He is six feet tall, taut and toned. When he was on the cover of India’s leading men’s fitness magazines in 2014, he had a 40-30-36 physique, eight-pack abs and 16-inch biceps. His fitness routine was emulated by countless modelling hopefuls and body-sculpting enthusiasts. When he was being pursued by a bevy of beauties on MTV’s Splitsvilla (S8), his fan following and social media status went through the roof. He posed for a flurry of fashion shoots in various publications and was sought after for the ramp as well. Everywhere this Delhi boy went, he tells us how people wanted to shake his hand and bask in the associated glory. His parents and sibling were happy to see him making a mark on the modelling world, even though it was far removed from their business background.
She walks in, the picture of willowy glamour. As she glides through the coffee-shop, all eyes swivel towards this gamine yet graceful young girl. They all admire her impeccably classy chic, her beautifully manicured hands gesticulating to make a point, her short but comely hairstyle that she wants to grow out. We talk about everything from bras to boyfriends and how she’s busy styling, honing her make-up application skills and even counselling others in her situation. She shares how her parents have never liked her choices and even physically beat her with belts to try and change her mind. It depressed her no end, but didn’t daunt the dainty damsel. At 24, this Mumbai model has already had offers from Bigg Boss 10 and several agencies for shoots, but has stars in her eyes about achieving a 32-24-36 figure and making it to the cover of a fashion magazine in the near future.
Such stereotypical stories of two young and good-looking people living a charmed existence in modern India, right? Not quite.
For this is the tale of ONE person’s life. That of Gaurav Arora, who was born a boy but who has always wanted to be a woman! Today, as he slowly transitions into his female avatar over several months, Gaurav is open about being transgender. This has come as a surprise and even a shock to many of his fans, but it’s how he has felt right from his early years as a child. For those who don’t understand the terminology, transgenders are people whose gender identity differs from the sex they are born into. It isn’t always related to sexual preference, so it’s more about expressing themselves as who they are, than who they are with.
Gaurav, who is often called Gauri now, as he has completely embraced his female identity, recalls, “As a young boy, I was drawn to my mum’s and sister’s clothes and make-up and would often wear them. Many times, I would be scolded for putting on heels to go visit relatives. My family were aware of how I was but they didn’t want to acknowledge it. They didn’t approve of my behaviour and they were worried about how people would react. I think it would have been easier if we weren’t as wealthy with so many important connections. But they found it very difficult to accept me.”
Gauri is so inured to the world’s cruel nature that she mentions quite matter-of-factly that she was raped as a child, when she was just about 11 years old. She narrates how it happened, “I was blamed then, that it occurred because I dressed like a girl. These were boys from my tuition class who were about six or seven years older than me. One day at the park, they got me to stay late and talked to me affectionately. Initially, I was revelling in the attention from the big boys. Maybe it was my innate attraction towards boys, which I am aware of now, but I was very innocent at the time. Before I knew it, they were caressing and kissing then manhandling me and molesting me and I was in pain. I knew this was wrong although I didn’t know exactly how.”
Later, her mother even dissuaded her from telling her dad that this had happened. Still, she went ahead and told him. He called the cops and took her to the class to confront the boys. Everyone in the area came to know of it and wherever she went, they’d laugh at her. “Because I was different, it was as though I had asked for it,” she says, ruefully.
Gauri’s eyes swim with tears as she shares those memories and confides that her younger sister has not been able to accept the changes in her life even today. “I really want her to understand. She’s educated, she’s an architect… but she doesn’t. For her, maybe it’s what her friends say or even somewhere about me being prettier than her or having nicer clothes than her. But she doesn’t know all that I have to do to achieve that beauty. And I wish she would understand that whatever I do, I have to be content with just these beautiful things,” she gestures disparagingly at her sparkling red nails. “I will never have what she has – to truly be a woman biologically, to be able to have babies…” her voice trails off wistfully. When we press her for details, Gauri explains haltingly, “What I want most in life is to be someone’s wife, the perfect bahu, to be a natural mother.”
It’s as though the little child who loved playing with dolls and dress-up is speaking to us, breathlessly mentioning, “I used to be happy and it never bothered me that I was different. I always felt like a girl. I used to tell my dad, ‘I’m your girl… Treat me like a princess’. Today, it’s like a new birth for me and I’m hoping the same thing.”
