Ten years and seven months ago I took my first trip to Kolkata, India. It was a trip that would change my life forever. At the time I was not out, and had also never left the United States. The farthest from my home had been to move away to college outside of Richmond, VA and for a church trip to Nashville, TN. As part of my senior year for undergraduate studies I pursued an internship that would have me working among the people of Kolkata, and in particular with a local church that had opened multiple schools for children and families in poverty. Part of the trip was running a sports class/camp for students at the various schools, and meeting with families across the city and smaller villages.
As I arrived in Kolkata the heat, even in January, was enough to remind me of the newness of the city. The distinct smells of curries, and spices enraptured my senses and I have come to love to include in my own food here at home. But what struck me the most was of course the people. In particular on that first trip I remember my first trip to Mani Square Mall. Our friends in the city and the school wanted to take us there because it would offer some “American” food. There was a McDonald’s, a Subway, and all the same clothing stores you would find across the US.
For me, what was most memorable of the trip to Mani Square wasn’t the food, or the stores, it was the first time I ever encountered a transgender woman in person. At the time of this trip I was not out, and I was working with a group of indigenous Christians. Our small group was told by the leaders that they were the hijra in Hindu, or the more oft used slur the meyechhele, and they were lost, and confused. Worse it was inferred because of who they were they were more than likely sex workers looking for a score. But in my silence I thought, NO, they are not. They are bold, and brave, and beautiful. They are standing before us, willing to interact with us as we stand in line in a culture that in 2009 was still extremely dangerous to them being out in public. Yet they refused to be silenced, they defied the stares, and they stuck together. This group of three women were anything but lost, they were defiantly true to themselves in a culture that treated them with apprehension or with outright hate.
The rest of the trip I wondered if I would encounter them again, as part of the trip we were supposed to be engaging with the people that lived near the schools, and church, but women like that were avoided. It set off my own dysphoria, and hidden identity, I could not be outed while abroad, worse, I could not appear to be a bad Christian as I was to set an example for others. But these women had stories, and they should have been welcomed and heard. I can’t but imagine what hearing their story would have done for me in 2009. How had they had the courage to come out? How had they found doctors and safe treatment? Were they safe, were they victims of violence? The answers would have shook me I am sure, especially as I revisit my own past and my current journey here in America. As trans women, we rarely are safe, we fight for our existence, and we have to become our own advocates. Violence, sexual trauma, and assault have a part in many of our stories, and their resilience and ability to be out and in public was a sign of their own super hero status.
More importantly, I wonder if that day in January 2009 sitting in Mani Square I actually met Titsa? According to her story she has been an out trans woman for 15 years. She has also been an advocate, and activist during that time as well. She has worked within educating Kolkata, and even in the Bollywood film industry. That would mean in 2009 she was 5 years into her own story and living her life boldly looking forward to a better future.
What could she have taught me then, at 21?
What could she have confronted the church about?
What lesson could she have imparted to me as I struggled with my own identity?
These are questions that were and are still so needed. For the millions of trans people across India, and the billion across the world. I wish then in 2009 I would have been as bold as the women I encountered, and maybe, just maybe that could have altered the course for many.
Titsa’s work in Kolkata has been monumental, she starred in a film depicting a trans woman coming out that told her story to the nation of India. It boldly put at the forefront as she said, the need to treat all people with dignity and respect.
A lesson missed by my group in 2009 that still shakes me to the core.
She has worked with UC-Berkley and sparked the national debate that has brought about a change in LGBTQ and transgender specific policies. She has never been a woman to avoid as I was mistakenly led to believe about trans women in 2009, instead she has been a leader and an advocate that has changed her own country for the better.
So today, as I write this, I wish Titsa nothing but more success, and a long and happy marriage. Thank you for teaching others, for being yourself, and never letting the status quo be a reason to hide. You have changed Kolkata for the better, and I hope to work alongside you when I eventually return. And if we did cross paths in 2009 I am sorry, sorry that I was not nearly as brave as you, and that it took me eight more years to change and embrace who I knew I always was.
To read more about Titsa visit:
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To watch her beautiful ceremony visit: