11/19/2014 04:49 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Milla: Being Transgender in India


Milla is an impossibly beautiful young woman. And she knows it. In every WhatsApp and Facebook selfie she commands attention and arouses desire in young men in Chennai and beyond. When my friends see her pictures, they get so excited by her beauty. When I say that she is transgender, they become all the more excited. This was surprising to me, as I expected at least some of my friends to be put off by Milla's specialness. Maybe it's about the universal desire for "forbidden" fruit, or maybe it's about how Indian guys see the world; I'm not sure.

A professional actress, Milla is taking time off to prepare for her "final cut" in Thailand. Her transition is nearly complete, and life right now seems better as completion approaches. But what is "better"? How can I possibly understand? Of course I can't. But I can show support and love for Milla (even though I hardly know her). Life as a transgender person is not easy anywhere. In India life for transgender people is hard, but in some ways it is strangely better too.

I say it's better because of the respect that hijras (a term that may encompass transgender and gender-nonconforming people, intersex people, and eunuchs) enjoy in traditional Indian and South Asian culture.

Members of the "third gender," known as "hijras" in Hindi and "thirunangai" in Tamil, have forever been simultaneously feared and revered in India. Often traveling in groups, they can show up at a wedding or at a baby's christening and demand a payment lest the wedding be completely spoiled by a rowdy gang of bawdily dancing hijras or the baby be cursed, hence the fear factor.

But hijras are also respected for their spiritual power. One time I was walking along the beach with my friend Saravanan, and as a hijra approached, he gave her 10 rupees in order to receive a "blessing." When we met up with my other friend Jango, I told him the story, and he said, "That's good, bro. So powerful." In fact, hijras are often specifically invited to weddings and christenings to bestow their auspicious blessings.

Hijras even enjoy a special status from the Indian government. In the spring of 2014, the "centre" (analogous to the federal government in the United States) passed a law that sets aside guaranteed quotas for jobs and educational opportunities for hijras, thereby officially recognizing the "third gender." Other neighboring countries, such as Nepal and Pakistan, already have such laws in place.

But discrimination and overt disdain continue in India. Perhaps the main reason that there are so few reports of violent attacks against hijras (unlike in the U.S., where transgender people, particular transgender women, face high rates of violence) is that people think disrespecting a hijra would bring bad luck. Milla is "lucky" because she has the support of her mother and her friends. But she feels the fear and hate every day.

Also, many transgender people in India are reluctant to assume the role of a "third gender," preferring to live in accordance with the gender with which they identify, male or female. Milla is part of this new generation of Indian transgender people. Hopefully, Indian society will come around to a more sophisticated understanding of sexuality and gender identity. It has to happen sooner or later. For example, the notion of homosexuality, actually a completely separate subject from gender identity, is utterly misunderstood or intentionally misrepresented in Indian society. If you're a gay man, everyone assumes that you are somehow a hijra or an impotent man without functioning genitals.

So I asked Milla a few questions, and we had a typical WhatsApp chat in "Tanglish" (Tamil/English).

Christopher: "Challenges and victories ah?"

Milla: "Strength is always me and myself. Challenges are to become a woman and show the world that even I can...And even I was right. And the love part was always not true. Except true people like you...Ya, Soo many [challenges]...I always wanna to be a women but people in India will never accept you...And we will always be hurt till the end."

Christopher: "What do you say when people call u wonbatu?"

["Wonbatu" is a derogatory slang word for a transgender person in Tamil. It's the word for the number 9, but literally it means "defective 10," so you can see the slight.]

Milla: "Hmmm when they call me that way...I was getting angry and even tried to talk back...But then now I don't see people callin me that way."

[Perhaps life as a trans woman in India is a little better for Milla because all the boys want her.]

Christopher: "Soo many guys (straight?) think ur hot and want to get w you...what's up w Indian boys?"

Milla: "Ya they see me hot...But they won't accept it in front of there friends or family...In private yes, they do thin that I AM HOT...Soo it's jus sex?? Isn't it??"

Christopher: "Yah, no one talks openly about sex here. Whatever. Not necessarily good or bad, just India (now)"

Milla: "[smiley face]"

So Milla pushes on in life, continuing to be fabulous every day and trying to raise the 3 lakh rupees ($5,000 USD) to complete her transition.

"I jus wanna be great Indian woman," she tells me.

She already is.