It is a few days after International Women’s Day, and I am sitting with Raina Roy in the backroom of the house she shares in south Kolkata with her family. Evening is falling, the curtains are drawn and we are talking in lowered voices. Behind us, a portrait of Raina’s beloved late mother hangs on a wall, adorned with a garland.
Raina and I have known each other for a few years. We became friends after we met at a Take Back the Night gathering in the city in 2012. But today I am sitting across from Raina both as a friend and a journalist, the personal and the political mingling as it always has with us, and she is telling me about her work as a gender rights activist and the journey that brought her to this work.
Moments before, I had been introduced to Raina’s sister-in-law for the first time, a smiling, sweet-faced woman who welcomes me warmly. She is a committed socialist, like Raina’s brother, and her late parents before them.
Just as she turns to leave for a meeting, she says, “Rana, make sure Shreya eats before she goes”. I’m jolted by the use of the name; I’ve never actually heard it before. It is a nickname given to Raina by her parents, when she was a male-assigned baby brought into this very house over three decades ago. She stopped using it four or five years ago, taking on the name Raina, a name still connected to her past but more meaningful to her.
Raina’s family does not restrict her gender identity or expression as a transgender person, but neither do they acknowledge or fully support it. At 35, self-possessed and composed, she negotiates these complexities gracefully. “I don’t really know how they [my brother and sister-in-law] identify me, but they know everything. Boudi (my sister-in-law) is more open-minded about it, but our politics is totally different. They’re very patriarchal.” Their daughter, Raina’s niece, calls her ‘Nanai’, a nickname Raina taught her to use from a very early age. “I have a non-verbal understanding with Boudi.”
As a small child, Raina had a decided distaste for the toys and games that little boys were expected to enjoy. She grasped early on, as children do, the strict binary of ‘male’ and ‘female’ within which one place had been allotted to them from the very beginning, and she found it stifling. She preferred conversations to fighting, and given a choice, would have much rather worn the flowing, free frocks and tunics girls were given over a shirt and trousers. Because she was so young, these choices were not policed. Unfortunately, that period of relative and conditional acceptance would soon pass.
As she grew older, Raina realised she was not to express certain emotions. If her parents fought, and her mother cried, Raina would be reprimanded for voicing her pain. “I always hated this aggressive masculinity that was expected of me,” she tells me now.
It was in her early teens that a powerful jolt of attraction hit her; she developed a crush on a male classmate she noticed during a school excursion. At the time she was being sexually abused by one of her uncles. “I felt a strange ambiguity about what he was doing to me. I had no capacity to tell good from bad”. But when she felt attracted to her classmate, Raina recoiled from her uncle and found ways to stop going to his house, no matter how difficult it could be to avoid sometimes. She told no one about the abuse.
In adolescence, her body started to change. While her best friends’ chins remained smooth, to her horror, Raina started to grow little hairs on hers. “I started to have nightmares about growing a beard. Someone told me that cutting it would only make it longer, so I started to tweeze it. I had no idea about laser therapy then.”
This was the beginning of a period of intense bullying – both in school and in the neighbourhood in which she had grown up.
“When I’d leave the house, people would look at me and laugh. They would call me ‘homo’, ‘ladies’ or ‘boudi’.” In school, things were worse. “I was sexually abused by male classmates. I lived in terror, because in between classes, they would fondle my chest and pinch me.”
She couldn’t report the bullying to her teachers, because even that young, she knew she was most likely to be blamed. “People would have asked me, you are also a boy. Why is this only happening to you? I could never tell anyone how painful it was.”
At the time, Raina was still a few years away from identifying as a transgender person. “I knew I wasn’t quite a boy, but I wasn’t quite a girl either. I did not fit into a binary.”
Despite all the turmoil, Raina had always felt good when she looked at herself in the mirror. But when the bullying intensified, the trauma caused her to have self-esteem issues.
At home, things were no different. Her own cousins made fun of her at family gatherings. One by one, those she knew started to behave differently towards her. “As I grew older, even the girls who were once my friends started to ostracise me.”
“I had long hair and would wear long kurtas and other unisex clothing. But no matter what I did, I always looked feminine.” For a wedding in the family, she was forced to cut her hair, to “look like a nice boy”. She cried for days and refused to eat. At the wedding, all her relatives praised the new look. “You look so nice, you look like a boy,” said one of her aunts. A couple of her male cousins were hitting on her, but not openly. “I couldn’t understand their hypocrisy.”
“I spent every day in isolation, in trauma. No matter how much I tried to make friends, they would exclude me.” Her only source of comfort was a boy she was in love with at school. “He would never say outright that he loved me. He always told me we were very close friends, but he acted like he was my boyfriend.”
The anxiety grew even more intense as she grew older. “In class 12, I felt terrified. Would I be able to go to college? Most transwomen I know left school in class six or seven because of the same reasons.”
