New Delhi: “Too many, transgender people are scary. But, the truth is that because of our challenges and struggles, we have adopted ourselves in a way that we come across as obnoxious or horrifying,” says 45-year-old Rudrani Chhetri, a trans woman and a Delhi-based social activist who has been working immensely for LBTQIA+ rights in India.
In 2005, Rudrani Chhetri set up Mitr Trust, a shelter home and an organisation for the queer community, with an aim to establish a space where LGBTQIA+ persons can be treated with respect and dignity. Later, she spearheaded an initiative – BOLD, which became India’s first trans modelling agency.
To mark Pride Month, team Banega Swasth India spends a day with Rudrani Chhetri to understand her struggles being a trans woman and why she felt the need to start her own initiatives and the need to empower and uplift her own community people. This is her story.
Who Is Rudrani Chhetri?
Breaking the ice, Rudrani Chhetri began sharing her story with a mini introduction and said, “Whenever somebody asks me to introduce myself, I always begin by talking about Mitr. Because, I think, it has been an essential part of my life. Today, Rudrani Chhetri is Rudrani Chhetri because of this organisation and all the people, who trusted and supported her.”
Talking about her vision to create a shelter home for transgenders, Rudrani said that she strongly believes that shelter homes should be there for the community and they should be allowed to continue, no matter what. She added,
This should not only be the responsibility of the government but also the society. It is necessary to take everyone along and become inclusive. I would like to say that whatever happens, I will continue to run my shelter home because it is very important to me. MITR Trust is my life. This is who I am. I have my children, daughters, and sons here; this is the place that I call my home
Was Assigned A Male Gender, But Always Felt Like A Woman: Rudrani Chhetri
Sharing her journey from being born as a male child to discovering herself as a woman, Rudrani Chhetri said,
Since the very beginning, I was very clear that I am not a boy. In papers, I was registered as a boy because doctors back then assigned me that very gender on the basis of my outer characteristics. I remained as a boy on paper for a long time. But after a point, I felt that now the limit has been crossed. I wanted to feel what I truly was from the inside. I gathered all the information that I could back then. I learned about gender affirmation and hormone therapy and surgery. And once I was financially stable, I did everything I could to feel right and true to my identity
Rudrani Chhetri feels that the gender biasedness everywhere is a bit too much. Till today, people just identify two genders – male and female. She said,
Even today, when a child is born, people want to know whether it is a boy or a girl. No one wants to ask how is the child or about the health. Which I feel is wrong
Life Was Neither Difficult Nor Easy For Rudrani Chhetri
Rudrani Chhetri feels growing up, she had a privileged life as she was neither thrown out of the house nor was she beaten. Recalling her moments with her mother, she said,
My mother knew, who I was truly. My mother tells me that whenever I was in her lap, I loved all things flashy. I used to ask my mother to give me her mangalsutra pendant, Kajal (kohl), jewellery and other accessories often associated with women
Unraveling your sexuality is not an overnight trip. It is a long and arduous journey to understand yourself and come to terms with the fact that you are different from how society wants you to be. She said,
One’s true self or traits are there since the beginning. It is only later one realises that she or he is different or identifies as a trans man or a woman. Since the beginning, from the choice of my clothes to jewellery and make-up, I was inclined towards ‘girly’ stuff. In my younger days, I used to watch Madhuri Dixit’s films a lot and dance. It is only later I understood the technicalities
One might realise and accept their true identity late in life but people surrounding them often notice it early on and tease them. When Rudrani Chhetri was young, her neighbours and friends would often make fun of her for who she was. She recalled,
The aunties of the neighbourhood used to tell my mother that some of my habits are not right; they are feminine. When I used to leave the house, the colony children would tease me. I would come back home crying. And due to societal pressure, even my family members started to blame me. That period was weird for me; I was mostly heartbroken. I used to feel I am all alone in this world and I have committed a sin and I deserve to die. At the age of 18 or 19, I moved out of the house. Once I was even assaulted by my uncle
Despite all the struggles and challenges, Rudrani Chhetri’s mother played a crucial role in her life. Speaking about it, she said,
My mother was always there for me. I remember she insisted I complete my education as she knew that it is with education only I can build a good life for myself and can help the members of the community. During my transition as well, my mother took care of me not only financially, but also emotionally. She was there with me after my surgery
The Road To India’s First LGBTQIA+ Modelling Agency
Sharing the backstory of BOLD, India’s first modelling agency, Rudrani Chhetri took us to 2014 when she visited a mall to make a booking in a restaurant for her birthday party. But, she wasn’t given an entry. She said,
The guard told me, ‘Yahan, aap jaiso ke liye kuch nahi hai’ (There is no place here for people like you). And that’s when I decided to build my own modelling agency because I think, our society is such that they take more information from magazines and television (TV)
But even there, Rudrani Chhetri had a tough time. Soon she realised that nobody wants to remunerate trans models. She said,
Everyone wants to get the work done but no one wants to pay because they feel that by giving us work they are doing a favour
How Rudrani Chhetri Empowered Her Own Community?
