In 2011, when 22-year-old Mona More Okram, formerly Oliver, stood on stage in an Imphal auditorium, soaking in the spotlight as the winner of the first-ever Trans Queen Contest North East, what she missed the most were “real breasts". Her padded bra was not good enough to address her quandary on gender identity.

Former transgender beauty queen and salon owner Mona More Okram
Former transgender beauty queen and salon owner Mona More Okram

“Mentally I’ve always felt like a woman," says the part-time model with a practised flick of her burnt orange hair. “Now, I’ll bodily feel the same. I will start living with my boyfriend and there will be fewer adverse situations in public."

In Imphal, about 20-odd transgender-run parlours and salons, involving well over a hundred transgender beauticians and stylists, are seen as the launch pad for change. Within the loud interiors, the young professionals often pout brazenly at the wall-to-wall mirrors. The beauty business has not only helped them achieve financial sufficiency but also a hard-fought self-realization about their gender and sexual identity.

“Unlike earlier, we now know it’s okay to be transgender," says Melky Elangbam, a 19-year-old employee at the reputed transgender-run Jenny’s Glamour salon.

Elangbam studied only till class X. Yet, like many other transgender women in the beauty business, she earns 15,000-20,000 a month, and displays the kind of assertiveness that once made her punch a male customer at the restaurant where she used to work. The customer had called her “inauspicious" and “a homo"—a shrinking of the term homosexual but one that is often derogatorily inflicted on transgender women in Manipur.

Transgender activist Santa Khurai
Transgender activist Santa Khurai

Khurai’s own path to self-actualization started in college. Then 22, she penned an essay on the transgender life, earning both ridicule and praise for it as family members remained hostile to the “boy who wanted to dress and behave like a girl". Her work with Amana has brought together Manipur’s greater LGBT community.

Amana has advocated successfully for the transgender community to get free legal aid from the Manipur State Legal Services Authority, and conducted a spoken English course for trans persons. Amana has also been organizing the high-profile Trans Queen Contest North East for three years now. And earlier this year, it hosted Manipur’s first LGBT Pride walk in Imphal. Khurai is also widely recognized as the inspiration behind Imphal’s transgender-run beauty businesses and salons.

Cold horror

Former transgender beauty queen and parlour owner Reva Khagembam
Former transgender beauty queen and parlour owner Reva Khagembam

“In a way, the beauty parlours have also not been good for the community since most of the young girls have stopped pursuing their education and are lured by the prospect of money from the beauty business," Khurai says, regretfully, as we spend an evening at the transgender-run La’ Perla Parlour in the Khurai Lamlong Bazar region of Imphal. La’ Perla lacks the glitziness of Jenny’s Glamour, but shares the vibe of its transgender employees, with the girls taking turns to comb and do up their hair. Manipur’s annual cultural showpiece, the Sangai Festival, is on at a nearby venue and the La’ Perla ladies—some of whom didn’t go to high school—want to turn out in their festive best.

Only education can ensure an estimation of one’s civil rights, says Khurai, a graduate in English from an Imphal college. A couple of months ago, Khurai watched in cold horror as armed Manipuri police commandos raided the La’ Perla late at night. They gave no reason for the raid and when they found their way blocked, hurled the choicest abuses at the women.

“Most community members don’t have a voice to fight back. They are not aware of their rights and no one dares to challenge unjust authority," says Khurai.

In a way, the beauty parlours have also not been good for the community since most of the young girls have stopped pursuing their education and are lured by the prospect of money from the beauty business.

Manipur is caught, in large parts, between the authoritarian regime of The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which gives sweeping and unquestioning power to security personnel, and over a dozen underground outfits with their own sets of demands. The transgender community is too minor a presence in this gun-held majoritarianism.

“Why will the police force me to stand in the men’s queue? Why will the male police touch me physically to ascertain my gender?" says 18-year-old Jony Haobijam, a class XII transgender student of the Maria Montessori Senior Secondary School in indignation. We are at Reva Beauty Creation, a parlour run by Reva Khagembam, who won 2012’s edition of the Trans Queen beauty contest.

