Commercialization of transgender community event: Time to make a call

Santa Khurai *

Trans Queen Contest North East 2013 Held at BOAT, Palace Compound, Imphal :: 13 December 2013
Trans Queen Contest North East 2013 Held at BOAT, Imphal on 13 December 2013 :: Pix - Deepak Oinam

Mobilising and organising the transwomen community of Manipur have taken decades of dogged grassroots activism and celebratory community events to reach out to as many transwomen as possible. Such events became strategically important in addressing the number of issues facing Manipur's transwomen since they are much more effective in bringing the community together than the usual activism workshops or meetings.

The first-ever Miss Trans Queen Contest North East is one such celebratory as well as solidarity community event conceptualised and organised by AMANA. Since the new cultural economy of beauty parlours and costume design has been established as the backbone of the financial independence of Manipur's transwomen, an event like a Trans Queen Contest holds a huge appeal for the community. We facilitated the contest as an inclusive platform to spread awareness of the many issues facing the community like HIV infection, state violence, ostracisation, lack of access to education and employment opportunities, denial of general health services, sexual health and rights, political rights, etc.

The history of Manipur's transwomen is a traumatic one. There was no organising of the community until the late 90s. Transwomen earned their livelihood by selling local wine and soliciting after sunset in the heart of Imphal city. There was zero employment opportunities and majority of transwomen were thrown out by their families and lived an ostracised life.

Late 90s however saw a change in the transwomen community. Few of us gathered together to organise a community thabal chongba in Khurai with some small donation from a local politician. It was a small initiative but it acted as a miraculous trigger in mobilising transwomen from every nook and corner of Imphal as well as its neighbouring districts. Many defied their families to organise this event. Some of the event organisers who were publicly visible got threatening calls from individuals claiming to be naharol. The risks we took were all too real and we all have hidden stories of torture for asserting our identity and mobilising our community. Let me tell you one such story.

I was called out of my house one dark night by a bunch of unknown men claiming to be naharol. They took me to a deserted leirak where I was brutally beaten up and all my nails were smashed into pieces by a brick. They told me that my open transwoman identity was harming the society's reputation. They made me lie on the ground flat and forced me to shout loudly that, "I am a boy and impersonate a girl, i have dick and can have sex with girls" while hitting me with a bamboo baton till it broke.

While a transwoman like me was getting beaten up and threatened for organising a trans thabal chongba, influential non-trans local clubs and groups started cashing in on the trans thabal chongba event. They commercialised the event by ticketing it and faced no social intimidation or ostracisation while doing it. Since the trans community had no way of organising such events ourselves without facing a barrage of social objections, we compromised and participated in such events.

We were the showpieces of the thabal chongba: the thabal ground was fenced with GI sheet; we were given free entry but non-trans spectators were charged which is never the case in regualr thabal chongba. We transwomen got the chance of course to play dress up and dance but at a price. The money collected from such events went into the pockets of the non-trans organisers. It was like the King Kong movie everybody entering a closed arena to watch the atypical creature.

This commercialisation of trans community events gained more traction when Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) introduced the first state level trans beauty contest in the year 1985 at GM Hall under the "All Manipur Nupi Sabi Beauty Contest" banner. It was a huge success. It is still remembered as the most crowded trans community event till date and it must have collected a decent amount of money through the tickets. However, the three contestants who won the top three positions received empty envelopes with 'SORRY' written on them. The misuse and exploitation of the community gained ground and continued for a long time to come.

Ironically, despite such visible trans community events, the community itself was invisible and was mainly underground. In the later part of 1998, a well known trans designer Tom Sharma formed a dance group dedicated to transwomen called Seven Sister. The group was first introduced at a winter carnival at the Yaiskul YAC ground and 1/3 of the incomes of the carnival were collected from the dance show. It became very popular in Manipur and was constantly in demand.

Gradually it became one of the best entertainment programs and people have started hiring the group for various local events. The dancers were however not paid properly; instead they were offered only local wine. The dancers would get drunk but rarely got paid. Such awful incidents and unfair treatments continued and the dancers started to resist the unfair treatment. With the objectives to promote the group and to protect the dancers, certain rules and regulations were put in place.

A booking system was created with receipts and advertisements were put in local newspapers. This helped in minimising exploitation faced by the transwomen dancers. Around this same period of time, the transwomen-run beauty parlours started appearing. This is how the community started earning their money independently and got the opportunity to be in public spaces in their desired clothes. However, public shaming of transwomen by name calling and misgendering and social violence were still going on at public places and even in the parlours.

The paradox of the parlour economy is that even thought it gives the opportunity of earning and the social mobility, it has also terribly affected the education and other potential opportunities available for transwomen. This has become a sure-shot traditional way of earning money for the community and is keeping them away from mainstream development sectors, leading to a kind of ghettoisation and restriction of diverse possibilities.

