The British discriminated against transgender people: Laxmi Tripathi

Updated 16 May 2015


I should have access to a life with dignity, says Laxmi Narayan Tripathi.  — Photo: Rafeh Kiani
I should have access to a life with dignity, says Laxmi Narayan Tripathi. — Photo: Rafeh Kiani

Activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi's life has been anything but uneventful. Born to a Brahmin family in Thane, Maharashtra, it was only during her college days that Laxmi found her calling. Since 1990, she has spearheaded the transgender movement, and has broken barriers and taboos along the way. She was the first transgender person to represent the Asia Pacific region at the UN in 2008, has been on several Indian reality shows including Big Boss, and has also penned a memoir about her life, Me Laxmi, Me Hijra.

Laxmi was recently in Pakistan to promote her book and to discuss the transgender movement. caught up with her when she was in Islamabad to discuss her activism, Indo-Pak relations and pet peeves. You’ve been a transgender activist for over a decade. What motivated you to become an activist and what continues to drive your efforts?

Laxmi Narayan Tripathi: What inspires me is the situation of my people; there’s so much that has to be done. The [transgender] community has been marginalized by the British; we’ve had 250 years of complete non-existence. After colonisation, things changed [for the worse], after independence things didn’t change [for the better]; women’s rights and gender equality became an issue only for women. But gender is beyond women and no one even bothered about the third gender.

Laxmi in Islamabad. — Photo: — Rafeh Kiani
Laxmi in Islamabad. — Photo: — Rafeh Kiani Can you tell me more about the khwaja sara community’s history of marginalisation?

Laxmi: Before the Britishers came, we were at least treated with dignity and respect in society. We were discriminated against under the Tribals Act [Criminal Tribals Act, 1871, which lumped the khwaja sara community with "habitually criminal" groups like thugs]. Section 377 [of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises sexual activities "against the order of nature" ] also discriminated against us. Before the British, we were important [in society]; we were working as everything, from cooks to advisors to people managing the harems. Our ancestors were trusted. In your opinion, how successful has the transgender movement been so far?

Laxmi: Ours is a very inclusive and very self-determining movement; it’s a very progressive judgment that we have. The parliament passed the transgender bill. In 45 years a bill has been passed and that, too, a transgender bill. So progress is huge, whether it is the university grants commission or the rights to education – these policies are being made. As you say, Rome was not built in one day. Things won’t change overnight, but the process has started. What does the hijra community need? What do you hope to get out of this movement?

Laxmi: This generation wants to be educated, wants to know computers, and wants to use all the technology. So why should only women and men [have access to all of this]? It’s our right. We need jobs, we need a life of dignity; as a human being, I have that right. Why should somebody be treated badly only for living a truthful life, the way they are? At least one thing is true that we are not liars or hypocrites. I have the right, as a citizen of my country, to access public health, to access education, to access housing. I should have access to a life with dignity. Why do some children have to sell their bodies, or do sex work, for their survival?

I always say to the second generation of activists: it’s not about money or your organisation funds. One should see the larger picture for the community: what will be of benefit to the community, not what they will benefit from.

Laxmi in New Delhi. — Photo: PTI
Laxmi in New Delhi. — Photo: PTI What, if any, is the difference between the transgender rights movement in Pakistan and India?

Laxmi: As far as tradition goes, the khwaja sara in India are much more orthodox and much more particular than in Pakistan. But I believe we are much more progressive than Pakistan as far as transgender rights are concerned because it is about inclusion. I don’t believe Pakistan has a ministry. We have many states in India that have a transgender welfare board, and activists are talking to their state’s Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. Like in Maharashtra, the Woman and Child Welfare Ministry took up the responsibility even before the Supreme Court verdict. And we were included in the women’s policy as a different chapter. The university grants commission has sent out circulars to every college [for the provision of] a third gender box and a separate bathroom. Over here, unity is one question and people who are really working at the ground level – Bubbly Malik, Neeli Rana, Sarah Gill – they can make a difference, but they should be trained in leadership qualities and have wider support. I believe this is your first time in Pakistan. How do you like it here?

Laxmi: I love it! I feel like I’m not out of my country at all. I’m honoured. There’s so much love, it’s amazing. I really believe that [the enmity] should end. And how much progress could we both make as countries, as brothers? We could make a huge difference. And together, if we forget all that stuff and live together like a family, the world would bow down in front of India and Pakistan. Three words that describe you…

Laxmi: Unconditional love. Respect. Dignity. One of your pet peeves…

Laxmi: The new Bollywood songs. I’m a Noor Jehan, Lata Mangeshkar, Reshma and Abida Parveen fan. One thing you do to relax…

Laxmi: Lie in bed and read, at times…history…all kinds of history.