Transgender Talk Show Host Tackles Taboos in India

Rose Gets Her Hair Done i

Rose gets her hair done at a non-profit organization in Chennai that promotes HIV education in the transexual community. Scott Carney, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Scott Carney, NPR
Rose Gets Her Hair Done

Rose gets her hair done at a non-profit organization in Chennai that promotes HIV education in the transexual community.

Scott Carney, NPR
Priya Babu i

Priya Babu was sold into the sex trade for about $75 in the early 90s. Eventually she was rescued and is now a documentary filmmaker and a social worker. She says Rose's prominent place on TV is helping transgender people in India. Scott Carney, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Scott Carney, NPR
Priya Babu

Priya Babu was sold into the sex trade for about $75 in the early 90s. Eventually she was rescued and is now a documentary filmmaker and a social worker. She says Rose's prominent place on TV is helping transgender people in India.

Scott Carney, NPR
Screengrab via YouTube

India may be the home of the Kama Sutra, but for years frank talk about sex has been utterly taboo.

Lately, however, a transgender talk show host is changing the boundaries of dialogue. In recent episodes of her show Ippadikku Rose, Rose has tackled workplace harassment, divorce, premarital sex and the benefits of legalizing prostitution.

In the past, blunt discussion of such topics has drawn serious backlash. In 2005, for example, a popular Tamil actress was slapped with a lawsuit when she broached the subject of premarital sex. Around the same time, a nightclub was shut down after a photo in a local paper showed a couple kissing on its leather couches.

When Rose broaches these issues, miraculously, no one flinches.

A figure willing to take on controversy is just what Indian society needs, says Arun Ram, the metro editor at the Times of India in Chennai, who has been following Rose's rise to fame.

"In the long run, it will help the society fight moral policing by the political parties, by the so-called 'culture vultures,' " he says.

One reason that Rose is able to broach sexual topics is the low status of transgender people in Indian society. Already at the bottom, Rose can't be knocked down any further by the guardians of sexual morals.

Viewers might not realize that Rose — in her makeup, bindi and peach-colored sari — was born a boy. But she is not afraid to flaunt her transgender identity. She speaks to viewers from a stage shaped like the symbol of femininity — an O with a plus sign — with the male symbol hanging behind.

"Transsexuals face extreme problems here in India. Out of that, I decided that I needed to do something big. So I sat down and developed this talk-show concept," Rose says.

In Chennai, many transsexuals, known as hijras, are involved in the sex trade. It's a dangerous line of work, with the threat of violence from the police and local rowdies who rape them or demand bribes.

"I want to break the big myth that they have by being a highly educated, highly articulate, sociable transsexual person who is talking about social issues — their own concerns," Rose says.

She believes that sharing her own story of abuse will help ease the plight of all hijras.

"It was so much that I went through when I was outside. There was ridicule, physical abuse, and I was even raped once by a group of drunken men," she says.

About 1 percent of the Indian population is transgender, according to Priya Babu, a transgender social worker.

Now that Rose is on TV, people are starting to accept the group a little more.

"We finally have a voice that people listen to, and they don't fear us as much," Babu says.

Valsala Vasu, a government social worker in North Chennai, agrees. Before the talk show, she says, she used to despise hijras, but now she sees them as a valuable third perspective.

"Hijras have a male body and a female soul, so they know both genders. This society never knew how hijras thought and felt. Now, when Rose speaks, we understand that they can offer a new dimension to the conversation," she says.

Message boards on the the TV channel's Web site overflow with compliments and suggestions. One writer posted that seeing Rose changed his attitudes about hijras from disgust to acceptance. Most comments simply end with, "Thank you." Yet even with the positive response, Rose is afraid that she will eventually feel the backlash.

"I will be in the media. I will be there for a long time, until someone kills me," she says, with a little laugh. "Until I die, I will expose their hypocrisy."

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