At this stage, the boy she loved withdrew from her, soon after he became closer to a few of their other male schoolmates. His coldness left her shattered. “In the middle of so much trauma, him leaving was unbearable.”
She spent a few days in agony: being unable to sleep, unable to eat, unable to cry at home. She was physically uncomfortable and anxious; she could not confide in her mother. All the trauma and the fear haunted her. She felt that there was no hope, no future, that she could not go on. She decided to kill herself.
The night she thought she was going to die, Raina went up to the newly constructed second storey of the family home. She had already procured the sleeping pills she was going to use. And in the darkness of the night, she sat with the pills dissolved in water in front of her, thinking about her mother.
Raina describes the dawn that broke after that night, “The extraordinary thing was that I sat there so long, I saw the sun rising, the grass growing wild, flowers with their petals opened up, birds soaring. I thought to myself, what a beautiful world this is and how stupid I am to think about leaving it, to not enjoy any of it. Because of a boy. I do not have to die because of a boy”.
Raina thinks of that night – and that morning – as a turning point. “I think that was the first day I was a feminist, long before I found the word for it. I had this new empowerment within me. And I hated whatever it was that had compelled me to think seriously about taking my life that night.” From that day, Raina says she knew a new kind of joy, a kind of peace that she had not known before.
Her feminist awakening didn’t stop at herself. Raina read every book on gender and sexuality she could get her hands on. “I realised that [the gender binary] was a creation of society,” she says.
Determined to complete her education, she did her best to pass as male. “I hid myself. I oiled and combed my hair down. I dressed to look as much like a boy as possible.” Still, she was never really safe from a cruel jibe, or worse. The only difference was that she was older and had had to learn to strategise in order to shield herself as best as possible from the constant surveillance and shaming.
In order to avoid the milling crowds of a daytime university, she joined night college, which had a smaller student body. There, one of her male classmates attempted to bully her once. In plain sight, he imitated her mannerisms in order to invite laughter from their classmates.
For the first time in her life, Raina threatened someone. “If you do that again, I’ll end you,” she told him. To her surprise, he was intimidated. He acted like the whole thing had been a joke between friends. “This is how I learned his aggression was a facade, that it could be challenged with a certain kind of response,” she says.
Raina’s strategy was to keep a low profile to keep herself from getting targeted, but she kept up a constant stream of quiet subversions. If she was expected to go to the gent’s tailor, for example, she’d ask him to cut her trousers in such as way that she may as well have gone to a ladies’ tailor.
It was around this time she met a transgender woman in her neighbourhood. “She wore gorgeous feminine clothing and make-up,” Raina recalls. She often tried to engage Raina in conversation, but Raina would rebuff her. She didn’t want to be targeted any more than she was already being. One day, the woman came to Raina and said, “Do you not think we’re human?”
As she tells me this, Raina erupts into an incredulous laugh, clearly directed at herself. “This was my community, and I was not acknowledging it because of phobia. All because she had no shame attached to her identity, and I thought that people seeing us together would have a bad impact on my life.” From the day of that confrontation, Raina softened and relaxed into her first friendship with another transgender person.
It was this first friend who introduced Raina to a community of kothi- and hijra-identified people who would regularly meet in a public space in Kolkata. “It was the first time I witnessed the community sitting together, talking about many issues, having fun, hanging out. That’s where I heard the word kothi for the first time. I realised I wasn’t alone.”
These were heady days, full of fun and companionship. “It was a kind of sisterhood. We had decided for ourselves that no matter how much discrimination we face, no matter how discouragement we are feeling, we would make up for that time by being with each other, supporting each other. Even though we were diverse, somewhere or the other our stories collided.”
It is with some of these friends that Raina first went to the red-light district of Sonagachchi, where she met a group of transgender sex worker activists. “I saw the transwomen there dressed up in sarees, skirts and other feminine attire. They didn’t bother about society at all.” She formed a close friendship with a transwoman who was a sex worker and activist who lived there. At her house, Raina saw men visiting, people drinking freely, none of the restrictions that had so bounded her and so many people she cared about all her life. It was a kind of freedom.
With Raina’s immersion in her new-found community, it was not long before her two worlds collided. Her transgender friends started to come over to her house, and soon her mother started asking questions about the way they dressed and expressed themselves. “That day she asked me, ‘Do you know there’s a disease called homosexuality?’” Raina decided to confront the subject head-on with her mother. “I felt that this was the time to come out to my family. I just couldn’t wait any longer,” she says. “I asked her, ‘Do you think it is a disease?’ And she told me she had studied in psychology classes that it was. She asked me if I was ‘that way’ too. I said, ‘So what if I am? Will you have a problem with it?’” Raina’s mother’s response was to take her to a psychologist to get ‘treatment’.
The first doctor she was taken to was an older woman. “She started my so-called treatment by doing an IQ test, which was ridiculous.” She told the woman, flat out, that she would never be able to change her. After a prolonged argument, the woman gave up on Raina and referred her to another doctor. The new doctor was, thankfully, not on a mission to ‘treat’ Raina and instead asked her mother to let her be, a suggestion that she heeded.
