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Tamil Nadu pioneers transgender inclusion

By Anupama Sekhar

The 300,000-strong community of transgenders in Tamil Nadu, until recently ghettoised and reduced to begging or doing sex work, has won major battles for inclusion, notable among which is a special 'third gender' category for transgenders on ration cards. Transgender icons such as television host Rose and Noori of the South India Positive Network have found a new visibility in the media. The cloak of invisibility transgenders have worn for generations is slowly slipping, and it is community-based organisations that are driving the change

Rose, India's first transgender television host"When I realised I was different, I left home," says Kamali, 28, a transgender (TG) now living in north Chennai's working-class Perumbur suburb. "That was eight years ago and I have not returned home since," she continues. "Even though I dressed only in trousers and shirts back then, I was constantly mocked for my mannerisms. This led me to wonder why I should not simply wear a saree, as I desired, and let the world see me for what I am."

Kamali's is not an unusual story among Tamil Nadu's approximately 300,000 transgenders or aravanis as they are locally known. Like her, many have left their unsympathetic families to join others like themselves, who are mostly biologically male but with "deeply female souls". Together, they have built "closed" communities that operate according to guru-chela (teacher-apprentice) or mother-daughter hierarchies.

Eking out a living from begging and commercial sex work, transgenders remain a largely ghettoised, disempowered group in the country, although their presence has been recorded in Indian culture for over 4,000 years.

Change, however, appears to be on the horizon if the considerable gains won in Tamil Nadu are indicators of increasing success in the battle for inclusion. In an unprecedented move, the state has accorded official recognition for the community with the issue of ration cards with a separate 'third gender' category. This is, without doubt, a major step forward in the demand for citizenship rights, as only two sexes -- male and female -- are recognised in Indian civil law. Further, government orders have been issued announcing unfettered access to education and counselling services. More recently, the state's social welfare department announced the constitution of a separate welfare board for transgenders.

After decades of alienation on the fringes of society, these measures appear as a silver lining for the community. "For too long we have endured the stigma of our transgendered identity," explains Dhanam, 39, a field worker also based in Perumbur suburb. "Viewed as nothing more than sex workers, we have always been considered unworthy of even the most basic of rights and amenities. We only want to live our lives the way ordinary men and women aspire to. With dignity."

Even five years ago addressing TG rights was actively discouraged, remembers Dr R Lakshmibai, project director of the Chennai-based Tamil Nadu AIDS Initiative (TAI) whose pioneering campaign has played no small role in mobilising a community conspicuous by its absence in the larger human rights movement. Adds A J Hariharan, Founder Secretary, Indian Community Welfare Organisation (ICWO), a Chennai-based NGO partner of TAI: "When I started working with the community, I was constantly being asked exactly why I was interested in TG issues and if I was one myself." The rights of TGs, he adds, were avoided in most discussions on development issues owing to two factors: the high degree of taboo associated with the community, and widespread ignorance about their origin and nature amongst the public and in the media.

That scenario has, over the last five years, altered dramatically in Tamil Nadu with the result that the cloak of invisibility surrounding TGs is slowly slipping. The emergence of TG icons and role models, regularly feted by the media, is a definite indicator of the nascent public interest in this once-neglected community. One such brand ambassador for the community is Noori, who heads the South India Positive Network, a Chennai-based organisation that administers projects to cater to the needs of around 2,000 HIV-positive members.

Sitting in her office in north Chennai's Periyar Nagar, Noori, 58, is a picture of composed authority, instructing staff and welcoming visitors with the calm confidence acquired through practice. She is also an aravani living with the virus. "I am living proof that it is possible to live a healthy and productive life with treatment," asserts Noori, currently undergoing ART with second-line drugs at Chennai's Kilpauk Medical College Hospital.


Noori's story begins in 1987 when she was diagnosed HIV-positive. She subsequently left commercial sex work to become a peer educator in the field of prevention, support and care for people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA). "My singular aim," she declares, "is to dispel fears among the HIV-positive that it is not possible to live with freedom and dignity after being diagnosed positive."

A new high-profile envoy for the community is Rose, billed as 'India's first TG television host'. Her immensely popular half-hour chat show Ippadika, Rose (Yours, Rose) on Star Vijay, a part of Rupert Murdoch's Star network, regularly broaches controversial topics such as pre-marital sex and legalisation of prostitution. "This show has definitely altered my perceptions of TGs," admits one regular viewer, Mallika Subramanian. "In my mind, Rose is first a talented and confident media person, then a TG," she adds of the US-educated presenter who holds a master's degree in biomedical engineering and went by the name of Ramesh Venkatesan in her former life.

These new public faces of the community -- a far cry from the negative stereotypes oft-repeated in popular culture -- are indicative of larger, fundamental changes in a group increasingly entering the mainstream in Tamil Nadu.

