India has a new Miss Transqueen – and she’s heading to the world stage determined to speak out on behalf of the country’s marginalized transgender community.
Fashion designer Shaine Soni was crowned Miss Transqueen India, the country’s beauty pageant for transgender women, on Saturday . She will represent India at next year’s Miss International Queen, the world’s largest competition for transgender women.
Miss Transqueen India was first created in 2017 and involves all the tricks of a traditional beauty pageant – photo ops, talent tours, elaborate costumes, judges and hundreds of spectators.
This year, organizers were unable to hold the competition due to the pandemic, which triggered a nationwide lockdown from late March through May. But Reena Rai, president and founder of Miss Transqueen India, was not ready to give up; she was determined to send a candidate to represent India in the 2021 international competition.
Transqueen India 2020 finalist Reena Rai (Founder, Miss Transqueen India), Shaine Soni, Nithu RS (Miss Transqueen India 2019), from left to right. Credit: Miss Transqueen India
“My contest isn’t just about beauty, it’s about empowerment and inclusion,” Rai told CNN in a phone interview. “If I send someone without having a competition, I have to make sure that they are a very strong candidate, the best of the best, someone who knows the value of (becoming Miss) Transqueen India . “
Soni seemed the obvious choice; as a fashion designer and stylist whose work is known on the competition circuit, she has already helped train contestants and choose their outfits. For years, she has been relatively silent about her own transgender identity while struggling for acceptance from family and friends – but Rai has encouraged her to move forward for the title.
“She has always been a very strong backbone for Transqueen India,” said Rai. “I told him that because you were with us and how important it is, and because you have a hard time coming out publicly, this might be the best platform to do it because it’s something something that a lot of people are going to tap into. and inspiration from. ”
From the bullied child to the contest queen
While Soni was biologically born male, she identified as a girl from a young age – and was confused and dismayed when people around her began to insist that she was a boy. and told him to act and behave like one.
Growing up, she faced increasing pressure from relatives and friends who would discourage her from growing her hair long, wearing ‘girly’ clothes or having ‘effeminate’ manners, a- she said over the phone. “With so much pressure and intimidation around me, I desperately felt that I was different and that there was something wrong with me. “
She found some relief when as a teenager she began to research and find information about gender identity and gender confirmation surgery. She eventually left home at 17, pursued a fashion education, and made the transition to hormone therapy a few years later – a process she described as “difficult.”
“A lot of my friends gave up on me, they couldn’t understand,” she says. “But I was very determined, so I went ahead and did it all on my own. “
Soni never officially spoke to his family, but they kept in touch after his transition – with a big ‘elephant in the room that we don’t report’.
She graduated from the National Institute of Fashion Technology, created her own brand, won a reality TV show, and launched a career as a stylist – that’s how she met Rai.
“When Reena approached me for Miss Transqueen India for the first season in 2017, I was still there to support her, but I was not comfortable at that time due to family pressure,” Soni said. She helped run the show from behind the scenes – and, at the same time, got involved in advocacy for LGBTQ. In recent years, she and other activists across the country have campaigned for greater LGBTQ representation and accurate information in school curricula and textbooks.All the while, there has been more and more talk about LGBTQ issues, and in particular the visibility of transgender people around the world. This year alone, Soni has seen two high profile stars go transgender: actor Elliot Page, star of “Juno” and “The Umbrella Academy”, and makeup artist Nikkie de Jager, better known as NikkiTutorials.
Now, says Soni, she is ready to go on stage publicly as Miss Transqueen India.
“I’m in a place where I can accept this title because I’ve been through so much and I know how difficult it is to be where I am today,” she said. “If someone reads me and finds comfort, I think my goal is absolutely achieved. “
Violence and fear in the LGBTQ community in India
India’s attitudes towards LGBTQ issues are still very conservative and the transgender community is one of the most marginalized in the country. Social stigma is so strong that many who come out are ostracized by society, denied by family members, or blocked from accessing education and employment.There has been progress; The Indian Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in 2014, giving people the right to identify themselves as neither male nor female. The court has given directions to various government departments, including adding “third gender” or “transgender” as an option in all government documents.But physical and sexual violence against transgender people remains extremely high. According to a 2014-2015 survey of nearly 5,000 transgender people by the National AIDS Organization, one-fifth reported having experienced sexual violence in the past 12 months.
Victims of transgender assault have reported police don’t take them seriously or sweep their belongings. Even if a case goes to court, the sentence for rape or sexual assault is often lighter when the victim is transgender, compared to a cisgender woman.Harmful stereotypes in entertainment and the media further perpetuate public mistrust and stigma. Once again this year, critics slammed a film portraying a protagonist possessed by a vengeful transgender ghost, saying it reinforced discriminatory stereotypes of trans people as predators or associated with supernatural evil. This is just the latest in a long history of Bollywood films that mock and slander trans.
This is the environment that Rai strived to change when she launched Miss Transqueen India in 2017. She identifies as cisgender, but became familiar with the LGBTQ community after meeting transgender people.