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Story Publication logo July 2, 2014

After Koovagam, India’s Largest Transgender Carnival

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India's transgender women have a documented history dating back to the Kama Sutra, but continue to...

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Shivani, a transgender woman from Chennai, before her turn to go onstage during Miss Koovagam 2014. Image by Sami Siva. India, 2014.

Only two days to go before the start of religious festivities at the 2014 Koovagam festival, India's largest gathering of transgender women, and countless used condoms lie scattered across a garbage-covered field. By 10 that night, the grounds will be filled by a hundred or more transgender sex workers plying their trade for 200 rupees per session, or a little over $3.

The trans community in India made headlines this past April thanks to a much-celebrated Supreme Court ruling that provided recognition to a "third gender" on official documents such as voter ID cards. The decision could potentially lead to the reservation of government jobs for transgender people and legal guarantees of educational rights in the future. In the meantime, the vast majority of India's estimated 1 million-plus trans women are relegated to begging and sex work to earn a living. With no legal protection against discrimination from employers and little emotional support from family members (who often cast them out), trans women — also known as hijras or aravanis — typically live on the fringes of Indian society.

One of the earliest references to India's "third gender" can be found in a chapter of the Kama Sutra that instructs "eunuchs" on the most effective way to pleasure a man through oral sex. According to newspaper articles and AIDS-focused nonprofits, the first HIV/AIDS cases in India were reported in the 1980s. The female trans community has taken the heaviest hit, with a rate of infection somewhere between 17 and 41 percent — close to 100 times higher than the national average (around 0.36 percent).

Every year, tens of thousands of people — mostly trans women but also many tribal men — congregate at Koovagam, galvanizing this otherwise sleepy town in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The women are there to make new friends, earn money through sex work and achieve spiritual cleansing through Hindu rituals. The atmosphere is part carnival, part intimate community, as celebrants from all over the country come together to gossip, party and participate in beauty pageants and talent competitions. The meeting halls are adorned with AIDS ribbons, and food stalls earn double or triple their usual daily revenue thanks to winding lines of sweaty customers. Bootlegged liquor abounds, and, too often, arguments escalate into fisticuffs.

The festival also features a religious ritual: the enactment of a scene from the epic poem "The Mahabharata" in which Lord Krishna transforms into a woman in order to marry Prince Aravan — whose last wish is to be married — before he is sacrificed. Beside the Koovagam temple there is a giant wooden statue of Aravan, a Hindu deity. Here, the women receive blessings from a local priest.

In the chaos, Rangeela blends into the background. A 36-year-old transgender woman and AIDS awareness social worker who chose her first name from the title of a popular 1995 Hindi film, she is here with her "clan" of informally adopted transgender "daughters": Tamil, Reena, Aarti and Malar, who range in age from 15 to 23. (They prefer to use only their first female names and abjure their last names because of a desire to leave their past lives behind.) They traveled to Koovagam from the city of Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu — nine hours by bus. Rangeela has attended the festival for the past seven years, first as a transitioning cross-dresser who dabbled in sex work and now as a fully transitioned woman and guru to younger girls from her neighborhood. Reena, tall and voluptuous with a loud personality, transitioned in 2006 at the age of 15. Tamil, who comes from the nearby village of Vilathikulam, is considered the pretty one because of her soft, feminine appearance. Rangeela took her in when Tamil consumed a bottle of Super Vasmol hair dye in an attempt to commit suicide after her lover left her for another transgender girl early last year. Malar, just a year younger, is Tamil's cousin by birth. Their families are so close that as children they called one another "brother." Today, they call each other "sister" instead. Finally, Aarti, the youngest at 16, has been transitioning for only three months. That inexperience did not stop her from winning one of Koovagam's minor beauty pageants, an event sponsored by a state-run AIDS organization.

"I enjoy coming here to worship with my daughters," Rangeela says. "But sex work is a big part of our culture."

The district where Rangeela and her daughters live is home to roughly 50 transgender women — 300 or so if you include surrounding villages.

Her house, situated on a quiet, shady lane a 10-minute rickshaw ride from Tuticorin's harbor, is a cross between a family home and a boarding house. Rent is 8,000 rupees, or $136 per month. Rangeela's monthly salary at Alliance, a nonprofit focused on reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS, is 5,000 rupees, or $85. The rest of the rent, along with the cost of groceries, water and fuel for her scooter, is paid by the women who stay with her. Each is expected to contribute 200 rupees daily through "collection," or begging, and, of course, sex work. In exchange, they are given food, shelter and emotional support during their transition into womanhood.