Her bold attitude and confidence today cover the scab of that shattering experience early in life. Now, as someone who knows her rights and armed with the awareness of the new laws empowering transgenders, she is not only standing up for herself when it counts, but also helping others do the same. “I have every law on my side just as any other citizen has. Transgenders now have the right to use ladies’ washrooms. I’ve seen a lot of people struggling for restrooms. They don’t use the men’s or the women’s. I tell them to just go to whichever one they feel most comfortable with. If I’m wearing a bra and I sit to pee, I will obviously feel like I belong in the ladies’,” she emphasises.
Another place where we’re divided by gender is security queues. On a recent trip to Goa, Gauri was waiting near the conveyor belt when the cop at the airport security check waved her to the women’s queue without any questions. “I was so happy!” she divulges, sharing these little triumphs.
She’s clear that she doesn’t want to be like other transgenders and transsexuals she has seen in India, who are neither educated, nor classy. “They should behave with dignity. I always wonder why they are jumping on guys the way they do. That’s what spoils the image of the LGBT community,” she avers bitterly, saying that she has counselled many and hopes to leverage her own reach with the media to help others in the trans community achieve their true potential. “I want to tell the world that it’s not always easy to be who you are, but you must stay true to yourself,” she declares.
“Just one year ago, I was a guy, achieving so much as a male model. I was on the television and they were all very happy. They say I would have gone very far. My mum thinks I’d be a star by now. But if I listened to mum and dad and all the other people, and didn’t follow my heart, what would my life be like? I’d do all these prestigious projects in the day but at night, I would need to pop a sleeping pill to escape what I really felt,” her clarity of thought is almost frightening.
People still place bets on her gender at the gym. “You have to pick your battles. I let them have that as I know I’m an attractive personality. Everywhere I go, people stare. After staring, they may love me, appreciate me, hate me, whatever… but I don’t care,” says the brave Gauri, who professes to enjoy her own company. “I love to have coffee on my own, go to a bar and meet new people on my own.”
She’s been working on herself so that she never has to face stares or make anyone uncomfortable when she steps into a place like a restaurant. “I feel it’s important for me to choose to either be absolutely a woman or purely a man. I don’t want people speculating. I’ve done my nose, my Botox, laser treatment to reduce facial hair, lip fillers, permanent lashes, etc. I make so much of an effort… I spend Rs 50,000 on me every month. If a girl spent that much she would look wonderful too. I’m now in my transitioning phase, getting prettier every day and need just about three more months to come out as a diva,” she smiles.
What exactly does the transition entail? Initially, she had to undergo a psychiatric assessment to see whether she was really ready for such a drastic change. Gauri had to dress as a woman and visit the more basic areas, chawls, government colleges, etc to see how comfortable she felt there in her womanly form. Once the psychological profile added up, the medicines were started. Gauri explains, “I’m on Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), which is all about blocking the male hormone testosterone, which is responsible for body hair, etc. I’m taking the testosterone blockers and the female hormone oestrogen in tablet form for the last two months. The doctor said it’s too late to change my voice but with practice I may be able to change it a bit, else I can go for vocal surgery. But I’m not keen on any surgery for at least a year.” That’s because Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS) is a very big and complicated procedure wherein the doctors build a vagina. Recovery is predictably very stressful and painful. “One vagina doesn’t make a difference to me. I feel I have one every day already. I sit and pee,” she reasons.
As it is, she has to have the hormone pills for the rest of her life. “I had to sign a declaration stating I’m okay with the inherent risks and side-effects involved. I know it can affect my liver badly and I could die any time. It’s such a serious risk and still people laugh at me for taking this step. They don’t realise how much I’m doing just to become a woman. I wouldn’t play with my life just like that,” Gauri says solemnly.
Right now, it’s a monthly visit to the doctor, a strict diet and cardio twice a day to become as skinny as possible so that she loses the manly muscularity and body mass. “My doc tells me not to be in a rush, that you can’t be a woman overnight. That I’m a muscular man, how can he make me into an ultra-feminine girl so soon. He says I should be happy that I’m looking like a fit girl,” she giggles.
