I am off to meet Yubraj, a transwoman living in Kolkata, India a childhood friend of a good friend of mine Somnath, for London’s Beige Magazine.
It is at the end of a long humid day that we make our way to Yubraj’s home which she shares with her parents. A yellow hue from the street-lights fill the tiny packed roads as we arrive at the opening of gully that leads us to Yubraj’s flat. She comes into the light at the mouth of the gully – she smiles and waves high in the air to attract us towards her with a turquoise scarf.
She leads us down towards the house. There is street art of Ghandhi and bearded man at the entrance to their family home. Winding our way up the tiny dark staircase, three flights of stairs, pulling back old iron sliding gates we finally step into her flat.
Requesting that we remove our shoes, she steps into her Entertaining Room. I notice how tidy and spotless everything is. The narrow hallway where our shoes will remain during our visit has a tiny 50’s high wooden table with her hair brush and comb on with a small collection of various shades of blue nail varnishes. Yubraj’s Entertaining Room is neat, housing two cabinets filled with her collection of Hindu gods, music cassettes and massive collection of coloured Gneshes. Brightly coloured fabric flowers stand in the corners of the room giving it an almost surreal feel, that and the framed forest poster ‘Speak to the earth and it will teach you’.
The light from the overhead striplight is bright and harsh as I sit opposite her. She is chatting ten to a dozen to Somnath and Pappu, whom she has also known for a number of years . Yubraj did Pappu’s wifes’ make-up for their wedding. They are open and intimate as they sit side by side, catching up about their day, sharing jokes and gossiping. A chattering mix of Hindi, Bengali and English – I almost think I can fully understand everything that is being said.
I ask about the relationship between Somanth and Yobraj.
As soon as the question is out of my mouth, they both answer, stop and laugh. They have known each other since they were 14yrs old when Somnath moved into Yubraj’s family home after Somnaths father attacked and killed his mother. Their bond is strong and beautiful to witness – Somnath has never taken Yobraj for anyone other than who she is, always accepting her difference and being supportive throughout their teen years. Yubraj has a wonderful sense of humour teasing both Somnath and Pappu. She is excited about this interview and wants to get started. She also tells me that a film director from Kolkata wants to make a documentary on her life as she plans to go to Thailand to finally become a Transwoman. I joke and say I am glad we have got her before she becomes too famous. Laughing she says has no doubt that it will happen.
She stretches out on her sofa kicking off her sandals exposing her perfectly blue painted toenails keeping her eyes on me the whole time. I ask her for her earliest memories, indicators that made her different. She flicks back her long dark hair and swings her legs down to the floor sitting upright, her eyes not leaving mine.
“Let me speak truthfully. When I was very small I didn’t feel any different to anyone else, but when I was about 14 and in 7th standard at school, I started to find myself and my feelings. At school the boys and girls sat separately, at different places and I wanted to sit with the girls. The girls understood me, but I was harassed by the boys. They thought that I was acting like this to get in with the girls, so they were jealous. I was in with the girls, which was where I wanted to be. I also knew that I was a girl deep inside. I have always been a girl. I would come home from school and wonder why people treated me differently. They hurt me a lot. My sexual feelings were always for boys not girls. Girls were just my friends.”
She shifts back onto the sofa, plumping the cushions under her waiting for my next question. I say that it’s amazing that she has such great support from her family but has it always been there from the start? I watch her carefully seeing mixed emotions cross her face. She drops her eyes searching for the right words to explain their journey.
“When my parents understood that I was either gay or transgender, they couldn’t support me. We fought a lot. Me and my parents, my relatives and the people that live in my locality, everyone criticized me. It was a difficult process, but now seeing me for who I am, family and relatives accept that I am trans and this is natural. My mother says I am from the Gods, blessed and of course, I am.”
She laughs pulling her legs under her, safe, secure and in control. She continues.
“In most families I think there must be someone gay or transgender. Maybe in uneducated families they don’t understand this, but finally mine did. I have great support from all my friends. We are all bitches together.”
She laughs again, her laugh is infectious as we all end up in giggles. I ask about the Hijra community who I know struggle for acceptance and to try and explain why they don’t fall into LGBT.
“Transgender and gay is totally different to hijra. Hijra lifestyle and trans lifestyle, they are totally different. The hijra situation is a social/economic thing, they are from poor villages and trans people come from middle class families. The hijras want people like me to join their communities. But I am not like them."
"If you understand this, I am from Kolkata, I live in a good area of the city, in a house, with my family, this is one of the best areas of the city, so for me, as trans to come out it is ok, look at me, it has happened. But can you imagine, me, Yubraj, born in a mud hut in a village in Bihar with no electricity, no water, no food, and the superstitions that come along with that kind of village life. If I had been born there, I would have been taken by my family to the Hijra community in the city. Given over to them and I would never have seen my family again. I can live here happily as trans with my family around me, who love and support me."
"The Hijra have always been seen as mythical but they have no sacred powers, it is all superstition. They are the same people like us all - some have sex some dont. They have their own community. They are separate.”
I ask her is there any impact of India's Supreme Court re-criminalisation of homosexuality and bisexuality on Dec. 13, 2013 has had on her and her gay friends?
I see her eyes light up and her body stiffens as she answers.
“I am Very disappointed! Very very disappointed. It hurts me and my community and my lesbian family. They gave wrong judgment. Every person has the right to live freely. The Supreme Court has no right to tell us about our lifestyle. They can’t give something and take it back. A change will come. All over the world a change is coming. If there is anything I can do, I will do it to get our voices heard. That is why I am prepared to do a documentary on my life and this interview. We have to be seen.
We talk about work and are there limitations with regards to her finding jobs.
I am a hair and makeup artist in a beauty salon- I travel out of the city to work too – people book me for weddings and photoshoots. It’s easier to work out of the city, I can be me. I’m lucky that I have been chosen for this work. Not every trans has a good job. A lot of trans have to work as prostitute.
I am a trans woman and am very proud of whom I am.
I am here to prove that.
Trans are humans, beautiful and natural. Trans/gay people are part of society – you must accept us. After all I am a Beauty Queen…”
With that she bursts into laughter and flicks her hair once more.
Somnath, Yubraj and Pappu... friends forever? yes, I think so.