It happened one evening as Vidhya Rajput neared her home in the central Indian city of Raipur. A cluster of about two dozen men began screaming slurs at her from the roadside.
There was nothing new or surprising about the scene. Growing up transgender in India, Rajput, 42, had endured decades of abuse. In school, boys had urinated on her and locked her in bathrooms so frequently that she was forced to go outside instead. In her teenage years, the abuse became so unbearable that she tried several times to take her own life.
This time, though, something snapped, and Rajput turned and faced her tormentors.
“I answered them in their own words,” she said in an interview. “I stood against them because I am less than no one.”
It was a galvanizing moment for Rajput, who since that confrontation a decade ago has grown into one of India’s most prominent transgender activists. Her talent for grassroots lobbying has contributed to a remarkable transformation across India, where a gay rights revolution has recently toppled a clutch of repressive laws that classified people like Rajput as criminals.
In recent years, Rajput has helped officials conduct a regional census of transgender Indians and persuaded her home state of Chhattisgarh to include sections about LGBT people in high school textbooks, to donate 190 apartments to transgender people and to spend thousands of dollars on a project recruiting transgender police officers.
And in September, Rajput marched at the front of the first gay pride parade in Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh. She said her most meaningful breakthrough was persuading officials to help organize 15 wedding ceremonies for transgender people from around the country this year.
Legal recognition of those marriages is probably a distant proposition in India, where gay sex was decriminalized only last year. But Rajput said today’s horizon was brighter than the one she saw as a child, when she had no idea that her feelings could even be named.
Her motivation, she said, was to help young Indians gain access to the things she never could.
“My loneliness keeps me going, the discrimination, the fact that I do not have anyone to care for me,” Rajput said. “I think, ‘If I help others, the situation could be better.’ Loving them, mentoring them, all of that, I do.”
Rajput was born in 1977, off a dirt road in Pharasgaon, a small village south of Raipur. When she was an infant, her father died of cancer, leaving her mother, who was illiterate, to support six children by growing and selling papaya; sal seeds to make flour; and home-brewed liquor.
Rajput, whose first name was originally Vikas, knew at an early age that she felt different from other boys, gravitating to the girls in her village, learning to apply makeup and secretly trying on her mother’s clothing.
Puberty brought a cycle of sexual and psychological torment. Peers stole her lunch at school and pulled down her pants. She says a neighbor regularly sexually assaulted her, as did one of her brothers.
Rajput said her mother would beat her when she complained and blamed her for inviting the abuse. Only later in life did she come to understand that this was her mother’s way of trying to protect her.
“I realized she was scared that if I showed my true colors, I would face great threats,” Rajput said.
But back then the hardships took their toll. “Every day I thought I should die,” she said of her youth. “I felt like I was in a river, and there was life, lots of water, and I had to journey here and there, but nobody understood me.”
The family’s finances plummeted and around the age of 12, Rajput started sleeping with men to pay for pens and notebooks for school. Her depression became so severe that she tried to kill herself several times, swallowing poisonous seeds, drinking pesticide and, at one point, standing at the edge of a cliff, ready to jump off.
Rajput said she had held back only because she could not bear the thought of leaving her mother. Through it all, she says, she had a soft spot for her mother, whom she felt a need to protect. She was still determined to make peace.
In the late 1990s, she moved to Raipur and took a job at a low-budget establishment called the Hotel Guru. The work was a blur of 12-hour-shifts, but there was a silver lining: Two employees, themselves transgender, told her about a park where other transgender people gathered.
Rajput, who still presented as male, was unsure how to identify. She had not met transgender people in Pharasgaon but knew that they were relegated to dark corners in India. Shunned by their families, many of them are forced to work for gurus — some of them transgender, others religious figures — who exchange social support for payments made through prostitution and begging.
At the park, transgender women told Rajput horrifying stories about HIV outbreaks, gang rapes and sexual slavery. She refused to accept that fate.
“Everybody wants to live with dignity,” she said.
By her 30s, Rajput had become more sure of herself. She began wearing makeup and growing out her hair. She changed her name to Vidhya. She also made peace with her mother, who moved into Rajput’s apartment, a gray, airless room with a communal bathroom and just enough space for a bed.
Kai Schultz, The New York Times