India has a new Miss Transqueen — and she’s headed for the world stage, determined to speak out for the country’s marginalized transgender community.
Fashion designer Shaine Soni was crowned Miss Transqueen India, the country’s beauty pageant for transgender women, on Saturday. She will represent India at next year’s Miss International Queen, the world’s biggest pageant for transgender women.
Miss Transqueen India was first established in 2017 and involves all the trappings of a traditional beauty pageant — photoshoots, talent rounds, elaborate costumes, judges, and hundreds of audience members.
This year, organizers were unable to hold the competition due to the pandemic, which prompted a national lockdown from late March to May. But Reena Rai, chairwoman, and founder of Miss Transqueen India wasn’t ready to give up; she was determined to send a contestant to represent India in the 2021 international pageant.
“My pageant isn’t just about beauty, it is about empowerment and inclusion,” Rai told CNN in a phone interview. “If I am going to send someone without holding a competition, then I have to make sure that they are a very strong candidate, the best of the best, someone who knows the value of (becoming Miss) Transqueen India.”
Soni seemed like the obvious choice; as a fashion designer and stylist whose work is known on the pageant circuit, she has previously helped coach contestants and pick their outfits. For years, she stayed relatively quiet about her own transgender identity while struggling for acceptance from her family and friends — but Rai encouraged her to step forward for the title.
“She has always been a very strong backbone for Transqueen India,” said Rai. “I told her that because you’ve been with us and how important it is, and because you have been struggling with publicly coming out, this might be the best platform to do so because it is something that a lot of people will draw strength and inspiration from.”
While Soni was born biologically male, she identified as a girl from a young age — and was confused and dismayed when people around her began insisting she was a boy and told her to act and behave like one.
As she grew up, she faced increasing pressure from relatives and friends who would discourage her from growing her hair long, wearing
“girly” clothes, or having “effeminate” mannerisms, she said over the phone. “With so much pressure and bullying around me, I desperately felt I was different and that there was a problem in me.”
She found some relief when, as a teenager, she began researching and stumbled upon information about gender identity and gender confirmation surgery. She ended up leaving home at 17, pursuing an education in fashion, and transitioning with hormonal therapy a few years later — a process that she described as “difficult.”
“A lot of my friends gave up on me, they could not understand,” she said. “But I was very determined, so I went ahead and did everything on my own.”
Soni never officially came out to her family, but they stayed in touch after she transitioned — with a big “elephant in the room that we don’t point out.”
She graduated from the National Institute of Fashion Technology, started her own label, won a reality design show, and launched a career as a stylist — which is how she met Rai.
“When Reena approached me for Miss Transqueen India for the first season in 2017, I was always there to support her but I wasn’t comfortable coming out at that time because of family pressure,” Soni said. She helped direct the show from behind the scenes — and, at the same time, got involved in LGBTQ advocacy. Over the past few years, she and other activists in the country have campaigned for greater LGBTQ representation and accurate information in school curricula and textbooks.
All the while, there has been increasing conversation about LGBTQ issues, and specifically transgender visibility worldwide. This year alone, Soni watched two high-profile stars come out as transgender — actor Elliot Page, star of “Juno” and “The Umbrella Academy,” and makeup artist Nikkie de Jager, better known as NikkiTutorials.
Now, Soni says, she’s ready to take the stage publicly as Miss Transqueen India.
“I am in a place where I can accept this title because I have gone through so much and know how difficult it is to be where I am today,” she said. “If someone reads about me and finds comfort, I think my purpose is absolutely met.”