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Seeking their rightful space

(From Left) Anjali Jain and transgenders Lakshmi, Sangeetha and Ambeeshwaran. Photo: S. Siva Saravanan   | Photo Credit: S_SIVA SARAVANAN

We're meeting at an upmarket coffee shop. They walk in, unsure, trying to avoid the stares. Sari-clad Sangeetha, wearing a string of pearls and red lipstick, leads the group. “Even going to a coffee shop is difficult. We know you're waiting for us, so we walked in more confidently,” she says.

Lakshmi, 40, with a sweaty forehead and hair put up in a bun, bristles with anger when she recalls routine humiliations. “Walking down the street or market used to be difficult. People would throw tomatoes and pelt stones at us. We were insultingly referred to as ‘onbadhu'.”

Today, despite being the president and joint secretary, respectively, of TAI Vizhudhugal (Coimbatore), which works for transgender rights and underprivileged women, Sangeetha and Lakshmi admit they still have many hurdles to cross. Travelling by bus is an ordeal — “People move away when we sit next to them,” says Lakshmi. Shopping is no-no. “They think we've come to beg,” says Sangeetha.

Sangeetha, who hails from Coimbatore, is one of the lucky few who meets her family sometimes. Lakshmi is not so lucky, having given up old bonds. “I left my hometown Thanjavur 25 years ago, and pined for my family. Now, all my love is for my adopted children,” she says.

Sangeetha got her name from her guru because she could sing well. She used to be shy. “Once, I decided to help my community, I developed courage,” she says. Though her family loves her a lot, she maintains a distance. “I can't handle it if my grown-up nephews wonder why their uncle wears a sari,” she says.

Strangely, the localities they live in have accepted them. “We get invited to functions. Sometimes, when I fall sick and my children are not at home, neighbours rush me to hospital,” says Lakshmi. She smiles while she speaks of doctors K. Mahadevan (CMC) and Padmavathy (Padmavathy Clinic, Kavundampalayam). “They treat us as equals. They laugh with us and make us feel human.”

Pollachi-based Ambeeshwaran, effeminate but wearing a shirt and trousers, fights a different battle. The post-graduate realised she was different when in class six, but hid her feelings because, in a fatherless home, she had to take charge. “I cringe every time I wear a shirt, but my mother's only wish is that I never wear a sari.”

Wiping tears, she speaks of the only time she is alive — when she visits Koovagam and the Mariamman temples away from Pollachi. “I wear a sari, keep pottu and flowers, meet my sisters, laugh and return to a lonely life again,” she says.

Accepting one's identity

It took time for Ambeeshwaran to come to terms with her identity. “I started working, but faced severe sexual abuse. I realised education was vital and resumed studies. I teach tribal children. I often get despondent, but have learnt to snap out of it.”

Lakshmi and Sangeetha speak of others like Ambeeshwaran. “I don't advise them to undergo surgery. Many of us did so out of a desperate need to feel feminine. Today, we suffer the after-effects. My knees throb with pain. I underwent corrective surgery…” says Lakshmi. But, not all listen. “We also tell them to shun sex work. But, many do it because they like it. How do you stop them?”

But, the 500-odd members of the community in Coimbatore are an industrious lot. “Less than 50 go for vasool (begging). The rest tailor, run a beauty parlour, cook … do something to earn a living. And, we are more accommodating than our gurus were. We allow them to do what they want,” says Lakshmi, who has also sold insurance and worked as a cook. “Now, I want to run a petti kadai. I've always wanted to be in business.”

Confidence booster

All of them say the transgender card issued by the Government boosts their confidence. “Also, awareness is increasing. Parents approach us saying their child is confused about his identity. We advise them to never let down their kids,” says Sangeetha. Because, most transgenders yearn to meet their old families. For example, a HIV-positive transgender says her only wish is to meet her parents before she dies. Lakshmi's voice falters as she says: “I'd like to know how my childhood friends look now, how the children I've helped raise have turned out…”

Ambeeshwaran's wish is simple. “I don't want special treatment. Treat me like you treat anyone else.” Lakshmi says: “You don't have to invite us home, but don't ignore us either. I look different, but my heart aches just as much when ridiculed.”

Building bridges

Anjali Ajeeth works with transgenders to help their transition into the mainstream. When Lakshmi speaks about how anger was essential in their fight for identity, Anjali softly asks if there is still a need to be angry. She then speaks about how to get people to listen to them.

Akathya 2012, an event she organised recently, helped do just that. Anjali got a smattering of the city’s influential men and women to listen to transgender activists speak about their lives, desires and grievances. Experts chipped in with details about the community. The event also threw the spotlight on the success stories — the dance teacher, the flower seller, the cook…and others who have made a space for themselves in a world that is slowly more accepting of them.

There will be another workshop shortly that will teach transgenders about presenting themselves well. Topics covered will include food habits, communication and behavioural skills and basic etiquette.

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Printable version | Nov 28, 2020 8:38:59 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/seeking-their-rightful-space/article2994257.ece

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