This moment is so unreal I’m not even sure how to perceive it. I’m lying on a thin cloth blanket draped over the hard tile floor. A small pillow rest behind my head and this pen on paper is the only thing I can think to do, as I’m not sure sleeping is an option.
There is a transgender woman lying beside me. The room is filled with smoke from the prayer ritual she performed earlier this evening. The fan is on full blast, so strong that I’m really not sure I can sleep through the noise. Her daughter is asleep on the cold floor in the next room, but the lights are still on as I, their guest, is not yet ready for bed. I’m on the far-left corner of the room and she is on the far right. A pillow lays vacant it between us until dawn when the third woman returns from a night of prostitution.
I have been invited into the home of three transgender women. The youngest is a mere 17 years and spends her days begging on the streets. She is young and juvenile. She plays the role of the daughter entirely, cleaning up after her parents, making coffee and tea, fetching a drink or cigarette at their beck and call. Her guardians are not much older; one is 21 and the other 28. Together they live in an apartment smaller than my bedroom. They have their own unique family dynamic that is no different than any other. They support each other financially and emotionally as best they can.
In my quick glimpse into the lives of seven transgender women, I learn the ins and outs of their lifestyle. It was a party they told me, just for me. All the women get together and we enjoy an evening of food and laughter until it is time to go to work. Each of the girls took out their makeup bags, showing me all the products they use as they proudly put on their face. Each woman one by one applies her makeup and changes her clothes for the night to come. I joined them in the ritual and apply some of my own, as I realize they stopped what they were doing to watch and learn from me. They begin to comment on my complexion, hair color, and eyes in a way that I had never experienced before. They kept asking me if I wear lenses and of course my answer was yes because I can’t see without them, but by the time the night rolled around and I lay here writing about the days experience I realized they weren’t asking me if I wore lenses to see, but they didn’t believe that my blue eyes were real. One of the women asked me how I get my complexion so fair. Do you use cream she asked? What can I do to look like you? I’m not sure how to respond, so I returned the quasi complement by telling her how beautiful she looked and that she shouldn’t change a thing. Although in my head, I knew she honestly wanted an answer of how to whiten her skin and get blue contact lenses to look more beautiful.
I stop what I’m doing as I’ve have enough in the spotlight and each of them go back to their own process. Through a strong language barrier, I learn that four of the seven girls around me have graduated from University with degrees in engineering. They explain to me their studies and how some of their hobbies are computer programming and design. I listen to their stories and realize the complexity of what they are telling me versus what I am seeing. These women are educated, they have the ability to live successful lives and be financially stable—only if they were men. The reality of it is that they can brag about their college degrees to me only as they are preparing for a night of prostitution because it is their only possibility of bringing income to their families. They shift from the subject of university to prostitution as if it’s no big deal. They act as if they have accepted their line of work, as there are very few other ways to live their lives openly as trans women. The only woman who doesn’t do sex work anymore lives upstairs and was able get out of it once she married. Her husband, a transgender man, is the moneymaker. She told me a little bit about her active sex life and the other girls giggled to themselves exclaiming, “They have sex every day!”. Their intention was to say that this wasn’t so normal and I’m still not sure why they feel this way. Is her active sex life strange because the rest of them are paid for sex? Is a love relationship so foreign within Indian culture?
Once the girls are dressed and ready for the night we say our goodbyes as I won’t see them until I wake the next morning. The woman laying beside me playing on her phone as I write in my notebook is missing a night’s worth of income just stay behind and chaperone me. As I pause to stare up at the turquoise walls chipping and fading away, I wonder how many others have looked up at the same four walls. The women who live in the apartment told me earlier that they had only lived there for three months. She explained that they have to move often because neighbors have problems living with transgender’s.
I finally get tired, as I think the exhaustion from the overwhelming day finally sinks in…