With India getting its first transgender college principal in Manabi Bandopadhyay, the cause of transpeople is back in the spotlight, this time for the right reasons. Her adopted son in tow, Bandyopadhyay’s surprise visit to Krishnanagar Women’s College in West Bengal (where she will be taking over from 9 June) made for tantalising news fodder. The accolades have come thick and fast but a little too late; they were preceded by years of battling ridicule and inner turmoil. Born to a middle-class family in Naihati in North 24 Parganas district as Somnath Banerjee, she soon realised that her name did not express who she really was. “There was a time when I used to ask myself, what is wrong with me? Why is it that every bone in my body cries out to be a woman?” she told a national daily.
Subsequent attempts to make peace with herself as a woman met with opposition from those around her and a price tag of over Rs 5 lakh. Following a sexchange operation in 2013, she changed her name to Manabi (meaning woman) and started wearing a saree. She had barely recuperated from the surgery and hormonal injections that her college threw another challenge at her. Claiming they had hired Banerjee as a male professor, the college filed a case refusing her employment. But, for this professor of Bengali literature, rights were something you had to fight for every inch of the way. The case eventually went in her favour, allowing her to continue teaching. The stigma of being a transwoman has never dampened her commitment to teaching. In the midst of media frenzy over her new appointment, she is reported to have said, “I understand that my achievement is a big step forward for the transgender movement in the country, but my priority is my students.”
Among the earliest to breach the invisible boundaries in public life for transpeople was Shabnam Mausi, India’s first transgender legislator. Shabnam was elected to the Madhya Pradesh Legislative Assembly in 1999. Her victory was hailed as a milestone for transpeople in the country who saw in it a recognition of their existence as citizens of their country. In 2005, Yogesh Bhardwaj made a film Shabnam Mousi in which Ashutosh Rana played the character inspired by Shabnam. Born to a Brahmin family, Mausi worked as a singer and dancer before making herself a name in politics. Some others followed in her footsteps, but ran into trouble with social prejudice against transpeople, which was also reflected in the judiciary’s attitude towards them.
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Two years after Shabnam became India’s first transgender MLA, Kamala Jaan became the first mayor when she was elected to the office in Katni, Madhya Pradesh. Kamala battled corruption to get wells sunk, drainage troughs repaired and bus stops renovated. But the dream run came to an abrupt end in 2003 with the Madhya Pradesh High Court ruling her election as invalid. She was a man, the court insisted, and so could not be allowed to occupy a seat reserved for women. The same logic was used to dislodge Kamala Bua from the mayor’s post in Sagar, which she had won in the 2009 municipal polls. Up north in Uttar Pradesh, too, when Asha Devi won the municipal election in Gorakhpur, she ran into the same wall: the court declared her election invalid.
These instances notwithstanding, ‘mainstream’ Indian society has failed to keep the political domain entirely free of transgender presence. Raigarh in Chhattisgarh recently elected Madhu Kinnar, a 35-year-old transperson, as its mayor. Madhu fought alone with just Rs 70,000 to fund her campaign, her savings from singing and dancing in trains. As the first Dalit transperson to hold such a position, she is leading the way with her focus on civic cleanliness and improvement of drains.
Indeed, transpeople have broken new ground by entering nearly every vocation that had long been out of bounds for those who did not conform to dominant notions of who is a man and who is a woman.
On 15 August 2014, India got its first transgender news anchor in 31-year-old Padmini Prakash. “I am very happy,” she said in a television interview. With her confident demeanour and fluent diction, she has changed the face of newscasting in the country.
Before joining Lotus News Channel in Coimbatore, Padmini worked as a dancer and actor. Disowned by her family at a young age and forced to drop out of college, she did not, however, give up on life. She learnt Bharatanatyam, participated in transgender beauty contests and even got married. Today, besides being a known face in the industry, she and her husband are busy raising their foster son.