By Jonathan Allen
MAHARAJGANJ, India (Reuters) - To earn a living, Kiran dresses up in women's clothes, dances at wedding parties in the Indian countryside and tries not to struggle when he is raped at knifepoint by drunken male wedding guests.
The pay, he says, is pretty good.
He is one of thousands of launda dancers working the wedding scene in the villages of Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh states, leading the groom's raucous marching-band procession to the bride's house.
They put up with routine violence because, they say, it is the only way they are free to live as "kothis", a South Asian term for effeminate and transsexual gay men.
Most dancers soon get used to being bitten, burnt with cigarettes and cut with knives and broken bottles. In one common "party trick", a wedding guest will hide a razor blade in his fingers and then bloodily caress the dancer's cheek.
And while most laundas make extra money selling sex, too often they end up brutalized. Most know of dancers who were shot dead or strangled for resisting sex with gangs of men from the wedding in nearby buildings or fields.
"They like to have sex with pain. They like to give us pain. They take pleasure in this violence," said 20-year-old Kiran, who declined to give his full name, as he plucked stubble from his cheeks with tweezers, readying for work.
Bappa, an older launda, said one of his worst days at work was when a drunk man took a knife in a boast of virility and slit Bappa's anus open wide before raping him.
But another launda, Bobby said their current neighborhood -- Uttar Pradesh's Maharajganj district -- was relatively safe, and argued the freedom granted by the job outweighed the violence.
"All our desires are filled," he said, dressed in a canary-yellow salwar kameez over a padded bra, his long hair dyed auburn. "Most importantly, our desire to live like women, to cook for our boyfriends, to adorn ourselves, have our own households."
After Bobby went to shampoo his hair under the handpump outside, Kiran made the point more bluntly.
"I have come here for two specific reasons," he said, grinning. "One: to dress up as a woman and live like them. Two: sex, sex, and sex."
RAPED FROM CHILDHOOD
For poor, lower-caste families wanting a grand wedding for their children, boys in drag were once a cheap substitute for dancing girls. Laundas have since become a regional tradition.
After the marriage ceremony they dance through the night, often until dawn.
A relatively honest bandmaster typically pays a dancer 3,000 to 6,000 rupees ($75 to $150) a month, a little above the average income in India.
Like most laundas dancing in the countryside, Bappa is from the metropolis of Kolkata. His career path was typical.
From a young age he didn't fit in with other boys, and bullies forced him out of school. They liked cricket. He preferred pictures of cricket players and dolls.
Laughing, he mimes how he would drape his head with a towel to pretend he had long hair.
When he was eight years old, his 25-year-old neighbor walked into his house, stripped him as he squirmed, and raped him.
It was the first of many such attacks by the neighbor who later got him into brothel work, where he learnt about launda dancers. He figured it was the best chance for an outcast to make a living.
When at home in Kolkata, his family silently tolerates him so long as he wears men's clothing, skips the makeup and keeps out of their way.
He hides his women's gear with a vegetable seller at the nearby train station, where he gets changed in the ladies toilet. His parents are still trying to find him a bride.
"We once dreamt of having a respectable job," said Kiran, "We wanted to become doctors, craftsmen or company executives. We dreamt of getting married, having kids of our own, going to the beach for holidays. But not anymore."
Few people care about launda dancers.
Charities and government projects tend to focus on girls and young women, mostly because they are trafficked and abused in far greater numbers, but also because they are seen as defenseless.
Even the men the laundas call their boyfriends -- mostly married men perceived to be heterosexual -- tend to shun them during daylight hours.
Added to that is the threat of disease. India has the world's largest HIV caseload with an estimated 5.7 million sufferers and the dancers are a high-risk group. Bobby has a photo album featuring pictures of two launda friends who died from AIDS.
Kolkata-based People Like Us is one of the few organizations working with laundas to provide better healthcare and reduce the threat of violence.
But it says funding is hard to come by, partly because the line between victim and exploiter can quickly blur.
As they get older, laundas often bring younger kothis into the business. To some people, this is nothing less than pimping. But the laundas argue only they can teach these outcast teenagers how to survive a lifetime of abuse as transsexuals living in India.
Tue Jun 12, 2007 7:21pm EDT