Page last updated at 00:46 GMT, Saturday, 30 January 2010

Beauty pageant inspires India's transgenders

By Prachi Pinglay
BBC News, Mumbai

Nishi Sheikh attracted the most attention

As Sonia swayed to a popular Bollywood song, striking model-like poses, a small crowd of activists and journalists cheered her on.

She was the first of about 20 contestants at auditions held in the Indian city of Mumbai (Bombay) for the "Super Queen" - India's first transgender beauty contest.

Auditions to become India's first "Super Queen" are going to be held in cities across India over the next few weeks.

The semi-finals will be held in Mumbai and the finals will be hosted in Delhi on 21 February.

Electric dancer

The Mumbai leg of the auditions started off quietly. But as contestants got over their nerves, things became charged.

The community has had to stay in the closet for 262 years and this contest will provide them a platform
Laxmi Narayan, pageant organiser

The star of the day was Nishi Sheikh, who attracted the most attention with her electric blue dress and deft dance moves.

As she walked in, some in the crowds whispered that she was the Priyanka Chopra (a Bollywood star) of the community.

She danced to a popular Bollywood number and the judges, the audience and other participants all hooted and cheered for her.

"I am very different. I perform in different countries," she told the BBC.

"I consider myself to be gay and I do not really live a life which most of my community members live. I go for international performances. For me making good money and taking care of my family is most important. I am here to support the cause."

While the unremitting media attention excited many participants, it was perturbing for others.

Some of the contestants were obviously nervous but others exceeded everyone's expectations with their sensual moves, fashionable clothing and supermodel looks.

Laxmi Narayan, the pageant's organiser and a social activist, encouraged all the entrants throughout.

No regular jobs

Reena, who works in the field of HIV prevention when she is not entering beauty contests, had come from the western Indian city of Nagpur.

Reena is a graduate and may have had a chance of getting a regular job had she not been a transgender.

"I live with my parents and have a brother who does a regular job. I don't know if these initiatives will directly help us but we try."

In the question-and-answer part of the contest, Reena simply said she loved dancing and loved her parents.

Reena is a graduate and HIV campaigner

The participants had to parade on a ramp, introduce themselves and face a question-and-answer round.

The organisers say that holding a beauty contest will not only help transgender people feel more confident about their sexuality but that it will also attract attention to serious issues like HIV/Aids and help community members get more mainstream jobs.

"We will train them [the winners of the contest] to be leaders in the community. This contest is a historical moment. The community has had to stay in the closet for 262 years and this contest will provide them a platform," Ms Narayan said.

She said she wanted "hijras" (or eunuchs) to be in regular jobs.

"For a community member, to be loved with dignity is the biggest thing. Hijras enjoy womanhood to the extreme."

Hijras in India live on the fringes of society, traditionally making a living by dancing at weddings or at celebrations for the birth of a child.

The term is used to describe members of the hermaphrodite, transvestite and transsexual communities.

Many have been pushed into the sex trade and are considered to be at high risk of contracting HIV.

'Happy experience'

Ashwini, an activist and a trained performer of lawni - the traditional folk dance of western Maharashtra state - says she will continue performing once the beauty contest is over.

"I can dance and sing almost every lawni song. I have even performed with important lawni dancers in this state. I do not have the height to win a beauty contest but I want to see how this is conducted. I am happy with the experience."

From the 20-odd contestants who participated in the auditions in Mumbai, the organisers finally shortlisted three.

The nation's ultimate Super Queen winner will get approximately $21,000 and will be trained to help the community in human rights and HIV prevention.

She may even get a regular job - something most members of the community need and covet.

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