In July 2016, Railway Police Force (RPF) personnel arrested three trans women (male-to-female transgender persons) at a railway station in Kolkata, West Bengal. When a transgender activist contacted the RPF official about the arrests, the official told her that they were not ‘real’ hijras, and dressed up merely to beg for money. He said he could prove they were ‘artificial’ by stripping them and revealing that they had male genitalia. The activist tried to inform him about the 2014 Supreme Court judgment on transgender rights (‘NALSA vs. Union of India’, or the NALSA judgment in short), which states that one need not undergo surgical transition to be considered transgender, but the cop said he didn’t want to get into such legalities. This tendency of distinguishing between ‘fake’ and ‘real’ hijras or trans persons based on genitals is an old one: to give just another example, back in July 2012, the Times of India reported that four ‘fake eunuchs’ had been arrested near Kanpur after being medically examined and found to be ‘men’.
At 77, Chapal Bhaduri is arguably Bengali folk theatre’s last living female impersonator, traversing and transgressing genders effortlessly and almost unthinkingly from his teenage. The youngest child of theatre artists, he was put on stage around the age of 8, but began his distinctive career in female impersonation in 1955 when he played Marjina in a production of Alibaba, and slowly attained fame as the highest paid ‘theatre actress’ by the 1960s. A decade or so later, however, Bhaduri’s preeminence as a female impersonator began to fade as women started entering the acting profession even in jatra, traditionally a male-dominated community.
Safe, affordable and informed access to gender affirming procedures is a fundamental human reproductive health right. This basic right extends to self-determining which gender transitioning procedures feel safe, feel affirming (and for how long) within a context that is not medically coercive, manipulative and ultimately harmful.
A photoessay looking for redemption in the forbidden quarters of Kolkata streets