A week after the Supreme Court read down Section 377 in 2018, a small, gutsy band of misfits painted the town rainbow on a wet Friday afternoon. It was a rather unusual affair in Shillong’s Don Bosco square—a huge tourist draw on most days with its towering church structures and buildings, as timeless as India’s colonial-era laws.
In one of the North-East’s most well-known cities, where the locals barely concern themselves with happenings elsewhere in the country (and vice versa), the decriminalisation of same sex relations between consenting adults would have been a “foreign” affair if not for these pride marchers. Leading this pack was Dona Marwein (she/her), a slender woman in bright orange trousers and a pink feathered scarf, strutting the city’s arterial roads. As the first openly transgender woman in Shillong, Dona was the public face of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer Intersex (LGBTQI) movement in the hilly state, giving sound bites to the local press and fielding uncomfortable questions.
“She asked them (the public) to understand the community first as human beings and then as transgender persons,” says Firmly (he/him), Dona’s friend and a volunteer at Shamakami, a local non-profit working for queer protection and welfare. Their office is tucked under a residential house in Shillong’s Nongthymmai area, where the residents are mostly from the Khasi tribe. There is a church nearby and private residences on either side of the road. Bryan Adams’ Summer Of ’69 resounds from the neighbourhood on most days. Meanwhile, Shamakami works discreetly, like an underground operation, for society’s most vulnerable.
Mickey (he/him), another friend who also works at the NGO, says the pride march became a milestone in Shillong’s history, emboldening more members of the community to come out. On the day itself, however, only a handful from the local queer community showed up with allies and community members from Guwahati and Kolkata. “During the walk, these evangelists were heckling us,” he says. “But the police told them to back off.”
The sensitisation and transformation since is due in large part to the work Dona led in the last decade, engaging with Shillong’s stakeholders—from the government to the church. It also stood as a marker of the long way that the activist had come, surviving a broken home in the small town of Nongstoin and later, eking out a life in Shillong.
Carving out a queer space
Mickey, a Shillong resident of Nepali origin, spotted Dona for the first time in the bustling Bara Bazar, or Lewduh market. This was 2008, when no one in Shillong, or the rest of Meghalaya, was talking about gay rights, and the residents would explore their identity in “mainland” cities, battling both racism and homophobia. But working or studying outside was a privilege only a few could afford and Dona wasn’t one of them.
Yet there she was, with her long hair down, sipping tea. Mickey marvelled at how she completely “passed off” as a woman but his friend, who owned the tea stall, had already told him about her. “Nobody was working for the LGBT community. We were the first ones,” he says. “I told her that we were just starting an HIV project and wanted her to join us as a peer educator to raise awareness”. Sensing an opportunity, or at least a livelihood, Dona agreed.
She never looked back
Over 500km away in Manipur’s Imphal valley, the Nupi Maanbis (transgender women) had been visible since the late 1990s, running beauty parlours and walking down fashion ramps. Dona too took part in beauty pageants in Imphal to publicly reclaim her identity, several years after being threatened by locals in her home town for experimenting with clothes and make-up.
Santa Khurai, who had started the All Manipur Nupi Maanbi Association and spearheaded trans visibility in the region through her non-profit, Saathi, became Dona’s mentor after she first participated in the Miss Transqueen Contest in 2011. “There was something different about her,” says Santa. “Right away, I saw her interest and dedication to work for the community. She would keep asking me about my work in Manipur.”
The beauty pageant brought them closer, and in the years that followed Dona was keen on replicating the Manipur model in her state. But a lack of resources and support from stakeholders and the government tied her hands. After 2016, says Santa, her health started deteriorating. “There were financial issues, too. She didn’t earn enough from the NGO to support her living,” says Santa, and worked at a local tea hotel to supplement her income. She adds that Dona didn’t have enough support from those around her either; this started affecting her psychologically and she took refuge in drinking. Drinking brought some solace to her lonely heart.
Matters took a turn for the worse in 2020, when covid-19 forced everyone indoors. For almost a year, Mickey took care of her but her gastritis inflammation recurred after she moved in with Gaga, another transgender activist and one of her oldest friends in Shillong. None of her friends was entirely sure of her medical diagnosis even though she had been taken to two hospitals, and had even spent 24 hours in intensive care.
She was close to her sister but the loss earlier this year of her mother—who had long suffered from a mental illness—left a deep impact. In a testimonial shared with The Chinky Homo Project, a blog on queer identities in the North-East, Dona revealed her scars of being abandoned early on, first by her father, then by her mother.
Firmly, a make-up artist who works largely out of big cities like Delhi, says Dona had sensed her days were numbered. “When I last visited before her passing on 24 October, she insisted I thread her eyebrows,” he says. “She also wanted a haircut.” They even planned a birthday party for her. Mickey cooked her favourites: jadoh (turmeric rice with chicken blood) and doh khlieh (diced pork brain salad). She complained of sharp stomach pain and died in the ICU of the civil hospital a week later. Due to covid-19 restrictions, none of her near and dear could be around in her last moments. She would have turned 31 in November.
An unfinished life and legacy
Dona’s passing has left a gaping hole in the lives of the trans and queer community living in one of the fasting changing cities in the North-East. As someone who was not only out and proud but ambitious in her vision for the community, her greatest wish was to see the trans community run beauty parlours across town—reclaiming their identities publicly.
“She asked me to stay on in Shillong to train different batches, apologetic that she couldn’t offer me any money,” says Firmly. “But I was just happy to volunteer for the community. She also wanted to build a shelter home for trans people.”
For Gaga, whom she lived with and who had known her the longest, the loss is a lot more personal. “I feel like I lost a guide,” she says. More than her health, Dona had worried about what would happen to Gaga after her.
“She kept telling me to be careful while trusting people since there had been many incidents of sexual violence against the trans community,” says Gaga, who, like Dona, left home after being taunted endlessly by extended family.
The visibility from the pride march also had a downside for Dona, who was harassed a couple of times in public. “We came out, both on the streets and online. So a lot of people started passing snide remarks, calling us ‘Hijras’, with Dona bearing the major brunt of it,” says Mickey. But she took adversities in her stride, refusing to be bogged down. “When I would tell her, Ni, this person was talking shit about you, she would just say, ‘It’s okay! Kill them with kindness,’” Firmly recalls.
Dona’s journey had only just begun. She had recently been appointed to the State Justice Board in accordance with the guidelines of the Transgender Rights Act, 2019. This would have been the first time the trans community and state government officials worked together. Her recent initiative, an LGBTQI community-based organisation, Sympylliem, is yet to take final shape. The launch, planned in November, has been delayed owing to her passing.
Besides those close to her, the news of Dona’s death devastated many Nupi Maanbis in Manipur who had spent precious time with her during the Transqueen pageant years. Most of all, it hit Santa very hard. “Because she wanted to open beauty parlours in Shillong, I even wrote out a proposal for her. But just when it got approved and the funders were ready to release the money,” says Santa, her voice cracking over the phone, “I got a call from Mickey that she was no more.”
She feels theirs was a sisterhood that went beyond the gender equality movement in the North-East. “I knew she had been struggling for a while,” she says, adding that Dona needed medical attention and support from the community. But it didn’t come soon enough.
Firmly, who has volunteered to carry on Dona’s work in the State Justice Board, is cognizant of the enormity of the task. Her friends in Shillong are mindful of the big shoes left to fill. “She was such a powerful personality, who always spoke to the community from her heart,” he says. “Our visibility in a small town like Shillong is her greatest legacy.”
Makepeace Sitlhou is a Guwahati-based journalist covering the North-East. She tweets @makesyoucakes.