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Out Now: A Bold, No-Holds-Barred Book About Trans Celebrity Laxmi Narayan Tripathi

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First person narratives have captivated readers since the 3rd century, when St. Augustine wrote his “Confessions.” These narratives promise a glimpse into the individual experience that is so different from our own. And in the case of gender and sexual minorities, they become important in expanding our understanding of ‘identity,’ something that is as complex as it is diverse.

Telling the truth about yourself isn’t the easiest. But it’s the most important way in which ‘the self’ is made real. And that’s what a reader can look forward to in Laxmi Narayan Tripathi’s new book “Red Lipstick – The Men in my Life.” It’s a bold, no-holds-barred look at the private life of a public figure, Laxmi, who is a dancer and an actress, and one of the country’s most prominent trans activists. Her autobiography “Me Hijra Me Laxmi,” was published in Marathi in 2012, and then translated into Gujarati, English and Hindi last year. Now, “Red Lipstick” follows with the tell-all stories that perhaps didn’t find mention in her earlier autobiography – stories about the men in her life.

“‘Red Lipstick’ is personal. Very personal I must say. And, unapologetically intimate,” Laxmi tells us over email. “I know I am truthful to myself and I am sharing myself with the world through this book.”

Assisting her in this project is writer and editor Pooja Pande, who, through a series of meetings, interviews and conversations with Laxmi, put together the book (with some very interesting cover art) by writing as Laxmi. “I imagined a wiser-older Laxmi, who I see as the main narrator of ‘Red Lipstick,’ so I could also write as Laxmi the fearless activist; Laxmi the girlfriend-wife; Laxmi as Raju. And as me, or someone like me, who sees Laxmi in the churning, and can recount it from afar, with empathy.”

Pande explains to us how observing, absorbing and immersing herself in her subject was a huge part of her process. “I was re-reading Laxmi’s first book, so I knew the facts of her life like the back of my hand, and I stayed away from doing any obvious research such as reading memoirs of other transgender individuals.”

The book narrates how Laxmi’s father, her school friend, her partner, activists and others have impacted Laxmi’s life. There’s an entire section of ‘monologues’ by some of these men, including Laxmi’s own self prior to transitioning. “I felt that I wouldn’t have done the book justice if I hadn’t included the man in Laxmi’s life who lives inside her, Raju,” says Pande, who spent many a fitful nights before sudden inspiration drove her to write as Raju. This section also includes Manvendra Singh Gohil (India’s first openly gay prince). Gohil narrates an incident where his elderly music guru “had nursed a bad opinion of Hijras all his life” until he met Laxmi.

“The men in her life were but a lens for the reader to view Laxmi herself,” says Pande. “I think the Laxmi we’ve all known thus far – the super-cool, super-strong, fiery activist – is the celebrity Laxmi. I hope that this book presents Laxmi the person over and above Laxmi the personality.”

And it certainly does so, with its moving accounts of Laxmi’s vulnerabilities and her own evolution. In one instance, she talks about her own very negative response towards Kris, a trans man she met in Amsterdam. And in another, she does some rather stereotypical saas-bahu things, by telling her daughter-in- law to ‘cover up’ her body.

“I had just heard about Female-to-Male Trans men, and hadn’t met somebody like him,” explains Laxmi. “It was a mix of surprise and anxiety when I first met him. Even now in India we find it so difficult to come across Trans men because not many have come forward openly. It was the same when I advised my daughter in law.”

These two interactions may seem surprising coming from Laxmi, who has challenged the norm so often in her own life. But breaking stereotypes in an on-going process. And for Laxmi it’s important to lay it all out: “Going through those memories was refreshing and made me look at myself in a new light. It has helped me grow as a person.”

Photo by Subrata Biswas/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

As Pande says, it’s Laxmi-the-person who really takes centre-stage in this book, and her journey as a member of the Hijra community is therefore of much importance. Laxmi explains the origins of the word to us – “The word Hijra is derived from ‘Hijr,’ which means a journey to find one’s true self – and I went through this whole process of self-discovery to self-recognition and fighting for my gender identity.”

