India's Trans Models Want Their Own Agency
Rudrani Chettri stares coquettishly at her admirers from the cover of India’s Outlook Magazine. Clad in a short leopard-print dress and strappy, gold high-heeled sandals, she swings her arms behind her and arches her back seductively, a wide smile painted on her maroon red lips. Chettri looks like any other fashion model: sexy, stylish, upbeat, and relaxed. She looks like a woman who knows what she wants and gets it.
Appearances, as the philosopher Anaxagoras said, are a glimpse of the unseen. There is more to Chettri’s story than ostentatious glamour - it’s a story of self-discovery and struggle, of striving for acceptance and recognition. Her story, like that of many other trans women in India, is riddled with confusion and conflict.
Last year, Chettri began taking steps to launch India’s first trans modeling agency. Two years before that, in April 2014, India’s Supreme Court officially recognized trans people as “third gender”, a ruling that aimed to ensure India’s estimated half a million trans people would be given equal access to education and employment opportunities. The Supreme Court also decided that third gender people would be considered an “Other Backward Class”, a collective term India’s government uses to classify castes that are considered socially disadvantaged.
This classification meant the government would launch special welfare schemes for third gender people and run awareness campaigns to combat social stigma and discrimination. For Chettri, who runs a non-profit for trans women in Delhi, it was the perfect moment to bring trans women out of the shadows and into the spotlight.
“I work only with transgender females, and I realized that they put in so much time, that they make so much effort to look beautiful. And they are so beautiful,” Chettri says earnestly. “So the idea came to me that maybe they could showcase their beauty and earn money from it - they could earn their bread and butter without selling their bodies or begging on the streets.”
Chettri began working to launch her agency, which she called the Bold Transgender Modeling Agency. She started a fundraising campaign and held auditions, and there was a huge outpouring of interest from trans women who wanted to work with her. But a year later, the women have failed to collect the roughly $6,400 they needed to launch the agency, and the project has been put on hold.
Becoming a Hijra
The story of Chettri’s life and work is representative of the problems faced by many trans people in India - everything from exploring your own identity as a teenager to launching your career as an adult is infinitely more challenging.
“When I was growing up I was really not comfortable - not at all comfortable with who I was,” Chettri says. “There was so much confusion at the time. I used to think I was the only one in the world born like this.”
Born in Delhi in 1978, Chettri didn’t have access to the information or resources that many trans and gender non-conforming people have today. Coming of age and feeling uncomfortable in her body, she began exploring her identity and sexuality without the support or advice of elders and peers. At first, she thought her attraction to men meant that she was a gay man - but soon she discovered that there were other people in India who lived outside the strict male-female gender binary.
“I saw that there were other identities in India known as kothis,” Chettri explains. “A kothi is someone who lives like a male but identifies themselves as female. They believe that they were born in the wrong body and have the soul of a female.”
In India, the term kothi refers to a wide range of individuals, from men who dress like women for specific religious festivals, to effeminate men who identify as males but dress like women most of the time. Many adopt women’s names and take on traditional “female” roles in their romantic relationships.
For a short while, Chettri introduced herself as a kothi. But she soon realized that being a kothi wasn’t a good fit for her, either.
“It was too much for me because kothi is not an identity, it is a closed group,” she says. “[Then] I came to know about the transgender community, as well as the fact that there is cultural acceptance of a transgender female in India who is addressed as hijra.”
From then on Chettri has identified as a hijra, a Persian word that loosely translates to “eunuch” in English. In India, hijras reject their assigned masculinity and identify either as women, as a mix between a man and a woman, or as neither men nor women. Hijras are often castrated or have gone through sex reassignment surgery, but that’s not always the case. The British colonial rulers outlawed hijras, and designated them a “criminal caste.” Stigma has surrounded them ever since.
India has a plethora of categorizations for trans people, and whichever group you fall into often determines how you live and where you work. Shiv-Shaktis, transgender people in Andhra Pradesh, India, are believed to be possessed by or married to gods; they often work as astrologers or spiritual healers. Traditionally, hijras work as beggars or performers, dancing at weddings or asking for donations by the side of the road. Chettri decided to do something else.
Becoming a Trans Activist
Living in Delhi as a young hijra, Chettri began spending time with a local organization that worked on HIV prevention with India’s LGBTQ+ community. The organization offered condoms, and discussions about safe sex, but Chettri says the people working there wouldn’t allow her to talk openly about her gender identity.
“If I want condoms, if I want sex education, that’s something I can get anywhere. I know how to put on a condom and keep myself safe,” says Chettri. “My entire problem was trying to understand who I am and how I can get peace of mind. But they weren’t ready for that.”
She decided to leave the organization and start spending time with likeminded friends in parks and in some of Delhi’s small roadside restaurants, where she and her friends would discuss their identities and how they wanted to live their lives. Soon she realized that the size of her group was growing. While she was happy to be surrounded by so many likeminded individuals, she was also worried - the group was starting to attract attention, and some of its members were being harassed.