“I told the police that I’m transgender but they usually think that we are men in women’s clothing. They think we’ve made a choice instead of realizing that it’s our natural state of being. The government should immediately do something for us," says Haobijam, who “came out" as a class VI student when she pinned a newspaper article on the transgender community on her school’s noticeboard.

Assertive, unashamed

Despite the street view of them being “homo", Manipuri society and the dominant Meitei community in the Imphal valley continue to be largely tolerant of the transgender presence in their midst. While centuries-old folklore suggests transgender women, known as feita, advised Meitei society on matters of importance, acceptance of the third gender has been perpetuated through the traditional involvement of transgender shamans and priests to conduct rituals for Meitei gods like the powerful Ebudhou Pakhangba.

The involvement of transgender priests in the ritualistic process was cemented in public consciousness in the 1960s. Two priestess from the community, Kumar Amaibi and Rajo Amaibi, wrote books that have since become the go-to manual for religious rules and rituals. While their first names are male, Amaibi stands for woman in the Meitei language, confirming the variant gender.

“People see us as God’s messengers and instead of stigmatizing us, they look up to us as oracles," says Bobby Yambem, a 42-year-old shamanic priestess currently trying to mobilize the transgender shaman community in Manipur to protest a recent writ issued against them by a religious organization.

The popular folk theatre form Shumang Leela, in which many transgender actors are known to essay women’s roles, is also considered to have played a role in creating social acceptance.

To meet a Shumang Leela artiste, we walk down Governor Road and past the polo ground—former cruising zones for transgender women who, at sundown, would solicit army personnel and civilians for sex and quick money. That practice has now stopped, says Khurai, not the least because of greater financial empowerment of the community. “Money is hardly exchanged for sex these days," she says.

Her face bearing the bluish-greenish hue of a regular shaver, Khurai looks natty in sunglasses and a long, flowing skirt. A heavily armed paramilitary official with his walkie-talkie croaking looks on curiously as Khurai stops in the middle of the road to light a cigarette.

Sitting in the small room that he shares with a male partner, the 43-year-old veteran Shumang Leela artiste, Oinam Arun Singh, says there is confusion about the extent of transgender involvement in Shumang Leela. Effeminate male actors traditionally bagged women’s roles in days when terms like “transgender", “transsexual" or “third gender" were not in vogue. Strict rules set by the companies producing Shumang Leela plays also stop the transgender cast from owning up, says Khurai. According to one of the rules, men (often transgender) who play women’s roles on stage are required to wear their normal men’s clothing when off stage. They are also expected to avoid speaking in a woman’s voice or tone, or behave like one.

Singh too denies transgender status for himself.

In this overlapping world of identities, sexualities and social insecurities, Khurai lives with her “beautiful ladies"; her children, as she fondly claims. Khurai expects her community to deal with co-passengers in autorickshaws or the policemen we meet outside the Sangai Festival venue with the same kind of élan that she displays: polite, assertive and unashamed.

Transgender professionals are often employed as make-up artistes during social ocassions like weddings. Photo: Shamik Bag
Transgender professionals are often employed as make-up artistes during social ocassions like weddings. Photo: Shamik Bag

Beoncy Laishram, 2013’s Trans Queen winner, is a medical student. Reva Khagembam, a law student who thinks her family’s acceptance of her gender comes from the experience of a suicide by a transgender cousin following a failed relationship with a heterosexual man (a union that is often forged and fails), wants to provide legal support for the community.

“We are women without wombs. We fall in love, we get hurt, we laugh and we cry over lost love when we are drunk. We have all the emotions that others have," says Khurai, who now wants to struggle to include the third gender in forms for jobs or vocational training.

At the wedding of Echal Yumlembam, a friend of Khurai’s niece, the bride is being attended to by two transgender make-up artistes, Pemben and Sakib, the latter a Muslim. Traditional Meitei weddings usually eschew close interactions with people of other faiths, but an exception is made for the skills of transgender artistes, I’m told. As Sakib helps Yumlembam into her gorgeous piece of wedding attire, yet another social schism is bridged.

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