At the forefront of the campaign for change in the state is TAI, administered by the Voluntary Health Services and funded by Avahan, the India AIDS initiative of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In 2004, the initiative began working on disease prevention among sex workers -- nearly 9,000 of them transgenders -- through 25 NGO partners in 14 districts of Tamil Nadu.

Given that an estimated 80% of the community depends on commercial sex work for a living, issues surrounding sexual health remain a priority. "TGs are more vulnerable than female sex workers," explains Dr R Lakshmibai, TAI's project director. "They command less pay for more hazardous encounters, and are unable to negotiate for safe sex."

Violence from clients, enforcement agencies and thugs is another significant concern, one that has been traced back to the 1897 amendment to the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 (subtitled 'An Act for the Registration of Criminal Tribes and Eunuchs') by a 2003 People's Union for Civil Liberties report on kothi and hijra sex workers in Bangalore. "Once we address violence, the space for negotiation will open up," argues ICWO's Hariharan. TAI's Araychi Mani (Bell of Distress) violence redressal mechanism has succeeded in doing just that by ensuring response to instances of violence within 24 hours through medical, legal and counselling aid. "If an act of violence occurs," says Dr Lakshmibai, "then the community has a voice to respond with".

These emerging voices have been speaking not merely to the outside world, but -- significantly -- to each other as well. One such safe space for sharing, dialogue and transformation is the Friends Club or Natpukoodam attached to 22 TAI clinics across the state. At these drop-in centres, the community has access to low-cost beauty services, food and clothes banks as well as much-needed information on safe sex practices. "The very feeling that a place such as the Natpukoodam is available gives them self-confidence," explains TAI's community advisor Aruna. "The centre becomes a place for them to enhance their general knowledge, forge close friendships and experience real bonds."

Dr Lakshmibai explains the need for such developmental initiatives alongside disease prevention programmes in the context of STDs. "We realised that variables such as low self-esteem and guilt considerably affect the behaviour of TGs. So we included behavioural and life issues in our programmes, focusing on human values such as honesty, modesty, thrift and hard work rather than any moral preaching."

This holistic approach has begun to yield fruit and changes are visible even at the annual gathering of TGs in the village of Koovagam in Tamil Nadu's Villupuram district, for the symbolic ritual of marriage and widowhood. Nearly 100,000 TGs from across the country are believed to descend on the Koothandavar temple here in the Tamil month of Chitarai (April-May) each year to re-enact the story of Arjuna's son Aravan from the Mahabharata. Legend goes that the warrior asked to get married and enjoy a night of conjugal bliss before being sacrificed by the Pandavas for victory in the war of Kurukshetra. It is believed that Krishna assumed the enchanting form of Mohini to become Aravan's bride for a night. The re-enactment of the wedding night at Koovagam is one of high sexual activity with clients converging from nearby villages and towns. Campaigns advocating modest dressing at the festival have met with considerable success. "The message has registered strongly in the minds of the community," says Dr Lakshmibai. "Further, we have been actively advocating decreased sexual activity during the festival and have literally challenged the community to make the atmosphere holy."

A major challenge in the mobilisation process has been motivating TGs to actively demand rights and services. "As long as they were complacent that someone else was working for their cause, I was certain there would not be much progress," explains ICWO's Hariharan. With the incubation of collectives and CBOs, a community-led movement has clearly begun to emerge. "Initially we lacked confidence," admits Dhanam. "Questions of sustainability, quality and efficiency cropped up." Adds Shankari, 45, a senior TG community leader: "The community has finally come out of its isolation and learnt to work with those genuinely interested in them, be they lawyers, social workers, individuals or the government."

TAI's Peer Jeevan Collective, spread across 13 districts of Tamil Nadu, is a case in point. The Collective comprises 1,650 peer educators (aptly called Peer Jeevans because of their potential to give new life to their peers) reaching out to 30 TGs in the locality with information on STDs, HIV/AIDS and legal aid. Additionally, the Jeevans distribute condoms, coordinate SHGs and Friends Clubs and work to address violence within 24 hours through the Araychi Mani rapid response mechanism.

Another successful example are the 18 CBOs -- called TAI Vizhuthugal -- functioning in 14 districts under elected community representatives at the district and state levels to protect community rights.

Such developments have been complemented by a series of progressive measures announced by the government of Tamil Nadu.

Most recently, the state social welfare department has constituted a board for TGs "to rehabilitate and to achieve equality for them in the community and security in society". With a budget of 50 lakhs for the first year (2008-09), the mandate of the board is to look into "various problems faced by the community and to formulate and execute welfare schemes for the betterment" of the community.

