IVLP alumna and activist Rudrani Chhetri works to create a safe and inclusive world for India’s transgender community.
Rudrani Chhetri is a transgender activist, artist and model. (Photograph courtesy Rudrani Chhetri)
When Rudrani Chhetri was born, she was assigned the identity of male. “But that’s not who I was,” she says. “I identify as a transgender woman.” This realization shaped nearly every aspect of Chhetri’s life, and led to a career that is redefining what it means to be transgender in India.
Chhetri is a New Delhi-based artist, activist and model who has spent over two decades working for India’s LGBTQIA+ community, fighting abuse, discrimination and gender-based violence. Chhetri made history in 2015 by founding BOLD, India’s first transgender modeling agency. She also broke ground by playing a major role in the award-winning 2019 Hindi film directed by Indian American chef Vikas Khanna, “The Last Color.”
A long-standing ally
Chhetri’s core work is running the New Delhi-based Mitr Trust, which she founded in 2005. Since 2021, Chhetri and her colleagues have run the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment-supported Garima Greh shelter home in New Delhi, which provides food, lodging, medical care, recreational facilities and educational support for transgender people. Mitr Trust also supports the LGBTQIA+ community through outreach, advocacy to strengthen relationships with government offices and other entities, HIV testing and counseling, crisis response teams, and other initiatives.
While growing up, Chhetri struggled to understand herself and felt rejected for not conforming to others’ ideas of masculinity, especially in her all-boys school. At first, she blamed herself for being different and “not acting ‘normal’,” she says. But she soon connected with others facing similar struggles related to gender identity, discrimination and non-acceptance. Unable to find the necessary support from existing organizations, Chhetri and her friends founded Mitr Trust to help themselves and others. “We are Delhi’s first community-based LGBTQIA+ organization,” she says.
The IVLP experience
In 2016, Chhetri traveled to the United States under the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), the U.S. State Department’s premier professional exchange program. Through short-term visits to the United States, participants from a variety of fields learn about the United States and cultivate lasting relationships with their American counterparts. Chhetri describes the program as one of the greatest experiences of her life.
“It was amazing to go to the United States and learn about a different place and culture,” she says. “The knowledge I gained really helped me work with my community in India, especially when it comes to helping victims of gender-based violence.”
In India, mental health is rarely discussed, says Chhetri. “And the experience of visiting LGBTQIA+ organizations in the United States helped me see the mental health challenges that victims of gender-based violence can face,” she adds. “Because of the IVLP, I understand victims’ needs better, and how I can strategize about ways to help.”
When it comes to matters of safety, inclusion and equity for LGBTQIA+ people, Chhetri has seen her community’s efforts start to pay off in important ways. In recent years, for example, many major companies have wanted to collaborate with LGBTQIA+ people, she says. But much work remains to be done. “Companies and organizations know that they need to have an inclusive ecosystem and work with different groups, but they don’t yet really understand LGBTQIA+ people. We are all still learning,” she says.
Moving forward, Chhetri hopes that the LGBTQIA+ community and organizations receive wider visibility and acceptance, and the same support as other communities in need.
“We need to educate people who don’t understand how we are rejected by society, how LGBTQIA+ people get disowned by their families, excluded from schools and health clinics, and stopped from interviewing for jobs,” she says.
If that happens, Chhetri continues, great things can happen. “Even with the struggles and challenges we face right now, what we are doing is so beautiful,” she says. “If we can do the same thing without challenges, we will create wonders and do better not only for our community, but for this country.”
Michael Gallant is a New York City-based writer, musician and entrepreneur.