India opens the doors of its fashion world to new era of trans models

Progress is slow, but a pioneering agency is starting to change minds

It started with the fingernails. Hed paint them, admire them for a few minutes, then clean them before anyone saw. Then it was his mothers makeup and one day a full outfit. The other kids made jokes boys werent supposed to be like that but, for Rudrani Chettri Chauhan, dressing as a woman was natural, it was fun.

At 22, Chauhan started self-identifying as a woman. She went to parties in womens clothes and posted photographs on Facebook. I started getting compliments. People used to say: You pose like a model, are you modelling? Can you show us how to do it too? I thought, why cant trans people, who spend half their lives trying to look effeminate and beautiful, do this job?

So in 2015 Chauhan set up Bold, Indias first modelling agency for trans people. We held auditions and then we did our first shoot. The whole community was asking for it. My whole idea was, lets set up a beginning, a milestone. How long can we keep waiting for someone else to decide when its the right time to see trans models? I thought, well do it ourselves, well show them.

This year, for the first time, three trans women have been featured on Indian magazine covers. Two were current affairs magazines, and one featured Chauhan herself.

In the south Indian state of Kerala, Vanitha, a Malayalam-language womens magazine, became the first to feature a trans woman on its cover as a fashion icon. We received tremendous positive applause from our readers, said the editor, Madhu Charan. We just wanted to highlight the birthright of any person granted by the country and state to lead a normal life.

We didnt get any negative feedback. [Our model] Deepthi, has now [become] a celebrity in Kerala. People are taking selfies with her.


Four faces in the transformation of Deepthi, the trans model who is now a celebrity in Kerala, India. Photograph: Vanitha magazine

Now Bold is at the forefront of a trans beauty industry in India. The agency in New Delhi represents 10 women and a stylist, working pro-bono, is helping to create modelling portfolios.

Breaking into fashion has not been easy. Were not at all welcome in the fashion and modelling industries. Ive sent emails to so many magazines, but most of them just dont reply. When I call, either they just hang up or they say theyd love to feature my clients, but their readers may not like the idea, says Chauhan.

Its interesting. Even though most of the people in the fashion industry are openly gay or at least positive towards the LGBT community, theyre still not sure about the idea of putting visible minorities on magazines. There are still stereotypical roles for men and women. Being gay is not a problem, you still self-identify as a man. But theres this idea that [trans people] are only good for begging or sex work.

Patriarchal attitudes are prevalent in Indias government and society. Gay marriage was legalised and then banned again in 2013. Section 377 of the penal code forbids gay sex, and government ministers frequently make homophobic statements. With few job opportunities, most trans or third gender people in India have no option but to turn to begging and sex work.

Though Indian culture reserves a special third gender (hijra) for people who dont identify as male or female, they are still mocked and ostracised. Many believe that hijras have mystical powers and there is a widespread belief that members of the hijra community kidnap and castrate boys to join their ranks.

According to the 2011 census, half a million Indians self-identify as third gender. Every one of those people has at least 100 stories of being beaten up or ill-treated. Just look at our films: theyve been portraying the trans character as a gag or joke for so long. Were caricatures. But after so long you start to accept that is your destiny, like just a normal part of your daily routine wake up, brush your teeth, eat your breakfast, get beaten up, says Chauhan.

The last two years have seen a string of firsts for the trans community. In 2015, the northern Indian town of Raigarh appointed a trans mayor. In the southern city of Chennai, a trans woman became the countrys first third-gender police officer. In the eastern state of West Bengal, a trans woman was appointed headteacher. Earlier this year the government passed a bill to protect trans rights and give benefits to trans people.

But attitudes are still hard to change. So far none of the models that work with Bold has been offered paid work. Ive been trying to make the modelling agency commercially successful, but I dont have any professional experience or understanding of the fashion industry, and so far nobody has come forward to help.

My concern is not only to make them models, they also need something on their plate to eat. When [magazines] approach us, its like theyre doing some kind of great favour to us, and we should be appreciating them for it. For other models, you just look pretty or handsome and you get paid, but for us its different. Still, what can we do? Beggars cant be choosers.

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