Each woman in Rangeela's care is assigned specific responsibilities in the house. When they participate in collection, they travel into downtown Tuticorin together and clap their hands to demand payment in exchange for their blessings. According to Indian superstition, a blessing from a transgender woman is auspicious and a curse is dangerous, making shop owners prime targets for collection. In Tuticorin, where residents know each other, people readily relinquish coins or small notes to avoid catching the evil eye.

Bypass Road, a busy highway used by trucks transporting salt, rice and other goods from Tuticorin's harbor north, is the district's primary hub for transgender sex workers. Many of the clients are ostensibly heterosexual truckers and rickshaw drivers. The women wait by the side of the highway and then guide their male clients into a nearby field with tall grass. It's 200 rupees for oral or anal sex. Thanks to Rangeela, the women bring condoms with them and every three months are tested for sexually transmitted diseases. The women are taught to "cheat" whenever possible by taking advantage of the poor lighting — the sex work occurs mainly at night, with moonlight the only illumination — and, using a combination of lubrication and careful positioning, use their clenched thighs or cupped hands as points of penetration.

"Most of the time we cheat them," Reena says, "because it's safer and easier and the men don't know the difference."

All of Rangeela's daughters went through the same transitioning process. First, there was hormone therapy, then castration. Some received breast-enhancement surgery. The castration process here is a middle ground between Western-style sexual-reassignment surgery, in which a vagina is constructed from the flesh of the removed penis, and a traditional Tamil procedure called thaiyamma, in which an elder transgender woman uses constricting wire, a knife and, finally, burning-hot oil to cauterize the wound.

Rangeela had her castration done for free in a government hospital because she was then an employee at a local medical surgery facility, but the average cost of the same procedure is around half a lakh of rupees, or $855. Rangeela explains that castration is necessary to complete one's transition into womanhood, but expresses regret that she no longer experiences physical pleasure in sex with Maresh, her lover of six years, other than what she feels "in her mind and in her heart."

Maresh, who asked that his last name not be used, works as a shipping manager. He is in an arranged marriage and has two sons. Rangeela met him when they passed one another on motorbikes in a small shopping lane near Tuticorin's harbor. He says he found Rangeela "very beautiful" and asked for her phone number, unaware that she was transgender. When she revealed her sexual history, he didn't mind, he says, finding her "as much of a woman" as any other he'd met.

Pragathi, who calls Rangeela "Ma" but still lives with her birth family, had her surgery on May 19. Though she is not a member of the clan, Pragathi is considered part of their family. She became close to Rangeela after abandoning a life in a local seminary, where she was training to be a priest. There, she says, she was raped by a senior priest, who threatened to expose her inclinations toward femininity, which he discovered through private conversations.

Pragathi, who still regularly attends Sunday mass in town, was concerned about paying for her "puberty," a confirmation ceremony for Indian transgender women that takes place 40 days and 40 nights after the penis is removed. Trans women from the district and throughout the state come to observe friends completing their transition into womanhood.

"For mine, Maresh came and so did members of our community from across Tamil Nadu," Rangeela says of her puberty ceremony, which took place in 2011. "I felt very proud of myself."

On May 15, Rangeela and her daughters gather in front of the TV to watch the results of the Indian election. The incumbent Congress government would be replaced by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi, the chief minister of the state of Gujarat. The women were primarily concerned with local elections — the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party was seizing power in the state — but they voted in the national race for the BJP, despite the party's support of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalizes homosexual acts.

"We are transgender women and we have lived in India for longer than the BJP, so they won't dare touch us," explains Rangeela, who marched against Section 377 in solidarity with gays and lesbians in Tuticorin when the law was upheld in December of last year.

Rangeela, who studied to be an engineer at V.O. Chidambaram College in Tuticorin, believes that Modi will "bring down corruption," but also hopes that in the aftermath of the third-gender Supreme Court ruling, his administration will help to fully integrate trans people into society by instituting a quota mandating the hiring of trans people in government jobs, a change that will potentially help more of them avoid sex work.

"Some of the transgender women you see on the street were training to be lawyers or engineers, " says Rangeela, who is one of a handful in her circle who did not drop out of school. "I hope in that in 10 years those people can go on with their careers and not be stuck into a life of prostitution."

The day after the election results are announced, Tamil and Malar return to their birth village of Vilathikulam. A 95-year-old man has just died, and it's traditional here, on the day after a death, for the transgender women to dance for the villagers while an MC tells bawdy jokes. For the pair, the event means 9,000 rupees between them, enough money to lessen the burden of sex work for the rest of the month.

During the ceremony, young boys squeal with fear and pleasure as Malar flashes the back of her panties at them, while Tamil plays the comical straight lady to the MC, her uncle, who wears a mask of white face paint. They are the evening's entertainment, and the villagers love them, at least on this one night.

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