Transgender actress Aneesh Sheth, the first South Asian trans woman to appear on television, spoke to students Monday evening at one of the first events of “Intersections,” a weeklong series organized by Stanford Students for Queer Liberation (SSQL).
Sheth spoke about her role on the show “Outsourced,” in addition to sharing her personal story of transitioning and finding success as an actress.
Intersections Week aims to explore the relationship, or intersection, between LGBTQ and racial identities. Sheth’s evening talk kicked off the week, following a lunchtime screening of “Should Be, Could Be, But Is” with director Nayoung Woo.
Sheth discussed not only the intersections of her transgender and Indian identities, but also the intersections of her identities as a social activist and actress and challenges she faces in the entertainment industry.
Sheth began her talk with her personal story, describing how she grew up in New York with negative stereotypes and limited knowledge of transgendered individuals.
“When I was 12, all I wanted to do was dress up in saris when no one was home,” Sheth said, describing her childhood. “At that time I had no idea that I would ever become a woman.”
Sheth came out at the age of 16 as a gay man, but it wasn’t until 10 years later that she chose to transition. She cited a pivotal stage role as “Sweetie,” a eunuch in “Bombay Dreams,” as inspiring her self-realization.
“I still had the dream that one day I would be on stage singing in a sari,” Sheth said of her role in “Bombay Dreams.”
“I did what I wanted to do all my life,” she added.
Upon transitioning, Sheth was unsure about her potential for success as an actress and pursued a degree in social work from New York University (NYU). In 2010, she moved to California to perform social work and continues to remain involved in the field. Sheth found her way back to acting when offered a role on “Outsourced.”
“I didn’t ever think I could work as a trans actress,” she said, noting that she “felt really, really blessed” to be a part of “Outsourced,” a sitcom about an American company’s call center in Mumbai, India. Sheth said her character would have continued to the second season, if not for the show’s cancellation earlier this year.
Sheth did, however, mention negative feedback she received for her role on “Outsourced.” She noted that while some took issue with her role as a stripper, arguing that the character served to reinforce negative stereotypes, her response was, “We all have to start somehow.”
Sheth also discussed industry discrimination she faced before and after her transition.
“My agent said, ‘Cut your hair, work out, make yourself look more masculine,’” she said, describing how attempts to follow the advice left her feeling as if she had betrayed a part of herself.
Sheth also mentioned that while she felt pressure to choose whether or not to bill herself at auditions as transgender, agents told her the issue didn’t matter, commenting, “You ‘pass’ as a woman.”
Now Sheth is proud to represent her true self.
“You’re respecting yourself by saying I’m who I am and I’m not going to sacrifice this,” she said.
Prompted by the audience, Sheth also spoke about her relationship with her family.
“There’s still something to learn within every story,” she said when describing ongoing tension. “My dad is definitely more accepting than my mother. She never fully grieved the loss of a son.”
Sheth also spoke about the importance of her recent connection to a South Asian transgender community, referring to the positive support from a “community of people who not only understand my gender identity, but also my culture.”
“I’m only really starting to discover that part of myself,” Sheth said.
Sheth described divisions within the LGBTQ community and commented on efforts at universities to support students from all groups.
“A lot of colleges are doing these co-ed dormitories,” she said, referring to Stanford’s policy offering co-ed living in specific dorms. “I think it’s good, but probably there are some kinks that need to be worked out.”
“Allies are a huge part of the support system,” Sheth said, a sentiment shared by the student organizers of the event.
“Intersections for me is exciting because it allows us to explore many identities that people feel are at odds with each other,” said SSQL co-president Leanna Keyes ’14.
Intersections Week will include several speakers and film screenings and will culminate in an open mic Friday evening at the CoHo.
“It’s much more than, ‘What is it like to be this?’” said event organizer Mia Divecha ’13, stressing the theme of intersections of various identities. “What is it like to be both these things?”