Make-up workshops created space for trans people to be themselves

June 22nd, 2023   |   Fellowships

A person with short brown hair, a light mustache and beard, wearing a blue shirt, smiles broadly at the camera.
Amit Gerstein

By Amit Gerstein

Amit Gerstein is a 2022 Alice Rowan Swanson Fellow. For his project, he worked with local activists in Nepal to improve employment opportunities for members of the transgender community, in which isolation and discrimination contribute to high rates of depression and suicide. Gerstein studied abroad with SIT in Nepal in 2018.

SAGARI IS NOT AN EARLY PERSON. She would always come to class in a bit of a fluster, cheeks a bit red, scarf haphazardly thrown on, as if we were starting in the early morning rather than at 2 p.m. She would toss her coat onto a chair on the side of the room and its sleeves would inevitably fall over the sides of the seat and skim the ground (only for her later to complain that her coat had gotten all dusty). She would sit next to Uma (who had already finished doing her eyebrows and was applying primer to her eyelids), grab a mirror, and start to catch up.

Through a local LGBTQ+ health organization, Sagari learned about the workshop, a 10-day intensive makeup class funded by the Alice Rowan Swanson Fellowship that provided participants with the foundations needed to start a job in the makeup industry. That’s why many of the students were there. The class was geared toward trans women and sex workers, and most either didn’t have a job or needed a new one. Some were taking the class in case their current jobs fell through; Covid had shown everyone how close they are to financial instability.

But Sagari wasn’t like the other students. “I mean … I might do a job in makeup later on,” she explained to me in Nepali, “but right now I’m doing this for myself.”

Much of the money that comes to Nepal’s LGBTQ+ community is earmarked for HIV/AIDS programming, an important focus, but far from the only important one.

After class, she had a few hours to herself before going to work. For her, that means going to the main road to wait for clients. At that time of night the city is dead. Shops are closed. People are home in bed. But it’s when men come out—sometimes in groups, sometimes off the freight trucks they drive cross-country, sometimes after late nights of drinking—looking for sex.

SAGARI LIVES IN ANOTHER SEX WORKER'S HOUSE. She needed someplace to bring clients but could not afford a place for herself. So, she sleeps on a mat on the bedroom floor. Her housemate, Devna, is married, but Devna and her husband have an arrangement. At night, while he goes out to drive commercial trucks, she brings men back to her home, making sure they are gone before her husband is back. Both finish work in the early hours of the morning.

Day one of the workshop focused on eyebrows. Day two: eye shadow. Day three: foundation. The participants sit down to practice at their stations surrounded by makeup products, most of which I had never heard of. Work is interspersed with the inevitable chatter, interrupted every so often by the instructor’s halfhearted plea for quiet. Once everyone had practiced the skills they learned the day before, the instructor would ask for a volunteer to be the model to demonstrate a new makeup skill.

Peripheral cities are less likely to receive funding, even though those LGBTQ+ populations are probably those that need it the most.

With the fellowship, I helped run these workshops around the country. We were a team of two: me and Nilam Poudel, a professional makeup artist and instructor, going to different cities to teach makeup to trans women and sex workers in cities that don’t often get programs like these. Much of the money that comes to Nepal’s LGBTQ+ community is earmarked for HIV/AIDS programming, an important focus, but far from the only important one. At times, projects supporting the community come at the expense of those focusing on condoms. Peripheral cities are also less likely to receive funding, even though those LGBTQ+ populations are probably those that need it the most.

THESE COMMUNITIES WERE HIT ESPECIALLY HARD by the pandemic. Already in financially precarious situations, queer people faced high rates of unemployment; many of the sources of income they depended on simply ceased to exist. Many were forced to go to their home villages, back to families that didn’t accept them and discrimination they had tried to escape. Others stayed in the city without family support, stuck in small apartments where they were isolated from their communities and friends.

One NGO started posting photos on Facebook of LGBTQ+ people who had committed suicide. I remember seeing them pop up every so often as I scrolled through the app in the beginning days of the pandemic, only later to become a heartbreaking staple of my feed.

The pandemic feels like it’s over here in Nepal, although people still wear their masks on the street, a combination of habit and the dual protection masks provide against the ever-present dust. Yet, Covid’s impacts are still deeply felt. For many, the makeup classes opened up opportunities to find a stable job or a stable income to supplement whatever else they did for work. For others, like Sagari, the makeup classes had a more personal meaning.

On the last day of class, Sagari showed up, as usual, in a bit of a fluster. She stepped into the large rec room where we were holding the class to let us know that she was there before rushing off to the bathroom. Ten minutes later when she returned, she was in a dress: light pink and frilly, the zipper in the back a bit jammed, a piece of clothing that clearly meant a lot to her. She spent class time diligently working on her makeup. When she finished, she grabbed a friend and went outside to take photos.

SAGARI IS IN HER EARLY TWENTIES. She doesn’t really know what she wants to do with her life, what her next step is. She doesn’t know if she wants to be a makeup artist, but she knows that she wants to learn makeup. The workshop created a safe space where she could be herself, dress how she wanted, act as she wanted. The dress she wore that last day was one she wears for sex work, appealing to a clientele that prefers trans women (or "ladyboys" and "shemales," as she less-gently puts it). But today was different. She could be a girl, not in the dusty streets where men would swap bills for blowjobs, but during the day and in front of others.

The workshop created a safe space where she could be herself, dress how she wanted, act as she wanted.

Class ended. We took group photos. The project participants bought us a cake to thank us for the class (and, as tradition demands, each took a piece of cake and stuffed it in our faces.) Many laughs later, as I was washing white frosting off my face and from the crevices in my ears, Sagari was washing off her makeup. One wipe removed the bulk of the foundation, another her eye shadow, and her feminine face began to distort. A precise cat eye devolved into a smudge of black; a pink lip became a pink spot on a makeup wipe. The cloth became a palette of beiges and browns, blacks and reds, with the smallest trace of glitter, before it was tossed into the wastebasket alongside other colorful remnants from the past few hours.

I HATED THIS PART OF CLASS when all the hard work was removed and women would reveal the traces of stubble that lined their chins, the faces they presented to the rest of the world but were not truly theirs. But I also knew that this workshop was a haven for its participants. The blank, unassuming walls of the rec room became the boundaries of a space that didn’t need to follow the rules of the outside world. It was a place where people could explore their feelings and genders, make friends, and build community outside the confines of HIV-clinics and sex work.

With the Alice Rowan Swanson Fellowship, we helped marginalized people find jobs. However, throughout the workshops, I realized that we might be doing something equally as powerful: We were empowering people to be themselves, legitimizing thoughts and feelings that are so often under attack. If people recognize their own value, perhaps that can be a step in building a society that does, too.

The Alice Rowan Swanson Fellowship was established in 2009 by the family of SIT Study Abroad Nicaragua ’06 alumna Alice Rowan Swanson as a living tribute to Alice’s life, her passion for bridging cultures and helping others, and the role that SIT Study Abroad played in her life.