NEW DELHI — On 8 January 2018, Apsara Reddy made history by becoming the first transgender office bearer of the Congress, India’s oldest political party.
The 35-year-old transgender woman, who was born a boy, believes her appointment is a milestone in her efforts to prove that she has a lot to offer this country, and relegating the transgender community to the fringe is a mistake.
Before joining the Congress this year, Reddy, who hails from Chennai, worked for two weeks with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and then as a spokesperson for the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). Reddy, who completed her higher studies in Australia and England, and spent many years working as a journalist in India and abroad, is now a national general secretary in the All India Mahila Congress.
In a conversation with HuffPost India earlier this week, Reddy spoke about her transition from a boy named Ajay into a woman. She also spoke of life after Section 377, her experience in an Indian newsroom, and what her meetings with Congress President Rahul Gandhi and BJP President Amit Shah were like.
The Congress is the oldest political party in the country. You are its first transgender office bearer. Do you feel the gravity of the moment?
It was very emotional for me. I came back to the hotel room after meeting with Rahul Gandhi in Delhi and I burst out crying. This was the moment that told me that all the decisions I had made, all the internal battles I had fought, all the battles I had fought with the world, and all the abuse and prejudice I had taken, this was the answer that proved I was right.
The amount of media attention it garnered and the amount of love from all the quarters just drowned out the negative voices. A lot of people, who I had not met for years, called up to congratulate me. There were relatives of mine who regretted being rude to me and apologized. It brought back so many more people into my life. It changed my life overnight.
What are your thoughts on how the media covered your appointment?
I believe that transgender women should access all spaces, but when she becomes headline news just because of her identity — even when I became general secretary of Mahila Congress — focusing only on gender takes away from the sanctity of that position. The press needs to move beyond just covering the sights and sounds of transgender women which are so typical. The media needs to focus on the actual event. For instance, me joining the Mahila Congress could have also been more than a transgender woman getting a chance in politics. It could have been about the role, what does it mean for mainstreaming, what does it mean for the overall politics and the mindset of politicians.
How do you think the country views transgender women in 2019?
That you are either a dancer or an escort or a makeup artist or you are something related to the fashion and glamour world. To be taken seriously, I think there is a way in a which we also have to conduct ourselves that makes it easier to integrate. I’m not saying kill your soul or don’t dress the way you want to, but when you are going to work, when you are going into employment, you need to follow the rules. Just because you are transgender or gay does not mean that you can ask for the permission to dress a certain way. Your identity has to go beyond your attire.
You come from a conservative family in Chennai?
Conservative, yes. Neither my mum nor my father are highly educated. They come from the villages of Andhra (Pradesh). My father’s family was into politics, but not urban politics. Their mindsets and the exposure they had was limited.
When did you tell your mother?
I was 15. We had a lot of emotional conversations, a lot of unpleasant conversations. We cried a lot. My mum wanted me to be happy, but she was also afraid of the health impacts of transitioning. What relatives would say, what my future would be, but I tried to explain to her that there is no guarantee of happiness for any woman. You can’t prescribe happiness and it has to happen in the course of life. If the choices I make make me happy as an individual, I’m sure I can go find happiness in the world. I convinced her, I took her counseling, I took her to the hormone doctor that I had found, who counselled her on the effects of hormones. We went through the surgery part when the time came. My mum was my biggest support system.
“You can’t prescribe happiness and it has to happen in the course of life.”
How did you feel while taking hormones?
Initially, when you start hormones, your nose bleeds, your head spins, you have hot flashes, you feel suicidal, you feel depressed, you cry for no reason. I went through all of that but I kept my dignity. When people questioned me, asked me horrible things, I never responded. I always tried to keep it simple, take it or leave it. Those who choose to leave at that point, I’m better off without them.
How long does it take to transition?
The hormones help you with stopping hair growth, changing the testosterone to estrogen, shaping your body in a certain way, all of that. Then, after a few years of suppressing testosterone, and having enough estrogen in your body, that is the safest time to do your surgery. I did my surgery after five years of starting hormones.
Is the transition ever complete?
Yes. I think that is something very personal. When you say transition, I would not say it is cosmetic. I think people continue to do cosmetic stuff till they want to. I did not do anything cosmetic, just one surgery, which was essential for me to be a woman. The rest is all with the help of hormones. You feminize yourself with the help of hormones and it worked out for me.
Did your mother name you Apsara?
Mum and I decided together. Apsara is also multi-faith, multi-religious. It means angelic.
When did you know?
I always knew — as young as two or three years old. I felt wrong in the male body. I felt very very wrong. I always wanted to be a girl. I thought god had made a mistake. I thought god made women and just to punish them, god made boys.
What was your father like?
I never had a father-son or a father-daughter moment with him. There is nothing that I can say about him.
I read he was an alcoholic. Was he ever violent?
