In India, a trans woman stands up to the ‘YouTube Baba’
Moved by her mother’s pleas, Trixie, a young transgender woman, agreed to visit the “YouTube Baba,” a holy man whose videos had made him rich and famous across northern India. She went to his estate — the 14-acre Karauli Sarkar Ashram — in the city of Kanpur, an industrial and economic hub in Uttar Pradesh, an Indian state bigger and more populous than most countries.
On April 6, Trixie found herself standing on a stage, before the shaven-headed, heavyset Baba himself. With cameras rolling, two men held her in place while the Baba, draped in long white robes, accused her of being infected with the “disease of queerness.” By posting videos like these on social media, the Baba has made a fortune in just three years. He claims to have a “godly” cure for terminal illnesses and a variety of other personal and psychological complaints.
He also specializes in conversion therapy — in which he claims to “pray the gay away” — and offers a special prayer package to “reconvert” transgender people and align their gender identity to the sex they were assigned at birth. Trixie’s family paid about $1,830 for her “treatment,” a sizable sum in a country in which the average monthly wage is below $500.
The Baba’s promises to banish homosexuality and to “cure” transgender people appeal to longstanding popular prejudices in Uttar Pradesh and other parts of India. Even the federal government is currently arguing in the Indian Supreme Court that gay marriage is an “urban elitist concept.” For most of the country, the government insists as it attempts to put the brakes on the Supreme Court hearings that would determine whether India should legalize same-sex marriage, the “notion of marriage itself necessarily and inevitably presupposes a union between two persons of the opposite sex.” And this notion is “deeply embedded in religious and societal norms.”
From his estate, the Baba regularly livestreams his “healing” sessions to tens of thousands of viewers. His most popular videos on YouTube, where he has a verified channel, have surpassed one million views. He also commands an impressive following on Facebook, where he maintains multiple pages. His social media pages all link to the ashram’s website, which boasts testimonials from his patients, instructions for devotees and a market for the Baba’s health products.
The Baba — aka Santosh Singh Bhadauria — is what is known in India as a “godman,” a self-styled guru who has managed to persuade people that he possesses spiritual powers. Godmen are similar to televangelists, and their followers might once have been called holy rollers. As with televangelists, godmen are frequently found to be conmen, criminals and sex offenders. Bhadauria has been in trouble with the law for decades, accused of various crimes though yet to be convicted of any.
Last month, a doctor who challenged Bhadauria by calling out his theatrics as cheap quackery was allegedly assaulted at Bhadauria’s behest. Among the types of cures Bhadauria enacts in public spectacles on his estate, attended by thousands of followers, is the ritual “murder” of “Muslim ghosts” that he claims have possessed the bodies of Hindus. The Muslim ghosts are exorcised with a toy gun.
Trixie knew little about Bhadauria’s methods before agreeing to visit his ashram. She was just trying to keep her parents happy. On reaching the estate, she found that a recording of his exhortations was being broadcast to hundreds of devotees. People were screaming and crying as if they’d been possessed by a spirit, she said.
Uncomfortable with the atmosphere, Trixie tried to walk away but says she was physically restrained by the Bhadauria’s security. The next morning, Bhadauria showed up in person. He addressed Trixie’s family directly. Homosexuality, he said, was a disease, and Trixie, as someone infected by it, was “filled to the brim with filth.”
Her mother stood beside her, silently watching as Bhadauria continued to rant. That was when Trixie realized, she told us, that she had lost her mother to the propaganda, a far more cruel betrayal than Bhadauria’s crude abuse.
“Parents can be wrong sometimes too,” she told her mother in front of Bhadauria and the audience. They were the only words she would utter during the “therapy” session. Had she tried to argue her case, she told us, she would have felt “like a dog barking without reason.”
Bhadauria’s conversion therapy is emblematic of the transphobia and homophobia of Indian society. This prejudice is seeing a resurgence as the Supreme Court prepares to rule on the question of same-sex marriage. Despite a long history of gender fluidity in Indian theology, mythology and culture, the Hindu nationalist government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi argues that the push for LGBTQ rights is a result of increasing Western influence and the decline of so-called Indian values.
The Indian judiciary, though, has taken a more liberal line. Consensual gay sex was decriminalized in India in 2018, when the Supreme Court overturned a colonial law. “History owes an apology to members of the community,” said one of the judges, “for the delay in ensuring their rights.” And last year, a state high court ordered the prohibition of conversion therapy, ruling that it constituted misconduct when performed by medical professionals.
