Transgender activist Lakshmi Narayan Tripathi talks about Super Queen, her multi-city beauty contest, which seeks to bring the Kinnar community to the public eye

“Ours is a beauty contest with a purpose,” says Lakshmi Narayan Tripathi, holding a cup of instant coffee. Brimming with poise, her frizzy hair forming a halo around her striking face, a bedecked Lakshmi is waiting for contestants to turn up for Delhi auditions of “Super Queen”, her 10-city beauty contest for transgender people, at the swank V.P. Chest Institute auditorium near Delhi University. “It's my baby,” she says, rolling her heavily kohl-ed eyes.

A Mumbai resident, Lakshmi has been running Astitva, an NGO for the rights of the sexual minority in that city, for the last five years. “Recently, I also started my event management company, 12Noon Entertainment. Perhaps I am the only transgender CEO of a company in the country today,” she says with a proud grin. The name 12Noon Entertainment is because, she adds, “sir pe hamesha barah bajne chahiye, tabhi kuch kaam hota hain.

Adjusting the folds of her lovely beige sari, a garrulous Lakshmi states that the beauty contest is an extension of the Astitva's work. “Transgenders are so many in number in this country but they don't have any rights to lead a life of dignity. Astitva fights for their rights, and so will Super Queen, but with a lighter vein. We will shortlist 12 contestants for the finals, out of which three will win, but in the process, we will create 12 confident members from the community,” she points out. A post graduate from the University of Mumbai, Lakshmi speaks lucid English, which infuses more than a dash of verve into her thoughts. Needless to say, she can easily hold her own in a conversation, an example of which she has given on international platforms like the United Nations. “But how many are Lakshmis in our community?” she asks pertinently. The answer lies, she says, in initiatives like Super Queen.

Eroded confidence

“Years of exploitation and abuse have eroded the community's confidence. It has no right to education, no right to live a decent life; no one gives transgenders even the job of a house help. Even after years of being independent, this country still forces transgenders to remain a hidden community, to be used by the society as and when needed. The idea is to bring back a sense of confidence, that they too can if they want,” states Lakshmi.

Giving an instance of “how the Government doesn't care,” she flashes her passport, saying, “I am a male, a female and a hijra in it. With a lot of difficulty I have got the passport issued.” A recent idea that transgenders should be used by the banks to recover debts is highly objectionable to Lakshmi. She reasons, “It will create a sense of hatred against the community.”

As the day wanes, Lakshmi makes frantic phone calls to people from her community living across the city. At the end of the day, four contestants turn up for the auditions, out of which three are chosen for the semi-finals to be held in Mumbai on February 6. “I would be happy if three from each city turn up for the auditions. They turned up late for the event today but I understand. Their life is not easy. They have to go with their toli in the morning; after all it is Makar Sankranti, an auspicious day, today,” she says.

After the auditions in Delhi, Super Queen will go to Kolkata, Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Bhopal and Bhubaneshwar. The shortlisted contestants are to meet in Mumbai for a grooming session. “We will teach them how to talk with poise, dress smartly, state their point with confidence, save themselves from diseases like HIV/AIDS. The best from the industry will train them,” says Lakshmi. The finals will be at Hotel Ashok in Delhi on February 21 and the winner will take away Rs.10 lakhs.

Lakshmi names a clutch of known names backing her venture. “Our letters of invitation have gone to President Pratibha Patil, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Between the auditions, semi-finals and the final, we will have judges like actors Seema Biswas, Zeenat Aman, Celina Jaitley, maybe Salman Khan too, besides social activists and a board member from the Malaysia-based Asia Pacific Transgender Network. Celina will give an extra Rs.50,000 to the winner. UNAIDS is supporting us along with the company V Care and Parmeshwar Godrej's Heroes Project.”

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I have a dream

Poonam loves to dance. “I should not be vain but let me tell you I can do a great job of the songs ‘Kaanta laga’ and ‘Ring ring ringa’,” she says. With a giggle she adds, “But don’t ask me to wear short dresses, I feel very uncomfortable. Salwar kameez is fine for me, that’s how I have grown up.” So at first, when this Shahdara resident was asked by her guruji Reshma to take part in India’s Super Queen, she hesitated. “For a moment, I thought beauty contest means I will have to wear short western dresses. I sometimes wear jeans but I love to be in salwar kameez. Then I am told that it is not an issue,” she says.

Poonam, in an elegant white salwar kameez, is asked by the judges what she will she do if she becomes Super Queen. “I will do meaningful work for the society. Kaam toh sabhi karte hain par bahut kam log hi samaj ko kuch kar dikhate hain. I want to work for HIV infected children and also for elderly people who have no one to take care of them,” she says.

With a clincher of an answer, Poonam is now in the shortlist from Delhi along with two others, Khushi and Kamini, and will soon pack her bags for a grooming session in Mumbai. “Meanwhile, I am doing a bit of exercises, I seem to have some flab around my waist,” she says, summing up.