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Interview with Laxmi Narayan Tripathi

Hijra in India Me Hijra, Me Laxmi “– a book about the life and times of Indian transgender activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi – translated from Marathi into English. The book is being released at the World Book Fair in New Delhi on 19 February, 2015. UNAIDS caught up with Laxmi when she was visiting Bangkok and conducted an interview with her.

Laxmi is a well-known transgender activist, film actress and dancer.

UNAIDS: Your book is being released around Valentine’s Day, did you chose that date for a reason?

Laxmi: I really wanted my book to be released on Valentine’s Day as this is a day of love and my book is about a life of love. It’s a love story, which begins with my family. I was born the eldest son of an orthodox Brahmin family in Thane in Maharashtra, India. I was a sickly child and very effeminate. People would laugh at me and call me names.

But all that name-calling happened outside of my home. Among my family there was only love. My mother always stood by me and when people would tease me she would say how dare you do that? This is my child! She always said ignore them and you will be successful. When I got older I used to sneak out of the house and get dressed up in a sari. One day my parents called me in and said whatever you do, good or bad you do it from home. We don’t want to hear from someone else that you are going around in a sari; we want to see you getting dressed at home. We want to know the colour of your sari.

Later my parents encouraged me to take up dance and theatre and I eventually graduated from Mumbai’s Mithibai College.

UNAIDS: Your new book is about you, what are some of the highlights of your extraordinary life?

Laxmi: I am now 37 years old and I’m proud because I’ve done a lot with my life. Not only am I a celebrated dancer, I have starred in several TV shows, and I was the first transgender person to represent the Asia-Pacific region at the United Nations, in 2008. I have adopted two children and am living a happy and fulfilling life.

But I’ve also experienced a lot of sadness. There were many hijras, who died on my lap in the hospital because they didn’t get medical attention on time. Back in the late nineties we faced layer upon layer of stigma. I clearly remember going to the hospital and seeing my friend Sonu – pale and literally a bag of bones. She was put in a corner, near the toilet and no-one was taking care of her. So I shouted and yelled and I got really angry, that she was dying and nobody was doing anything. The doctors told us that they didn’t have the facilities to treat her and asked us to move Sonu to a different hospital. She died on the way. I wasn’t an activist to begin with, but seeing my friends die needlessly of HIV turned me into one. I became part of Asia’s first community based HIV programme, the Dai Welfare Society.

In 2012, I attended a Maharashtra ministerial meeting and stood up and asked “am I invisible?” I said, ‘I come from the most visible sexual minority community but we are still being treated as invisible.” After that the Minister of Women and Child Development asked me to be part of the committee drafting the women’s policy and Maharashtra state became the first to include transgenders in their women’s policy. The state has really led the way on transgender issues.

One thing led to another and I got to know the Lawyer’s Collective, who helped me file a suit against an elite Mumbai club which had thrown me out. Then the legal group asked me to be the plaintiff in litigation that led the Supreme Court of India to recognize transgenders as the third gender. That was a wonderful judgment which gave me back my dignity. I feel so proud to be part of this landmark ruling. I think my story really helped the court understand the issues transgenders face.

Now we have to make sure that states actually carry out reforms that reflect this new ruling. We’re also seeing a lot of progress in education. I’m on the steering committee of the University Grants Commission, which agreed to provide scholarships to transgender students, separate bathrooms in all colleges and counselling centres.

I am working with UNAIDS on a mobile application called “IASTITVA,” which means I exist. The app is under development and is being pilot tested in five states. It will help us track what services are being delivered to transgenders, as well as document their access to facilities.

UNAIDS: You have achieved a lot to be proud of. How important is it for you and other transgender people to have the support of your family?

Laxmi: I’ve been phenomenally lucky. Many other hijira are abandoned by their parents, who feel shame and struggle to accept their own children. In India, the hijra community is often seen as a bad omen. If a mother sees a hijra, she would order her daughter inside the room. This fear comes from a mindset that we are vile.

This mindset has to go. I am comfortable with myself and so what others have said never bothered me. I think that’s because my family always believed in me. They have been my biggest support. If they hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have had the courage to go against society.

Interview with Vidyavati Tiwari, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi’s mother

UNAIDS: Your daughter is coming out with a book that is being translated into several languages; do you feel very proud of her?

Vidyavati: To me he is my son and will remain my son no matter what his sexuality is and I still address him as my son. He is my eldest son who looks after the family and takes up family responsibilities and fulfills all duties of his parents. I am very proud of my child because he has worked his way up by hard work. It’s an honour that he is publishing his struggle in the form of a book. I am privileged to have son like him.

UNAIDS: When Laxmi was a young child and you started to notice that she was different, did you find that difficult to deal with? How did you come to terms with Laxmi’s gender identity?

Vidyavati: See, he was child who was sickly from birth. He had asthma and bronchitis but, he was our child and it was our duty to take care for him, which we did. To parent a child is their child and they give them love, care and support as any other parent would. We never found any difficulty in accepting our child because he was ours and that’s what matters.

UNAIDS: What advice do you have for the parents of other transgender children?

Vidyavati: I would like to say accept your child and give them love, support and education. Try and understand their needs. They are your special child and with special care they will turn themselves into special children.

This interview was conducted by UNAIDS Regional Communications Advisor for Asia and the Pacific, Saya Oka

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