PEOPLE The sexual minorities are often blamed for their choice and way of life. But does the mainstream society encourage a dignified existence for them, wonders A.SHRIKUMAR

“Ihave always been an element of curiosity and animosity,” says Sulochana, “because we stand out for our appearance and mannerisms.” Her kohl-lined eyes flutter dramatically and her fingers with striking pink nail-polish sway sideways. Her voice reveals her identity. “The moment I speak, people give me dirty looks,” she says. Decked in bright saris and imitation jewellery and often identified with extremely effeminate characteristics, transgenders are the most commonly known sexual-minorities.

They are seen almost everywhere – on the streets, at temple platforms, under the flyovers and on trains – announcing themselves with a peculiar clap, begging or doing sex work. “We strive hard to mainstream ourselves, but we are never allowed or encouraged,” says Sulochana. She can’t get over the fact that the beauty parlour she tried running from her house in Arapalayam was boycotted by people. It was a loss of livelihood, loss of seven years of hard work! “I invested everything that I earned through sex work during my stay in Mumbai. I could sustain for few months only and had to finally close the shop due to lack of customers,” she recalls.

Similar is the story of Bhavana of Muthupatti, who ran a Tiffin stall at the Government sponsored ‘Poomaalai Vaniga Valagam’ opposite the GH. “We, a group of transgenders started the business. But the food would go waste everyday as there were no takers. One man even scolded us that it would be a sin to eat food cooked by us,” says Bhavana. Her only respite is the house sanctioned by the state government. Over 110 transgenders have been allotted houses in Madurai district.

Most of the community members hail Tamil Nadu as the most progressive state in recognizing transgenders who have been issued ration cards and voter IDs. “People’s mindset has to change. Even if we want to live a decent life, the society doesn’t let us. We are pushed to the margin and compelled to again take up sex work and begging,” rues Srinithi, who recently opened a sari shop but found no customers. Mehrunisa and Shanti echo similar experiences from candle-making and agarbatti businesses.

Says Nirosha, President, Thai Viluthugal, “We are viewed as detestable scary beings. Even a small school kid calls out “ chhakka ” or “ maamu ” on seeing us. People should be educated about sexual minorities. They should know why we are different from them but they should realize that we are also human beings.”

But a new ray of hope has emerged in Nagamalai Pudukottai where a group of transgenders work as supervisors at a garment manufacturing unit. Three transwomen are employed by a Tirupur based company to manage 15 women tailors who stitch undergarments at the unit. One of them is Bharathi Kannamma, a transgender activist and she says, “This is the first time, transgenders are being appointed to look into the functioning of a garment unit. We are setting an example for others. We have planned to recruit more transgenders, give them training and employ them in many other such units.”

Sridhar, Manager of the unit, says, “We are interested in employing more such people if they are willing. Even the women don’t have any qualms in working under transgenders. It’s a positive beginning and we hope to replicate this in all districts.” The transgender employees get paid around Rs.100 everyday initially and after a training of three months, they may earn anything between Rs.300 and Rs.600 per day.

When it comes to safety, Madurai is no different from the other cities, feel transgenders. Strange looks, wounding words and disturbing touches follow them everywhere. “When I worked as a server in a restaurant, 13 years ago, I was subjected to public humiliation. Even now, when I travel by bus, men pinch and tease me,” says Priyanka. “We are easy targets of drunkards and rowdies here. We too get raped and attacked just like women, but no one speaks for us.” She recalls the deadly night in Tiruparankundram when she was attacked on the head with a log by a drunken auto-driver. “Even the police turned a blind eye. The fingers of an elderly transgender were chopped off in Bibikulam six months ago,” she says. “Some people do these demanding sex or money and some do it for sheer sadistic pleasure.”

Srija says, “In big cities like Bombay and Delhi, we live in gangs and there is a sense of safety. And people take us lightly. But in small towns, we continue to suffer in isolation. Residents and neighbours torture us. Our landlords demand exorbitant rent and water charges and if refused we are assaulted physically or sexually.”

Some feel the usage of derogatory terms such as ‘ ali ’ and ‘ ombodhu ’ has reduced after the government standardized ‘ Tirunangai ’ while referring to transgenders. Some blame cinema for depicting transgenders as comical characters and making fun of their mannerisms. Says Menaka, “Thankfully, the recent movie ‘ Kanjana ’ showed us in good light. And we hope to see a positive change in the society.”