India has no dearth of discrimination and harassment, where majority groups force societal ‘norms’ upon minorities who dare to be different. In this sea of intolerance and agenda-pushing on behalf of more dominant groups, the country has become a harsh place for diversity and norm-challenging individuals to thrive. Still, beacons of hope shine bright who fight for their rights and their community’s liberties, much like the forerunners of the LGBTQ human rights movement.
In April 2014, the Supreme Court passed a landmark judgement for India’s transgender community as it officially recognised a third gender, giving this community a legal identity. Even though this marked a historic win, there is still a long way to go for the transgender community to be completely accepted and integrated into India’s society, and there are a few voices working towards making that a reality.
Recognising the personal triumph of these voices, we’ve compiled a list of 7 of the most iconic transgender community members breaking barriers in their everyday lives. From India’s first transgender police officer, to a human rights activist striving for tolerance, these seven women stand as tall soldiers in this battle for liberty, fighting taboos and stigma every step of the way. Scroll on to meet India’s transgender icons who have beaten all odds to thrive in a climate of discrimination.
Akkai Padmashali, a human rights activist against all odds
From working as a sex worker while her parents thought she worked in a private company, to attempting to kill herself twice at the age of 12, to being questioned and even tormented at several turns of her life, Akkai Padmashali’s life and childhood mirrors one of hardship, persistence, and strength to overcome social stigma in all public and private spaces. Her accomplishments pile up pretty high, as she was invited by the President to attend the Chief Justice of India’s swearing-in ceremony, and founded and currently leads the organisation ‘Ondede’, meaning convergence in Kannada, striving to create awareness about sexual diversity, and the right to choose one’s sexual identity for oneself. Additionally, the International Bar Association conference held in Tokyo in 2014 invited her to speak about legal rights of sexual minorities, showing how far she’s come despite the problems of her early life. She was even the first Indian transgender woman to get a driving license with her gender stated as ‘female’. Today, she stands as a vocal transgender rights activist, and has become an extremely respected household name in Bengaluru.
Looking back at her early life, Akkai was born into a middle-class family as Jagadeesh. As a child, she would dress up in her sister’s clothes and played with other girls, which didn’t sit too well with her parents. They beat her up for the same, and even tried to get her ‘cured’ by doctors and healers. Her grandmother, a trained Carnatic vocalist who used to teach music to several children in the neighbourhood, wouldn’t let her sit in, worried that learning music would ‘influence’ her. Eventually as her confidence grew, she confided in her brother, who supported her will to transform into a woman and even spoke up to their parents in her favour. During the time of her life working as a sex worker, Akkai witnessed wide-spread sexual violence and discrimination, and she was motivated to join the NGO Sangam that works with sexual minorities, to make a difference using her strong voice. “Why should I die? Let me fight for my community members. I have a huge responsibility on my shoulders,” she said.
K Prithika Yashini, India’s first transgender police officer in Tamil Nadu
November 5 marked an important day for India’s transgender community as the Madras High Court directed the Tamil Nadu Uniformed Services Recruitment Board to appoint K Prithika Yashini as sub-inspector of police, making her India’s first transgender police officer.
Experiencing one of the many problems plaguing the transgender community in India, when Prithika first applied for the post, her application was rejected by the TNUSRB as her name did not tally with the original certificates which carried her birth name Pradeep Kumar. Eventually, she fought for her rights and the first bench comprising Chief Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Justice Pushpa Sathyanarayan instructed for her recruitment.
“There was absence of any column for third gender, though this aspect now stands enunciated by the judgement of the apex court which carves out the category of third gender for the purpose of safeguarding and enforcing properly their rights guaranteed under the constitution,” said the court. Prithika’s victory is both a personal one as well as an important catalyst towards India legally and officially recognising the transgender community as a third identity, and enforcing it in both public and private spaces.
Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, first transgender person to represent Asia Pacific at the UN
As a transgender rights activist, author of her autobiography Me Hijra, Me Laxmi, star on Indian television and dancer, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi is a very accomplished woman. And to add to her list of merit, she was the first transgender person to represent Asia Pacific at the UN, and has also represented her community as well as India on various international platforms such as Toronto’s World AIDS conference.
