"FOR A VERY LONG TIME, my body and mind felt like they belonged to two different people,” says Santa Khurai, a 30-something transgender activist from Manipur.

"By the time I hit puberty, I started feeling a strong sense of shame, fear and insecurity. I was scared of having an erection and contemplated cutting my penis off. On the other hand, I yearned for breasts," she recounts. "I had no knowledge of hormone replacement therapy back then... A friend suggested I squeeze the bark of a tree on my chest, and I did so.”

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(Above photo: Santa Khurai)

Santa’s story is one of resistance, rebellion, hope and persistence. Growing up in Imphal, like many boys with gender dysphoria, Santa endured bullying, ridicule, isolation and harassment in school. At home, her family members refused to acknowledge that gender could be anything other than binary.

As the first male child in the family, Santa had many obligations to fulfill; her ‘erratic’ behaviour was scorned. Her father coerced her to complete her education, and Santa is now thankful for that. But their conflicts continued, right until his death. Santa hadn’t spoken to him for a while; she didn’t shed any tears at his funeral. “I think I was angry because he didn't accept me for who I am, and he left me alone in this world. It hurt so much that I refused to cry,” Santa says.

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(Above photo: At Jenny's Beauty Parlour)

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Through her childhood, the conflict between how she felt inside and the gender she was assigned at birth, was disorienting. The disgust she felt for her genitalia, and the social ostracism she was subjected to, left Santa battling feelings of anxiety, self-rejection, depression, low self-esteem and suicidal tendencies.

These feelings worsened when she was raped at the age of 11-12 by a male neighbour. “I don't think I understood what had happened but was terrified by the intense pain,” says Santa. She remembers standing by an open pit latrine, with blood trickling down her leg, crying. The neighbour told Santa’s mother that she was having trouble defecating, hence the blood.

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Since then, Santa has heard of many accounts of the rape and sexual violence experienced by transwomen. In her 20s, when Santa began to identify publicly as trans, a group of “underground activists” beat her brutally. Santa says they smashed bricks on her long fingernails, forced her to shout that she was a boy. “I had to scream that I have a d**k and can have sex with girls. I was supposedly bringing disgrace to the entire Meitei community by choosing to be a transgender person,” Santa says.

Considering the odds, it’s a surprise Santa didn’t give in. Instead, she set up a dance troupe called the “Seven Sisters”, comprising other transwomen. She completed her graduation from Imphal College. She was the first runner-up in a state beauty pageant in 1995. She set up San Jen, the first community-run beauty parlour in Manipur back in the ‘90s, when most transpeople were earning their livelihood through sex work. (Today, there are more than 30 such transpeople-run salons in Manipur.) And by 2009, Santa was leading the All Manipur Nupi Maanbi Association (AMANA), a body that works towards affirming the rights of transgender community.

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“I’m happy I paved the way for my community to find financial security by helping them set up beauty parlours. But that also meant that many of them drop out of school to become beauticians, so I’m not completely sure it’s a good idea” Santa says one evening, as we speak with the other trans women working as beauticians at Jenny’s Beauty Parlour in the Khurai Bazaar region. Khurai (a locality in Imphal) seems to be most friendly and enabling for transgender people, with many of them taking up weaving, farming, designing or the beauty business. However, name calling and harassment is prevalent too; one often hears people calling transgender people ‘homo’, a derogatory term used for homosexuals.

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(Above photo: Santa's friend Ningol)

Nupi-manbi (transwomen) and Nupa-manba (transmen) in the Meitei community — an indigenous ethnic group in Manipur — have a unique identity. The hierarchical Guruma gharana system of the hijra community practiced in other parts of the country, isn’t followed here. They may not be accepted, but many transgender individuals continue to live at home with their families. While there is no written evidence of a transgender community in Manipur, oral histories and folklore confirms the existence of ‘feita’, a person with gender non-conforming identity, who advised the Meitei society on pertinent state decisions. The traditional practice of transgender shamans (priests) conducting rituals for Meitei gods is also still prevalent in some parts.

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(Seen here: Boipu Kipgen)

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The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) gives the armed forces in Manipur extraordinary powers, including immunity from legal action and the licence to arrest people without obtaining warrants. This often spells trouble for transgender individuals. Then there are the many underground outfits with their demands, who also make it difficult for the trans community to freely express their gender choices.

Santa says one of her transgender friends was forced by paramilitary personnel to have serial sex. “Can you believe that people actually get away with gang rape here? This is what happens when some people have no voice and some others have too much power to do what they want!” she says.

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Like Santa, Boipu Kipgen too was attacked by an underground activist group. Boipu was the first person in Senapati district to publicly identify as ‘OLA’ — a term used to describe transgender people among the Kuki tribes of Manipur. Her family encouraged her to express her gender identity, and Boipu celebrated her femininity, dressed as a woman, and participated in beauty contests.

Abruptly, an underground group attacked Boipu, accusing her of tarnishing the image of the village by having sexual intercourse in the army camps. Boipu was beaten, her head shaved; she was humiliated in front of the entire village.

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The incident paralysed her psychologically. She developed depression and an alcohol dependency, other physical ailments followed. Boipu doesn’t dress in a feminine style any more, and she keeps a low profile. Making our way to Boipu’s hut in the village, Santa told me, “She was ‘off’ for a long time after. I think she is still disoriented. She didn’t recognise me the last time I visited her.”

