Gurgaon, Haryana (CNN)In a hotel in the satellite city of Gurgaon, close to the Indian capital Delhi, 16 would-be beauty queens from across India helped to make history Sunday when they competed in the country's first ever transgender beauty pageant.
India crowns its first transgender beauty queen
Miss Transqueen India aimed to celebrate gender fluidity and enhance the profile of India's trans community, with the winner being presented with an opportunity to represent India at the International Queen pageant in Thailand in March 2018.
Like other pageants, the event featured plenty of glitter and rhinestones, but unlike other pageants, Miss Transqueen India made a point of declaring all the participants "winners," in recognition of their struggle for acceptance and recognition.
In 2014, India's supreme court legally gave transgender people the right to identify as a third gender. But while the law was hailed as a victory by activists, many in the trans community continue to face discrimination in everyday life.
Sunday's event was overseen by an 11-person judging panel, consisting of Ms. Transsexual Australia and long-time transgender activist Gauri Sawant, who after lengthy deliberation, declared 26-year-old Kolkata-based Nitasha Biswas as India's very first "Trans Queen."
Miss Transqueen India is the brainchild of Reena Rai, a former business owner who once sold tortillas to the TGIF restaurant chain.
Rai was inspired to create the pageant after listening to a number of hijra -- a traditionally revered, yet ostracized group of male-to-female transgendered people in India -- discuss issues facing their community.
"I realized that ... change was not coming," Rai said. "When straight people like me ... actually stand up for the cause and fight for them, only then the change will come."
Rai quit her job and devoted nine months of her life to putting together the competition. She sunk her energy and savings in to the pageant, having at one point only 10,000 rupees ($156) in her account.
India's hijras have long been considered holy, playing a role in the country's Hindu mythology that dates back to over 3,000 years. During the Mughal era in India, they held significant power, serving as royal advisers and protectors of royal harems.
Today, India is home to a vibrant LGBT community that covers a wide spectrum of people.
Whatever the label, many of the Miss Transqueen India contestants had experienced various forms of social exclusion due to their gender identity.
"My mom said, I don't think you're transgender, you're my boy, you're my son," said Shivali Chhetri, a contestant from Mumbai, describing her experience of coming out to her parents. Chhetri's father refused to acknowledge her new life and cut her off from the family.
It took years of counseling and speaking to her parents for them to finally accept her new life, Chhetri said.
Sunday's audience was small, but supportive. Many were friends of the contestants or members of the LGBT community in Delhi.
There was easy banter between the MC and the audience members.
The women had big hair and bigger false eyelashes, and with the crowd cheering them on, they sashayed down the catwalk in six-inch platform heels with confidence and style.