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She is a trained dancer, has featured in a Bollywood film, has starred in several TV shows, was in an award-winning documentary, has represented her community and India on several international platforms including the World AIDS conference in Toronto, she has documented her life story into a bestselling book — in a nutshell she is a celebrity, and she is a ‘hijra.’
She is none other than Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, India’s most prominent hijra activist, who is extremely proud of her identity.
However, in a conservative Indian society where the transgender community is subjected to social ostracism, it wasn’t easy for Laxmi, who was born as a boy and that too in an orthodox Brahmin family, to not only proudly proclaim her sexual identity but also carve a niche for herself.
She was the first male child of the house but always wanted to dress up in frocks, wear lipsticks and liked boys. “I was very feminine. I never understood what was going on in my life. I was like why are they calling me a boy when I am so feminine. I was even sexually abused as a kid because of my femininity,” Laxmi painfully confessed at one of the talk shows. “People used to always call me a homo, gud, mammu, chakka, hijra… all the possible slangs. I never thought anything was wrong with me but the society made me realize that I was different. I was a normal child but it’s the world that made me feel different. For me, I was, what I was. I was as human as any man or any boy or a woman or a girl.”
In a society that is quick to make a distinction between normal and abnormal, and treats you as an outcast if you don’t fit into its fixed norms it was tough for Laxmi to go to her school, college, dance class; where everyone labelled her as different. But she silently endured everything and managed to complete her education. “I continued my routine. I managed to complete my studies and learn the so-called manner of the hypocrite society but I never wanted to be a hypocrite in my life,” recalled Laxmi, who happens to be the first transgender person to represent Asia Pacific in the UN in 2008.
The fear of being abnormal even took a young Laxmi to — Ashok Row Kavi, the only gay activist of that time. She narrates the incident in one of her interviews. “I was in 5th grade when I went and told him that people call me abnormal and I like men. He was shocked at first that such a young child is speaking about these things. But then he told me — ‘You are normal, the world around you is abnormal. Now you focus on your studies and dance.’” It gave Laxmi enough confidence to not shy away from her feminine side, at least, when she was outside.
Irrespective of how people teased her, she slowly started wearing female clothes, wore makeup, became a model coordinator for Bollywood, staged danced shows, became a bar dancer... without the knowledge of her family. There was a phase when Laxmi was unable to cope with her dual identity. At home, she was the man of the house, outside she didn’t know who she was, all she desperately wanted was to be acknowledged as a woman but she wasn’t a woman either.
Laxmi’s process of discovering her true identity and overcoming the fear of social ridicule began with thinking that she was gay. But her femininity was so strong that the gays thought she was an outsider. Subsequently, she started taking part in drag queen pageants but those get-togethers and parties were way too sexual and she didn’t fit in there either. “There was a woman in me, and I just didn’t want her to sleep. It was not sexual, it was being myself,” narrated Laxmi in an interview.
A chance meeting with India’s first PhD hijra student – Shabina changed everything for Laxmi. Until then she was like most Indians — frightened and somewhat repulsed by hijras. Through Shabina she came to know of the hijra community and realized they were like her. “This was the first time I felt that I was with other people who were the same as me. It was not about cruising a man, it was not about sleeping with somebody—it was beyond that. It was so much a community, wanting the best for each other, loving each other, caring for each other,” explained Laxmi.
And finally, after years of battling to find her true self, in 1998 Laxmi threw caution to the wind and boldly embraced the identity of a hijra. “It was a conscious choice I made, one that not too many understood. Why, after all, would a male child belonging to an affluent, upright Brahmin family initiate himself into a cult, a tradition, a section of society that’s much reviled by the mainstream? Why indeed?” she mentioned in her second book — Red Lipstick: The Men In My Life.
However, Laxmi’s parents, who were looking into marriage proposals for their son (Laxmi), didn’t know of her real identity and her association with the hijra community, till one fine day Laxmi appeared on Zee TV in full makeup and woman's clothing. The consequences were dire with her parents finding it difficult to come to terms with the new identity of their first male child, and the remaining members of her orthodox family accusing her parents of their upbringing.
But surprisingly, Laxmi’s parents after the initial state of shock stood by her, “My mother stood up and said — ‘My kid is my problem, nobody has a right to say anything to him. I have given birth to my child he will be the way he wants.’ And my father stood by my her. My father, said in an interview, ‘My Laxmi is normal; maybe her preferences are different than what’s labelled normal, but Laxmi will remain my child and will always be dear to me as my other children.’ It gave me a confidence. When my parents don’t bother, why the hell should I worry about what others are thinking,” recalled Laxmi. “I’ve been phenomenally lucky. Many other hijras are abandoned by their parents, who feel shame and struggle to accept their own children. In India, the hijra community is often seen as a bad omen. If a mother sees a hijra, she would order her daughter inside the room. This fear comes from a mindset that we are vile. This mindset has to go. I am comfortable with myself and hence what others have said never bothered me. I think that’s because my family believed in me. They have been my biggest support. If they hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have had the courage to go against the society.”
It is said that when we liberate ourselves from the fear of consequences, we enable ourselves to do the unimaginable. And that is exactly what happened with Laxmi.
After living an agonised life, upon finally finding herself, Laxmi spread her wings and decided to represent the hijras and fight the cause of her community. Today, Laxmi is a confident feisty hijra, who has served on the boards of several NGOs that conduct LGBT activist work. She runs her own organization — Astitiva, which works to promote the welfare of sexual minorities and is constantly making some effort or the other for the betterment of her community.
Clearly, it takes courage to embrace your true self and revel in it. We can’t help but applaud Laxmi’s bold spirit.