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Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, Chair and Founder, Astitva Trust, Asia’s First Transgender Organization on 'India’s Third Gender' at The 2017 Women In The World Summit in New York City; 4/7/2017

Gender warrior

Activist speaks out at summit, urges world to think beyond male and female

April 8, 2017

India’s internationally renowned transgender activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi swept onto the stage at the Women in the World Summit Friday in New York City, bringing her personal story of pain, persecution and liberation in a country that, thanks to her tireless campaigning, now recognizes a third gender.

Fellow Indian, journalist Barkha Dutt, introduced the multi-talented Tripathi, who persuaded her nation’s Supreme Court to become one of only 12 countries that legally acknowledge her sexual minority, as “a force of nature … I have to contain this thunderstorm.” The dancer, author, actress, militant, and happily married Tripathi recalled her journey from abused child to proud global warrior for an ancient culture — the transgender hijra community — that is forcing the world to think beyond male and female.

When Dutt began to explore Tripathi’s path, she started with “You were born a boy …” But Tripathi interrupted several times to insist, “The doctor said so,” declaring that the science surrounding gender “is human and to make a mistake is human.”

Asked when she knew she was “out,” the fighter for the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS replied, “I came only once out from my mother’s womb — and I was out. And then the world made me realize that I was different. But for me, I was an only child.” She added, “I still enjoy the femininity of nature which is there in me.”

When Tripathi, who was born on the outskirts of what was then known as Mumbai, turned 14 years old, she decided to join the hijra community. Members answer to a guru and are at once revered in Indian society, celebrated as demigods and ostracized. Tripathi, who has mounted an impressive career in show business, has also advocated for transgender rights at the United Nations and, in 2014, took her case to India’s highest court. The verdict resulted in India recognizing transgender people as members of a third gender, meaning that on legal documents, individuals aren’t limited to only the two traditional gender choices. They can legally choose a third gender.

But Tripathi’s road to personal freedom and international renown was winding and littered with potholes. 

When Dutt broached the subject of her childhood sexual abuse, she confessed, “Every man I knew sexually abused me. It was my femininity that was abused.” On the way to coming to terms with her sexuality, Tripathi passed through different phases. “I thought I was gay but they wouldn’t accept me. [Then] I thought I was a drag queen.”

The hijra community members, however were “neither man nor woman, but we enjoy the femininity of the world,” Tripathi explained about the world’s oldest ethnic transgender culture.

“We have our own culture, and our own family setup. Religiously we are known as divine. We have the power to curse and the power to bless.”

The pernicious effects of colonization on the hijra community was highlighted by Tripathi who reminded the audience that “the British ripped everything away from us. They took our property, our money, our land, our houses and left our members to beg or sell their body or do the traditional blessing work.”

Despite traveling that rough road, Tripathi, 39, said she eventually arrived at a place of happiness. This phenomenon was explored when Dutt brought up the current state of Tripathi’s personal life, namely her marital status and showed the audience a photo of Tripathi and her husband, Vicky. Tripathi explained that she met him — where else? — on Facebook during a very lonely time in her life. “It has been … four years now that we have been together. But he lied [about] his age when he met me. He said he was 29. Can you imagine?” she asked rhetorically, tongue firmly in cheek.

When Dutt inquired about how old Vicky is, the response was “Age is just a number.” But clearly it wasn’t because Tripathi recounted a story about how two months into their relationship, her then-boyfriend left his wallet at her house and she looked inside, and discovered he was actually 20 years old. She confronted him and suggested that the relationship had been built on a lie, and asked him for one reason why they should stay together. “I just didn’t want to lose you,” Tripathi said he told her. Now, the two are happily married and Tripathi praised the support of her husband, whom she says is never shy about walking at her side, no matter what culture the two may be in. “That’s beautiful,” she said. “He loves me.”

Laxmi Narayan Tripathi and her husband, Vicky.

Later, the conversation veered toward political issues facing the transgender community.

On the bathroom debate, and whether there should be separate facilities for transgender people, which has emerged as a polarizing issue in American culture, Tripathi differed from many of her fellow activists in the U.S., saying there’s no need for a third bathroom because creating different spaces for sexual minorities could sow division.

“It is my right to choose any of the bathrooms I want to,” she declared to loud cheers. “Instead of more dividing the society in the name of gender we should create a society where there should be acceptance.”

By separating members of society and “creating boxes in schools, hospitals and bathrooms” people risked shattering solidarity.

“Why can’t we be more inclusive? In the name of inclusion we divide.”

Below, watch a highlight of Tripathi discussing her relationship with her husband.

Additional reporting by Karen Compton.

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