Further talking about ways in which she is empowering and uplifting her fellow members of the community, she said,
Through the modelling agency or via Mitr trust, we try and do various skill development programmes for the community so that these people don’t have to rely on traditional sex work or begging to make ends meet. At my shelter home, we try and do something new every day, so that no one loses interest and thereby gets a different skill, every single time. From making candles to soap, and natural perfumes, we do it all. I tell everyone here, that if you work hard and earn good money then maybe your family members will stand by you
Team Banega Swasth India also interacted with a few people from the shelter home to understand how their life has changed by coming to Mitr trust. Trans Man Krishna who has been living in the shelter home said,
I was referred to this place by one of my friends, who told me that there is a shelter home where trans people can live and stay together. When I came here, I felt a bit strange, but soon it felt like I am home. Here people understand me better; they don’t consider me a “weird” or an “abnormal person”
Krishna opines a place like this (a shelter home) is pivotal for transgender people. It is Rudrani Chhetri’s shelter home that has made Krishna who he is. He said,
This shelter home has made me independent. I have learned computers and how to speak and read in English
Bela who is a part of the modelling agency and who has also been working at Mitr Trust for a long time said,
I must say that I am very confident and I have learned to face society better, all thanks to the opportunities, I have got here
The Road For India To Become Inclusive
Talking about India, the progress we have made in developing an inclusive society for the LGBTQIA+ community and the road ahead, Rudrani Chhetri said,
I think, in India, the first step to inclusivity is that our schools should start giving proper education to children about all genders, including transgenders. There is a need to tell them about different communities and genders. If the child is getting the right information, then they will not hate anyone. Only then, an inclusive society will be possible
Further giving a message to people of her age group, adults, Rudrani Chhetri called to educate and aware ourselves. She said,
We have to keep ourselves up-to-date with current education and scenarios. Law is just a framework. For everything to run smoothly, the society has to contribute as well. Even today trans people are made fun of. People ask how can you love a boy being a boy. You were a boy, so how did you become a girl from a boy? There are many many flaws. Sometimes, when I am standing on the road to go somewhere, people stop and give me 10 rupees, like I am a beggar and the only job I have is to give them blessings. And, if I am standing at eight in the evening wearing a short skirt to catch a taxi, then I am not a prostitute. I think, people just need to put a full stop at judgements and be a little more aware
Signing off, Rudrani Chhetri reiterated the message of acceptance and said,
We are not terrible people. Try and accept us for who we are. We need to give the right education, only then, we can build an inclusive society where everyone is treated with respect and dignity
NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – theLGBTQ population,indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the currentCOVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water,SanitationandHygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fightmalnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health,adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues likeair pollution,waste management,plastic ban,manual scavengingand sanitation workers andmenstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India wheretoiletsare used andopen defecation free (ODF)status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched byPrime Minister Narendra Modiin 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.