This is one of three articles I wrote while volunteering at the Times of Madurai (now the Madurai Messenger) in 2010, when I was eighteen.
A group of transgender women share some aspects of their journey from a once hounded community to improved acceptance in society that now “listens” to and responds to their consistent demands to be treated with dignity and respect. It is, however, their empathy for women’s issues and their ability to reach out to society that is most impressive — just look at what they have achieved for others when given just half the chance.
The welfare of transgenders or ‘Thirunangai’ in Tamil Nadu is an issue around which people are very active at the moment. Recent laws and new rights have meant the lives of many people have improved dramatically from years of being ostracised and cast aside to a recognised, socially important and happier community. At Arogya Agam, a Theni based NGO, residents Kodimalar, Sembaruthi, Eleya and Kanda spoke about being part of a marginalised community now poised on the cusp of change.
Kodimalar, who went by a different name then, realised at thirteen that she wanted to become a woman. She wanted to wear women’s clothes and says she was only interested in boys. When she told her family this, she was forced to leave.
Kodimalar had a difficult early life. “I was treated badly, not invited to functions, for example family weddings, so I decided to go away from my home and mingle with others who were like me,” she recalls. At that time, around twenty five years ago, that meant going and living with people on the edge of society. They earned money by dancing in front of corpses at funerals, begging in shops and by sex work. “We would travel around together and men would call on us. There was no awareness of diseases, like HIV/AIDS and others so we would catch them. We were refused treatment at hospitals, so some transgender people died.” Verbal and physical abuse towards transgender women was rife but seldom if ever punished by police; instead it would make the situation worse. There was no legal protection, or none was enforced.
In 2004 there was collaboration with another organisation to create the Tamil Nadu AIDS Initiative (TAI), a foundation which now has branches all over Tamil Nadu and over 5000 members, and works to prevent the spread of the disease and to educate about it. Four years ago on January 18th, many members of this group gathered in Chennai to petition the authorities for a special day for transgenders, as after all there were days dedicated to women and to children. They were told that as this was the day they had gathered, January 18th could be their day, and they have celebrated this every year since by going out and doing things for communities. Trees have been planted in the past, as well as over 3000 people pledging to donate their eyes to the blind. This year they staged a play to educate about tuberculosis, and next year will donate to a poor village near their home and pay for a free feast for all the inhabitants.
“When the government got to hear about these activities, a welfare plan started,” says Kodimalar. Transgender is a recognised status on education admission forms, and better education about the spread of diseases has resulted in less stigma surrounding them. Also, crucially, the transgender population here has the support of the police, with special training programmes being brought in to teach police how to behave towards and protect them. The introduction of housing entitlements and separate ID cards for transgenders has also meant that in the case of the women interviewed, some families have been more welcoming of them; more ready to accept the choices they have made.
The portrayal of transgender women in the media, too, has changed, which has meant there is less stereotyping going on. “Before we were very negative, always the joker, the clown”, said Sembaruthi of the characters transgenders have previously been shown to be in films. “Groups petitioned against this in court, and now directors always avoid doing it.” Transgenders are now being given real roles in cinema; characters with depth and emotion and this inevitably impacts perception of them in the real world.
The transgenders at Arogya Agam now visit schools to teach about awareness, something that is important to them because they themselves experienced bullying and teasing, and still do today. By teaching at schools they educate children about their lifestyle. Kodimalar recalls a school where she noticed one of the boys was acting very much like her, who approached her after the class and asked advice. “He gained confidence, and I gave him special training,” she says.
What still needs to change?
The transgender women at Arogya Agam still face mockery from people in the street; although their activities in recent years have gone a long way in improving their status. They say they require more funding from the government – they are now given free surgery to change their gender, showing just how far support has come, but it does not cover everything that the transgenders would like it to. A simpler request is for allocated seats on buses, as given to women.
Reaching out to others
Kodimalar feels strongly about the fact that the young women in her village are too often not completing their education due to being married very young. Women’s rights are an important issue for them. But this shows, as do their other activities, that despite their own suffering the transgender community is doing a huge amount to help other people – minority groups and those in need; even the environment. Because they do not feel “useful”, in Kodimalar’s words, because they cannot continue their families by having children, she and her colleagues pledge to donate their organs when they die. It is clear this community should not feel they have to remain hiding—just look at what those at Arogya Agam have achieved for others when given just half the chance.