A transgender stylist’s journey to liberation

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Amy Konjengbam made it to the ‘top-16’ in the Trans Queen India 2017. Image: Mahesh Bacham

Amy Konjengbam was born a boy in a traditional family in northeast India’s Manipur. At the age of eight, she had a realization – her male body felt like a trap. 

“I didn’t tell my parents, but they got to know. I didn’t want to dress up like guys. My dad used to stop me, beat me, but my mom stood by me,” Amy told Asia Times. She preferred to play with Barbie dolls and hang out with her girlfriends, but she fought both inside and outside her home for the choices she made. 

“My ambition since childhood had been to become a model,” the 23-year-old says. This ambition drove her to the ‘top-16’ among 1,500 participants in the first TransQueen India beauty pageant last year. 

However, it’s been a struggle to get there. She survived the occasional barbs at school, but continuing her education in a private college in Manipur was tougher. She had longer hair then.

“They used to treat me very well in the beginning when I acted like a boy,” she said. But the taunts returned from both teachers and fellow students when she dressed like she wanted to. “Since then, I was uncomfortable going to college and stopped being regular.”

Amy said she would go to her friend’s house to dress up and hang around. “I enjoyed those moments. I used to make friends with transgenders and go out with them secretly. It was exciting to be with them,” she said.

Eventually she had to quit her education due to harassment at the college and financial problems at home. Then she started to earn her living working as a stylist in a salon and by this time, even her father had accepted her. 

In 2012, she moved to Bangalore in Karnataka to pursue her dream of becoming a model. Her initial days in the city were difficult as she had no one to ask for help, and insults followed wherever she went. “In public, people made comments, and sometimes shouted at us. We faced many embarrassing moments because of the few who lack manners,” she said.

Things started to look up when Amy began work as a stylist for fashion shows and in Karnataka’s movie industry. “Only some parts of the fashion industry support transgenders, most of them don’t accept us. We don’t get much work,” she said. 

Vipin, a photographer who has worked with Amy on a few music videos, said: “She is very talented, committed and hardworking. I myself had some stereotypes on transgenders, but my views completely changed after meeting her.”

He quoted the example of Prithika Yashini from Tamil Nadu, who became the first transgender police officer in India last year. “These days transgenders are breaking the barriers and coming forward.” He feels Amy can also be an inspiration for all of them.

When the Bangalore auditions for Miss TransQueen India did not happen because of a lack of participants, Amy traveled to Mumbai and was selected. She then left for Delhi for the finals and made it to the ‘top-16’ in August. “Miss TransQueen India is a big platform for us as we don’t usually get a chance to show our talent. For ladies they have Miss India, Miss Universe, Miss Karnataka, but we don’t have many opportunities to make our dreams possible.”

Reena Rai, founder and chairperson of the pageant, says it’s not about winning the crown but empowering the transgender community. “Through ‘earn & learn’ programs we train transgenders for six months for them to be able to secure a job. Many of our girls are successful now. Namita Ammu, one of our girls, is a leading actress in two movies in Tamil and Telugu,” she says. They have also started a campaign called #WhyNotMe for inclusion of transgenders in the Bollywood industry.  

Reena says many Miss TransQueen participants have gone back to their homes after a long time and were accepted by their parents. “We consider this our biggest achievement,” she said.

Amy’s experience with the pageant, however, has not put an end to her professional struggle, as she continues to face discrimination in the fashion industry. “For the last 2-3 months, I have been trying to get into one big agency. I won’t tell the name. But when I called them up, they said there’s no place for a transgender.”

Similarly, the harassment at public places continues too. While taking a cab to a friend’s place in Bengaluru recently, some “drunkards” tried to molest her. Despite these experiences, Amy is confident and hopes to inspire other transgenders to make it big. “I know many transgenders from Manipur who work as beauticians and stylists, and in the film industry,” she said. Amy added that she now sensed more respect for transgenders in Manipur. 

For her journey, Amy credits her mother. “My mom supported me throughout and took care of me. She accepted me the way I am. She fought the society and my dad for me. Parents of a transgender should try to understand the feelings of their child. They should support them and stop discrimination. Society should look at transgenders as humans first.”

And even if the parents don’t understand, Amy says, keep the struggle alive and never look down on yourself. “Before coming out to fight society, fight your family first. Face your family first, then you can manage society. I have built myself up without any support. And I’m proud to be a transgender.”

(The author is a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)

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