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Transgender India: Banned in Bombay?

Prominent activist Laxmi Tripathi suffers the very discrimination that she fights.

Transgender activist Laxmi Tripathi, who was recently kicked out of an elite Mumbai club, sits outside a dubbing studio in Andheri on April 8, 2010. (Hanna Ingber Win/GlobalPost)

MUMBAI, India — Laxmi Tripathi stands tall and proud. She — who used to go by he — wears her hair long, her eyes decorated with thick black eyeliner and a low-cut top that reveals a hint of cleavage. Bangles adorn her wrists. Hailed as a success story in India, Tripathi has spoken at the United Nations and addressed conferences around the world on the rights of the transgender community.

And yet, being somewhat of a celebrity activist did not shield Tripathi from the very discrimination she has denounced.

Last week, officials at the Bombay Gymkhana in South Mumbai interrupted a dinner party there to kick Tripathi out of the exclusive club.

“I could never believe this could happen to me. I have been to so many places in the world, treated with so much dignity,” Tripathi said as she took a break from dubbing a new Bollywood film on the transgender community. And yet this incident happened “in a town where I’m more famous than anywhere in the world.”

While gradual progress has been made to garner more rights for and reduce the stigma against India’s transgenders, the episode at the club illustrates that the community still faces serious discrimination — even among the elite, said Tripathi and other activists.

A certain segment of Mumbai’s middle and upper class thinks of itself as cosmopolitan, said Parmesh Shahani, author of "Gay Bombay," who was at last week’s dinner party. However, if one scratches below the surface, he said, there are many undercurrents at play.

“Over the past two decades we've been very wrapped up in this whole ‘India Shining’ [idea],” he said. “But I think true modernity lies in having a plural and accepting mindset and really embracing diversity in all its forms.”

The transgender community in India, known as hijras, number up to a million people and occupy a unique role in society. On the one hand, they are called upon to offer blessings during auspicious occasions like weddings and at births. The rest of the time, they are not only ignored but often ostracized from society.

Discrimination has prevented most hijras from obtaining decent education, jobs and housing, say transgender and human rights activists. The vast majority live in slums and, with limited job opportunities, resort to sex work or begging. They weave in and out of Mumbai’s traffic or come onto the women’s compartments of local trains, clap loudly and take money in exchange for a blessing.

The “life of transsexuals or transgenders is not miserable simply because of club prejudice,” Meenakshi Ganguly of Human Rights Watch wrote in an email. “What is much harder is rejection by community, by relatives and the police abuse they suffer.”

She added that many are HIV positive and face difficulty getting medical treatment. The hospital staff cannot determine whether they should be placed in the male or female wards.

While hijras continue to face discrimination, they have also made significant social and legal gains in recent years. Last July, the Delhi High Court decriminalized gay sex, and in November, transgenders won the right to be listed as “other” rather than “male” or “female” on electoral rolls and voter identity cards.

A Bollywood film called “Queens!," scheduled to be released later this year, will feature professional actors as well as hijras themselves and present the community in a “dignified” and thereby new light, said David Atkins, the writer and director of the film. The movie could not have been made a decade ago, he said, because both Indian society and the hijras were not ready for it.