It’s Thursday morning in Bangalore, a city in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. Community reporter Christy Raj, 27, is hurrying to finish his work before 12:30 p.m., the hour when his favorite radio show, “Yaaru Ivaru,” begins on Radio Active CR 90.4 MHz, a community-run radio station.
"This is the only program that makes me feel that the world is equal. " – Christy Raj, India’s first transgender reporter
Raj says he wouldn’t miss the program for the world. The reason is simple: This is the only media show in his region that is by, of and for people like him: transgenders.
Yaaru Ivaru, which translates to “Who is This Person?,” advocates for the rights of the transgender community. It also provides a space for trangender people to express themselves.
“This is the only program that makes me feel that the world is equal and where there is a space for people other than male or female,” Raj says with a smile.
Yet, there is a tinge of sadness in his voice.
As a teenager, Raj says his own parents beat him unconscious and threw him out of their home when they learned that their child, whom they had brought up as a daughter, identified as a boy.
“They thought I was a freak creature that would bring them shame and dishonor,” he says. “For them, it would have been better if I had died instead.”
Raj may have died had he not been found by a fellow transgender, who took him in and gave him shelter and care. A few years later, he found a job in a nongovernmental organization that works with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community here.
Raj eventually received journalism training in a local community media organization, becoming India’s first transgender reporter.
“There are dozens of TV channels and hundreds of newspapers and magazines,” he says. “But you won’t find a transgender person there even if you look through a magnifying glass.”
He says this leads to inaccurate reporting on the community.
“When they run a story on the transgender community, the facts are either distorted or extremely sensationalized,” Raj says.
In sharp contrast, Radio Active recognizes the transgender community as an equal player in building society. And Raj says he never misses a segment of Yaaru Ivaru.
A local community radio station in Bangalore aims to give a voice to transgender people through its programming and other initiatives. Station staff and listeners say that the coverage by and for transgenders has helped them to live positively and to attain greater access to opportunities ranging from education to employment. Other initiatives are also using the media here to provide more accurate and effective coverage on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Still, community members acknowledge that more needs to be done as many still don’t feel comfortable publicly identifying themselves as transgender.
There are about 5 million to 6 million transgender people among India’s population of more than 1.2 billion, according to The Humsafar Trust, a Mumbai-based nongovernmental organization that advocates for the rights and dignity of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
In addition to reaching transgender listeners, Radio Active also creates space for the community members to play important roles in the station. For example, the host of Yaaru Ivaru is Priyanka Divakar, who is a transsexual.
Born a man, Divakar, 27, says she has always identified as a woman. As such, she says she drew the same humiliation that her fellow members of the transgender community face in this country.
“I was mocked for my feminine qualities at school,” she says. “My parents also were rude and often beat me. One day, I told my mother I was going to a temple but ran away from home.”
Divakar fled to Mumbai, the capital of the Indian state of Maharashtra, to escape the humiliation. There, she lived for months off sex work and begging before undergoing a sex change.
Today, as the host of the show Yaaru Ivaru, Divakar engages community members in discussions in order to address the challenges they face. Divakar invites members of the local transgender community onto the show, which creates space for candid discussions on trending issues. Advocates say the show increases freedom of expression as well as strives to find solutions.
The list of the challenges that transgenders say they face is long: lack of access to livelihood options, housing, education, health care and humane treatment by the police. Divakar says that the biggest problem that they face in India is lack of acceptance at home.
“Most of the times, parents themselves disown their children on finding out their sexual identity,” she says. “This drives them straight into a world of economic, social and emotional insecurity, which, in turn, results into them joining the sex industry, begging or other criminal activities. This is one of the reasons that so many transgender people are affected by HIV and are considered part of sex racket.”
Yaaru Ivaru campaigns for equality and advocates for the rights of the transgender community.
“Radio Active is a medium for different community groups to converge and discuss issues of relevance, to find solutions, to look at empowerment, to encourage participation,” says Pinky Chandran, head of Radio Active. “Radio Active respects diversity and promotes inclusion.”
Ramya Gowda, a shy woman who is not transgender, says she also found her voice when she joined Radio Active in 2007. She is now handling the day-to-day operations as the station manager.
“At Radio Active, we follow a partnership approach,” she says. “So, we are able to network very well with different groups like the government, NGOs, educational institutions, social workers and students, ensuring their participation.”
