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Breaking free

Banu: the first transwoman in India to get admission in an engineering college.  

“Recognition of transgenders as a third gender is not a social or medical issue but a human rights issue,” declared Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan in April 2014 when the Indian Supreme Court recognised transgender people as a legal third gender and sanctioned access to affirmative-action programmes across the country. The court recognises that gender is a continuum or a spectrum that goes beyond the binary male or female. But it seems that society’s inclination to break free from hetero-normativity, build sensitivity to gender dysphoria, and move towards economic, political and social inclusion of the third gender has a long way to go. Meanwhile, the iconoclastic members of the community are refuting stereotypes, and battling ostracisation with perseverance. I met a few of them last year.

I met Bharathi on a sunny evening by the Marina Beach, Chennai. She is the first transgender pastor at the Evangelical Church of India (ECI), Chengalpattu and has been preaching for more than three years to a congregation of more than 45 parishioners. “Ironically, religion gave me the fortitude to withstand the agony of exclusion and embrace femininity with blatant courage,” she said.

Bharathi was born Bharath Raja, in a Hindu family near the coastal town Tuticorin. As a teenager, she went through a traumatic time dealing with parental unacceptance, mockery and emotional abuse from schoolmates, which led her to attempt suicide. The church saved Bharathi’s life and helped her find the strength to assert her gender and religious identity. In the last 13 years Bharathi underwent a sex change operation, obtained a Bachelor’s degree in theology and was appointed as a pastor in a landmark move by the ECI. Bharathi now preaches, performs christenings, and presides over baby showers and marriages.

After hours of serious conversation about religion, oppression, freedom and love, ‘What next?’ I asked. “Marriage,” she gushed and walked straight into the sea jumping in with childlike exuberance, letting the waves take her.

***

I met Swapna, the first transwoman to appear for the civil services examinations at the Thirumalai Nayak Mahal in Madurai. She narrated the history of the transgender community in India over four millennia, and their once celebrated status in royal courts. She laments that their dignity is lost in today’s times and most often people use derogatory abusive words against them without knowing the real meaning. “Did you know that ‘ ali’ means great courage and ‘ hijr’ means migration?”

Swapna has lived independently since she was thrown out of her house for wearing women’s clothes. She was pursuing BCA then. She discontinued her studies, hopped on the train to Mumbai and underwent a sex change operation. After her return, she took up BA in Tamil literature, appeared for exams of all three years of the Bachelor’s degree together in the third year and scored a stunning 75 per cent.

She has since nurtured her dream of cracking the civil services examinations .While the preparations for TNPSC didn’t daunt her, the process of securing the hall ticket for the group II happened after a yearlong protest. Though the third gender is recognised legally now, the UPSC forms still don’t reflect the third gender option, as is the case with many other Governmental Id cards. The Gender column in her voter Id reads “Male/Female”.

While a few transwomen might be happy marking the gender ‘female’, Swapna feels that it’s important that her struggle as a transwoman be recorded and recognised. So while she spiritedly prepares for the exams, she also fervently advocates for affirmative actions as ordered by Supreme Court to be implemented by the state.

***

Banu met me immediately after casting her first vote. “But I had to vote as a ‘female’ this time; the transgender option is not yet available. Good in a way,” she said.

Banu is the first transwoman in India to get admission in an engineering college to pursue the Electrical and Electronics stream. “After being locked up in a mental asylum for more than three months for identifying myself as a woman and attempting suicide, I had two choices. To embrace the masculine ideal the world expected me to fit into or muster up the courage to live the truth of my gender even if it meant being shunned and rejected by my own family. The transition was just the beginning. Lack of job opportunities, lack of dignity at workplace once I got a job, no access to basic constitutional rights; there were a series of roadblocks before I secured this engineering seat.”

Apart from her studies, she now continues to advocate for transgender rights and the need for a specific transgender protection law. She made a conscious decision to live with her husband in the outskirts of Chennai amid a village community that initially was reluctant to accept them but has become very cordial by altering their attitudes towards the third gender. “Change will happen, it better,” Banu bids me goodbye.

***

I woke up at sunrise to walk the shores of Auro beach with Kalki. I had met Kalki Subramaniam the day before at her quaint home in Auroville where we discussed the Supreme Court judgment. She is an entrepreneur, gender-rights activist, actor, community worker, poet and a writer with many firsts to her name.

At the beach, she spoke of her inspiring journey. While she faced the same kind of derision and exclusion most kids go through in their formative years, her parents were more supportive during her gender transition journey. This helped her complete her education and obtain two Master’s qualification in Journalism and Mass Communication, and in International Relations.

While she worked informally for years forming support groups for the transgender community, she formally founded the Sahodari Foundation, an organisation that works towards social inclusion, economic empowerment of the transgenders in 2007. Eight years later, she founded the Centre for Alternative Gender in Auroville, a platform for artistic expressions and gender research.

In the meanwhile, she created more than 12 documentaries and acted in a feature film, Narthagi, a film that sensitised millions about a transgender person’s life. Since I met her last, a lot has happened in Kalki’s life. She has published a book of poetry Kuri Aruthean in January and is travelling across the world working on the UN development programme advocating TG rights.

***

I met Revathi amma at Manipal University, in a well-lit makeup room where she was dressing up to play her six-year-old self. I was documenting the play Baduku Bayulu, a Kannada representation of Revathi’s autobiography The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story. She is famed not only for authoring the first-ever book published on transgenders, but also taking the story of her life in a theatre format to over 50 villages across Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

“I’m 45. But I’m going to act as a six years old, wear my akka’s (sister) clothes and dance. The joy of going back in time, in reliving your life, is unparalleled.” Her vulnerability is poignant. So is the play as it begins to unravel the horrors of being transgender in vivid detail. It depicts, in an incredibly crude and blatant matter, the physical and emotional anguish that Doraisami undergoes in the journey to becoming Revathi.

Being a part of play that narrates the story of her life seemed to have had a cathartic effect on her, she laughs heartily. “Did you know I chose the name Revathi since I look as beautiful as that actress? In your teens, the dream of becoming a complete woman is so fantasy-like I can’t begin to explain. But soon the reality hits you; while that transitioning from man to a woman is a big struggle, to live as a woman is equally a big struggle. But really this pain is my strength and will keep my activism going. We have mountains to move.”

***

As I was packing my bag, Revathi asked, “The Supreme Court judgment is about 150 pages long. Who will explain to me or to the many uneducated transgenders what this means? As long as we don’t have specific laws addressing our right to education, jobs, marriage, divorce, adoption or the right to own property, do you think we have made any real progress?

I also recollect Swapna asking, “Do you think telling our stories will change anything?” I hope we can answer in the affirmative. I believe that as a society we are cognisant of the need for radical changes to restore the fundamental right to survival, dignity and freedom of this marginalised community. One hopes that these compelling life stories of resistance, rebellion, hope, and persistence will only further inspire collective action.


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Printable version | Nov 29, 2021 11:01:31 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/breaking-free/article6941000.ece

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