Acting on the recommendations of a sub-committee for the rehabilitation of TGs, the state government issued orders, in late-2006, directing the school and higher education departments to ensure that TGs are not denied admission to schools and colleges. Counselling has been made compulsory in schools (through teachers, counsellors and NGOs) for students with behavioural issues, and their families.

Under directions from the government, exclusive grievance redressal meetings are being organised once in three months by district collectors. This initiative has been particularly successful in opening direct channels for dialogue and negotiation between the community and the administration. "We recently met the Thiruvallur collector as a group of 200 TGs and requested some land to address housing issues," recounts Shankari. "The collector has promised to look into the matter and we hope to follow it up on the next grievance day."

Grievances and demands were also at the heart of a public hearing organised by the Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women, Tamil Nadu AIDS Solidarity Action and ActionAid, in Chennai, in December 2007. Attended by 300 TGs from across Tamil Nadu, the hearing resulted in a series of recommendations by the citizens jury (that included a retired high court judge and a former director-general of police) to the state government including issuing of Public Distribution System (PDS) cards for subsidised food and fuel, and the repeal of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises sexual expression by homosexuals, bisexuals and transsexuals.

Interestingly, some campaigns to mainstream the community have also involved a conscious stepping away from making demands. Since 2004, TAI's 'We Too for a Healthy Society' campaign has been actively encouraging TGs "to use their stamina for others". As a result, TGs across Tamil Nadu have been planting trees, praying for sick children and pledging their eyes as gestures of goodwill towards their local communities. A particularly successful project was the partnering of aravanis with anganwadi workers (village-level social workers) to deliver social messages on foeticide, medical insurance and tuberculosis to the public in five districts of Tamil Nadu, as part of a campaign launched by TAI and the state-run Integrated Child Development Services. The strategy was to "pleasantly surprise" the public that is unaccustomed to seeing TGs as social messengers.

Thanks to such initiatives, the atmosphere of mistrust surrounding the community is steadily dissipating in Tamil Nadu with the result that previously inaccessible social spaces are slowly opening up. "Initially we were social outcastes," recalls Kamali, "but increasingly we are invited to social gatherings in our neighbourhoods, including weddings. This marks a major shift in people's attitudes towards us." "There is a new respect in people's dealings with us," adds Shankari. "When people look at us, they usually assumed the worst," explains Dhanam. "We have finally managed to change that."

At this stage in their journey, the key challenge for the community is retaining its newly acquired public goodwill. To succeed in this, TGs must necessarily begin to explore new occupational opportunities. "It is quite simply the lack of job opportunities that force TGs to resort to begging or sex work," says Aasha Bharati, President, Tamil Nadu Aravanigal Association (THAA). Increasingly, TGs are choosing to work on community issues, earning a living whilst also contributing to the cause. "I now work as a field worker on a safe sex awareness campaign," says Dhanam of the THAA. "I no longer have to rely on selling my body."

The performing arts are also providing much-needed supplementary income. Kaaviya, a registered CBO of 50 folk artistes, has evolved from TG community members of TAI projects with a basic interest but no prior training in the performing arts. Following rigorous training in theatre and the folk arts of Tamil Nadu, the cultural troupe has started successfully disseminating messages on health, stigma and discrimination across the state.

"The government can and should do more," argues Noori. "It could, for instance, seriously consider awarding TGs contracts for catering in government canteens. Sustainable work of this nature will enable aravanis to give up sex work entirely."

Vocational training opportunities are increasingly becoming available. "It would be worthwhile to invest in the education of older TGs, even those in their mid-20s and early-30s," argues Hariharan. TAI has been training TGs to become beauticians, tailors, data entry and video camera operators. The Secretaries Guild of India is offering training to TGs in office management skills. The Electronics Corporation of Tamil Nadu has recently trained the first batch of 20 TGs in data entry operations. The Tamil Nadu Women's Development Corporation -- which has been implementing exclusive SHG schemes for TGs since 2003 -- is currently expanding its work with groups to include special vocational and skills development training and disbursement of small loans.

Challenges from within the community are equally pressing. The prevailing guru-chela system prevalent in the community has often proved to be an obstacle for juniors seeking opportunities for a better life. Senior community members have been slow in taking the lead. "Perhaps because they are not educated enough," explains Hariharan. "The need of the hour in a 30,000-strong community is for at least 100-200 TGs to be groomed as leaders. Only then will members of the community develop a sense of responsibility and ownership towards the movement."

Despite these hurdles, the movement in Tamil Nadu -- a state where aravanis have traditionally been very visible -- has doubtless made massive strides towards securing citizenship rights for the oft-neglected and regularly oppressed third gender. It's certainly an example that the rest of the country can strive to emulate.

(Anupama Sekhar is a writer and researcher based in Chennai. Her special interests are promoting cultural diversity and peace and conflict resolution)

InfoChange News & Features, October 2008