He was never violent but fights at home would get out of hand. I did see things being broken. When I started transitioning, I did hear a lot of language like I should have hung myself and he was so ashamed of me. I dealt with that baggage when I got an opportunity to go abroad and study. I met some really interesting people who mentored me, guided me and gave me hope. I’ve moved on from that relationship and that association with my father.
It must have been hard living at home while transitioning.
It was very hard, especially with a father like that. I don’t want to think back on those days. It was very painful. I had to cry myself to sleep. I could not be who I was. There would be times when he would purposely call me ‘he’ or referred to me by the name that he wanted to refer to me by. It was like being in a crowded room and screaming for help but not getting any. It was suffocating. But I also wanted to do it with my mum. I wanted to do it with her support, guidance and company. I did not want to run away. People say, ’haan, transgender bhaag gayi hai ghar se. Un logon ke saath rahe rahi hai, sex work kar rahi hogi.’ I wanted to break that stereotype. I wanted to do it on my home turf.
“It was like being in a crowded room and screaming for help but not getting any.”
What has been the hardest phase of your life?
I can talk about a recent incident. My parents, my grandparents, everyone is part of this club called Cosmopolitan Club, which is more than a 100-year-old club. I went there as a child with my grandparents and I was very happy. There was lovely biryani. I spent time playing with kittens on the lawn. I wanted to become a member. I applied for membership and paid my membership fee. They gave me my membership and I thanked them on Facebook.
A Tamil news channel carried the news that a 100-150 year old club had accepted a transgender woman as a member. The moment that came out, people who were jealous, or had issues with transgender women, actually made them cancel my membership. I got a letter saying I have been rejected. Fighting a court battle for membership in a club, where you are not even welcome, is not what I wanted to do. It is disheartening in this day and age and after coming so far.
When was this?
That’s a horrible incident, but what do you feel was the most difficult phase in your life?
Initially, when you are changing and you are at home. That was the worst. It is extremely hard because every time you are feminising yourself a little bit — growing your hair or trying a little bit of makeup or trying to get extensions done — the reactions and questions are very tough. But I was also very confident. I wasn’t breaking the law. I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I wasn’t hurting anybody. I was just trying to express who I was — me at the core. I never felt guilty about it. I felt the world had to understand. There was a firm resolve — that this too shall pass.
What do you do for the Congress?
I have to be a strong spokesperson for women in the country. I have to work towards gender justice, empowering more women to come into leadership roles. I have to find women with political goals and bring them into the system. I’m protesting and lobbying against any injustice that happens towards the girl child. I’m also working on the manifesto — to make it more conducive for the LGBT community.
Is there anything specific you are working on at the moment?
Many things. I’m filing an FIR against people who are creating memes about Priyanka Gandhi. It is is very wrong to reduce the discourse so low, just beauty, and photoshopping images to make it look so gross. There was a sexual connotation to a meme. I am leading a delegation to file an FIR against people who are creating such memes against women. Freedom of expression is loved but not to the point that you completely defame and character assassinate a woman.
Life after Section 377...
What has reading down Section 377 meant for the LGBTQ community?
I think reading it down has made the community feel a little more secure and confident because the courts believed in their fight. It has also helped a lot of children come out to their families and say that things are no so bad. The Supreme Court has made us legal and I think it is time you accept us. We can’t expect a 360 degree turnaround in people’s opinion and mentality but I think it is a start.
What about inside the LGBT community?
I’ve met a lot of men who, pre-Section 377, were interested in transgender women, and post 377, they are okay with being seen with transgender women either for a coffee or for a movie. But it stops with them daring to date transgender women. They are daring enough to date but they are not daring enough to marry. There are men who enjoy the company of transgender women, sexually, socially and emotionally, for years and years and years, but they are not daring enough to marry. They go and marry a woman of their mom’s choice and continue their relationship with transgender women within 15 to 20 days of marriage.
With Section 377, I feel that we have to look at mindsets being changed. Men have to be able to stand up and say that I will be happy with this person.
“They are daring enough to date but they are not daring enough to marry.”
These are heterosexual men?
Isn’t this also true in cases of gay men getting married to heterosexual women?
At the cost of the sounding anti-LGBT, I must say this. We are the most courageous people when it comes to finding who we are and saying that I’m going to live my life this way. At the same time, with all this bravado, there are a lot of men who succumb to family pressure. I feel it is time that you dig your heels in and say, I don’t want to destroy another girl’s life.
They have to say that I’m gay, I’m going to marry a man or stay single. Don’t marry a girl and then sleep around with men. I’m completely against it. I feel it does a great injustice, not just to the girl, but to the gay individual’s mental health as well. He is constantly lying, living a double life, trying to do the right thing by his boyfriend or the woman in his life.
Is it just a question of courage?