If the Supreme Court does legalize same-sex marriage, it would be yet another ruling that defies the values and beliefs of some of India’s most powerful political actors. While no judgment has yet been made, trolls have targeted the court on social media and its chief justice was attacked as “woke” even before he was appointed to the bench. Government officials and mainstream media personalities have also piled on, insisting that the judges would be undermining tradition and imposing their own values on the country. Religious representatives from all of India’s major religions, in a rare show of togetherness, have teamed up to oppose the marriage equality petition before the Supreme Court.
Social activist Indrajeet, the founder of “Yes, We Exist,” a digital LGBTQ+ awareness initiative, told us in an interview that although the Indian right wing says same-sex marriage is a Western imposition, Indian conservatives are also taking their cues from the West. In the West, particularly in the United States, transphobia has become an endemic political hot-button topic and is similarly framed as an issue beloved by liberal elites rather than one of existing civil rights being unequally applied.
The Indian government says it is for elected legislators to decide on the fate of same-sex marriage rather than for unelected judges. But the Indian constitution — as a government website helpfully points out — gives all Indians the right to equal treatment before the law.
It is to the courts that a transgender woman like Trixie has to turn to get redress for the ordeal she was forced to endure at Bhadauria’s ashram. “If you do not self-determine and do prayers to be a boy,” Bhadauria said to Trixie, “you’ll become a girl and will get beaten by boys. Even if you marry a boy, he will beat you too.”
Turning to Trixie’s mother, Bhadauria said, “The only way left to cure him is by doing prayers. If he doesn’t do it by himself, you should do this for him.” Bhadauria also insinuated that Trixie’s transition was sexual in nature, a perversion rather than a deeply felt identity. This vein of transphobia has been contested at length by scholarship on and by queer people.
Pointing to the scholarship, though, is not always a helpful strategy when confronted by hate speech on social media and the socially permitted behavior of quacks like Bhadauria. Indrajeet, the founder of the LGBTQ+ awareness initiative, explained that social media sites have become key platforms for the likes of Bhadauria. Their brand of hate is easily spread on these platforms and enables them to attract new followers and expand their reach. It also allows them to monetize their polarizing content.
Although many of these social media pages and channels are riddled with hate speech and discriminatory messages, platforms routinely fail to take action against violations of their own rules of conduct.
For instance, though Meta does not offer clear guidance about organic content promoting conversion therapy on Facebook, the company expressly prohibits advertisements offering such services. Google (YouTube’s parent company) prohibits the promotion of conversion therapy in its publisher policies. Both companies have a broad ban on the kinds of hate speech and discriminatory language that characterize Bhadauria’s content.
Bhadauria’s video of his encounter with Trixie was highly visible both on Facebook and YouTube for two weeks after their “therapy session.” It has since been removed from Facebook, but the video is still up on YouTube, where Bhadauria has 439,000 followers. Indrajeet and other activists we spoke with expressed concern that these videos, spread by spiritual leaders with significant social influence, could be used to justify physical attacks on queer people in the public eye.
Zainab Patel, a trans woman, activist and one of the petitioners in the pending marriage equality Supreme Court case, told us that Bhaduria’s attempt to “treat” Trixie is against Indian law. All forms of conversion therapy against queer people were banned in 2021 by the National Medical Commission of India which described such therapy as “professional misconduct,” following an order from the Madras high court which has jurisdiction in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
These therapies can take the form of pseudo-religious rituals but can also involve measures as extreme as “corrective rapes.” Independent research has proven that conversion therapy practices increase the risk of self-harm among queer people. It is why, Zainab says, it is essential that legal action is taken against self-appointed holy men like Bhadauria.
“After watching Trixie’s video,” Zainab told us, “we can say that she has been subjected to humiliation, stigmatization and discrimination.” Trixie’s parents, Zainab added, “along with the spiritual person to whom she was taken, can both be punished under the Transgender Protection Act.” This also means that both Facebook and YouTube could be compelled, by a court order, to remove the material. But so far, most of the footage remains online, garnering thousands of views and untold advertising revenue.
Akkai Padmashali, a transgender rights activist, pointed out that while in other democracies the numbers of openly homosexual and bisexual legislators are growing, India’s LGBTQ community has no representation in parliament to stand up for their concerns. Instead, the court case on marriage equality has become an opportunity for politicians to grandstand on matters of religious tradition. “I believe that I am bound to follow constitutional morality,” Akkai told us, “and not any social construct, cultural or religious morality.” But, in India, that is an increasingly rare position.
For Trixie, her ordeal does have a silver lining — she has found her voice and an inner strength. She counts it as a small victory that the video of her conversion therapy is no longer on Facebook. Now, she says, she is ready to take on more transphobic propaganda on her Instagram, where she has found many new supporters and followers.
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