Popularly known as India’s first transgender television talk show host, Rose Venkatesan has been a public voice for trans issues in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu since 2008. Called the local Oprah Winfrey at the time by the New York Times, Rose’s shows aired in 2008 and 2009.
Rose has since been a vocal supporter of LGBTQ rights, women’s rights and free sexual expression. Over the years, she has built her career around openly raising societal issues through the fora of radio and politics as well.
Currently involved in organic farming on the outskirts of Chennai, Rose keeps a relatively low profile than what she perhaps was used to doing a few years ago. I had the opportunity to speak to her and discuss her life as it has been so far: a public and personal affair.
“It has been a journey of a lot of hurdles, troubles, issues, pain , emotions, rejections, isolation” she says, “But I can’t just focus on the negative part. I also have a lot of support from people. I am also motivated by my own courage and I’m also inspired by a lot of people that kept my journey going. Every single hurdle that has come across has motivated me to get across it. Every hurdle has shaped me to the person that I am today.”
For Rose, coming to terms with her gender identity, was a matter that spanned her adolescence and early adulthood. “I kept saying to myself: ‘That’s not me.’ I was rejecting that possibility at every instance that it came up. But I finally came to terms with the fact that I was a trans woman at 22 to be precise.”
“I had been questioning myself, emotionally troubled, not sure of who I was. I was not sure if I was gay, or a man, or a straight man or a trans woman. All these questions kept me occupied in such a way that I lost my confidence. I could not face my sexuality with full confidence. When you realise that society is going to target, isolate or hurt you or cut you off at the very least – this very possibility was nightmarish for me to even imagine.”
But for Rose it became the eventual reality as well. Family has been the most resistive aspect of her relationships and she frankly recounts her experience with her family that wasn’t onboard with her journey. “Family is something that you cannot easily cut off. I had an instinctive voice telling me that I was a girl even when I was a little child. I always knew it and was trying to express that. But my family and society shut me up. I was called names even back then as a child.”
“When I made the final decision to transition, my family brought up all sorts of ways and means to prevent me from doing that. They used violence for a part. My own brother hit me and kicked me, I was locked up in a room. And my mom used all kinds of emotional blackmail. She even threatened suicide” recollects a calm and thoughtful Rose. However she does regret the “late” decision of having to transition at the age of 22 solely because of her family. “I think I should have made that decision much earlier in my life and my family should have supported me.”
Things haven’t dramatically changed in her relationship with her family since then. “I now live with my family but not in a way that I am fully supported, taken care of, or fully provided for. I am only conditionally accepted. I can’t bring my trans friends home. Even my own entry into the home was only accepted with conditions. They still call me using male pronouns even though I have fully transitioned and most people see me as a woman. My mom doesn’t talk to me, she has totally shunned me and doesn’t want to face me. She moved out of the house recently and I know that I’m partly a reason.”
Most people know Rose as a public trans figure who changed the landscape of TV talk shows through her programmes “Ippadikku Rose” (Yours Truly, Rose) and “Idhu Rose Neram” (It’s Time For Rose), both of which covered a lot of taboo topics. But it was her sheer determination to talk about certain issues that brought Rose to a field, long-defined by fluff.
“My motivation to go into the media was to break various taboos, particularly related to sexuality. Sometimes we used to shoot some shows on some topic and then the network would decide not to broadcast it simply because such topics were controversial.”
This is what she remembers about her very first show. “The first topic we covered was with a woman who was a sex worker. She was from Kerala and had written about her experience. That was my first shoot so to speak. I was very nervous. I was more closeted than her, she was ready to open up. Even though you have a lot of confidence to present on TV, it was still my first show.”
The impact was far-fetched and varied. Not only was she an instant hit within her state, international news outlets like BBC and the New York Times did profiles on Rose being a true groundbreaker. And she knows that: “I was constantly being interviewed and aside from that, wherever I went, I was always seen as a celebrity, hunted down for photos and autographs. The feedback that the show was getting from viewers was shared with me from time-to-time. On my second show, all the feedback came directly to me.”
She is fully aware of how the reception she had been receiving was in stark contrast to what a trans woman would receive otherwise. “It wasn’t like people rejected a transgender person like they normally would to a street trans person. They would pretend not to even see her, not lock eyes with her, and would just move on and walk away let alone invite a trans people into their homes. But I was welcomed into homes and I would get calls from people telling me to host their program, launch their event and even to come home for lunch or visit them. Some of them even told me that their life ambition is to take a photo, spend a few minutes and chat with me.”
Despite the positive attention, her talk shows ended relatively quickly which was followed by a short stint in radio. And according to Rose, this was by no means an accident. “Why is that the networks decide to cut me off after a year of having me on TV or radio?” asks an enraged Rose. “Either the contracts are never reviewed or refreshed. Or when it is just about the end of a contract, they don’t want to renew it. They want to cut you off. That was what really demotivated me with respect to my media experience. I tried very hard and I was well-received but I don’t know what really went on in the the minds of the administrators of these TV or radio stations.”