More than courage, I’ll tell you something: A lot of gay men think that if they can get sexually aroused with a woman, they think of getting married for the sake of society. What they don’t realize is that in the process, they are hoodwinking the woman and themselves. What does it mean for mental compatibility, companionship and togetherness for the rest of your life?
It is easier said than done. There can be intense family pressure, parents threatening to kill themselves, and then there is social pressure.
There are pressures of all kinds in this world. Pressure to perform, pressure to earn, pressure to deliver a baby boy, a baby girl, pressure to marry. But you have to stand up and give voice to your dreams and passions and who you are within. Forget parents committing suicide, this is committing murder on the dreams and aspirations of that girl, who has the right to true love and a true companion.
Do you know how hard it is for a women who wants a divorce to prove that her husband is gay. Most of these relationships are had on some apps and are one-night stands. Even though she is not physically or emotionally satisfied, she still has to endure the relationship for the guy’s sake, for society’s sake, and she can’t even prove why she wants to walk out of it.
“You have to stand up and give voice to your dreams and passions and who you are within.”
Should gay marriages be legal in India?
Of course. I think any kind of love, which does not violate anyone else’s space, should be legislated for rather than against.
Will it take another 150 years?
I think it should happen sooner—as soon as Rahul Gandhi ji comes to power.
We can hold you to that and you can hold him to it.
You can definitely hold the Congress to that.
You have spoken against the Transgender Bill in its current form.
When the Transgender Bill says the transgender community needs rehabilitation, and looks at us in a pitiful way, it takes away from our position of equal rights. I think we need to be given reservation in education, housing and medical subsidies. Without this, how do we rehabilitate?
Can you explain?
Unless we have a rightful place in schools and colleges, or vocational training, we will not get jobs. When parents ostracise you and send you away from home, without housing, you are out on the streets, prone to sexual violence. If you want to become a trans woman or a trans man, the process of changing, to look convincing, is expensive. If you don’t get medical subsidies, people will continue calling you a chakha, and all this abusive language. There is need to build support centres across districts where parents and children, who are facing abuse, confusion and health issues, can go and have an interaction and find support. These local support centres can link them to the local police station, which can be more sensitive towards them.
There is a problem with the definition of transgender.
We need gender identity to be described by the individual. The bill, in its current form, says a district medical officer will prescribe whether you are a woman or a man. But from the day you start your transition, from a boy to a girl, whether you have your surgery or not, when you are feminizing yourself, you should be known as a woman. I don’t think anyone has the right to tell you that you are man enough or woman enough.
“I think any kind of love, which does not violate anyone else’s space, should be legislated for rather than against.”
A journalist in India...
You have worked as a journalist in India and abroad. How was it being a transgender person in a newsroom in BBC in London in comparison with a newsroom back home in Chennai?
At the BBC, I think people were a lot more aware of the right things to say and not to say. They might accept you, not accept you, but they are not blatantly insensitive. I found that when I first joined The New Indian Express. The way they referred to me, the things they would say, my car tyre was punctured once, errors would be introduced in my copies. It took me a good six months to put my foot down and be competitive. Initially, I would go home and cry and say that why are people doing this to me, but then I changed into this person who said that I give as good as I get or even better.
What are the kinds of things you heard and did not like?
Some really insensitive stuff. For instance, no man asks a woman how she has sex, how she uses her private parts, but some men thought it was okay to ask me, ‘after the surgery, how do you do it and how does it feel?’ I feel those kinds of things can be avoided. Just because she is a transgender woman, does not mean you can ask her anything. She also has a right to privacy, she also has dignity. She can also be shy and private and confidential.
I also felt that in the newsroom, men look at transgender women as only interested in fashion, fashion shows and soft stories. The minute you want to cover the Iraq war or politics, they think what does she think she is doing. Anything about the LGBT community, they would think that I’m an expert on it.
Do you also feel the reverse — the LGBT community does not take kindly to a heterosexual woman or man writing about the LGBT community. In other words, a ‘straight’ person doesn’t ‘get it’ and can’t really write about it.
I disagree. As human beings, all of us understand the layers of sexuality and gender to a certain extent. I feel the straight community has also been very good to the LGBT community in India. We would not have come this far if it had not been for the straight community. I feel that when the heterosexual community comments or writes about us, it is their perspective and we have to respect that because there are a lot of LGBT writers as well who constantly write with a victim syndrome. When that is being passed off as an entire community’s experience then why not a heterosexual’s comment on it.
It was The New Indian Express that asked you to join the newspaper — almost a decade ago — that was quite forward thinking?
The editor asked me to join, but that does not mean that all your colleagues would be supportive and accepting.
London was safe, or at least politically correct. Why come back?
I wanted to live out my life in my hometown and live out my truth in my home country. This is my home. I love India. Why should I live elsewhere to be safe? I want to be safe in my own country. If it wasn’t safe then I wanted to change that.
