The Trans Models Sending Waves Through India’s Fashion Industry

A good few seasons in, diversity is still the buzzword of Western fashion. Gender is the hottest topic on the agenda, as displayed through non-binary models fronting major campaigns, transgender celebs acting as ambassadors for high street cosmetic brands and designers continuously blurring the male/female divide with mixed model shows.

Beyond the world of fashion as we know it, it seems the gender-bend embrace is weighing anchor in new ports. In India, for example, the vast local fashion scene has shown a particular affection for transgender models in the past few seasons.

Though gay sex is still considered a criminal act in India (a law established under the British rule in 1860), progress has been made when it comes to trans visibility and rights. In 2014, people identifying as trans, including the Hirjas, India’s thousand-year-old mystical group of transgender females, were granted basic rights by the Indian supreme court. In 2016, the first transgender school opened in Kerala, providing quality education to transgender adults who dropped out from school at an early age. Since 2009, transgender Indians have been able to opt for an ‘other’ gender box on voting forms. In recent years India has also seen trans citizens acquiring prominent civic roles in the police force, education system and even politics, with transgender Madhu Bai Kinnar elected as mayor in Raigarh.

Despite the recent triumphs, abuse and suicide rates are still high and many transgender individuals end up on the street as beggars or sex workers. A key figure with first-hand experience of this situation is Anjali Lama, a trans woman born in a poor Nepalese farming family who was “mentally tortured” at her workplace in Kathmandu. After a chance encounter with a group of trans women, Lama became a part of the community and got encouraged to try modelling in neighbouring India. In January, Lama became the first transgender model to walk an Indian fashion runway at Lakme Fashion Week (which made diversity a key point this year), alongside local A-list celebrities and Bollywood stars, and running up to the event she was also dedicated a spread in ELLE India.

And Lama is not the only trans model making waves in India. In 2015, Rudrai Chettri founded Bold, the country’s first modelling agency for trans people, based in New Delhi. In an interview with The Guardian, Chettri explained their quest to “provide an alternative source of income for the trans community, aside from begging or sex work” and to challenge the (Western) hetero-normative ideals of female beauty. Critical of the idea that to be successfully trans, you need to conform to conventional beauty standards and pass as cisgender, Chettri and Bold therefore represent models with stubble, bald spots and other “flaws”, unveiling their masculine features.

Though paid work is a rarity for Rudrai Chettri’s girls, these individuals are using fashion to gain visibility and empower minority communities through representation. Here’s to more space in the conventional fashion spotlight for making the Third Gender less of an “other”.

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