By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 9, 2007
CHENNAI, India -- In a congested neighborhood full of trash heaps, cows and auto-rickshaws lives a budding star named Rose.
Her photographs are splashed across newspaper pages and magazine centerfolds. She speaks at upscale women's clubs and poses for fashion shoots in her diva-like designer chiffon sari. She gets free makeovers at the mall from admiring cosmetics saleswomen.
In a few weeks, Rose will become India's first transgender host of a late-night TV chat show, to be broadcast to millions of homes in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
But her neighbors know none of this. They know Rose as Ramesh Venkatesan, just another young man living with his parents and trying to eke out a living.
Rose, who is 28 and uses only her first name, said that she has kept her identity secret from her neighbors for three years. She fears they would jeer at her parents if they knew.
She has reason to be concerned. The transgender community in this country has long been discriminated against, a people to be lampooned in movies. Transgender Indians are so oppressed that many earn a living only by making themselves a nuisance; they show up at weddings or shops, clapping their hands and demanding money from people who are all too eager to shoo them away.
Rose wants to change that. Her forthcoming show, called "Yours, Rose," will be a venue to debate all kinds of socially taboo topics. It will be aired by Star Vijay, a Tamil-language channel owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.
"I want to break social stereotypes about transgender people through my TV show," said Rose, tall and bejeweled with blond streaks in her hair.
"People will be curious about me. I know curiosity is not acceptance, but it is a start," she said. She talks openly about the fact that she regularly gets hormone shots, and about the fact that she has not yet decided whether to undergo sex reassignment surgery.
A decade ago, such public discussion of sexual identity or sexual orientation would have been unthinkable. India's first major motion picture about lesbians, "Fire," was attacked by extremist groups. Movie posters were burned and theaters barred from screening the film. Gay men and lesbians paraded through the streets by the tens of thousands to assert their rights; it was a demonstration like none this country had ever seen.
Rose's show reflects shifts in a society that has learned to acknowledge the presence of sexual minorities. It's also a testament to the growing willingness of private television channels to address sensitive issues. In Muslim-majority Pakistan, Begum Nawazish Ali became the first transgender South Asian television host only two years ago.
"We were looking for a movie star to host our late-night chat show. And Rose just walked in and impressed us with her personality and education," said Pradeep Milroy Peter, head of programming for Star Vijay, which attracts more than 56 million viewers. "We said, let's profile you as the Oprah of this market."
On "Yours, Rose," guests, experts and a studio audience will discuss marriage, divorce, drugs and sexuality. During a recent brainstorming session, the Star Vijay team and Rose struggled to determine the show's tenuous limits. Rose wanted to express her radical views on marriage, faith and sexuality, but channel officials urged her to go slowly.
"We have to be cautious. We can push the envelope but cannot afford to bang the door down. We don't want angry demonstrators outside our office," Peter explained. "We will debate sexuality, but not in the first couple of weeks. At the end of the day, my father and my mother should be able to accept the show and its host."
The channel's communications director advised Rose not to be too candid about her personal life in interviews with journalists, because he was trying to give her a "classy image."
Rose said her journey has never been easy. She endured merciless taunting from classmates at school because she was different. She went to college at Louisiana Tech University, where she studied biomedical engineering, but said she found the United States to be "too homophobic and trans-phobic."
Eventually, Rose said, she found herself teaching Indian call center employees to speak English the way Americans do. But when she came out three years ago, her contract was not renewed.
Her family threw her out in embarrassment, later taking her back grudgingly. Her mother tells her not to wear saris or makeup and not to be overtly feminine at home or in the neighborhood. As a result, Rose leaves home every day hiding her jewelry and makeup in her purse and carrying a change of women's clothes.
But living with her parents also wards off unwanted attention from drunk men at night. She says a social stereotype of transgender people as sex workers leads employers to deny them jobs and landlords to refuse them housing.
"A transgender or a gay person cannot walk anywhere without the usual catcalling, sniggering and name-calling," said Sunil Menon, who works with sexual minorities and runs a support organization called Sahodaran. "Rose gives us hope because she demonstrates that you can overcome social stigma."
Menon said that the transgender community enjoyed social acceptance in the cultural traditions of Hinduism and Islam in India, but that British rule imposed "Victorian morality."
Rose and her friend Priya Babu, a transgender activist, are working on a book about the transgender community. They also regularly conduct awareness programs for police officers in Tamil Nadu. Meanwhile, Rose has begun educating upper-class women.
On a recent afternoon, she spent five hours having makeup applied and posing for a photo shoot for Society, an upscale magazine. She wore a designer sari with matching bracelets and chandelier earrings.
As the city's best-known fashion photographer clicked away, a popular 1980s song by Foreigner played in the background -- "I've been waiting for a girl like you."