Crossing the line

Leila and Bano have been on the dance floor for the last couple of hours, dressed in ghagra choli and salwar kameez respectively. They have garish make-up on and have been gyrating to the beats of popular Hindi and Bhojpuri songs. Under the shamiana a bride and groom are meekly accepting gifts and blessings from invitees. The audience is a group of rowdy drunk men whistling and gyrating to the music. As the wedding reception draws to a close, the group breaks into an exalted roar, drawing closer to the dancers.

Few people know Leila and Bano are actually Lalit and Binoy. Drawn by city lights, they came to Kolkata to earn a living and build an identity. But life took a drastic turn and they ended up building alternative identities. They took up cross dressing as a profession and made money by putting up C-grade performances at weddings and private parties.

Their native village in Burdwan district knows nothing about their alternative identities. “No use telling our neighbours anything. Back home nobody will understand our plight. Sometimes it is better the truth remains behind curtains,” said Binoy.
“We go home just for a few days during the rainy season. Our families are scared that someday the truth will be out and we will be thrown out from our homes. The complexities are huge at home but in the city there is a kind of solace in anonymity,” Lalit.

Things are different for Amol, a senior MNC employee, who loves to don his wife’s satin nightwear. “Ever since I was a child I have always had a soft corner for girly things. That made me very different form my peers and slowly I withdrew into a world of my own,” he said.
“It is only when I started working that I came across people who had similar fetishes. Now I have my set of online friends and we even manage to organize parties once in a while. It is then we wear what we choose and not what I am supposed to wear because I was born a male child,” he added.

Most people in this community believe societal norms should not be so suffocating that an individual’s right to happiness is compromised. There are many who do not conform to gender specific roles but have to appear doing the same. For them setting up an alternative identity is as important as life itself. Keeping didactic codes aside, more and more people are bridging the long forgotten route between the heart and the mind.

Subharti Mukherjee, founder president of People Like Us (PLUS), an organization working for emancipation of cross dressers, said, “All cross dressers are transgenders but all transgenders are not cross dressers. Cross dressers are basically women trapped inside the body of a man. Physiologically they are men but they like dressing up like women, putting on make-up and even walk like women.”

“Sometimes they are ruthlessly beaten up and discriminated against almost everywhere in society. We work together with such people and help remove all sense of secondary trauma in them. In most cases they have been found to be vulnerable. We try and make things easier for them,” he added.

Manifestation of one’s bent of mind is best brought out in his choice of clothes. Although feminism played an important role in blurring the obvious stigmas yet, in certain cases that was not enough. Many believe, men too need their own set of emancipated values and first in line among them are the cross dressers.

Psychologically, there could be a number of reasons explaining such demeanour. Common among them are stress, a desire to explore one’s feminine side or just the irrepressible urge to break gender prototypes. For example Eddie Hazzard, the famous British comedian, claims to his crossplay is limited to his performances.

Cross-dressing may begin at a very young age either as a result of parents deliberately dressing their child in clothes of the opposite sex, or he being influenced by a sibling or imitating a person of the opposite gender. The movie ‘Pankh’ explores the after effects of such gender-mingling on the mind of the young male protagonist who had been a famous (girl) child artiste.

The word transvestites as coined by Magnus Hirchfeld, refers to a sexual interest in cross-dressing. He did not restrict his definition to the symbol of clothing alone and referred to people all over the transsexual spectrum. Transvestites can be differentiated from transsexuals and transgender by the fact that they do not permanently want to change their gender, instead they enjoy cross-dressing from time to time.

The earliest references of transvestites are found in the Greek, Roman and Chinese cultures. There are young boys who were admired by grown up men and known to grant sexual favours to the king. William Shakespeare in ‘Merchant of Venice’ and ‘Twelfth Night’ used it for disguise, comic relief and performance.

These days we have ‘drag queens’, where male performers who cross dress with an over the top feminine image complete with loud make up and wigs. Similarly ‘drag kings’ are females who imitate a masculine persona on stage. J M Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’ is a classic example where females are intended to play male characters. Many modern pop singers too have shown their ‘other side’, like Prince in his early videos has made androgynous fashion statements. There are also references to transvestites in the first song of ‘Pink Floyd’.

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