Trans model Ivaanka Das is gaining momentum in India for her bold appearance and outspoken personality.
Behind her gorgeous, intriguing smile and her fierce look, however, there are years of confusion and discrimination.
Ivaanka now ‘proudly’ identifies as trans and is in the process of legally changing her gender, but her journey hasn’t been easy. Growing up in conservative West Bengal hasn’t helped.
India decriminalized gay sex by scrapping Section 377 last September, but the road to a full acceptance of the whole LGBTI community is still long and bumpy.
Dating as a straight trans woman in India
‘Things have changed a little bit [since then],’ Ivaanka told Gay Star News.
‘The new generations are more educated. They follow Western culture and trends, so their families have no other option than to accept them. There are [Western] reality shows airing on Indian TV, many gay stars are out… and thanks to Bollywood and Miss Transqueen India society is changing, but gender identity is still a big taboo here.’
Despite Indian laws allow to legally change one’s gender, it’s the people’s attitude towards transness that needs to improve.
‘If you have a good social status, people will be nice to you. Otherwise, they will just treat you like you’re from some other world.’
Dating as a straight trans woman can be tricky.
‘At the end of the day, men need biological women only. ‘Cause what will they say to their parents? That they have a relationship with a trans girl who can’t give birth naturally?’
Ivaanka was married to a woman before coming out
Ivaanka identifies as straight now, but she has been married to a woman for several years before dealing with her attraction to men. She refers to her marriage as an ‘amazing experience’.
‘I identified as a man back then, but my wife knew everything about me. We have always treated each other as best friends rather than a couple. We were friends first, then we started our relationship and got married in 2010. After our separation, I left my hometown Kolkata and came to Delhi.’
‘I used to say I was bisexual, which was the biggest lie of my life. I am made for guys.’
A breakup and her spirituality helped her realize she was trans
Finally, Ivaanka realized she identified as trans thanks to a bad breakup and her spirituality.
‘One of the guys I’ve dated [while I still identified as a male] made me realize that I am actually a woman. He did not tell me anything. In fact, he left me and went back to his own heterosexual life with girls.
‘I was in love and have been into an honest relationship with him for three years. His presence and the time we spent together… those things made me realize what I am.
‘After we broke up, I was very depressed. That’s when I went to the Isckon temple of Lord Krishna and through that spirituality, I got inner power and felt I was reborn. I understood I am a woman,’ she explains.
She says her female identity has always been with her but ‘it took time to realize that what I truly am comes from my soul’.
‘It has been around three years now. I decided to change my sex because I don’t want my biological body, which is not mine.’
She recalls having struggled with gender dysphoria her whole life.
‘Something which is not yours or not your own, you can’t keep it forcefully. We should go with the flow with naturality. God has wanted me to realize that to know myself better or perhaps he has wanted me to realize how strong I am in challenging the society.’
Queer spaces in India
A dancer and a model, she owns the catwalks as well as the stage of popular club Kitty Su in Chandigarh, the capital of Haryana and Punjab.
She will always be grateful to the club’s owner Keshav Suri, an openly gay hotelier and activist who is helping create LGBTI spaces in his country.
‘He brought drag culture in India. After RuPaul’s Drag Race, Suri organized events here and he brought many winners and contestants from the show over to our country,’ Ivaanka says.
‘Drag has been around for centuries in India. Take Kathakali, for example,’ she says referring to a traditional theater form from Kerala where male actors perform in costume.
‘Men have always dressed like women. But when it comes to identity and personal choices, we refuse to give others space.’
Her baldness is her signature look
With her distinctive look, Ivaanka is disrupting another stereotype about femininity. Although her lack of hair made things more difficult at first, it has since become Ivaanka’s trademark.
‘My look is now a hot topic. Different people have different opinions about it, of course. I get mixed reactions and I have to face hate each and every day,’ she says.
‘I am not the only woman from India [being bald] as many celebrities have done it and looked stunning. But they also struggled a lot because here people want to see a woman with long hair and soft Indian features.’
Ivaanka explains that religion plays a big part in what is traditionally considered to be appropriate for a woman in India.
‘[It is] because of goddesses like Durga, Lakshmi, and Saraswati and the way we grew up worshipping them and also the appearance of the women in our families, wearing saris, having long hair and wearing lots of jewelry. We still don’t want women to come out so loudly and be so unique.’
Nonetheless, her family has fully accepted her transition.
‘My mom and dad passed away years ago and I stay with my mom’s family at the moment. They didn’t support me when I came out as bisexual at 17 nor when I came out as trans,’ she says.
‘But they have changed a lot and finally accept me as a daughter. And as for people who don’t, I always show my middle finger to them.’
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.