Mental Health

A Conversation with Laxmi Narayan Tripathi: India’s Most Prominent Transgender Rights Leader

The iconic activist reflects on the historical significance of the third gender, LGBTQI+ allies, and the future of the transgender rights movement in India.

By Adarsh Soni
01 Dec 2021

Laxmi Narayan Tripathi once said “Hijras are a sexual minority that is visible, and yet we are treated as the invisibles. I believe I was never invisible. I thought, I'm the face in the crowd, not the crowd," This brief introduction is enough to declare that Laxmi Tripathi is not one to back down to those who question her. She is a strong and independent woman that has paved the way for millions like her. And where does she find her strength? Well, for that we’ll have to travel back a few centuries. Laxmi Tripathi belongs to the oldest ethnic transgender community—the Hijras. A community that both inspires her, and cites her as an inspiration. She is a leading voice of change for the transgender rights movement and has provided trans representation internationally. She is a Bharatnatyam dancer, a human rights activist, a TEDx speaker, and the first transgender person to represent Asia at the United Nations. We sat down with the legendary queer icon for a heart to heart. Here’s an excerpt from the conversation.

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Historically speaking, the transgender community was highly respected in Indian society. But that changed after the arrival of the British, and since then, they have been excluded from the mainstream. Can you tell us more about the evolution of trans-women in Indian culture?


I think we can say that trans-women in India have always been the custodians of culture. We ourselves are an inseparable entity within Indian culture. Historically, we have been put in the same category as demigods and I believe that means a lot. When a new life comes into the world, we are present at that very moment in order to bless the newborn. Whenever someone gets married and takes a vow for a new life together, we are present to bless the couple. Basically anything auspicious in Hinduism demands our presence. Coming to the cultural and artistic influence of the transgender community on India, we have championed songs, ghazals and thumris that many maestros have not been able to figure out. These traditions go back to thousands and thousands of years and we are the ones taking care of them. We are the ones restoring them, keeping them alive. For example, the Guru-Chela practice was a huge part of Indian culture, but it has almost gone extinct in recent times. But not in our community. We still hold these ancient practices to heart and work hard to keep them alive.


From its inception, you’ve been part of the movement for India to legally recognise a third gender, which ultimately happened in 2014. Almost a decade after the law changed, has it made a difference?


There is a lot of difference I would say. Things are improving slowly but they are improving indeed. The monumental victory we had in 2014 towards getting the third gender legally recognised is famously known as the NALSA (National Legal Services Authority) Judgement. There might be some flaws in the transgender act but I’m still very happy that an act like that exists in the first place. India is one of the very few countries that recognises the third gender. I would like to thank the government of India for implementing such measures to safeguard our community. There are policies made specifically for us, there are shelter zones built for us. I’m a council member with the ministry of social justice and empowerment. Now the government is also coming up with a new campaign named “Smile”, something that will have an undeniable impact on the transgender community.


Do you have any advice for parents that are raising queer children?


I believe all parents should trust their children. But don’t forget that this is not just a one way street. Even children should respect and trust their parents. Whether someone is trans, queer or straight, children should have the opportunity to choose their path in life and their parents should be there to support them, to help them grow. Parents often want to fulfil their own dreams through their children—this is not the right thing to do. We should let children dream for themselves, that’s how we can ensure that they will grow in a healthy manner and become successful individuals. Now talking about queer children in particular, I think parents should let go of any pre-conceived notions about the LGBTQI+ community. They should get rid of any prior stigmas and look at their children from a fresh point of view. They should love their children for who they are, and not expect them to be something they can’t be.


As a social platform, we think it’s our responsibility to talk about the people that are bringing positive change to the community. Can you list some Indian organisations that are working towards the betterment of queer youth?


Since the last decade or so, many organisations have started to dedicate their time and effort towards the transgender community. There is Gaurav Trust—I’m one of their board members. There are other organisations like Gravittus, Humsafar and many more. Later this month I’ve been invited to a meeting for the National Council for Transgender Persons. So you see, there are many NGOs and foundations working towards the betterment of queer youth these days. The country is changing at a fast pace. The fact that you’re interviewing me for a popular platform like URLife is a sign of this very change that’s happening in our society right now. It wasn’t like this a few years ago, and I believe this will get even better in the coming years. Because our nation is all about inclusivity.


How can someone who is not a part of the LGBTQI+ community work towards being a better ally?


First of all, stop treating the community as if they are different. Stop categorising them as something foreign, something that is unknown. When we as a society stop using the word “they” and start using the word “we”, that’s when we can actually succeed in empowering each other. Our community is not any different from a regular man walking on the street. Your brother could be gay, your sister could be transgender—anything is possible in this universe. We should learn how to accept people for who they are—regardless of their gender or sexual preference. And above everything, we should look at things with an open mind and an open heart. Everyone should have the ability to love, and be loved.

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