Reena Rai, founder of Transqueen India (2017-’18), has been one of the most prominent faces in India fighting for gender rights. We spoke to this wonderwoman on Mother’s Day. Some excerpts:
The Optimist: From industrial catering to curating beauty pageants for Transwomen — what was the pivot of such a huge transition in your life?
Reena Rai: Three years ago, I was going through a very turbulent phase in my life. My best friend passed away and we weren’t in a stable position financially. I was going through depression. One day, I came across Vippy, whom I had known years ago as a boy. Somehow, we got connected once again and it was a life-changing friendship. The whole idea of organising a beauty contest came after that and the unlikely friendship helped me launch the Miss Transqueen Pageant.
The Optimist: Did you face initial hurdles in planning India’s first transgender beauty pageant?
Reena Rai: Frankly speaking, I came to know from Vippy the sad reality of transgenders in India. That day, I decided to do something concrete that would empower them. When we approached corporates, politicians and other powerful stakeholders, we got no support at all. Some of them even asked me if I was a lesbian, or a transgender. But that didn’t deter me. In fact, I took a huge risk in organizing such a high-profile event. My husband gave me a lot of support and Vippy gave emotional support, which finally paved the way for a new beginning.
The Optimist: Do you think society’s perception of the LGBTQ community is any different now?
Reena Rai: Gender sensitisation is one aspect which needs immediate attention in India. To tell the truth, when I was hanging out with Vippy at a café, people stared at Vippy as if she were a prostitute. My perception of the whole issue changed when I attended an event for the hijra community organised by an NGO. But things are changing fast. I’m so happy to see that our beauty pageants are now working in reputed organizations and that, itself, is a proud moment for me.
The Optimist: On Mother’s Day, what’s your message to all mothers?
Reena Rai: Mothers are the backbone of every family. In fact, whenever I speak of gender sensitisation, I stress the role of mothers. Only mothers can change the world for the better if they nurture kids with a logical approach. While lecturing in schools, colleges and universities, I categorically highlight the Indian reality and truly believe that Indian mothers are intelligent enough to update their sons and daughters.
The Optimist: What’s been your equation with your daughter?
Reena Rai: When I started working on gender issues, I was careful while dealing with this sensitive issue with my daughter. After all, she is just 12 years old. In fact, she once asked me if she could call Vippy mausi (aunty). Kids nowadays are intelligent, with a high emotional quotient. I keep telling my daughter that, no matter where she is, she should lay emphasis on equality. An equal society is what the world desperately needs.
The Optimist: What are your plans for the immediate future?
Reena Rai: At present, we’re gearing up for the third edition of the Miss Transqueen Pageant. I’m also associated with Suhani Dream Catchers and the Deepa Ardhnareshwar Foundation. We’re curating offline auditions in Bengaluru and Delhi. We have options of online auditions, too. Many of the participants call me ‘mother’. This is probably the biggest compliment I’ve got in my life.