‘Wasn’t A Phase’: Trans Body Builder On Battling Depression To Opening A Unique Salon

Trans bodybuilder's salon

Aryan Pasha describes his transition from law to a life of activism, and the odds he overcame to become India’s first trans man bodybuilder.

Aryan Pasha (29) was only six years old when he first insisted he wouldn’t wear a girl’s uniform anymore, so much so that his father had him transferred to another school. The new management didn’t mind giving into his demand, plausibly due to indifference rather than acceptance, and Aryan, born Naiyla, continued to present as a boy till the end of his schooling years.

Following an incredible journey of cruising past societal taboos, Aryan became the first Indian trans man to win a prize in the male category at a bodybuilding event. Then 26, he came second in the Men’s Physique (short) category of Musclemania India 2018, the sub-edition of a prestigious international bodybuilding competition.

“My story is a little different from most trans people in the country,” Aryan tells The Better India. “As a child, I hated being called Naiyla, but it’s not your typical Indian name and my identity was not questioned because of the way I looked. I turned to sports when I was 10. In this community, you’re usually referred to by your last name. So I spent most of my childhood on the playground with other boys who were comfortable around me because they didn’t know I was a girl. I underwent sex-reassignment surgery at 19, but it wasn’t until my 25th birthday that I came out as transgender to even my closest friends, and eventually, in public.”

Now a prominent face in the country’s bodybuilding and queer circles, the former lawyer is engaged to Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, a noted LGBTQIA+ rights activist and Tedx speaker. She was also the first trans person to represent the Asia-Pacific region at a United Nations (UN) convention in 2008. Earlier this year, the couple opened LA Beauté & Style Salon in NCR’s Ghaziabad with predominantly trans staffers, but they offer services to everyone regardless of their self-perceived identity.

Transitioning; from law to bodybuilding

Trans bodybuilder's salon
Aryan Pasha as a child and (right) with his mother. (Source: Aryan Pasha)

Aryan’s parents divorced when he was only six years old, and it was his stepmother who undertook the responsibility of researching sex-reassignment surgery and presented it to him as an option when he was 16.

“I hated the world as I knew it, and was battling suicidal tendencies. It was my (step) mother who convinced my father that this wasn’t ‘a phase’, that they couldn’t ruin my future. I am the eldest child, and my younger sisters and cousins were always supportive of the way I presented. After two years of preparing myself mentally, I began hormone therapy at 18 and my father paid for my gender-affirming surgery a year later,” Aryan shares.

Aryan continued to struggle with his mental health and attempted his Class 12 boards a year later than he was supposed to. In 2013, he decided to pursue a degree in sociology. However, he was denied admission to an undergraduate college of Delhi University. “This was before the NALSA judgement of 2014. I was not ready to come out. My mother and I requested the admissions panel to not disclose my identity, but within fifteen minutes, everybody on campus knew and was laughing at my face. When we confronted the principal, he said, ‘How can Naiyla become Aryan?’,” he recalls.

Not in a position to waste another academic year, Aryan went on to pursue an LLB from Rizvi Law College, Mumbai University, an experience that ultimately shaped his approach in advocating for trans persons, he says. Following his graduation in 2016, he started working with Multiple Action Research Group (MARG), a not-for-profit body providing legal empowerment to marginalised groups. Even as Aryan worked on training employees of trans persons-led organisations across India, he also focused on his independent preparations for bodybuilding competitions, he says.

“I was initially training for Trans Fit Con 2017, a US-based bodybuilding competition. However, I was denied a visa for being ‘too young’, which sounded like a superficial excuse. I started writing to bodybuilding federations across the country and Musclemania was the first one to respond. I was upfront about my transitioning medication and they told me they respected all athletes,” he recalls.

Since then, Aryan has participated in the male category of several national and international bodybuilding competitions and secured a spot in the top five ranks in three of them. These include the International Bodybuilding and Fitness Federation (IBFF), 2019; International Health, Sports & Fitness Festival (IHFF), 2019, and the IFBB Pro League, 2020.