There’s a certain loneliness in this hyper-awareness. She reflects, “I have the guts to come out while many don’t. I know that fame and money, I can make anytime as I’m ambitious and capable. This is me, this is my journey and my journey is all about Gaurav Arora, who is moving from being the cover model of Men’s Health with eight-pack abs to the new me. Now I want to be on the cover of a women’s magazine. I have gym mates like Jacqueline Fernandes and Sonam Kapoor and they appreciate me like anything. I have a lot of fans and everywhere I go people come up and talk to me. But no one does anything to directly help. I feel there are many people with me but no one with me really. I can’t tell people please accept me, please love me. They take me as a glam thing. But deep down, I’m a girl, and I want a man in my life. And when I’m a woman, I want to adopt a girl child.”
Gauri feels that in a society where guys are still scared to admit to their parents that they have a girlfriend, it’s almost impossible for them to speak of loving a transgender. “I don’t think people in India are ready to accept people like me in a relationship. I have a friend who is a beautiful, six-foot-tall transgender with a fantastic career ahead of her. She looks like a gorgeous woman and I’ve seen straight guys completely crazy about her, even though she still has a male organ. But will they be able to commit to her and face questions from their family and friends?” It’s a burning question that she isn’t addressing for herself at the moment. “I’ve learnt the hard way that I cannot rely on a man’s love right now. Let’s see how it goes once my transitioning is complete.”
In fact, she says she finds much more acceptance when she travels abroad. “The lady boys in Thailand have a proper place in society. I feel so comfortable when I’m there,” says Gauri, whose ambition is to be as famous as Malaika Arora Khan or Kim Kardashian with the reasoning that they aren’t actresses but are extremely popular, a niche she could occupy some day. She idolises the guts and glory of all-American athlete Bruce Jenner, once a Playgirl cover model, who famously transformed into Caitlyn Jenner last September at the age of 65, after fathering six children from his three marriages.
She draws strength and inspiration from such international icons of the transgender community even as she battles her inner demons. When she was invited to participate in Splitsvilla last year, she didn’t have the courage to talk about being transgender outright so she mentioned to the production team that she was bisexual. “Still, they wanted me on the show, saying no one needed to know that aspect of my sexuality. But there was a moment when I landed up admitting it. I was scared, what had I just done… it was going to be out there on national television! I asked if they could cut it out but they convinced me that I should stay true to who I was. The TRPs went crazy that week,” she laughs, “But I was still not happy as I had not really revealed the entire truth. I wasn’t really bisexual, but it was a starting point to explain who I really was to family and acquaintances, who were shocked by that revelation.”
The lady in waiting asserts, “Now, I’m just waiting for a platform, a day when I tell the whole world that THIS is me. I don’t even want to go on Bigg Boss right now as the whole conversation there will be about my transitioning. Later, when they see me as all-girl, then I can tell them my story. The way Sunny Leone came in first and then told everyone how she was a porn star.”
Apart from TV shows, people are still urging her to take on assignments as a female or even as an androgynous model, saying there’s a lot of demand for that. “I’ve just been approached by Toabh, one of India’s largest talent management agencies, for this. But I don’t think the androgynous look, which is so popular internationally would work well here. Indian fashion designers need to showcase their traditional ghagras and cholis on well-endowed female models. A designer for men’s suits won’t take me either, as I’m much too feminine now,” she admits candidly.
The perennial question quest for belonging continues. “For now, I’m accepting myself as who I am. I ask myself every day… ‘Am I free? Am I comfortable? Am I feeling good?’ If yes, then everything is okay and I’m happy.”
Happiness is a chimera that many of her ilk don’t have the means to procure. Gauri ponders, “People who can’t afford the treatments and clothes I can, people who don’t have access to psychologists like I have, people who live in a milieu where they cannot come out because of the fear of being harmed… what are they supposed to do? Why do such people commit suicide? It’s because we are so alone. Our parents are not with us, schools and jobs are not ready to accept us, everyone treats us as a joke. What kind of life is that? I believe that television is a great platform to reach out to people and open their eyes so they start to take us seriously. Professionally, there’s a lot I want to do, but I don’t want to be a star, I want to be a real-life heroine.”
This was the first in-depth interview with the brave and talented transgender. Photography by Subi Samuel