Another big problem facing the community was the HIV menace wrecking Manipur. Men Having Sex with Men (MSM) was declared as one of the risk behaviour groups. Militarisation played its own hand in spreading HIV to transwomen through unprotected sex and rapes of transwomen by HIV-infected military personnel.

The misconception and misinformation on HIV added a layer of stigma and discrimination towards the community. As an approach towards fighting the stigma attached to the community along with HIV, few community members started working on sexual and health rights through some funders. The first community based organization formed was Maruploi Foundation which is now working at the Bishnupur District, later becoming AASHA working in Imphal East and West District, then NSTL at Thoubal and finally AHC at Senapati District. Solidarity and Action Against the HIV infection in India (SAATHII) took an important role while forming and strengthening the existing and the new CBOs.

The main objective of the CBOs was to deal with the HIV related programs and Maruploi Foundation got MSM TI project under Manipur State AIDS Control Society (MSACS) and started working on HIV intervention program, meanwhile AASHA was under the guidance and technical support of Social Awareness Service Organization (SASO). Apart from HIV program the two member CBOs started thinking on how to work for the basic human rights of the transwomen community. Hence we all came together and took a common decision to form a state level apex body, to mainly focus on the advocacy, thus AMANA came into existence in October 2008.

With the introduction of Pehchan in Manipur, NSTL Thoubal, AHC Senapati and REAL Churachandpur were formed in the three districts and got Pre TI under Alliance through SAATHII. The newly formed CBOs were formally registered in AMANA as members. Since 2008 AMANA and the CBOs had started initiating various activities in Manipur and few states of North East.

Miss Trans Queen Beauty Contest North East India was organised as an LGBTI solidarity event and the first LGBT pride walk in 2013 was a successful medium used to mobilize LGBTI community in the state and from different parts of North East region.

When organizing these community events AMANA had faced tremendous amount of challenges such as lack of supporters and resources. There were few supporters like Manipur State AIDS Control Society, SAATHII, Alliance that gave us some form of financial support for the events. It was the members of AMANA and its CBO who were working hard to make the event successful and create a space for queer politics. State level CBO has also put in many efforts and carried out advocacy activities. Since 2012 AMANA have started advocacy with the Manipur State Legal Services Authority (MASLSA) and in the same year transwomen were given free legal aid services.

A transwoman named Lucky from Thinungei was the first person who got legal justice under free legal aid provision in the entire North East states. There was continuation of referring community cases to MASLSA and in 2014 the SC NALSA judgement came into existence. After the SC NALSA judegement, SAATHII, AMANA and CBO members started focussing on the implementation of the SC NALSA judgement in the state. There were series of Legal Service Providers (LSP) sensitization programs for helping the community in getting Gender Identity Change Affidavit (GIC) and spread awareness about the judegment among legal fraternity. Meanwhile advocacy with the government department like Social Welfare Department was initiated.

Few remarkable achievements through the activities are formation of Transgender Welfare Board, inclusion of transgender in the free legal aid services and linking the community in accessing social security schemes, gender identity change (GIC) affidavit. Sandra, was the first transwoman who got admission in transgender category at DM College of Arts after her GIC was done following an extensive sensitization with the then Principal, A. Nungshitombi Devi. It was the first of its kind in the entire North East region.

In this long journey, AMANA has had many non-trans allies (individuals as well as organisations) who have stood by us and worked along with us to create a space for trans rights and expressions in Manipur. We are however noticing that after the SC NALSA judgement, many non-trans NGOs who have never worked on trans issues or been our allies are suddenly invading our space, appropriating our initiatives, and breaking diverse trans community solidarities that have taken years to build. This is reminiscent of how non-trans local groups used trans events to line their pockets by exploiting us. Such non-trans transgressive NGOs are appropriating our community events and making transwomen compete aggressively with each other for their share of fame and opportunity. This is destroying our trans support systems by factionalising our small vulnerable community.

An example of such transgression is how a non-trans NGO which has no history of engaging with the trans community of Manipur or the North East region has been given the responsibility of auditioning transwomen for the upcoming Miss India Transgender Beauty Contest. AMANA wrote a formal letter to the organiser of Miss India Transgender Beauty Contest but we have got no response from them after a first reply.

Transwomen events is emerging as a lucrative sector for non-trans NGOs and it is alarming how non-trans organisations and individuals are hijacking the rights of transwomen while many young transwomen remain unware of this exploitative politics. Trans organisations like AMANA and its CBOs questioning such exploitative practices by non-trans organisations are being viciously targeted on social media and it deeply saddens us to see how powerful external forces are splintering us into warring groups.

AMANA has been organizing community events as well as working for the sustainability of the community in the long run. It is a non profitable organization which is dedicated to the gender and sexual minority community.

This is the time for all of us transwomen to come together and take stock of our community for our future and for our indigenous identity. This is the time to build a stronger community and not get co-opted, whatever be our diverse ambitions.

* Santa Khurai wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is the secretary of All Manipur Nupi Maanbi Association
This article was posted on April 18, 2017.

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