However, despite his accolades, Aryan’s father felt protective about his identity and asked him not to come out. “I understood where he was coming from; he didn’t want others to use derogatory terms like ‘hijra’ for me. But I felt ready to share my story. Days before my 25th birthday, I took him on a long drive and explained the issues that Indian trans men face on a regular basis, how they are shunned by society and even raped by family members. I wanted to help out in any way I could because I knew I could positively represent the community and become a voice for the voiceless,” says Aryan.

‘Safest work environment I’ve known’

Trans bodybuilder's salon
Inside LA Beauté & Style Salon in Dilshad Garden, Ghaziabad. (Source: Aryan Pasha)

Inaugurated on September 11, LA Beauté & Style Salon in Dilshad Garden, Ghaziabad, currently has nine employees — five trans men, one trans woman and three cisgender people. “We initially conceptualised the salon with only trans employees. However, we were ditched by our to-be head hairstylist two days before the inauguration. I then approached people who would be a good fit and help train our future trans employees,” explains Aryan.

At the salon, trainee beautician Ayush Kumar (29) makes Rs 12,000 on a monthly basis, which he says is a welcome change from when he worked at a small fast food restaurant in Rohini, a workplace where he didn’t feel “comfortable”.

“In June, Aryan bhaiyya arranged for us to be trained by Unnati Singh, a beautician who took online classes for two months from her salon in Indore. My father may not have supported me since I came out, but I’ll eventually be able to afford my own expenses for my sex-reassignment surgery,” he says.

Meanwhile, salon manager Nakshatra Rajput (26) previously worked at a well-paying outsourcing firm. He recalls, “I came out as trans during my HR interview and the woman was appreciative of my honesty. However, everything changed when the actual transitioning process began a year-and-a-half later. I was a punctual employee, hardly took leaves and my work was always up to date. Yet, I was subject to glares, stone-cold behaviour and ridicule by the top management, who thought their organisation’s reputation was at stake. After suffering for about two months, I decided to call it quits.”

Nakshatra first met Aryan when the latter called for volunteers to distribute as many as 25,000 ration kits to the needy during the COVID-19 pandemic’s second wave this year. “He’s my mentor, and it’s because of him and Laxmi ma’am that I’ve been able to gain confidence in my identity. It’s the safest working environment I’ve ever known; both trans and cis staffers work in unity. I finally feel like I have access to my rights,” adds Nakshatra, who recently underwent top surgery and has been allotted two months of leave for recovery.

According to Aryan, Laxmi first envisioned their salon during her college days, when she worked as a model coordinator and met several beauticians from the trans community. During the lockdown, he wanted to help people who had lost their jobs or couldn’t find one, owing to a lack of education and skills.

“Eventually, we applied to the UNAIDS Solidarity project and won a grant that helped us with the initial investment. Since my father’s in the construction business, he helped us buy the entire building. We initially arranged online training for five trans men from NCR and simultaneously worked on the salon’s interiors,” he adds.

The duo also received additional funding from Gravittus Foundation. Meanwhile, the Villoo Poonawalla Charitable Foundation is helping them provide skill training to members of the trans community in Pune, where they may launch another outlet.

As an activist

Aryan is one of the nine trans members of the National Council for Transgender Persons, the government body established last year under the provisions of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019. The committee, which functions under the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, recently made recommendations to the Centre regarding the revision of the country’s medical curriculum in a bid to sensitise healthcare personnel towards the specialised needs of transgender persons.

“Under its pilot project ‘Garima Greh’, the Ministry has set up 12 shelter homes to provide a safe residential space for transgender persons in need of refuge. It also set up the National Portal for Transgenders, which allows trans people to apply for a transgender certificate and an identity card as per their preferred gender,” he adds.

Aryan, who has also held awareness sessions for Madhya Pradesh Police and at Delhi University and School of Open Learning, aspires to make the Indian sports community a trans-inclusive space. “I am currently preparing for the next edition of Gay Games, which are considered to be the Olympics of queer sportspersons. I am also looking to sponsor and train more trans men bodybuilders who can join me for the competition in Hong Kong,” he signs off.

(Edited by Divya Sethu)

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