In Conversation With Trans Activist, Anurag Maitreyee

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Anurag Maitreyee has been involved in activism for over ten years. I first met her at a Take Back the Night event, which was a response to the 2012 Delhi rape case. She routinely turns up to every activist space, be it protesting caste hegemony, against sexual harassment or various literary events. She believes in occupying predominantly cisgender spaces to make room for trans folk. Fiercely maternal towards her community, she also helps younger trans folks find their voice. Activism is not the only thing she is passionate about. She is also a poet and her work is gut-wrenchingly honest.

We sat down to talk about her life, her activism, her community and her poetry.

How was growing up for you? What are your fond memories from childhood?

All my fond memories from childhood are with my mother. One particular memory that stands out was when we were sitting by the beach in Puri while sun was setting and sky was a milieu of colour. My mother pointed to the sky said, “Imagine yourself to be as expansive as the sky”. My mother was very akin to nature. There was a ‘krishnachura’ and ‘radhachura’ tree next our house. After a stormy night the ‘radhachura’ tree died. My mother looked at the krishnachura tree and she could relate her loneliness. This collective pain of relating your inner struggles with the pain in nature forms a major part of my memories with my mother.

Did you have a support system growing up? How did they help you?

My mother was my support system. I have had to be my own support system to a very large extent. I studied in a boys school. When I would compare myself to other children, I would notice that I was different in the way I carried myself. I could relate myself more as a woman. So I started dressing and behaving in a way which felt comfortable to me. I did not have to vocabulary to understand myself back then.

How did you find community? Tell us some stories about how the community came together in pain and standing up against violence?

I live in North Kolkata. During my teenage years, I would go to Dum Dum station and met a lot of community members. I would wait the entire day to go spend a few hours with my friends. Those few hours with community taught me the meaning of family. I felt like a caged bird only to be released when I met my friends, my alternative family. Under the pale orange light at the station, running away from the cops, applying a tinted lip balm and face  powder, munching on delicious ‘phuchkas’ and spending hours sharing my pain with my friends; I finally found my freedom. I have experienced love outside the realms of romantic love, which I hold very dearly. We would have ‘addas’ on Bodhi’s roof and have ‘jhal muri’ and discuss the men we had crushes on.

How did you get into activism?

I did not consciously get into it.  Fighting to live my life in my own terms has been my activism. I have to fight everyday to be able to be who I am at home, in the neighbourhood, to be able to mingle with community, to be able to wear make-up and to walk the streets. These fragmented fights turn into a collective movement. This collective fight to be able to live,  is the crux of the trans-feminist movement.

You have been involved in activism for a long time. Would you like to talk about how you managed to get justice for yourself and your community after you faced harassment?

Five of us transwomen were traveling together in the Metro, during Durga Puja to go to Maddox Square. Four men were sitting opposite us and were constantly making vulgar suggestions for sexual favours. My friend Tina protested and I intervened and said that I would slap them if they continued to harass us. They scattered for a while and we thought they left. When I got down at Jatin Das Park, the men surrounded me and they physically assaulted me because I had turned them down. My friend Kristi who was quite strong helped me fight them off. Me, Kristi and Tina were there and my two remaining friends left saying that they had come out to enjoy and didn’t want to be involved. We go to the nearby kiosk and ask the cops to arrest the four of them. He asked us to leave and said that he would arrest them. We go to Bhawanipore station and then we realized that the cops had already released them. It turns out that we were under the jurisdiction of Tollygunge Police Station. When we reached the station, what I witnessed was a death of democracy. The OC told us, ‘These people are thieves and beggars and they claim to have human rights. How is it possible to harass or assault such people. Get out of here”. I stood up and conversed with him in English and his entire behaviour changed. He offered us tea and asked the other cops to send a car to the place of occurrence. After fighting that much we were finally able to lodge an FIR. From this experience, I realized how colonial our law enforcement system is. I come back home after a medical examination by the police and take a resolution to fight this injustice. I call other activists and we organize a ‘gherao’ of Tollygunge and Bhawanipore police station. The ACP met with us and promised to get justice for me and my community. The cops who had harassed us were demoted and fired after a lot of organizations filed complaints. Unfortunately the perpetrators are still absconding.

You have also allied with feminist groups like Das theke Das hajar. How do you think that this has helped the movement become stronger?

Cisgender feminists have excluded us from the larger feminist movement. A couple of years back a reputed cis-woman feminist said, “How will transwomen be involved in activism if they are busy dressing up and applying make- up”. For me applying make-up is also a form of activism. I believe in occupying predominantly cisgender spaces and carving a place for trans-folks. We are a lot more than just our LGBTQ identity, we contain multiplicities. The movements we want to be involved in should not be dictated by cis people.   I also believe that LGBTQ movements should not exist in isolation but work with other movements.I don’t believe in preaching to the converted. I go to very transphobic spaces and through dialogue, try to make them more sensitive towards trans issues. I feel like I have been able to create a certain change over the years by this continuous process of occupying spaces. I find myself outraged and fight for justice when a cis woman is raped, but don’t find a similar outrage when my people face harassment and assault.

For most of us queer folks, art and literature becomes a  coping mechanism to survive in a society which is not kind to us. You are a writer and poet. Tell us more about your writing process?

I am a writer, poet, elocutionist and anchor. I am a spontaneous writer and my works are soliloquies.  I explore the association of body and mind through my poetry. My work is also a celebration of my femininity by my own self.

You are also planning to write a series of novels. Could you give us a brief description ?

My series will have various anecdotes, real life experiences of trans and queer folks and also allies.

You have been a trans activist for many years. What are the significant changes you have noticed, if any?

To a certain extent I do believe there has been a change in the minds of people.

What suggestions would you like to give to younger trans folks?

I would like to suggest young trans women to not define their own self-worth by the approval of men. The insidious patriarchy celebrates romantic love to an extent that it becomes toxic. We should respect an individual’s choice of celebrating one’s life.

What are your hopes and dreams for yourself and the trans community at large?

I would like to create alternative family structure which is away from ideas of  blood families and romantic love. I would like to celebrate alternate forms of love. Why do we as queer people aspire for similar heteronoramtive familial structures? I want us to celebrate love and relationships which are unnamed, unidentified and unrecognized in this heteropatriarchal structures. I want my community to stop seeking external validation from men and being able to love themselves for who they are. I respect people who want to ger SRS out of their own free will but I don’t want anyone to feel compelled to get surgery to fit into somebody else’s idea of a woman.

Would you like to add something else?

When I was younger, I thought I was a woman trapped in a wrong body, now I think I am a woman trapped in a wrong society.

As told to Nandini Moitra
Illustration by Upasana Agarwal