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Back in Imphal, education has given some transgender individuals the strength to assert their choices. Rocky (born Pukhrambam Rocky Meitei) is a 24-year-old transgirl from the Khurai region, currently pursuing her MSc in Organic Chemistry from Manipur University while also preparing for a Phd. She dreams of taking up research studies at an IIT on earning her doctorate.

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(Above: Premjit Lal Saleem aka Kalu)

While the University has been very supportive, Rocky’s family has not. Ousted from her family home, Rocky at first stayed with her sister, then with friends; she took tuition classes and sold handmade stools to fund her education. Her strong worldview is shaped by the marginalisation she and the trans community face on a day-to-day basis. “I want to marry someday. But I think the boy might eventually fall out of love with me if he finds a ‘real girl’. So it’s better I stay single and focus on contributing to my community in whatever way I can,” Rocky says.

While education has given Rocky the identity she seeks, fashion and design have helped Premjit Lal Saleem (who prefers to go by the nickname Kalu) find her path. Kalu, who is a well-established designer in Manipur today, earned a diploma in fashion designing at the International Centre for Fashion Studies in Delhi in 1998. She was named ‘Best Designer’ at the FABECO Miss Manipur Contest in 1999 and 2000.

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While her talent helped her find a market in Imphal, back home, her father was unsupportive, and her friends mocked her for being effeminate. In the ‘90s, internet access was nonexistent, so there were no online forums for the community’s members to meet and socialise. Instead, they’d meet up secretly near the polo grounds, exchange stories, build a support system.

Kalu may now have the resources and freedom to do as she wants, but feels it’s too late for hormone replacement therapy now. She now employs more than 20 women and transwomen in her startup that works with traditional handloom and imported fabrics. She is happy to be a role-model of sorts for the transpeople aspiring for careers in the fashion business.

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People like Santa, Kalu and Rocky seem to have chanelled the negative experiences they’ve lived through, towards positive outcomes. But most others find it difficult to cope.

A 2017 study by the Regional Institute of Medical Sciences, Imphal, found high prevalence of comorbid psychiatric disorders in the transgender community, of which substance abuse ranked highest. About 62.5 percent of them had abused alcohol, while 46.8 percent of them were abusing other non-alcoholic psychotropic drugs. Other psychiatric disorders such as anxiety (affecting 37.5 percent of the population), depression (31.2 percent), and suicidal risk (41.2 percent) were also found to be higher among this group.

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Ningol, a friend of Santa’s, admits she turned to alcohol to cope with the challenges of everyday life. Ningol works in the fields during the day to make ends meet; farming doesn’t give her enough to live on independently, so she stays with her brother’s family. Alcohol eases her pain and humiliation. “I’m truly happy and peaceful only when I dress up as woman and spend time laughing with my friends from the community,” Ningol says.

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The 2014 judgement recognising the transpeople as the third gender has helped in many ways. The government of Manipur constituted a 16-member Transgender Welfare Board in August 2016, the first Northeast state to do so. AMANA was also able to facilitate free legal aid from the Manipur State Legal Services Authority for the transgender community, back in 2013.There have been small successes — like the setting up of a separate toilet for transgender people during the Sengei festival, based on AMANA’s proposal. Sensitisation workshops, community-led advocacy, and partnership with government bodies, health and media stakeholders to influence change, have helped the transgender community immensely.

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Over the years, Santa has become more vocal. Her work with AMANA let her to become a Northeast steering committee member of SAHRA (South Asia Human Rights Association) in Bangkok in 2013. That is when she resolved to start her transition, using hormone therapy. When I met her in 2017, her body was still a “work in progress”. However, from associating her body with ‘shame’ in her teens to embracing nudity with ‘pride’, she had come a long way! Posing for and seeing the photographs of her body, stripped of any censorship or shame, was a cathartic experience for her. Through these photographs she hopes to reclaim her identity, challenge the stigma around gender fluidity and raise her voice against the violence perpetrated on the transgender community in the Northeast.

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(Above photo: Rocky)

In September 2018, she underwent SRS (sex reassignment surgery) in Puducherry. “While I have always been a woman, the surgery has given me a sense of being a complete person. It's a new me all over again… clearly the gender affirming surgery is much more than physical,” she said.

While Santa had made peace with her two brothers and their families and even lived with them, she had to walk away when she met the love of her life. She was skeptical of trusting men and never wanted to fall in love, given her past experiences. But when she met Riyaz, from Lakhimpur in Assam, her world turned topsy turvy. “He isn’t literate. He is from a conservative Muslim family. There were these stereotypes in my head. He broke them all. He took me home and announced that I was his wife,” Santa says. They had a beautiful nikah, with the whole village wishing them happiness for life. “I’m living a fairytale I didn't want to dream of. I experience a sense of calm and security with him,” she says. Santa now lives at her sister’s house, along with Riyaz and her nephew.

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She dreams of starting a rehabilitation home someday, to support transgender individuals who deal with the psychological trappings of abuse and ostracism. “If I can be a small part of their journey in affirming their real self, my job is done,” she says. One can clearly see that Santa’s profound voice in the struggle against homophobic, patriarchal and heteronormative mindsets will continue to push boundaries for the transgender community in Manipur and the Northeast.

— All photos by Sindhuja Parthasarathy

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