Transgender people have been a part of India’s culture for 4,000 years. Although not directly corollary with American understanding of transgender identity, the colloquial term “hijra” encompasses cross-dressers, eunuchs, intersex people, and transgender individuals. India’s history with hijra communities goes back millennia, to when hijras were revered as a faith group, performing special ceremonies and rituals. But in modern times, however, this small segment of the population has endured a steady decline in religious respect and a rise in discrimination.
Even after India’s historic Supreme Court ruling of 2014, which recognized transgender people as a third gender and assured them equal voting and employment rights, hijras seem to be fighting the same uphill battle.
Meetu (above right) is a 32 year-old hijra living in Mumbai. "I always wanted to study and become a police officer but never got an opportunity to live my dream," she says.
Faced with poverty and systemic discrimination, many hijras are forced to seek work in the commercial sex industry, as street entertainers, or as beggars.
"In the day we go around the shops and beg," says Pooja (pictured left). "They give us 10 rupees each and we go away. Sometimes we dance at weddings and festivals. We can get good money from that."
As part of a concerted effort to bring LGBT Indians out of the shadows and demand equal rights, this year filmmaker Shubham Mehrotra (pictured) launched a grassroots operation called Fifty Shades of Gay.
Describing itself as a “national equal rights campaign,” the advocacy group aims to eradicate prejudice against LGBT people in the country. Mehrotra and her team attempt to raise awareness by documenting heart-wrenching stories of discrimination and intolerance. By pairing the stories with powerful photos that affirm each subject’s identity as LGBT and Indian, the campaign looks to humanize a population that often is demonized in heated political rhetoric.
Anwesh Sahoo (pictured) was chosen to represent the South Asian country this year in the Mr. Gay World contest.
Even though he did not win the coveted title, Sahoo maintains an air of positivity and hope.
“It has made me a more confident individual who's appreciative of his flaws,” he told 50 Shades of Gay. “I will surely use this opportunity to create a more positive space in the world that doesn't despise queer individuals but rather respects them as equals.”
Hijras Demand: Ban Bias in Bangalore
Frequently disrespected in society, hijras find few job opportunities. Bangalore, popularly known as the tech capital of the country, has become infamous for violence against trans people, including police brutality, rapes, and assaults, and resulting in several deaths. And thanks to several regressive laws that aim to alienate the third gender, the Indian authorities regularly fail to apprehend the perpetrators of these hate crimes.
Savio Martin, the gay musician of Mumbai
Savio Martin is one of the very few out musicians in Mumbai. Martin, a vocalist, is also an avid supporter of the 50 Shades of Gay project and regularly engages in dialogue for equality.
"Home is a place where you are free, you have the freedom to love, share, care and feel safe,” he said. “[It’s] a sense of protection that brings warmth to your heart and hope for a brighter tomorrow. A home is not a place where you are treated as a criminal for being who you are. Right now this nation does not feel like home — people are being bullied, teased, insulted, discriminated, abandoned, and abused.”
Catholic, gay, and Indian
“I was a really creative kid growing up in a Catholic household in Mumbai,” said Jason, pictured above. “My first love was fashion and design, and my biggest ambition was to become a successful name in the industry. Since a very young age, I knew I was gay. When I was 10, I kissed a boy for the first time.”
Jason was 11 when he lost his father to cancer, and he then embarked upon a road to acceptance.
"The next few years were quite challenging for me,” he contined. “At the age of 15, I decided to come out to my mother. When I told my mother that I was gay, she went quiet. She didn't say a word for one whole day. Slowly but surely, she accepted me as a gay son. It was exhilarating. There was no longer the fear of exposing my gayness because of the amount of support I received."
Jason’s life experience has led him to be optimistic, despite the current backlash facing LGBT people in India. “Things won’t be as tough as they are now,” he concluded.
Meet this gender-fluid pansexual Indian
Lavanya Narayan is a well-known journalist working at a newspaper in Chennai.
Nayaran, 23, identifies as pansexual and gender-fluid, having been attracted to both sexes from an early age. She strives to be "seen as human, rather than male or female," and considers androgyny and gender fluidity key parts of her identity.
“What the LGBT community is facing is ‘homodenial,’ which can be used interchangeably with [homophobia],” she told 50 Shades of Gay. “I think these politicians and lawmakers are under the misguided impression that ignorance or plausible deniability would mean eventual demise. [It’s like they think,] If I deny or ignore the existence of anything that is not heterosexual, it will die away on its own.”
Sometimes the only way to go is forward
Mark Mascarenhas, an image consultant from Mumbai, has been a victim of sexual abuse and harassment.
At the age of 14, Mascarenhas was bullied, then sexually assaulted by seven of his peers.
"I felt broken,” he said. “The only way I could get over the ridicule was to stay quiet. Unlike the man I am today. Incidents like this have given me the courage to come out and stand up for who I am.”
Drag queens don saris
During the day, Alex Matthew is a Bangalore-based quality specialist at a media firm. But at night, the 27-year-old becomes Mayamma, a sultry, sari-clad drag performer who loves to sing, dance, and act.
An entertainer with a growing fan base, Mayamma is one the first drag queens from the Kuttanad region in the Indian state of Kerala. She hopes to bring about a change in society through her performances.
“I started doing drag as a form of expression and outlet for creativity,” said Matthew. “I wasn't sure where I was heading when I started it. However, this journey has been amazing. I received a lot of objections from family and friends, but I loved performing and there was no turning back.”
“No law can put us down because the LGBTQIA community is bonded by love and love only,” Matthew concluded.
Funny and gay
Navin Noronha is one of India’s very few openly gay comedians.
"The lack of comprehensive sex education is one of the biggest obstacles we face today in our country,” Naronha said. “Most people just assume it's a gender displacement issue, furthered by psychological barriers. The fact that no one chooses to be gay is still not clear enough for many."
Doctor of Hairdressing
Dr. Sylvester Rodgers, also known as Sylvie, is a well-known celebrity hair stylist from Delhi. Rodgers began her career working as an ob-gyn, “delivering babies and all that,” she explains. But after spending a few months with her cousin, who at that time was a student at the American Institute of Aesthetics, Rodgers discovered a passion for hairdressing.
Rodgers returned to India in the 1980s, taking a job at a salon. Within two years, she was so popular that she was able to open her own salon. But things were not easy for a trans hairdresser with little knowledge of Hindi.
On top of that, she was one of the first out trans women to demand that her identity be respected and that she be allowed to move freely in the sexually restrictive atmosphere.
"People called me names,” she recalled of those dark days. “‘The gay from abroad has come, there he goes ... eunuch.’ It was tough.”
But Rodgers also fondly recalled moments when her mother stood by her side, supporting her daughter: "She told me to live in dignity. Nothing is taboo, she stressed. Homosexuality had been in India since ancient times and would always be there.”
These days, things are looking bright for Rodgera. "Don't ask me how, but everything changed very fast,” she said. “And now, as you know, I'm a big celebrity.”