Kerala

Coming out, ever so gingerly

Kerala Thrissur 02/07/2013,Sexual minorities taking out a march through the Swaraj Round in Thrissur on Tuesday.Photo_K_K_NAJEEB   | Photo Credit: K_K_NAJEEB

In Kerala’s vibrant public sphere, theirs is a surprisingly invisible presence. Fear stalks them wherever they go and their efforts to come out of the closet still remain tentative and fraught with many dangers. They are the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community in Kerala, for whom life is a perilous journey through difficult terrains of entrenched gender prejudices and social proscriptions.

The LGBT community in neighbouring Karnataka and Tamil Nadu enjoy greater visibility and freedom of movement. However, Kerala, known for its excellent Human Development Indices and high literacy rates, does not afford its LGBT population such freedoms. The LGBT community in the State is forced to live and move about in the shadows, their mobility in life and society restricted due to their sexuality, which defies traditional gender norms and prescriptions. Their invisibility has left them to be faceless social outliers and their marginalised status has been accentuated by the lack of mobility and basic civic freedoms.

People who have been observing the vicissitudes of sexual minorities in Kerala strongly feel that people with non-normative sexualities are likely to be quite large in the State. “It is just that we think it is difficult to capture the exact numbers in any survey because of the enforced silence around sexuality that prevents people from reporting, as well as the violent culture of compulsory heterosexuality that results in people conforming to heterosexual norms and refusing to accept that other sexualities are possible or moral,” says J. Devika, feminist scholar and associate professor, Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram.

Post-1990, Kerala was rudely awakened to the issue of sexual minorities following a few sensationalised instances of suicides by same sex couples. Following this, there were some serious interventions by civil society activists and groups to bring them out of the confines of their bodies and living spaces. Beginning with occasional festivals that brought together members of the LGBT population from different parts of the State and beyond, these interventions have today acquired a somewhat critical mass to attract the attention of the authorities. Now there are queer pride marches happening every year in different parts of the State, though under the censorious watch of both the local populace and civil and police authorities. Mainstream politicians have begun to trickle into these functions, but these noises and voices are yet to translate into change in governmental policies or social attitudes towards the LGBT community, the end result being their continued social incarceration.

Soorya, one of the few in the State who have been able to go in for sexual reassignment surgery (SRS), says there are many leading outwardly ‘normal’ lives, but struggling with their sexuality. “We live through the ignominy of being teased by our peers and teachers in schools, sexually harassed at workplaces and shunned by those whom we have known for years as family and friends. There are professionals like doctors and even police officers and people from rich and poor home who lead a life of suffocation unable to tell the world what their real sexual orientations are,” she says. Adds Devika, “The situation could be really bad for women who cannot live within the heterosexual norm.”

Their point is borne out by a survey conducted recently on behalf of the State Social Justice Department on the condition of the LGBT population. The survey, which covered 3,619 persons, shows that as many as 3,611 were mentioned as ‘male’ in their birth certificates. As high as 48.6 per cent of the respondents said they always hid their gender identity and as many as 42.1 per cent felt that their families did not need them. A high 32 per cent responded in the affirmative when asked if they had attempted suicide during the previous one year and 41 per cent said there were times when they felt they were better off dead. As many as 28 per cent of the respondents said they had been sexually harassed or forced into sexual act at least once and 52 per cent of them said the harassment came from rowdy/bully or police personnel.

The survey also brings out the struggle for survival that each member of the LGBT population wages. As many as 1,123 said they were legally married but of them 607 said they had married against their wishes, and 212 said they were divorced. Of the respondents, 1,217 had less than Rs. 3,000 as monthly income and another 739 were a shade better with income just below Rs. 5,000. Of the respondents, 73 per cent did not reveal their true gender identity at their workplace. “If we do that, we will be either exploited sexually or thrown out. Those who retain their jobs never get to move up as we are considered less competent when compared to the so called normal people,” says Sreekkutty, a transgender in the State capital.

As many as 76 per cent of the respondents said that they could not register themselves as third gender in any of the official ID cards. Proof for this is available in the voters’ list released last week, for the local government elections to be held in November: out of the 2,49,88,498 registered voters in the State, a mere 82 have identified themselves as belonging to the third gender. With such low recorded numbers, it is not surprising that the LGBT population has not figured in the welfare framework of the State government. That there is not even a clear understanding of the different categories under the LGBT nomenclature became evident only last week when the State Social Justice Department announced a few educational benefits for the third gender, described as ‘those who had undergone sexual reassignment surgery’, a rarity in Kerala.

But the announcement was a sign that the State apparatus might be waking up to the painful social reality. The civil society groups working among the LGBT community are hoping for more, particularly in the form of a comprehensive policy. The government has prepared the draft of a policy titled ‘State Policy for Transgenders in Kerala 2015’, but there is no sign of it coming into effect anytime soon. Faced with such policy vacuum and unable to make themselves heard in the development cacophony of the mainstream society, the LGBT population is looking up to the Parliament for a legislation that would protect their rights as citizens. Their hopes have been kindled by one man, Tiruchi Siva, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam member of the Rajya Sabha, who got his private member’s ‘Rights of Transgender Persons Bill’ adopted by the Upper House on April 25 this year. Like elsewhere, the Bill and the campaigns around it have emerged as beacons of hope for the LGBT community in Kerala, but the social landscape they inhabit in the present remains as desolate as before.

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 8:38:53 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/kerala-state-view-coming-out-ever-so-gingerly/article7646564.ece

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