Madurai comes out of the closet

Social spaces of the city for long has been seen as spaces of conservative nature but the city’s growth in addressing LGBT rights issue here could be seen as a major step towards identifying and recognising such identities.

Updated - November 16, 2021 11:00 pm IST

Published - July 30, 2012 12:58 pm IST - MADURAI

EQUAL RIGHTS: LGBT rights activists and members taking out a 'Gender Queer Pride Parade' in the city on Sunday. Photo: R.Ashok

EQUAL RIGHTS: LGBT rights activists and members taking out a 'Gender Queer Pride Parade' in the city on Sunday. Photo: R.Ashok

Gender is not something that one is; it is something one does, an act… a “doing” rather than a “being” — Judith Butler

When renowned social and Lesbian Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights activist, Anjali Gopalan on Saturday said, “When I started working in the 1990s on addressing rights of gay men, I never thought that I would be sitting in a place like Madurai and discussing about LGBT issues, I feel very ecstatic.”

Seated in front of a backdrop with a medley of images consisting academy award winning performance of Sean Penn as a gay rights activist in ‘Milk,’ Hilary Swank’s crew cut image as a trans man in ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, India’s long distance runner Shanthi who failed a gender test, LGBT rights activists from across the country held a group discussion on alternative sexualities and third gender. On Sunday they held a Gender Queer Pride Parade in the city

These two events hold greater significance given the fact that identities though seen as a socio-cultural and political process where actors interact with others in the course of constructing their identities remain inevitably spatialised. Identities cannot be seen in isolation, the intersectionality of identities and social spaces in order to understand and conceptualise the coming-out process of individuals play an active role in negotiating the identities of the marginalised.

Madurai as a city is indeed in a transitory phase juggling between modernity and tradition. Social spaces of the city for long has been seen as spaces of conservative nature but the city’s growth in addressing LGBT rights issue here could be seen as a major step towards identifying and recognising such identities.

Saturday was indeed an eventful day, as the city hosted a LGBT community’s discussion at one of the posh localities KK Nagar, and then there was a seminar at De-Nobili centre focusing on ‘Land Rights and Dalits’ and late in the evening at Melavasal, a Dalit neighbourhood where Arunthathiyars who are considered the ‘lowest among the low’ had a cultural nite where traditional forms of art performances were organised with the motto to use them as ‘Tools of Liberation.’

All these three events have a greater significance given the history of the city and its social spaces. These events could not even be imagined a couple of decades ago in a city like Madurai where there was so much of prejudice against the marginalised, but all these things have changed due to relentless struggles by various social and political movements.

Salai Selvam, founder member, Koodu Women Readers Forum, said that anything that was seen repression in a crude form finds its own way out of the box and discussions on LGBT in the city is one such thing. Though the discussions about alternative sexualities and gender categories formed part of meeting in the city seven years ago, it was during the last two years it has gained momentum. Thanks to various social movements, the city is seeing a transition to discuss issues affecting LGBT.

Turing Rainbow Fest and Queer Pride Parade

The Rainbow fest was named after the British Mathematician Alan Turing who is widely considered as the father of computer science and artificial intelligence. A homosexual by orientation, he committed suicide after facing criminal prosecution charges.

Prominent transgenders like Kalki Subramaniam, A. Revathi, filmmaker Leena Manimekalai, feminist activist Salai Selvam, academician R. Prabhakar and other LGBT rights activists and individuals came together and discussed about alternative sexualities and third gender.

A couple of Transmen while sharing their experiences stated how difficult it was to express their sexual orientation as normative proscriptions in society toward homosexuality and lesbianism often lead to feelings of reluctance when they decide to make their identities public. For most of the marginalised, classroom space has always been zones of discomfort and discrimination, bullying and taunts based on identity were a common feature and when A.Revathi, a transgender and author of “The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story” (Penguin India) shared how discriminatory classrooms and school were against it wasn’t unusual. As an effeminate boy Doraiswamy, she suffered a lot and stopped pursuing education. Revathi who had sex change operation said, “Had the school and class room space be little receptive and less discriminatory TGs too would have become highly qualified in education.”

Ms. Anjali Gopalan emphasised the need for working together as a community with other like-minded civil societal groups, feminist movements and trade unions to take the LGBT rights further. She said that the movement is at a crossroads and the LGBT rights issue needs to be politicized and this had to be done in the corridors of Parliament and not the Courts.

No Reception in Educational Institutions

Questions of sex and sexuality are almost seen as a taboo in educational institutions and when it comes to alternative sexualities and third gender its forbidden to the extreme levels in the city, said Gopi Shankar, founder, Srishti.

Srishti is a literary and resource circle for alternative gender and sexualities it was established by Mr. Shankar to eradicate social discrimination faced by the LGBT community. Shankar said that the city was less receptive in discussing issues related to LGBT; he even found it hard to find a venue to establish his office. Srishti’s idea is to address issue affecting not only LGBTs but to propagate that there are 20 other sexual orientations and take them to public. Srishti has 870 members in Madurai and have addressed the issues to 5,000 students through the 18 meetings .

The American College stands out as an exception in addressing these issues, the college’s B.A., programme in Tamil has a autobiography of transgender Living Smile Vidya, Naan Vidya as part of the syllabus for Final Year students. Former Principal Chinnaraj Joseph Jaikumar, in an event, said that the College for long had always provided the much needed space to discuss and debate issues affecting Dalits, women and other marginalised sections including the transgender and added that it's not about patronising the cause but to see it as a matter of rights discourse.

Lady Doak College’s Roopa Ravikumar, Assistant Professor, Department of Social Sciences who was part of Saturday’s discussion said that it is a step forward regarding sensitizing the public about the issue affecting TGs. She further said that if the educational institutions extend support to TGs it could help them towards their emancipation. “LDC is open for admission of TGs and for the last two years I have been attending seminars to find out if a TG could be roped in as a student but I am unable to find, probably due to the fear of stigma.”

In the case of transgenders , even the spaces of anonymity like cinema halls, buses which provides a chance to escape one’s own identity become nightmarish as we are still a predominantly heterosexual environment. Personal experiences of stigma or the fear of being stigmatised have made them conceal their identities.

However, this event has opened up a new space and like the west it wouldn’t be too far when we have new fields of inquiry, like gender and sexuality studies, feminist and queer theory, and cultural studies forming part of our core syllabus.

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