The SAJA Photo Forum presents the work of photographers covering South Asia and its global diasporas in order to highlight important but often overlooked stories.
Text and photographs © Alessandro Vincenzi
Urmi at home
There are estimated to be more than 25,000 transgendered persons (TGs) in Mumbai, trying to survive in the face of significant discrimination. Some earn money by blessing and greeting people, including couples and families on special occasions. Some work as professional dancers in bars. Others beg for money at traffic signals or on the street. But the majority, some sixty percent, are involved in commercial sex work. Twenty percent of the TGs living or working in Mumbai are thought to be infected with the HIV virus, and seventy percent of the customers are married men with children. Maharashtra, the state where Mumbai is the capital, is home to around one in five people living with HIV in India.
Some transgendered sex workers begin at the age of 14 or 15 before joining the TG community, while others start after becoming part of it. For most TGs, joining the community is a way to express themselves in a unique culture. The community becomes the family, with sisters and moms. The 1st Lane of Kamathipura, Mumbai’s oldest and largest red-light district, is where most of the TGs live in brothels and do sex work. Normally in each brothel there is a family, where the guru is the owner and guide for each TG working and living in it.
Pooja (center) gets ready for a day of begging
Other TG sex workers live in groups or with their gurus in houses in the suburban areas of Mumbai. In this case, TGs do sex work in slums or in isolated places and not in the building where they live to avoid problems with the neighbors. Work starts around seven or eight in the evening and ends when there are no more customers. A TG can have an average of 10 clients per night, but in some cases they deal with more than twenty.
Half of the money (around $4 per client) is divided with the guru. According to a common believe among clients, HIV is transmitted having unprotected sex only if it’s done with female sex workers and not with TGs.
Inside a brothel on 1st Lane in Kamatipura
Black Beauty is 24 years old and lives in Kamathipura 1st Lane. Originally from a village in Kerala, she has always been more comfortable acting female. From an early age, one of her dreams was to one day wear a sari. When she talked to her parents about her feelings, she was still an adolescent and her feelings were a big shock for them. She said it was really frustrating to hide her nature and act as a boy. Eventually she decided to move to a bigger city to join the TG community.
At the age of 16 she moved to Mumbai and became part of a TG community living outside the city. She started to get involved in sex work and decided to be castrated in the traditional way, without anesthesia, like many other TGs did. After castration she went back home to see her family. Their response was even worst than the first one, mainly because they worried about their reputation in the neighborhood. The family would have accepted her but not the community in the village, which would have rejected the entire family. So she moved back to Mumbai and immediately went to Kamathipura.
Because of her beauty and the dark color of her skin, she became famous, and other TGs and customers started to call her Black Beauty. Though she has been involved in sex work for many years, she has managed to avoid HIV infection by insisting on condom use even when more money is offered.
THE BEGGING AND PERFORMING LIFE
A known HIV-positive TG is not accepted by her friends or by the guru in the brothel because of fears that the information could affect the reputation and the business. In some cases, TGs keep their status a secret and continue to work in the brothel or move to other locations. If their HIV status becomes known and they can't work in the sex trade, begging will become their only source of income.
Rajeshree begs for money from a truck driver at a highway toll in the Mumbra area of Mumbai
Sonia rests while Rajeshree counts the money. Normally after four or five hours of begging, they collect 50-60 rupees each
Payal dances by a pool in front of a dozen men
Born in Bologna, Italy in 1973, Alessandro Vincenzi got into professional photography quite late. After a degree in biology at the University of Bologna and a specialization in tropical medicine, he joined Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), a humanitarian aid agency, in 2005. During his free time on missions with MSF as a biologist, he took pictures of patients and other people in distress in various contexts and countries. Beginning in 2008, Alessandro decided to become a full time professional photographer and to leave MSF. He is based in Madrid, Spain and is working on two long-term projects, “TB at European Gates” and "Transgender in India.”
See more of his work at his website.