MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
I'm Alex Chadwick. India is the home of the ancient how-to sex text, the Kama Sutra, but modern times have left much of that country with a different view of sexuality. It's often a taboo subject now. There is one TV talk show that is raising questions about sex and so far, at least, getting away with it. Scott Carney reports from Chennai, India on the rise of Rose, a talk show host, with uncommon credentials.
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SCOTT CARNEY: On the TV screen, a woman with a peach colored sari and smile looks defiantly at the camera. The stage is shaped like a symbol of femininity, an O with a plus sign hanging off. The male symbol hangs behind her. Slowly, the camera zooms in on Rose's face, revealing diamond earrings, a jeweled necklace and a bindi on her forehead. If you're tuning in for the first time, you might not know that she was born a boy.
Ms. ROSE (Host, "Ippadikku Rose" Talk Show): The topics that we handle are pretty controversial for the Indian audience here.
Mr. CARNEY: That's Rose, host of the Talk Show, "Ippadikku Rose." One of her programs advocated legalizing prostitution. She also tackled harassment in the workplace, divorce and premarital sex. They're issues that rarely get talked about in India, but Rose says that they're about India's most pressing.
Ms. ROSE: I want to break that big myth that they have by being a highly educated, a highly articulate, beautiful, sociable transsexual person, who's talking about social issues. Issues of large social concern, you know - their own problems.
Mr. CARNEY: Rose brings sex talk to the table in a way that others in India haven't been able to do without serious backlash. In 2005, a popular Tamil actress said that there should be frank and open dialogue and premarital sex in Chennai. Just a few days later, Hindu fundamentalists were on her doorstep with a lawsuit. They demanded that she retract her grave insult to Tamil womanhood, but when Rose broaches the same issues, no one flinches.
Mr. ARUN RAM (Metro Editor, The Times of India): Somebody had to take up these issues. Bring it to the open for a discussion and Rose has done it.
Mr. CARNEY: That's Arun Ram, Metro Editor at The Times of India in Chennai, who's been following Rose's rise to fame.
Mr. RAM: And also, in the long run, we'll help this society fight the moral policing by the government, by the political parties, by the so-called cultural watchers.
Mr. CARNEY: One of the reasons Rose is able to broach sexual topics is precisely because of the low status that transsexuals have in Indian society. Most people fear them. Already at the bottom, the normal guardians of sexual morals can't exactly knock Rose down any more rungs.
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Mr. CARNEY: In a Chennai slum, a group of transgenders, called "hijras," gather to beg in front of a medical supply shop. These are the work-a-day hijras, representing the vast majority who haven't been embraced by the media. Many end up working in brothels. Priya Babu was a transgender social worker who used to be a prostitute.
Mr. PRIYA BABU (Social Worker, Chennai): (Through translator) Most hijras are into the sex trade and begging, but the sex can be very dangerous as they face violence from police and local rowdies who rape them or demand bribes.
Mr. CARNEY: And Rose believes that telling her own story of abuse on the air will help lesson the plate of all hijras.
Ms. ROSE: So, there was so much I went through when I was outside, you know. There was no income. There was ridicule. There was physical abuse. I was even raped once by a group of drunken men, and out of that I decided that I need to do something big. And so, I sat down and developed this talk show concept.
Mr. CARNEY: Only about one percent of India is transgender. Priya Babu says media attention is beginning to make things better for this tiny minority.
Mr. BABU: (Through translator) Now that I see Rose on TV, people are starting to accept us. We finally have a voice that people listen to and they don't fear us as much.
Mr. CARNEY: Indeed, that was exactly the reaction of Valsala Vasu, a government social worker in North Chennai. She says that before the talk show, she used to despise hijras. Since seeing the show, she has begun to see them as a valued third perspective.
Ms. VALSALA VASU (Government Social Worker, Chennai): (Through translator) 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.
Mr. CARNEY: And so far, audiences seem receptive to hijra talking frankly about sex. Message boards on Vijay TV website overflow with complements and suggestions. Yet, even with the positive response, Rose is afraid that someday a backlash against her may come. She's ready if it does, she says.
ROSE: I will be in the media. I will be there for a long time, unless, of course, someone kills me. Until I die I will be there, I will expose their hypocrisy. I will continue to be a celebrity.
CARNEY: For NPR News, I'm Scott Carney in Chennai, India.