“What I faced is really nothing compared to what most of my transgender friends have faced from their families,” Raina says.
Her father actively looked up literature to try to understand LGBTQ identities; he was a progressive man in most respects, although Raina does point out that this attitude seemed to be limited when it came to his own wife.
Fortunately, Raina’s parents came to accept and support her eventually.
Bogus cure clinics and difficult families aside, Raina witnessed and experienced a high level of random transphobic police brutality. At the very spot where she discovered a community for the first time, police would come charging in with their lathis and beat any transpeople they saw. “You just had to be sitting there, and they would come and start beating. One day, I got really fed up and held a policeman’s lathi as he was trying to strike some of my friends,” says Raina. That particular policeman was a bit stunned by her resistance, but in the years since, Raina has continued to witness and experience consistent transphobic violence from the police.
It was around this time that Raina became part of an NGO working on gender and sexuality, and began to involve herself in organised feminist and LGBTQ movements. At the same time, Raina began to feel uncomfortable with the elitism she witnessed within these movements. When she and other transgender feminists asked to join a large women’s rights collective from West Bengal, they were turned away on account of not being “biological women”.
She began to observe the ways in which those who were already the most privileged and elite among the LGBTQ communities – urban, English-speaking, with the most access to resources and international funding – would sideline those less privileged than them. “I saw Dalit and working class transpeople being used for what resources or legitimacy they could provide, but they were excluded from any major decision-making processes.”
It was a time of disillusionment. “Those who were portraying themselves as the most democratic were in fact hypocrites,” says Raina.
Around then, Raina lost her father. Aside from the grief, there were pressing material constraints, as the family’s income plummeted.
Raina started to do sex work. She developed a strong sex-positive sensibility and remains a huge advocate for sex workers’ rights. Taking objection to the narrative of ‘rescue’ surrounding sex work, Raina says, “Do choice and negotiation mean anything in any profession, even rights work? How much do we actually care about workers’ consent in any profession? Do domestic workers in this country get the salaries they deserve or have their consent taken into account when they clean people’s homes? The problem is not that these people want to support sex workers, the problem is actually with sex. Just like people who want to stop sex work need to be given support, those who want to continue it also need to stop being disrespected”.
Raina also hopes to demolish some of the myths around sex work. She says, “There seems to be a weird binary between sex work and other work. Apparently you’re using your body when you’re doing the former and your mind when you’re doing the latter. This is simply not true. Sex work is not as simple as the customer arriving, having sex and leaving. Let me tell you this, you definitely need to use your brains to do sex work”.
It was the realisation that many NGOs didn’t seem to be the egalitarian spaces they claimed to be and that she wanted to work for sex workers’ rights, that spurred a major decision: she would start her own organisation. “I didn’t know if it would stand the test of time, but I had to try,” she says. And so, last year, Samabhabana was born.
Samabhabana seeks to address the intersections of gender and sexuality with other factors, such as caste, class, disability and age. Raina points out that its core members do not resemble the decision-makers at many other organisations, “They’re not rich, don’t have high-flying careers, don’t have very much formal education.”
The organisation wants to work to meet the needs of some of the most marginalised communities that belong to gender and sexual minorities, including homeless and aged transgender people and HIV positive people who do not have dedicated community centres to support them. The organisation was registered with difficulty and has no sustainable funding coming in yet. It runs on donations given by friends and well-wishers who believe in the work.
Although it is a hardscrabble and tumultuous journey, Raina is determined to see the organisation become sustainable while remaining true to its original intention. In the meantime, she remains closely involved with other city-based projects on gender, sexuality and other human rights, as well as activism in parts of rural Bengal.
On the latter, she says, “We need to remember that rural activism exists and has existed for a long, long time. We are forgetting this when we focus only on Kolkata-based activism. We need to go to Nadia, Murshidabad, Coochbehar and see what’s happening there, let activists there lead us into doing whatever we can. There is a huge diversity of identities and expressions in all these places… there’s no point in just having academic dialogues about them sitting in Kolkata.”
Asked what she’d like people to know most about transgender identities, Raina says, “That they are incredibly diverse. Sex reassignment surgery or any other procedures are far from being part of every transperson’s journey, as is commonly assumed. Some transpeople identify within the gender binary and some don’t.”
In the course of her own journey, Raina says she has found the words to identify herself: “I am a transgender and genderfluid person. I feel that my gender and sexuality are not fixed…at the same time, I love my femininity too much to discard it, even if I think of it as being constructed. But society treats me like I am a man. I have struggled a lot to stand up for my identity and I am still struggling”.
Note: The majority of this interview took place in Bangla and has been translated from the original.
Shreya Ila Anasuya lives and writes in Delhi. She’s on Twitter @shreyilaanasuya.
This article is being published simultaneously by The News Minute.