But she goes on to answer her own question, “That was what awakened me to the possibility that they don’t want to promote a trans woman as they would a woman or a man. They don’t want the acceptance of trans people into their roles.”
Soon after her time in radio, she entered the cinema industry to talk about themes that the mediums TV and radio did not allow her to. With sufficient experience and the required skill set, Rose went ahead with writing scripts but what was in store was far more difficult: “Even though I was a celebrity and I would garner some mileage, the producers weren’t willing to go ahead. When you’re a trans woman or a woman for that matter, and you’re a filmmaker and a beautiful person, the first thing they do is abuse you. They try to get you into bed first.”
She recollects the time when she worked with a friend to produce a movie which has now been stalled for release due to lack of funds. “This is what is happening, even though you are talented, even though you are beautiful, even if you appeal to the audience, people don’t want to support you. People aren’t coming forward to help a trans person. And all those corporate houses have hidden agendas and one of them is to not promote homosexuality and trans people enough.”
Away from the limelight, in her private life, Rose made the decision in 2010 to get sexual reassignment surgery done in Thailand, something that received significant media attention. When asked about the excessive fixation on biology when it comes to discussing trans issues, she had this to say: “I think it brings to light the fact that the media is largely controlled by men and what’s appealing to them. A beautiful man or a trans person fully transitioning into a woman is food for their imagination so that they can fetishise you and gain self-pleasure. It becomes a titillating element and it touches upon sexuality in a way that appeals to men.”
In 2012, Rose made her boldest move yet – begin a political party in India to talk advocate free sexual expression and sexuality while advancing the cause of women and LGBT rights – “I was so frustrated with what was going on in the world – you can’t speak about sexuality openly. I wasn’t able to use movies or the media to that effect. I was so frustrated with political parties that make disparaging comments against homosexuality and women. They only say negative things about LGBT, women or sexuality. l wanted to counter that. The few people who did speak up for the causes I believed in weren’t promoted.”
Known to be a field that devours, Rose soon realised how hard it was going to be for her to get anything done. “The very people who told me that they will support me, ran away from me. They did not want to be associated with a person or a party that promoted free sexuality. At a press meet that I organised, although the audience from the press was totally packed, I was the only voice. All the other speakers had run away. I sat there by myself and confidently spoke about it. But the next day, none of the regional newspapers, despite attendance, covered it.”
“If I had dumped heaps of cash on the attending journalists, my press meet may have gotten coverage. I didn’t have the financial support either” adds Rose, reflecting on the corruption caused by dirty money that plagues pretty much every section of society.
A frustrated Rose remembers how a journalist from a reputed English newspaper approached her after the press meet to get contacts of sex workers to have sex with. “For what do I start a political party? To start a sex racket? That is how India works. I am tired of activism after going through all that crap. I was demoralised. I was like, ‘Fuck off man! I just want to live my life. I don’t want to make any change in society.’ It’s so structurally hard. Anyone who wants to make changes will be ridiculed and laughed at. I became the laughing stock at one point.”
This frustration is what Rose admits has led her away from the spotlight to a life that is far more quiet. “I just want to live my small little life. I’m not trying anymore to do something big. I’m tired of doing that. I tried doing that for years. I always met with resistance. I was losing so much of my peace. I questioned why I should take it all on my head. I tried hard to make a change in society, to make it easier for LGBT people. But even some LGBT people didn’t want to support me.”
Currently working as a freelancer in the corporate sector, Rose enjoys a space that doesn’t discriminate or vilify her as much. “Within the corporate world, the people are far more mature and accustomed to such experiences and such people. In that world, I am a woman. I just present myself as a women. Although people may know that I am trans, that never comes up and that is not made an issue about. I just go there and do my job. At the same time, there are catcallers who laugh behind my back but that’s very minimal.”
But it’s not without its problems: “I wanted to apply at other companies. But the responses that I used to get were, ‘Oh you’re a trans woman? Okay, I don’t know whether the company will accept that but let me push your resume and see what they say.’ I wouldn’t get a call back. However, discrimination is limited when it comes to the lowest levels of employment. When you go up the ladder, though, it is filled with men who don’t want to see women and trans women compete with them.”
Looking back at her career and reflecting on her contribution to trans visibility and perception in Tamil Nadu, Rose speaks highly of the people of her state while acknowledging that there is still a long way to go. “Millions of people were able to see a trans woman in a positive light for the first time. And I believe that that made a lot of change in Tamil Nadu. I believe that Tamil people are now sensitised to trans women. Most see them as women and with respect but not with full acceptance. They now tolerate and sometimes respect them in public spaces but they are not able to accept a trans woman in their families.”
For the millions of trans kids that live in fear of ostracisation, Rose has a few words of wisdom to share: “They should know that they are not wrong, evil, ugly or unnatural. Nature intends for them to be this way. They aren’t against god. All these ideas have been promoted by patriarchal men who have made sure that they want to control everyone’s behaviour and sexuality. These kids should realise that they are normal, beautiful and another way through which nature expresses itself. And that should give them the confidence.”
I hope it does too.