Nearly five months ago, Sruthy Sithara lost her best friend to suicide. The 28-year-old model and former government employee from the southern Indian state of Kerala remembers her friend Anannyah Kumari Alex as fun-loving and highly talented. Alex was a popular radio jockey and news anchor in Kerala, and the first transgender candidate for legislative assembly elections in the state.
In July, Alex allegedly died by suicide after months of pain, bleeding and disfigurement of her private parts after what she publicly called a “botched” gender confirmation surgery. In a country where violence on trans bodies is committed with impunity, activists called her death “institutional murder.”
“Alex was my mentor, the closest friend and like a sister,” said Sithara. “She wanted me to represent India in the global trans queen pageant, and win it.”
Last week, Sithara became the first Indian to ever win the Miss Trans Global title. Miss Trans Global is an international pageant for transgender women, with the 2021 edition seeing contestants from 16 countries. As soon as Sithara made history by winning the prestigious title, she posted an Instagram dedication to Alex and to her mother, who passed away in 2015. “I'm sure both are witnessing this moment from heaven,” she wrote.
Sithara’s victory was celebrated across India. Dr R Bindu, the minister for higher education in Kerala, tweeted a congratulatory message, noting Sithara’s long struggle to fight societal prejudices against LGBTQ people.
India has The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act in its legal framework, but transgender activists and allied human rights groups say it still fails to protect them. There are nearly 500,000 transgender people among India’s population of 1.3 billion, and they face threats of sexual crimes, assault, blackmail, harassment and even murder.
Born in the small, conservative town of Vaikom in Kerala, Sithara grew up experiencing gender dysphoria because of the prejudices she grew up with. “Just like other trans women, I used to lead an oppressed life, too,” she said. “I couldn’t understand what I was going through and looked at my experience as a problem.”
Sithara didn’t have many friends growing up, but the few she had helped her come out to her family “successfully.” While growing up, Sithara said she faced a lot of bullying and transphobia from people. “But I never let it impact me,” she said. “If anybody is staring at me in public, I stare back in return with a smile on my face. I face all problems and criticisms with a smile.”
When Sithara went to the city of Kochi for college, she had the opportunity to hang out with more transgender community. “Through them, I understood more about trans lives, and realised that I need to live the life I want to, instead of what is expected of me,” she said.
Her first stage of coming out was on Facebook, where she declared she’s no longer the identity assigned to her at birth. “After that, I went to my father with two of my friends from school, and they helped a lot in convincing him about my journey,” she said. “Acceptance is a difficult thing for a transgender person but for me, it felt so smooth and easy. I was scared that my father would reject me, but it was a beautiful moment when he told me that he knew I was a woman six years ago! I’m so proud of him. I hope the next generation of parents of trans people is just as accepting as my father.”
Sithara earned her bachelor’s degree in commerce and had an interest in business studies. In 2018, she worked as a project assistant at the Kerala government’s transgender cell, becoming the first transgender person in the state’s history to have that job. “I was among the first four transgender people to recieve a job in the government’s social justice department,” she said. “I was very proud of myself for making it because it’s very hard for a transgender person to get a government job.”
Through the job, Sithara was able to work on projects that focused on the upliftment of transgender people, and even broadened their inclusion in examinations for prestigious civil administration jobs. Sithara also worked with KK Shailaja, the former health minister of Kerala who was internationally lauded for curbing COVID-19 in her state.
However, when she started her journey as a trans woman, she started dreaming of modelling and acting, and made her debut as a model in 2018. She has acted in local advertisements and music albums and wants to make it big in cinema.
In the mainstream Hindi film industry, there’s a big debate on the representation of trans actors, even for roles where the character is trans. In the past, cisgender actors, whether male or female, have often played trans roles. In one film last year, Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar was accused of reinforcing violent depictions of trans women, while in a movie released last month, actor and cis woman Vaani Kapoor played a trans woman, triggering criticism.
Sithara said this problem exists across all regional film industries in India, too. “What worries us is that trans women are still struggling in the industry, but all the trans roles are going to cisgender people,” she said. “Acting is an art and I’m not debating that a cisgender person can’t play trans roles. But I expect that in the near future, transgender people are given cisgender roles, too. I’d love to play a cis girl’s character one day.”
Sithara said she’s still looking for a role in which she creates a milestone for not just transgender people, but actors, too. “We have to make space for each and every talent in this world,” she said. “There are so many talented people from my community who couldn’t attain what they wanted due to obstacles laid down by societal norms. These norms are not written but followed. By breaking all these barriers, the marginalised people can attain success.”
For the Miss Trans Global pageant, which was held virtually, Sithara prepared for six months to compete with contestants from countries like Australia, the Philippines, the U.K., Indonesia and Japan. In a note to VICE, the organisers of Miss Trans Global said that the definition of a “queen” is someone who is a “voice for the voiceless and marries the ambition of helping a marginalised community that is often discriminated against and persecuted due to misconceptions.”
Miss Trans Global was conceived in 2017 but came together during the pandemic in 2020. “Our communities around the world are often either stuck at home with transphobic family members, or homeless due to family rejections. The discrimination we face worldwide was the drive behind our advocacy, which helps to give a voice to our global community through the Miss Trans Global pageant,” British-Nigerian model and human rights activist Miss saHHara, the founder of the pageant, said in a press note. “Our new queen Sruthy Sithara from India encompasses the activism vision rooted in our foundation as future transgender female leaders.”
While Sithara was the “Queen Global” at the pageant, the runner-up position of the “Duchess Global” went to Filipino contestant Albiean Revalde, while the second runner-up for the “Marchioness Global” was Viviana Santibane from Canada.
Sithara was also awarded the Eloquent Queen of the Year 2021 award along with Revalde from the Philippines. The pageant was completely virtual, as was the announcement. “The experience of the pageant was fabulous,” she said. “This was my first time participating in a virtual competition, and it was challenging because it takes a lot of time. We took around seven to eight months grooming and passing different rounds and tasks. But I learnt a lot and it was especially emboldening to connect with such powerful trans women from different continents.”
Sithara said she can’t wait to be crowned in real life, which will be done in the next few weeks. “I always hoped that I’ll be among the top five but being voted the winner felt surreal. I’m honoured to represent my country,” she said. The winners of the pageant, according to the organisation manifesto shared with VICE, are required to work “tirelessly” as spokespeople on transgender issues to create a positive impact in communities across the world.
The next step, Sithara said, is to create awareness within her immediate circle. “There’s a lot of medical negligence and mental health issues in trans and queer lives,” she said, referring to her friend Alex’s untimely demise. There are a lot of misconceptions about the transgender community, and through her work, Sithara aims to smash prejudices first, and then work towards a better future for other trans and LGBTQ people.
“I have always faced the world with a positive attitude, and I hope people take these changes I want to bring about positively, too,” she said.
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.