“I wanted to live out my life in my hometown and live out my truth in my home country.”
How did people react to you when you went to interview them?
There were a couple of cinema personalities who would make a pass at me, like what are you doing after, would you like to go for a drive, you have really beautiful nails, I’ve heard all of that. There was a very powerful politician’s son, who hassled me for many many years. It was tough but I knew that if I give into him then, it would be signing up my dignity for the rest of my life. I blocked him and avoided conversations with him. That’s how I dealt with it.
Do you feel those experiences are similar for all women?
I think women have a more powerful voice than transgender women. When a woman complains, someone will take it more seriously and with more authenticity. When a transgender woman complains, we are not at that level of awareness, where we think haan, ye bhi ho sakta hai iske saath. We are more likely to think that she must have made a pass because why would a guy make a pass at her? That’s something that needs to change.
Did things get better?
I think people found a lot of answers in my success. When you are successful, when you deliver, people start associating with that side of you than just what’s between your legs and how you portray your sexuality.
“I think women have a more powerful voice than transgender women.”
How did you join the BJP?
I was doing this television show and I got a call from the BJP in Tamil Nadu, saying they wanted to give me an award for Women’s Day. I met Amit Shah ji. We had a very nice conversation and I was inducted into the BJP. Within two weeks, it was something that I could not tolerate because no free-thinking individual would work with the BJP. The things they said to me, — ’aap sirf transgender issues ke baare mein baat karna’ — you cannot talk about anything else. I felt that was limiting me. I was educated, articulate and experienced — a tax-paying citizen impacted by every policy of the government — so why could I not comment about it.
I came out of the party and I got a call from the AIADMK, saying that I could meet Jayalalithaa ji. So I took up the offer and became the national spokesperson for Jayalalithaa’s party and I continued until she was alive. Post that there was too much of internal bickering within the AIADMK. I quit.
The BJP reached out to you. It was the first political party to do so. Would you not say that’s quite forward-thinking.
Obviously not. There were talks of me joining as a secretary for the Women’s Wing and they said you can only talk about LGBT issues. It was just a photo-op for them.
Do you feel you cannot give BJP any credit because you are now with the Congress?
I said that even when I came out of the party, I was aligned with no party and I had no political aspirations. I give BJP zero credit. The Transgender Bill is vague, superficial and reduces the community to a charity case rather than seeing them as some kind of skill set and talent pool. Look at how the BJP dealt with Section 377. They did not have the spine to stand behind a community which needed a voice.
“No free-thinking individual would work with the BJP.”
Neither has Congress.
But Congress was always against Section 377. Shashi Tharoor was the first person to speak openly about it.
That was Shashi Tharoor in his individual capacity.
Shashi Tharoor could not have spoken without Rahul Gandhi also consenting to it. I’m sure Shashi Tharoor echoed the words of the party.
Tell us more about the conversation you had with Amit Shah.
We met at a hotel, myself, Amit Shah ji and Tamilisai (Soundararajan), state president of BJP Tamil Nadu. It was a very good conversation. I told him about who I was and where I come from. He was very kind and understanding about my journey. I think he felt there was a certain space for transgender women. I don’t think he thought that we can be equal and part of mainstream politics — haan haan, dekh lenge, kuch kar lenge types. I don’t remember his exact words, but that’s the impression I got.
You said he was kind and welcoming?
He was very kind when I was introduced to him, welcome and all that, but then he was hardly engaging. You have to go beyond just pleasantries to have a conversation. There was none of that. With Rahul ji, there was a conversation. He was interested in how I was doing, how I wanted to serve the people, what my interests were, what kind of roadmap I had for myself. His body language was much cooler, new-age, progressive and accepting. Amit Shah ji was rather stiff and formal. I felt that I was there but not there.
Tell us more about the meeting with Rahul Gandhi.
When I met with Rahul Gandhi ji, I was very nervous. I also saw Tony Blair with him. That was exciting. When Tony Blair left, then Sushmita Dev ji and I spoke to him. We were extremely comfortable. When people meet transgender people, they exhibit a certain kind of sympathy or pity, or fake an interest — oh, acha, acha. The body language is uncomfortable. He wasn’t. He said bring in more people from the LGBT community to work for the Congress.He also said that you are free to do any kind of work within the party and communicate to Sushmita ji, my immediate boss. He did not put up barriers and fences that said sirf transgender ke baare mein baat kar sakte ho.
Would you say this is the more secure, confident and happiest that you have felt in your life?
The most secure and confident that I have felt in my life is the day that my mother accepted me completely. Nothing can beat that, but what this moment did for me was to validate all the decisions that I have made all my life. And it tells you that there is a meaningful place for you in the world. You don’t have to be relegated to the sidelines, to the niche or to the fringe, but you can be mainstream.