“It’s not possible in India, if you are someone people think of as different, to be in a public place in such large numbers,” she explains.
Experts have commented that transgender people are often subjected to harassment and violence, a throwback to British colonial rule.
In 2005, Chettri registered the non-profit Mitr Trust so that she and her group could meet without fear of harassment or persecution by the police and others. The group won grants to work on HIV prevention, and opened a small office in Delhi. The office became a safe space where people could talk about the issues impacting the transgender community.
“Whether it’s about sex, sexuality, gender, human rights, professional skills, anything - whatever they come up with,” Chettri says. “If someone comes and wants to talk about dogs and monkeys, then we’ll talk about dogs and monkeys, because maybe you don’t get this opportunity...when you really want to talk and express yourself.”
Becoming a Model
The idea to launch a modeling agency was born out of Chettri’s experience with the trans women visiting her organization. For fun, Chettri began taking pictures of herself wearing stylish clothes and posing like a model. Her photos piqued the interest of her community.
“At the time, we didn’t have smart phones, so we were taking normal pictures that we would later get printed. And I would pose in a certain way, and then bring these photos to my office, to my drop-in centre, and [the women] would comment, ‘you look like a model, you pose like a model’,” Chettri explains.
Soon, others began to copy her. They started coming to the office carrying stacks of photos of themselves posing in different outfits, and Chettri realized that modeling was something that many of these women enjoyed.
But although the idea of the agency garnered attention and support at first, Chettri says it hasn’t been easy for the models to find jobs.
“We did a shoot, and with those pictures we did approach some agencies, fashion houses, fashion magazines…some of them hung up on us as soon as they heard that we are a transgender modeling agency,” Chettri says.
“Some of them said they appreciate what we are doing, that we are doing such a nice thing, but they are sorry - they can’t give us jobs, because if we endorse any of their products or brands, there is a possibility it will [adversely] affect their revenue.”
Chettri says many potential clients think that if a trans person promotes a product then people will think the product is only for social outcasts. On the rare occasion when she lands a modeling job, the people putting her on the pages of their magazines behave as if they’re doing her a favor.
Earlier this year, Nepalese model Anjali Lama made history by becoming the first transgender model to walk the catwalk at Lakmé Fashion Week in Mumbai. Her presence was part of the fashion show’s effort to showcase diversity, but progressive objectives are hardly the norm in India’s fashion industry, which is still guided by traditional gender norms and beauty standards.
Chettri says she’s so disheartened that she has stopped responding to requests from new models.
“If there are more models, we need more dresses; we need a makeup artist who can cover more people, photographers for the day,” she says. “I want to at least give [the models] an honorarium for their travel and their meal, and I’m not able to do that and I feel so ashamed.”
Changing India for Trans People
Despite the setbacks, Chettri continues to believe in her vision of a more inclusive and equitable India. For her, establishing their own modeling agency is just one step towards bringing the country’s transgender community into the mainstream.
“There is a whole lot of confusion in our country where people think that transgender people are born with some kind of defect in their body,” Chettri says. “When we talk about third gender in India, [people often] think of someone who is born intersex…and it is thought of the same way as someone who is born with a handicap, someone you can sympathize [with] and take pity on and sometimes even discriminate [against].”
According to Chettri, some of India’s hijras actually have a vested interest in maintaining this misconception because it allows them to earn a living. She says many hijras are afraid they won’t be given charity unless people view them as handicapped.
“Our [trans] community has the idea that if the general public knew that [we were] a regular child, a male child, and that we decided to change our genitalia, they would say, ‘you decided to change because of your stupid feelings and your desires, so why should we help you?’,” Chettri explains.
What’s more, Chettri says the situation hasn’t gotten better in the three years since the Supreme Court ruling. There are still no medical guidelines for sex reassignment surgery, despite the fact that the 2014 ruling stipulated that departments should be established to look into the medical issues of third gender people. Schools do not include information about third gender people in their biology classes, and many trans people are still forced to beg or go into sex work.
According to Jayshree Bajoria, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Delhi, some state governments have taken steps to enforce the 2014 ruling, but the implementation has not been uniform. What’s more, a bill introduced in August 2016, the Transgender Persons Protection of Rights Bill, raises concerns, she says.
“The bill is flawed and has several provisions that are inconsistent with the 2014 Supreme Court ruling,” Bajoria notes. “[Meanwhile] Transgender people are still targeted, abused, and discriminated against.”
In order for this to change, Chettri says it’s important for society to be more inclusive and for trans people to have more employment opportunities.
“Why do people with power get to decide what we are good for? They think the only thing we are good for is to work as a dancer or performer,” Chettri says, letting out a sigh of frustration.
“I think we can do much better. We can become actors, politicians, doctors, teachers, or models. We can become anything. So at least give us a chance to choose.”