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Preeti Mehra | Updated on April 25, 2014

Lady liberty: Lakshmi celebrates the Supreme Court verdict at Jantar Mantar last week. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat   -  Meeta Ahlawat

India’s first celebrity hijra Lakshmi on her journey from being a ‘homo’ to an activist and the long road to independence for the third gender

Lakshmi Narayan Tripathi had been dancing for a while, hamming it up for the cameras at times. It is only when she finally ascends the makeshift stage at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, dressed in a black-white-and-gold sari, that she stops dancing, takes the mike and pauses mid-sentence to give advocate Anand Grover a tight hug. “I call him my boyfriend,” she shouts into the mike and cackles along with her audience, before sharing with them how crucial Grover’s role had been in giving herself and others like her their “independence”. Earlier in the week, in a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court allowed transgender people to be recognised as a third gender. For Lakshmi, this was the successful end of a long campaign.

Vivacious and outspoken, Lakshmi is the first celebrity hijra. Born and raised in Mumbai as a boy, she is one of the rare transgenders who found support within her family. Early on, she knew her sexual preference was different. “Yet I never thought of myself as different. People would laugh at me and call me names, and they made me different. I am who I am,” she recalls. She thought she was gay and everyone called her “homo” anyway. So when she was in Class 5 or so, she got in touch with the only publicly gay person she knew — Ashok Row Kavi. Lakshmi was already interested in the arts then and training in Bharatanatyam. Kavi asked her to continue with her education — both academics and dance.

When she finished school, she joined Mumbai’s Mithibai College. Around this time, Ken Ghosh was making music videos and she auditioned for a dancer’s role and bagged it. Lakshmi went on to dance in several videos and became a choreographer. Slowly, she began dressing up in drag when she was out. When Kavi started working towards repealing Section 377, the law that makes homosexual activity a criminal offence, Lakshmi became part of his team. She turned up for the first press conference dressed like a woman, her face fully made up. That caught the attention of the media and Zee TV asked Kavi whether Lakshmi would provide them with a sound byte. She did. It was aired. And that’s when her parents found out she was aligning with the hijra community. Much emotional drama ensued, with her father even lining up marriage proposals for her. “Finally, I said if you do this, I’ll run away.” Caught between a judgemental society and parental affection, her parents eventually came around. In a BBC interview, years later, when her father was asked how he accepted his son’s sexuality, he said, “if my child was handicapped would you even ask me whether I’d have asked him to leave home? And just because his sexual orientation is different?”

It was when Lakshmi met Shabira, Indian’s first transgenders PhD student that she first heard about the hijra culture. In Mumbai, they are split into seven families and each family has its own guru and disciples, called chelas. She decided to join with Shabira, but just before the move, Shabira went missing. Lakshmi went nevertheless and was fascinated by the community. She decided to stay on. Soon after her initiation, Lakshmi joined a night club and became a bar dancer. She was relatively famous already, and admirers from across the city came to watch her dance and shower currency notes on her. When the then home minster of Maharashtra, RR Patil decided to shut down the city’s dance bars, she organised a protest. The dancers lost but Lakshmi’s zeal for activism soared. In a video for Project Bolo for the Hamsafar Foundation, she articulates in detail her life from being a ‘homo’ to an activist hijra and guru of her hijra family.

Lakshmi is opinionated and outspoken. That has won her both friends and enemies. In the mid-noughties, Mumbai newspapers frequently carried reports of fights and brawls involving Lakshmi and others in the community. “Mostly the community leaders were of the opinion that while I was high-profile and getting a lot of publicity, I never discredited the community. The fights were caused by people who were jealous of me,” she says.

In 2002, she became one of the founding board members of the Dai Welfare Society, which sought to work for the well-being of hijras. In a few years though, she left it to start her own organisation, Astitva. In 2008, she became the first transgender person to represent Asia Pacific in the United Nations. At the assembly, she spoke of the plight of sexual minorities. “People should be more humane. They should respect us as human beings and consider our rights as transgenders,” she said.

Back in India, she straddled her celebrity lifestyle and her outspoken activism. She appeared in several TV shows. In one, Sach ka Saamna, where contestants who are rigged up to a lie detector and asked embarrassing questions, Lakshmi brought her parents along. “It was the first time that Indian audiences saw a hijra with her biological parents, I did it as a part of my activism,” she said. Lakshmi’s appearances in mainstream media went a long way in dispelling myths about hijras.

The SC verdict is an enormous success for Lakshmi and others like her. This means that the two million transgenders in India — who often live in dire poverty and whose occupations are usually begging or prostitution — have access to medical care and reservations for educational institutions and government jobs. It isn’t just typical Lakshmi hyperbole then when she says, “India got its independence on August 15, we got ours on April 15”.



Published on April 25, 2014

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