Millions of Indian pilgrims descend on the city of Ujjain to bathe in the city’s Shipra river. This is the Kumbh Mela, the world’s biggest religious pilgrimage, held every 12 years. Now consider this: in 2016 for the first time in history, a transgender (hijra) congregation joins the pilgrimage and the high priestess at the head of this congregation is dancer-turned-movie-star-turned-reality-TV-star-turned-social-activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi.
Like most revolutionaries, Laxmi has commanding presence. This kind of single-minded steely demeanour has served Laxmi well, not only in the context of photoshoots (which she excels at, by the way) but also at high-level meetings at The United Nations. It’s here in 2008 that she presented the plight of sexual minorities, claiming the first ever Asian Pacific transgender representation at the assembly. More recently she was called up for a high-level meeting at the United Nations on HIV/AIDS by UNAID on the issues surrounding the disease.
Moments of brevity are few though. In her home country, Laxmi has been securing the roll out of a 2014 Indian Supreme Court verdict on transgender. The verdict which she championed, sees the state and federal government commit to restoring the lost dignity of transgender people in society. “I was born to take care of people,” she says. “I am reclaiming transgender rights, Indian culture never discriminated against transgender, lesbian and gay people. It was a morality introduced by the British in our society.”
Part of this reclamation is about changing what Laxmi calls the “invisibility” of the transgender community. The biggest obstacle in making the community more visible is lack of inclusion, she says, “Policy makers can’t sit in rooms and decide policies for the transgender community without us”. Also, transgender debates can’t stay on the level of transgender bathrooms she argues, consider “proper workplace policies for the transgender community.” She stresses, “The most important thing is your constitutional right, the basic human rights cannot be taken away from you.”