By Dushyant Shekhawat Sep. 07, 2018
It will take more than the historic 377 verdict to eradicate homophobia and transphobia from our workplaces. Just ask Harshini, a trans-person who now holds a corporate job, after years of being turned down by employers who held her identity against her.
Harshini Mekala wanted to be a lawyer when she was growing up, but like so many people who come to Mumbai, today she has dreams of being an actor. She’s not a star kid, and doesn’t have an industry godfather, but winning a beauty pageant could provide the right platform to break into showbiz. A lucky break could be right around the corner, as she’s in the finals of an all-India pageant, the winner of which will get to represent the country at an international event in Thailand. Harshini is in the running to become Miss TransQueen India 2018, a title she’s hoping to bag despite modestly referring to herself as “medium-beautiful” during our conversation.
Winning the pageant would be sweet – even sweeter was the feeling Harshini had yesterday when the Supreme Court finally struck down Section 377, ending decades of legal discrimination and harassment of the LGBTQ community. Speaking to me over the phone, Harshini told me how the ruling fills her with hope for society becoming more welcoming toward transgender individuals, now that India’s foremost judicial body has issued such an unequivocal – and poetic – statement of acceptance.
While the Supreme Court’s statement was undoubtedly historic, it will take more than a single law being struck down to eradicate homophobia and transphobia from our culture. Against the backdrop of all the celebrations and parades being thrown in metros in the country and diaspora communities abroad, the knowledge that Indian society has a long way to go to catch up to the forward-thinking Indian judiciary is a sobering thought.
Harshini knows the difference between mind-sets in supposedly liberal cities and rural areas better than I ever could. She was born in 1989, in a tiny village called Balusupadu in Andhra Pradesh, with “a female heart, but in the wrong body.” This was a very different world from the one she currently inhabits in her role as an executive assistant at the real estate giant Jones Lang LaSalle. She’s undergone surgery so that her body can truly reflect her female identity. Reena Rai, the founder of the Miss TransQueen India pageant, came across her photos on social media and invited her to be a part of the show.
“Transgender people don’t just want to beg or do sex work. They need opportunities to show the world what they can do”
Things weren’t always this rosy, however. In the village where she was born, she couldn’t be Harshini, the beauty pageant contestant with aspirations to stardom. There, she was forced to conceal her identity, attending school in a boy’s uniform, only to sneak on her sister’s dresses at night. Her father failed to come to terms with her gender orientation and would beat her when he caught her growing out her hair or wearing girls’ clothes. As she grew older, things worsened. By the time she reached her teenage years, she was facing harassment from boys in the village.
She was traumatised, confused, and alone. There was no one else in the village like her.
The only silver lining during those years was her mother. Harshini’s mother accepted her no questions asked, right from the time she began identifying as female at five years of age, leaping to her child’s defence to fight with family members and neighbours who passed any comments or judgments. It was her mother who supported Harshini’s education, ensuring that she received an MA in Economics. Harshini recalls that her mother would often say, “Mera bacha na male hai na female, bas mera hai.”
When she talks about her mother, Harshini’s voice starts to crack. Nobody had given her unconditional love like her mother, not her father, not her ex-boyfriend, not her peers. Her mother’s passing left a hole in Harshini’s life, one that nearly swallowed her. She attempted suicide. Luckily, she survived, and was able to move to Mumbai.
But for a 20-year-old outsider and a trans-person, Harshini found her options narrowed down to either begging or sex work. Even when she was able to land interviews for jobs at call-centres, society’s transphobia crippled her prospects. Though by this point she had undergone surgery, her marksheets still bore her male name. That was enough to scare off any would-be employers. Thankfully, all that changed when she landed her present job that allows her to support her younger brother’s education. “Transgender people don’t just want to beg or do sex work. They need opportunities to show the world what they can do… There is a transgender judge in Assam, there are transgenders in politics, Anjali Ameer is a big transgender actress,” says Harshini.
I find a stark contrast in the celebrations around me and the stories of years of marginalisation and ostracism that Harshini has had to bear. While our privilege allows us to celebrate the end of Section 377, the truth is that beyond our sanitised bubble, there is the world which Harshini has survived, and triumphed against. A world that mocked her for who she was born as, that forced her to conceal who she was in public, that denied her a job because of who she is.
Though yesterday’s abolishment of 377 delighted her no end, Harshini didn’t have time to celebrate in the streets; she’s holding a full-time job and canvassing for votes for her bow in the Miss TransQueen pageant. The merrymaking in the cities is warranted, but she knows the real victory will be when all of society becomes accepting of individuals like her. “Change aayega, I’m positive,” she promises. The Supreme Court verdict is just the beginning.