—I didn't have the nerve to tell my parents about the way I felt. It was far worse because I wanted to be a model, and I was told repeatedly that I'd never make it—that India would never accept a trans model. Many agencies turned me away, saying I really shouldn't bother. That's why being the country's first transgender model is extra-special to me—it came with so much depression and rejection, but I won out in the end. One thing, though, that I wish people would remember is that my gender is part—not all—of my identity. I'm also just somebody who loves reading magazines and scrolling incessantly through Instagram. And the same is true for every trans woman you'll ever meet..."
"Most people find that their biggest fight in their gender-identity struggle is with their parents—my case is a little unusual. I think my mother saw that I was different from the start. Even though I was one of three brothers, she was constantly braiding my hair, and draping dupattas on my head. My mother became my role model—I used to imbibe everything she did—from cooking in the kitchen to wearing saris, and she used to encourage that. I still feel like she always subconsciously knew that I was in the wrong body. I, however, came to terms with it only in college—I had to change the body I was in. You have no idea how many 'friends' dropped me like a hot potato when I told them. I lost respect in their eyes. If there's one thing that saddens me most is how trans women aren't treated like people, they're treated like things. We can't be molested, because we're 'things'. We can't be raped because we're 'things'. I think just getting basic respect would be a huge milestone to any trans woman anywhere on earth."