The recent ad campaign by Starbucks, ‘#ItStartsWithYourName’, which explores personal connections and relationships with “a renewed lens” has struck a chord with many while drawing debate around representation from inside and outside the trans community in India. The advertisement brings to the surface the living experience of many transgender people in the country, as believed by LGBTQ rights advocates. Besides, the advertisement has been enacted by a trans model, a situation that is considered a rare occurrence in the entertainment industry.
“At a time, when trans-models continue to struggle to sustain an industry, dictated by set-beauty standards and demanding roles, it is hopeful to see that roles are not being snatched away from us to be performed by heterosexual people,” says Archie Singh.
Archie, who represented India in the 2021 Miss Trans International, however, looks beyond the success story of the advertisement and highlights that the journey of Siya Malasi (who plays Arpita in the advertisement) is also a story that must be told aloud. The story of Saurav to Siya echoes the struggles of trans models and trans artists in the fashion and entertainment industry.
“In most cases, trans-models are rejected after being selected for a certain role. No matter how “beautiful” they appear to be, adhering to the set-beauty standards of a cishet industry, when they find out that the person selected is a trans, they are rejected. The social stigma around the community comes to play,” says Archie.
Speaking along the concept of beauty, which demands to be seen through a binary gender lens in the fashion industry, Bella, a 22-year-old trans model in Delhi highlights that there is immense pressure for a transperson to “ultimately look like a man or a woman”.
“Watch the Starbucks advertisement and perhaps, you will understand what I mean. Personally, I could not connect to the advertisement because Arpita hardly appears to be a transwoman. And that is largely an issue with the industry. They often forget transpeople will appear to look a certain way that is very different from how a heterosexual person may appear,” says Bella.
Bella points out how several people, from the community, and elsewhere have this “debated mentality” that despite being from the queer community, you should align with one gender and choose to look like one. “The pressure of the same creates a big problem. When I audition for roles, they say I come with certain masculine features but how can you they that I am a transwoman! If you want to showcase a trans-model then why are you trying to hide my features?” she says.
Besides, recruiters from the modelling agencies and people associated with the casting couch are often not accommodative towards the physical changes that a transperson may undergo while on hormone replacement therapy (HRT). “The slow procedure of physical transformation may at times take up to three years yet, the inability to appear like a man or a woman, at a given time often becomes the ground for rejection. Recruiters forget that we are under medicine and we have to undergo stages that take may take us time but do not meddle with our talent! Why can’t you select us for that?” Bella questions.
In a country, where the stigma around transgender still sits strong, Archie believes that gender-affirming procedures often become a need to sustain in an industry dictated by beauty standards. However, she brings to mind that the expensive procedure and the deplorable state of the trans community often make it a difficult situation for several transgender people, who have to suffer taxing and harassing situations in their struggles for a rightful career.
Dr Aqsa Shaikh, a transgender doctor, affirms that for the trans community, there is constant pressure to appear in a certain gender role, especially when it comes to legal technicalities. “There is kind of a legal pressure that arises out of the need to be within the binaries of male and female. In addition, there is also pressure from the family or workplaces which are more convenient to seeing people in binaries. There is also pressure from society to become a ‘perfect man’ or a ‘perfect woman’ when you undergo transition,” Aqsa states.
At the same time, it is important for transpeople to have the choice of whether they wish to undergo the medical procedure and must have the prerequisite information of what the procedure entails and what can or cannot be attained by these procedures. However, in an industry, often ruled by beauty diktats, the choice often becomes a compulsion.
“I have been coerced to believe that the procedure of transformation needs to pace up because I need to establish an identity in the industry soon. And on that depends my career and financial stability and all of this, does not start for me soundly, until I undergo my surgery,” says Bella, who feels that time after time, representation of trans models in the industry has been used as a way of “tokenism”.
“Agencies deliberately make us feel privileged because we are being hired. It is so common for us to have to hear: ‘You should be grateful to us and must do all it takes to sustain here’. You see, it’s almost a cheaper labour because the pay parity between a heteronormative model and a trans model is also huge.”