Her autobiography tells the tale of struggle, and the ordeal she faced while striving to become who she was. Having to deal with sexual abuse and verbal taunting, her family was never supportive of her sexual choices, but she found strength and understanding from her parents. “The book is about my life. It has everything from the numerous love affairs I have had to finding solace in Mumbai’s bars. From mental and physical abuse to finding a life of grace, dignity and fame, it is about Laxmi, a person who recognises herself as a hijra at present proudly,” she writes.
Madhu Bai Kinnar, India’s first official Dalit transgender mayor of India in Raigarh, Chhattisgarh
Although India has had transgender mayors in the past, such as Asha Devi and Kamla Jaan in the 90s, since the Supreme Court recognised the third gender only in 2014, Madhu Bai Kinnar is India’s first officially recognised transgender mayor. Fighting two stigmas at once, her low-caste as well as sexual minority were obstacles she battled only to emerge victorious in Raigarh’s Municipal Corporation elections, and that too against BJP candidate Mahavir Guruji.
Previously, the 35-year-old sang and danced on trains to earn a living-a path several transgender community members in India adopt-until she decided to represent her community in a local administrative capacity. After winning the elections by over 4,500 votes, Madhu told reporters, “People have shown faith in me. I consider this win as love and blessings of people for me. I’ll put in my best efforts to accomplish their dreams.”
Manabi Bandopadhyay, India’s first transgender principal in West Bengal
Born in 1966 as Somnath Bandopadhyay, Manabi lived much of her life forced to reconcile to the image forced upon her by society, living in a man’s body she didn’t identify with. Fighting discrimination and intimidation for years, against all odds in 2003 she collected enough money to undergo a sex change operation, and became the woman she had always wanted to be. As a professor of Bengali literature, her reputation as an esteemed educator driven by strength and determination ultimately bore fruit in June of 2015, as she became India’s first transgender principal of a government education institution.
Appointed to West Bengal’s Krishnanagar Women’s College in Nadia district, Bandhopadhyay’s voice continues to be a strong one for the LGBTQ community and their human rights struggle. Previously, she had penned the Bengali novel Endless Bondage on eunuchs, which became a national bestseller, as well as started a group for Bengal’s transsexuals.
As she emphasized the need for individual liberty and the confidence to fight for your identity, she said in an interview with the Guardian, “I am fighting and I will keep at it. Nothing happens in India for the good of anybody who chooses to be different. You can pass laws but you cannot change the people. It’s a fact that man is free but everywhere he is in chains. I agree with that. It has taken a lot, but I have cut loose somehow.”
Padmini Prakash, India’s first transgender news anchor in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu
Appearing on Tamil Nadu’s Lotus TV based in Coimbatore, Padmini Prakash became India’s first transgender news anchor on daily television. Her success on this Tamil-language news show is two-fold, as she appears on a 7pm prime-time slot and is widely acclaimed by her audience, as well as represents an important voice for her community. Padmini had focussed her time being a transgender rights activist in the past, fighting social taboo, harassment and discrimination, and ultimately became an important face in this struggle for acceptance.
Sangeeth Kumar and Saravana Ramakumar, two programme executives on the show, were returning home from work one day and witnessed some transgender people being mistreated, making them reflect on the negative social attitude surrounding the same. Exercising their managerial power, they decided to give Padmini the opportunity to become a news presenter in an attempt to help society take a positive step towards social acceptance of the transgender community and break barriers of intolerance.
“Padmini’s assignment carries a message about this neglected community. Since they are not socially acceptable, they cannot display their talent. Such is the situation today that some of them are in the sex trade or forced to beg on the streets,” observed activist Anjali Ajeeth based in Coimbatore upon Padmini’s appointment.
Rose Venkatesan, India’ first transgender TV show host in Chennai
Rose, an engineering graduate who completed her biomedical engineering course in the US, had a lot to overcome growing up. She was forced out of her home as her parents disapproved of her cross-dressing and ‘other girlie ways’. But as the woman she identified herself being was strong and determined, she got a sex change operation done in Thailand and became the Rose she is today.
In 2008, Rose’s public debut appeared on Vijay TV’s talk show ‘Ippadikku Rose’. As a highly qualified, confident and accomplished woman, and an important voice for the transgender community, she said, “I believe transgenders are also members of the general public, but we are isolated in the society. I am highly educated. I have international experience. I am confident. I can talk well. Why not make use of my ability in a constructive way? This way, I want to change the way Indian society looks at us.”