It’s no secret that India has a long way to go when it comes to achieving queer equality and acceptance of non-conformist sexualities and gender identities. The unfortunate reality is that a majority of the Indian populace’s allyship is merely performative, and it starts and ends with Pride month. For all the fashion and beauty brands that jump on the Pride wagon during this period, acceptance and visibility of queer folx remain shockingly low. Take pageantry, for instance. Most cis-gendered pageant holders are overly hyped and almost always have a direct segue into flourishing careers. Meanwhile, queer pageant winners struggle for visibility in the mainstream media and are often forced to resort to alternate means to make ends meet.
We had the opportunity to interview Naaz Joshi, India’s first international transgender beauty queen to win Ms Universe Diversity. Naaz is a six-time beauty pageant winner who made history in 2019 with her third consecutive victory as Miss World Diversity. We spoke to her about her experience as a trans woman in India, participating in beauty pageants, being a mother, and much more. Read on:
AAE: What was your experience as a trans woman who grew up in India? Has the struggle eased with time?
Naaz Joshi: Trans women in India have a very regressive state. Specially those who look like me, I look like a transgender, those who have earned money through whatever ways, have gone for facial feminization surgeries. Their struggle ends as soon as they are passed as women, but the majority who look like me, our struggle only ends with death [sic].
AAE: When and how did you begin participating in beauty pageants? What inspired you to do so?
NJ: I started participating in pageants in 2015, and it’s only once that I competed with transgenders. All my six international titles were won with women. My only inspiration has been to earn a voice for myself that I can be an agent of change one day. In the hope that I can end my struggles one day. In the hope that my mother can be proud of me one day, because even today, she treats me like an untouchable. It hurts a lot when I’m not asked to go out, I’m locked in a room. I’m not allowed to meet visitors and relatives, and if, by mistake, I happen to sit in the same room as her, she curses me.
AAE: As someone who has participated in, and won numerous beauty pageants, what does beauty mean to you? Would you say that the concept of beauty is inclusive in 2020?
NJ: Beauty for many pageants is 34-26-34, but, fortunately, I have been to pageants where the beauty was beyond looks and body. I have never been loved by family or friends. That’s why I think I love everyone… whether rich or poor, black or white. And that’s what real beauty is. When I see people whom I can help, I forget my tears, I forget my pains. If I can make one person smile, that makes my day. The feeling of being unwanted is very bad, that’s why, when I go abroad, I treat even the guards of the hotels with great respect and dignity. We must treat all with equality. We must love every one. And that’s what is true beauty. If we see the 2019 winners of Miss World and Miss Universe, both the winners do not fit the bill of what people call “beautiful”, but they represent the true essence of being women with substance.
AAE: You’ve travelled and interacted with members of the LGBTQIA+ community across the globe. Do you see any marked differences in terms of inclusivity and acceptance?
Naaz Joshi: The state of trans women is almost the same everywhere in the world, but the community outside India become financially independent very early in their lives. So they move out of their family [sic] and live a luxurious life. And that is something that’s missing in India. Many trans women live with gurus, and they need to lead their life [sic] according to what the guru tells them. As for LGBTQIA, it’s easy to get jobs but the trans community in India is still struggling for jobs, and after COVID-19, it’s become very difficult… Whenever I apply for jobs, I’m told that I have crossed the age limit. I think that’s an easy excuse for rejecting me.
AAE: For this year’s pageant, you chose to complete a task on women’s safety. What inspired you to do so?
NJ: I have adopted two daughters, I am always worried for their security. I have been molested many times during my childhood by my paternal uncle, by cousins, by private tutors, and I don’t want them to go through this.
AAE: You have quite a notable following on social media, particularly on Instagram. Has that lent you the power of influence and/or helped you in any way?
NJ: Honestly, I don’t consider virtual followers as our friends and guide [sic]. They are present there. I am not someone who creates posts for people’s likes. On my Facebook page, there are more than 45k followers, so do they become my family? People say I talk with a lot of positivity. I have been on many Insta live sessions. But nothing can beat direct interaction with people. I have been on TEDx and visited many schools and colleges, including IIM Udaipur and Tagore International School, Vasant Vihar. To influence people’s lives is the best experience as what you say is responded by applause [sic] and not by likes. People may like my post on social media because I may look appealing to them, but on live sessions, it’s all about your speech. I get a lot of love when I visit these schools and colleges. It’s an experience beyond words.
AAE: What has your experience with motherhood been like?
Naaz Joshi: Motherhood is a behaviour. You don’t have to be a woman to be a mother, a man can be a mother too. Motherhood is magical, I have been fond of kids. And I decided to go the Sushmita way. I want to give them all I wanted from my mother but never got. I wonder how my mother physically abused me, I can’t even shout at my kids. I love them. They are my life.
AAE: The Trans Bill 2019 faced an enormous amount of backlash and is understood as digressive and de-humanising to the transgender community. What are your thoughts on the same, and what amendments do you seek?
NJ: Trans Bill 2019 is a nice bill, the only problem is how will you convince transphobic government officials that you are trans. And when it says that there will be jail for two years for discrimination, how will we prove that its discrimination on the basis of gender and not something else? Like, I face discrimination on an everyday basis for jobs. Sometimes, I am rejected because they say my age doesn’t match their requirement, or they say I’m not experienced while the advertisement says freshers are welcome. So how do I prove this point, that I didn’t get a job because I’m trans.
AAE: What other avenues and means can one look at to extend their support to the LGBTQIA+ community?
NJ: Equality and opportunity are the only way that one can support us.
AAE: What does the ideal world for the queer community look like to you, and how do you think we can work towards achieving the same?
Naaz Joshi: Love for every one in our community, skill training, job opportunities, non discrimination, non violence, parental love, and support are a few things that make our world better. And support from the media. I hate to say this, but what Manushi got in one year, I didn’t get it in six years. I don’t have a godfather, I don’t have parental support. I wish I could get all the recognition that Manushi got, my life could be so much better.
Unfortunately, Naaz Joshi is not the first, or even the last, highly accomplished queer personality to be at the receiving end of such discrimination. Even as the second anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality draws close, people of the LGBTQIA+ community continue to face harassment, threats, and violence.