The station’s collaborative efforts include a partnership with Samara, a Bangalore-based civil society organization that advocates for the transgender community, to produce Yaaru Ivaru. Another program, Swathi Vani, is a joint effort between a nongovernmental organization by the same name and Radio Active. This radio program is for sex workers, many of whom are transgenders.
Radio Active also organizes a number of outreach activities. These include organizing health camps, educating community members about hygiene and sanitation, advising them on how to tackle alcoholism, informing them about preventive medicines and vaccination schedules, and creating awareness about AIDS and communicable diseases.
Training more transgender people in radio activism is another priority of Radio Active. Divakar trains others in radio in addition to hosting Yaaru Ivaru.
So far, the station’s efforts are effective, Divakar says. She says that the station has enabled her to reach out to other transgender people and encourage them to move forward in their lives. Her show has also connected dozens of participants who came on the show to discuss challenges with employment opportunities.
“After joining Radio Active and my show here, I have heard of at least 25 others like me who are now leading normal lives,” she says. “Some of them are working in multinational companies."
A woman in Bangalore who was born a male but now identifies herself as female declined to give her name because she says she doesn’t feel comfortable publicly identifying herself as transgender. But she says that Yaaru Ivaru is helping her to become more comfortable and that she strives to be “confident and popular” like Divakar.
In 2010, Radio Active’s community reporting won the station a Manthan Award, a prestigious prize for organizations for their excellence in using digital inclusion for development.
Divakar says that Radio Active’s programming and initiatives positively influence transgenders in various aspects of their lives.
In 2010, Bangalore University became the first institution in India to allocate a quota of seats for transgender students at the postgraduate level.
“In each of the 60 postgraduate courses, many of our community have enrolled for higher education,” Divakar says confidently.
A number of other initiatives using the media to give a voice to the transgender community have also begun.
Kalki Subramaniam, a transgender social activist based in Chennai, the capital of the southern India state of Tamil Nadu, heads a nongovernmental organization called Sahodari Foundation. Subramaniam, who is one of the few transgender people in India with a college degree, recently launched a documentary journalism project that trains fellow transgender people “to create their own media.”
Subramaniam, who has a degree in journalism and mass communication, says she launched the project after she realized that mainstream media depicted her community as “depraved creatures to be mocked for our gestures and orientation.”
Raj, who has profiled the transgender community through his videos for the past three years, says that training community members to be journalists is a great way to highlight their problems in a dignified way, which is not always the case in mainstream media. Raj says that a number of transgender people do not reveal their identities because of social stigma, but mainstream media outlets often ignore this and reveal their identity anyway, disregarding their safety and privacy.
Raj recalls an incident in which a reporter from a local TV channel interviewed two transgenders who lived in a rented apartment in Bangalore. The pair asked the reporter not to show their faces on the camera.
“The reporter had first agreed to blur their faces,” he says. “But when the news went on air, the full faces were shown. The next day, both of them were thrown out of the apartment by their landlord, who watched the news bulletin on the TV and identified them. He said that he didn’t want ‘freaks’ in his house. In fact, they couldn’t find another apartment for months as nobody else would let them rent one.”
Raj says this incident shows the need for radio and other media programs by and for transgender people.
“If that reporter had belonged to the community, it would not have happened,” he says. “He would have understood the risks those people were going to face.”
Ketan Tanna, a Mumbai-based gay rights activist, agrees that mainstream media generates doubts.
“While it does play a larger role in disseminating information, I am worried about the crass commercialization of it,” Tanna says.
Creating an alternative, Tanna launched an Internet radio channel called GB Radio in 2009, which advocates for the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. He also runs a website called GayBombay, which provides networking opportunities to this community.
Sarwat Naqvi, who is not transgender, is a social activist and community reporter based in Raipur, a city in central India. He says that radio offers various advantages in covering the transgender community.
“The most important thing is that it puts them at ease,” he says. “The moment they see a camera, they start getting tense, fearing reprisal and backlash from the society, which is very unkind to the LGBT community.”
Aamir, a 33-year old transgender in Hyderabad, the capital of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, is all too familiar with this. Aamir requested his last name be withheld for fear of losing his job at a local TV station for being transgender.
“Even after eight years, I still can’t feel free to reveal my identity,” he says. “This is because the media outlet that I work at hardly ever created any space for people like me. I wait for the day when the scenario will change and we no longer need to stay invisible.”
Editor’s note: The sources identified in this story all gave permission to publish their names in order to create more public awareness.