Laxmi prefers ‘Hijra’ over ‘Trans’ and there’s a reason for it. “The word ‘trans’ is inadequate in every sense and especially in the Indian context. Here the Kinnars and Hijras have been part of our history and ancient text like ‘Ramayana,’ ‘Mahabharata,’ and others. The Hijra or the Kinnar community follow the ‘Guru Chela’ Parampara and have certain rules, rituals and customs.” And none of this can be described by the western equivalent “trans.”

But East or West, the issues faced by trans people are much the same. In the USA, there is currently a debate on the Bathroom Bill, which would prohibit trans people from using any washroom other than the one marked for the gender assigned to them at birth. Laxmi weighs in on this: “Just opening a loo for them is not enough. You need to sensitise people about transgender communities and advocate for their issues. The USA should come up with a Transgender Welfare Board and a rights bill like India.”

But even with our country’s recent anti-discrimination policies, trans people are still denied access to spaces. Laxmi has personally experienced this discrimination back in 2010, when, as the book tells us, she was made to leave a dinner at the Bombay Gymkhana. Says Laxmi, “I had taken it up with the Maharashtra Human Rights Court and the Management were summoned. The case is still in the court and waiting for judgement.”

Establishments – especially those that cater to a select class of people – will exercise their “right to reserve admission,” as it is so artfully called. Pande explains the reasons behind this: “The prejudices in our society against any kind of expression – in terms of sexuality or self-identity – that does not conform to that one imagination of heterosexuality, stem back to the time of the Raj when the British were laying down the laws of the land in ways that were acceptable to them. Unfortunately, the drive to formulate a unified code meant that there was a certain foregoing of plurality and what we now like to call diversity, which was traditionally embedded in our cultural fabric.”

There is a force with which the gender-binary is maintained, and Pande calls this “collateral damage from the colonial era.”

And Laxmi corroborates: “The Kinnar and Hijra community were very much respected in ancient India. We were very mainstream, nobody questioned our sexuality and we had much more respect and dignity. With the advent of the British era and western culture, sex became taboo and we too became taboo. We were criminalised under various acts like the Tribal Law act, or Section 377, curbing us and our prosperity.”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

So “Red Lipstick” also tries to approach this history, and culture of discrimination. And chooses to do so in an interesting way, by using religious elements. Take the dedication, for instance (which Pande told us she’s very proud of). It reads:

“Vishnu is Mohini and Mohini Vishnu. This book is dedicated to our gods and goddesses… Because they get it.”

The section and chapter titles (one of them invoking “The Creator, The Preserver, and The Destroyer” of the Hindu trinity) too follow this theme. “Laxmi is well-versed in the Shastras and can quote you a shloka about pretty much anything,” says Pande, who finds these elements rather reaffirming.

But doesn’t creating an aura of divinity around a marginalized group diminish or detract from the discrimination they face?

Pande explains: “While I can see the space for that point of view and even agree with it to an extent, I do feel that sometimes, we don’t place enough importance on how the majority of India processes and grapples with what the critics – largely the intelligentsia – would term ‘issues’. It could be true that placing identities on pedestals evades the discrimination, but have we found other, let alone more effective ways, of tackling the discrimination? If we’re so certain about rejecting a language or a kind of imagining that has a hold over the majority of India, then we must find a better replacement.”

“Red Lipstick” is then deliberately infused with religious imagery, in the hope that they will be relatable and easily approachable by a much larger readership than, say, only an academically oriented section of our society.

Pande goes on: “My attempt is to hark back to a time – not necessarily a historical point in time, but in the timeline of the Indian imagination – when we knew better. When we were ‘inclusive’ in a way that we didn’t need to scream and shout about to get brownie points on diversity.”

And this is really where this book does something so characteristic of life-writing. It mixes together the personal and the political, the private and the public. Pande tells us: “‘Red Lipstick’ aims to be part of the ongoing narrative around gender and sexuality, in terms of real-time developments such as the Transgender Bill and the status of Sec 377. But, while it could be an ‘important book,’ it shouldn’t just remain an ‘important book.'”

For those who read it then, it should become a question and an idea, urging them to challenge those historic, cultural or even religious practices that exclude and erase certain identities, and what it would mean for India to truly live up to its “unity in diversity.” Meanwhile we have someone battling on boldly for rights, namely Laxmi, wearing her trademark Red Lipstick.

To get your copy of the book, head over here! Laxmi Narayan Tripathi’s image source: Getty Images

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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