The scrapping of Article 377 has ushered in a new dawn for the transgender community. They are one of the country's most marginalised communities, living in dire poverty, ostracised from their homes and turning to begging or prostitution to make a living. The removal of the law hasn't changed things overnight but the community is hopeful now and taking small steps towards the change. At the forefront of this is 34-year-old transgender Samyuktha Vijayan, a former techie, who returned to India after her sex reassignment surgery and began a fashion startup, Toutestudio. She tells Aksheev Thakur her story.
The story of the Indian transgender is peppered with tragedy, invariably enough. Often, those who accept their sexuality and choose to live by it are subject to untold harassment – forced into lives of poverty, menial work, begging and prostitution. But even in the midst of these dark times, there are beacons of hope, those who rise above the suffering that surrounds them and work towards making a change. Samyukta Vijayan, a 34-year-old transwoman and former Amazon techie, is one of them.
Unlike the rest, her identity crisis wasn’t as severe as most other transgender children.
“I always loved to dance and I always knew I was a girl at heart,” she says.
“When my parents realised where my interests lay, they enrolled me in a Bharatnatyam school when I was just five years old.” There, her effeminate ways drew mockery from other children at times, from relatives. “Even so, the environment in which I grew up was healthy and accommodating,” she recalls. “I was never forced to conform to any gender norms.”
Samyuktha grew up in Coimbatore, a conservative town in Tamil Nadu. They were simple people for whom the major priority was just to see their children happy. She remembers the pride her parents felt when she won prizes at dance competitions. “My parents were always supportive. My father would be happy even to see me dressed up as a girl for my Bharatnatyam performances and my mother was always so proud of my achievements. I have two brothers, but my parents always wanted a girl. I suppose they saw some of those traits in me.”
As she grew up, her feminine demeanour was always brushed off, with people assuming it was a result of her Bharatnatyam training. And although there was the occasional hurtful remark, the criticism didn’t come in the way of her studies and extracurricular activities. Samyukta was a star student by the time she finished school, gaining admission into one of the best private engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu. After graduating with a B.E. in Electronics and Communication, Samyuktha landed one of the top 10 highest-paying jobs of the outgoing students. A few years later, she joined Amazon as a software engineer and moved to Seattle in the United States.
That is where her story really begins. The effeminate young man had begun to realise that in his heart lived a woman and determined to stay true to himself, he gathered the courage to undergo sex reassignment surgery. “Seattle has an open, inclusive culture. Transitioning from male to female was a cakewalk, with Amazon’s insurance benefits helping me a great deal. After that, I always dressed as a woman, even to the office. The teams I worked in and my colleagues in general treated me as if I was a woman, as if I had always been a woman,” she smiles.
Another great source support and encouragement came from Samyuktha’s parents, who stood like a rock beside their child as she transitioned to a woman. The surgery took place in Thailand and her family arrived there, spending a month with her until the procedure was done. “When I came back, all set, my mom proudly introduced me as her daughter to all our relatives at my brother’s wedding. I am blessed to have such wonderful parents,” Samyuktha says, lighting up with pride for them.
Being a transwoman in India, however, is dramatically different from being one in the West, where discussions around gender are part of mainstream life. And Samyuktha realised that the transgender community also lacks the skill and training to add value to society. So, in February 2019, she began Toutestudio, an environmentally-conscious social enterprise that provides made-to-rent clothing and jewellery rental services to customers in Bengaluru.
“I had always been interested in a startup fashion and it felt like the right time for me to strike out on my own,” Samyuktha explains. “Initially, I wanted to make high-end bridal wear, targeting a niche clientele that wanted eco-friendly options.” However, as she invested in pure silk and silver, the cost per piece shot up. “It made me wonder why customers would pay lakhs for clothing that would only be used once or twice in their lives. That’s when we decided to put our handcrafted clothing up for hire. It’s an eco friendly option because if more people rent, we can bring down the production of clothing.” Over a lakh has been raised on Ketto, a fundraising platform that help sSamyuktha sustain her business. And so far, the response has outdone expectations, in many different ways.
“A lot of customers tell us that their first real interaction with transgender women has happened in Toutestudio,” she says. “They are really happy to see us working regular jobs. They treat us as women, and treat us with respect and admiration. We intend to provide training to more transgenders in areas related to clothing and fashion,” she adds....