‘Now Is Definitely Not the Right Time to Work as a Transgender Model’

Activist, model and actor Naaz Joshi has signed the Bollywood film Revenge and recently won an international title, becoming India’s first international transgender beauty queen. Joshi has has also won the Miss World Diversity pageant three times in a row. In conversation with Diksha Yadav, Joshi talks about how even after giving around 25 years of her life to the fashion industry, and winning several beauty pageants for the country, she has never been recognised for her work.

Joshi also says the Indian government also neglects her and her community as they are not viable “vote banks.” Excerpts from the interview are as follows.

How has your life changed since becoming India’s first transgender international beauty queen? What does this win mean to you and your community?

My life hasn’t changed much. I have won seven international beauty pageants. In India, people don’t celebrate the beauty of transgender women. If one compares my success with a cisgender woman, it is significant. But they don’t celebrate us. I often see articles about the mainstream trans community in the media, but not in my case. There are two more international pageant winners who also didn’t get any recognition.

I feel proud whenever I hear the word India during the finals at beauty pageants. It’s a privilege to raise the Indian flag abroad.

Have we matured as a society when it comes to transgender persons, accepting them and their fame?

No, society is still not ready to accept our fame. People don’t know who Naaz Joshi, Ojas Rajani and Padmini Prakash are. We may be known to some people in our industry, but we are not celebrities.

You have won many national and international beauty contests, but why is it that no mainstream media covered those events as they do Miss India and Miss World?

In India, people aren’t ready to accept transgender celebrities. They don’t understand that we work harder than any Miss Universe or Miss World. For every pageant, like any other contestant, we have to get our outfits designed, pay pageant fee, buy air tickets, and so on. We are sexual minorities. It’s the responsibility of the media to focus on transgender women and make them more visible. But every time we have to beg for coverage.

You even wrote letters to Prime Minister Narendra Modi highlighting your problems. Did anything come out of your efforts?

We are not his vote banks, why will he even bother? We are called a curse to the society and the Indian government isn’t doing anything for us. Whether it’s the Transgender (Protection of Rights) Bill [which has now come to effect as an Act] or the national award for transgender persons, we have just seen politics and favouritism.

What was your journey with gender dysphoria?

I was just 3-4 years old when I felt like a girl. I started playing with dolls, other girls and used to wear my mom’s makeup.

You are from the fashion industry. Have you ever faced discrimination there? In your own community, do people support each other or are there differences?

There is no denying that there are many differences within our own community. Some in my community, who consider themselves celebrities, make sure that no newcomer gets any project. In fact, sometimes senior celebrities also ask organisers not to call newcomers to events.

In the fashion industry, I guess people are accepting of transgender designers. That’s why the media embraced Saisha Shinde, the transgender woman who designed Harnaz Sandhu’s Miss Universe gown.

The idea of what is beautiful and what isn’t is still defined by the cis community. In this context, how do you see ‘beauty’ and why did you decide to join the fashion industry in the first place? Do you have any advice for those from the transgender community aspiring to work in the industry?

The idea of being beautiful is definitely overwhelming outside but I value inner beauty more. Inner beauty is all about bringing smiles on the faces of the poor and needy and not just having the best figure and flawless skin. We are all imperfect and I think that imperfection is beautiful. For me, Laxmi Aggarwal is beautiful because she is constantly working with acid attack survivors.

To my transgender sisters who are aspiring to work as models in the industry, I would tell them that it’s definitely not the right time. Lakme can give a chance to Nepalese transgender persons but not to Indians. Transgender women in India face regressive tropes in modelling, acting, and the fashion industry.

People allege that leaders of the transgender community don’t work for the upliftment of their community, i.e. they don’t provide education to young members of the community and help them in their profession. What do you have to say about this? How important do you think education is to remove the stigma around sexual minoroties?

Education is of utmost importance to transgender children and youth. Our leaders do very little and exaggerate it so that they can get funds from international organisations. The leaders themselves are so insecure that they don’t want to uplift others. There is a small gang that is supporting each other and they don’t want anyone else to be uplifted.

Transgender persons are always seen during happy celebrations, can you speak on why their participation is often limited to these?

In India, people spend lakhs on the birth of a child, wedding, opening of a new store, or shifting to new construction. But at the same time, they just want to perceive us that way (with discrimination). For them, a transgender woman dressed in an evening gown and corporate attire is a bit too much. I have also heard from my transgender sisters that if they get jobs in BPO, co-workers start bullying them. So, in all, we are living in a hypocritical society.

What sort of representation is the transgender community seeking?

We demand equality, respect, and reservation in jobs. Most importantly, we also want people to accept us as women or men, trans women are women too and trans men are men too.

How were your early years growing up in a Delhi-Mumbai household like?

I became independent and was introduced to sex work at a very tender age. I never got the love of a family. To sum it up, I haven’t seen childhood.

Do you think that you have achieved the success you once dreamed of?

Success is a very subjective term. It may vary from person to person. I will be successful when I make the path for my sisters to enter mainstream society and actually ensure that they enjoy their fundamental rights as per the constitution of India.

The transgender community faced a lot of problems during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. What was your experience?

My problems aren’t lesser than any other transgender woman. I do modelling and organise events. As it is, there is very little work for transgender persons and after the pandemic, it has come down to zero. With Milaap donations and by teaching kids, I try to make do.

What do you like to do in your free time? 

I am a water person who love fishes. I have six fish tanks with one beautiful betta fish in each tank. I own two dogs. Besides this, I also love gardening and have over 50 plants to take care of. I love watching film too.

What are your future plans?

I want to become a Bollywood actress and wish to earn a lot of money so that I can set up an NGO and a shelter home for my transgender sisters. Recently, I have also signed a Bollywood movie Revenge, which is Vipin K. Sethi’s next directorial venture.

Diksha Yadav is a freelance journalist who has previously worked with several publications including The Hindu, The Statesman, and India CSR.