Ragini completed the 100 metre sprint in a record timing of 12.8 seconds. The national record at 11.24 seconds is held by Dutee Chand, present national sprint champion. Viji, Ragini’s manager, was exhilarated. “Can you believe that Ragini achieved this feat after just 10 days of training and without any prior experience in athletics?” she asked.
We were at India’s First Transgender Sports meet, which was organised by the Kerala State Sports Council at Thiruvananthapuram earlier this year. Over a hundred transgender persons from 14 districts participated in the day-long event, which included the 100, 200 and 400 metre sprints, the 4x100 relay race, shot put, and long jump.
Ragini is from Malappuram. When she and Viji went back home after the meet and alighted at the town’s railway station, a grand celebration awaited them.
Said Viji, “There was new-found respect in the eyes of the auto drivers and friends who welcomed us. What more could we ask for?”
Bridging the gap
In 2014, following an in-depth survey by the Department of Social Justice of Kerala, the State formulated the Transgender Policy to enforce the constitutional rights of transgenders and create an inclusive and empowering milieu for the community. This sports event is one of the many outcomes from the effort to close the gap between legislation and its enforcement on the ground.
“I feel safe and secure being just who I am and competing with members of my community. For the first time I feel like my talent is more important than my gender,” said Daya, a transwoman from Ernakulam.
While there is greater visibility and increased advocacy bringing transgender rights at the forefront of gender dialogue, the community continues to face stigmatisation, oppression and violence on a daily basis. The fact that some of the teams had to take loans to even travel to Thiruvananthapuram for this sports event shows how much remains to be done to empower the community economically.
“I think this is a radical move. In Kerala, the transgender community has not just been excluded but is practically invisible. This event is a newfangled platform to showcase their skills beyond the few existing cultural avenues of expression. I dream that someday a transgender person would bring in a medal for the country,” said Prijith, a transgender activist and organising committee member.
Kameela, who won the 400 metres, spoke of the humiliation she faced in school which discouraged her from taking up sports seriously, until now that is. “I tried to participate in athletics, but when I was in the men’s team, people taunted my effeminate ways. When I asked to join the girl’s team, the coaches ridiculed the idea. Sport is sport; I wonder why anyone should care about what is beneath my t-shirt.”
Sporting categories have always been on gender binary lines. International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have been rigorously monitoring gender boundaries to catch male athletes masquerading as women to gain an advantage in the quest for victory.
However, most athletes they spotted have been inter-sex women. Santhi Soundarajan, for instance, was unfairly stripped of the silver medal she won at the 2006 Asian Games after she failed a sex verification test. She was also made ineligible to participate in the women’s category as she was found to have androgen insensitivity syndrome.
The chromosome-based gender verification tests at the Olympics were dropped after the 2000 Sydney Games. The IOC became more liberal and issued a new guideline in 2016 allowing trans-athletes to compete in the Olympics and other international events without undergoing sex reassignment surgery or hormone therapy. However, they said an athlete transitioning to a woman must demonstrate a certain level of male testosterone at least a year prior to competing.
This guideline too was challenged in the case of Dutee, due to hyperandrogenism, but later cleared by the court of arbitration for sport (CAS), as there was no concrete scientific evidence to prove that women with naturally high levels of testosterone had a competitive edge.
Anil Arjun, sports meet coordinator and transgender activist, argued, “I don’t think strength is a measure of hormones or testosterone. And I’m not sure whether sport categories are based on sex or gender. If it’s gender, then that’s a personal choice, and a self-declaration should do. The ideal situation is to make the current gender categories inclusive, so that we can uphold the dignity and basic human rights of the transgender community.”
Where will the winners go from here? Will other States in the country follow suit? Will sport be the vehicle to empower them? Will these athletes stay motivated enough to take up sports given the lack of jobs and remuneration around it? These questions remain largely unanswered, but a beginning has surely been made in Thiruvananthapuram.
Sreekutty, the president of the Sexual Gender Minorities Forum Kerala, said, “I think this is a historical event and just seeing the winners rejoice is overwhelming. While this event has given a great opening to the transgender community, their talent has to be nurtured in the long run. The State sports committee has decided to start district-level sports clubs exclusively for transgenders and hopefully there will be a national event next year.”
A freelance photojournalist, the author documents human rights violations and sustainability issues.