In Imphal, sometime in the late ’90s, Santa Khurai had her long nails broken with a brick in the dead of night, by a bunch of men. They pinned her on the ground in a dark alley off the nearby National Highway, and forced her to shout: “I am a boy but I act like a girl. I have a d*** and can have sex with girls.” They beat her up with a bamboo baton till it broke. But Khurai didn’t.
In her mid-30s now, Khurai is arguably Manipur’s most famous transgender activist. Her work has created a wide visibility for the trans community in the region. She set up the first beauty salon run by a trans person in Manipur. Its success saw numerous salons mushroom throughout the state, all run by members of the transgender community.
It was a transformative idea. It gave them financial agency and a shot at a relatively better life. But it’s something Khurai only grudgingly talks about now. “Because of the easy money, a lot of transpeople, even after all this time, want to work just there. Children are forced into it so they earn money at the cost of their studies,” she says. Khurai shut her own salon, San Jen, in 2010. What had led her to start off the business? “Money,” says Khurai bluntly.
“My parents didn’t give me money because of my gender identity. Whenever I asked for money, my father refused, because I used to just buy girls’ clothes. I had to be self-sufficient,” says Khurai.
Putting together resources to build that little one-room salon wasn’t easy. She pooled her savings and borrowed money from an aunt to train as a beautician in Delhi. “I used all of that to buy a pair of scissors, a water spray and a carpet. I opened the salon in a small room near where I stay in Imphal,” says Khurai. She was also lucky. “Right after I opened my parlour, Hindi cinema was banned in Manipur. People started making videos and other films locally.Work started coming in. Small film companies hired me.”
Her business flourished. Her desire to assert not just her own identity but also that of the community grew as well. 2010 was a significant year in her life — she was invited to be part of a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) working session, a UN human rights initiative, in Delhi. Once she returned to Manipur, she led the All Manipur NupiMaanbi Association (AMANA), a coalition working towards raising awareness of the rights of the transgender community.
Soon after Khurai joined, AMANA came up with the Trans Queen Contest North East. “We were trying to expand the AMANA network to the entire region. But the community wasn’t coming forward. Fashion and beauty were the only things which seemed to bring out the community and so we decided that a trans-queen contest might be the best way ahead.” It was, as both the community and government officials were involved in a larger discussion on legal rights.
However, that success was also earned the hard way. In the mid-90s, the Democratic Youth Federation of India organised the first state-level trans beauty contest in Manipur. It was a ticketed event and made a fair amount of money. After the show was over, the three top participants in the contest received empty envelopes, with “Sorry” written inside.
The “hijacking” of the trans community’s efforts by non-trans groups from “from outside” is a regular phenomenon, says Khurai. “There are lots of non-LGBTQ groups which work in Manipur but why didn’t they do anything before the NALSA verdict came? Why try to mobilise us only after that judgement? This clearly shows that they want to hijack the rights of the trans community and I am totally against it.”
But the larger picture, acknowledges Khurai, isn’t as bad as it used to be. “After the NALSA verdict of 2014, people definitely became more aware. I helped many in my state to get their gender identity changed through required documentation, which helped them get trans-identity passports,” says Khurai. There are still policy and general cultural impediments, but Khurai says, “the community has to come forward. It’s our duty to force the authorities to take forward the discussion. “
Khurai’s strength now is far removed from the fears that haunted her as a child growing up in a conservative family. Born in Imphal, Khurai says she always had “a sense of who I am and I never identified myself as a boy. Always as a girl.” She went to an all-boys school in Imphal, Don Bosco. “Throughout all these years, I was alone — there was constant staring and mocking, even during the assembly sessions at school. Tiffin breaks meant eating by myself in a corner,” says Khurai. Her parents and three elder sisters were not supportive of her either, but — and Khurai says she’s always surprised — her two younger brothers understood.
If friends were hard to come by and family unsupportive, love has been elusive. In college and after, there were a few men who liked her, says Khurai. “But I realised that it wasn’t affection. It was just the sex,” she says.
Khurai talks about a serious relationship she had with a Kashmiri man, an automobile engineer. “He came down to meet me and spent some nights here. Then he totally disappeared — from social media and otherwise,” says Khurai, “I suffered a mental breakdown after that.”
Last year,Khurai underwent a gender affirmation surgery in Australia. She crowdfunded the entire amount online, collecting over $5000. Shockingly, even for Khurai, there were no donations from India. But there are other complaints that Khurai would rather not talk about: “Corruption and casteism is deep-rooted in India and that has a negative impact on the trans community too. There’s a lot of racism in the queer space, for example. I don’t want to talk much about it. I keep going to mainland India as an activist and I might be attacked for personal reasons,” she says.
But Khurai hopes that society will understand some day. In a poem she wrote, dedicated to her father who had passed away in 2015, Khurai says, “He burned at the common crematorium; The place where many women too burned when they died; There he’s gone, leaving no legacy of his own gender.”
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