May 2008. Two women were found dead in a house near Thiruvotriyur on the outskirts of Chennai. Police found their charred bodies in a hugging position. Investigation revealed that the women were in a relationship. The couple, Christy Jayanthi Malar (38) and Rukmani (40), had been friends from childhood. Later, they were married off to different men. But they stayed close to each other, angering their families. When all attempts to forcibly separate them failed, the harassment grew, and the couple set themselves on fire.
September 2008. Tamil Nadu took a far-reaching decision towards mainstreaming sexual minorities by constituting a Transgender Welfare Board. “The Board is doing really a good job in the welfare of transgender people,” said K. Jeyaganesh, the Tamil Nadu Lead of Swasti, a non-profitable organisation working among transgender and marginalised societies. The Welfare Board, he said, had initiated programmes like issuing special family ration cards and identity cards, enabling trans people to access all socio-economic welfare schemes available under the State and the Centre.
Both ends of spectrum
Both realities co-exist in Tamil Nadu. This is the State where the famous temple for aravanis, or trans people, is found, at Koovagam in Villupuram district, where the trans community from across the country gathers once a year to offer worship to their god. And this is where Rose Venkatesan in 2008 became the first trans woman in the country to host a TV show, called Ippadikku Rose.
After the 2016 NALSA ruling by the Supreme Court, which recognised trans people as the “third gender”, State governments were asked to implement a grant of Rs.1,000 a month to parents of transgender children, scholarships to trans students for higher studies, skills training schemes, and a monthly pension scheme for the trans community. Tamil Nadu became the first to implement the monthly pension of Rs.1,000, extend subsidised bank loans, and set up a Transgender Welfare Board. It was followed by Maharashtra and West Bengal.
Yet, this is also the State where, in August 2021, Divyadarshini, a trans woman, was tragically murdered. From the time she discovered that she was not the gender she was assigned at birth, the 17-year-old from a village in Salem district tried to keep her gender dysphoria under wraps fearing ridicule and abuse. She and her brother were orphans who lived with relatives.
Soon, however, she was outed and became an object of derision among family and friends. Unable to endure it, she ran away to a transgender community in Chengalpattu, who adopted her and rechristened her ‘Divyadarshini’. But since she was a minor, the police picked her up and sent her back to his birth family where, within days, she was murdered. Her 25-year-old brother later told investigators that it was he who had killed his sibling because he found her trans identity “shameful”.
Had the minor been sent to a rehab centre or allowed to live with the trans community, she would be alive today. Unfortunately, The Rights of Transgender Persons Act, 2019, an Act about which the trans community has many reservations, does not recognise the transgender community as “family” Therefore, trans minors escaping from abusive birth families cannot stay with them.
In 2006, a trans woman named Pandiammal, unable to bear the constant sexual abuse she was subjected to by policemen, set herself on fire in front of Chennai’s Vyasarpadi Police Station. She died of her burns. The incident raked up a public furore. The Madras High Court, with Chief Justice A.P. Shah and Justice K. Chandru on the Bench, ordered a probe. This finally prompted the Tamil Nadu Police to initiate some serious steps to sensitise its personnel on gender and sexuality. Police guidelines were amended to state that no uniformed service personnel would indulge in any act of harassment against the LGBTQIA+ community. Yet, trans people will tell you how often they continue to be harassed, picked up, beaten up.
The truth is that even in a State that has been professing to implement social justice for close to seven decades now, the prejudice against gender non-conformers is so deeply entrenched in the social psyche that law alone can do little to dislodge it. Despite its long history of cultural and religious acceptance of the idea of fluid sexualities, Tamil Nadu’s LGBTQIA+ population has not had it easy. Discrimination, derision, bigotry and homophobia are rampant. It was only in the mid-80s that open debate and discussion about queer issues was initiated. This was when various activist groups started working among these communities. It was also the time when the AIDS epidemic had emerged, making same-sex intimacy doubly taboo.
But thanks to the work of many grass-root level activists, the idea began to reach a wider audience that included policy planners and narrative setters. Literature, arts and cinema began to pay attention. The Saeed Jaffrey starrer, My Beautiful Laundrette, a British film on a gay relationship, was screened in 1986 at a theatre in what was then Madras, pointing to slightly more liberal attitudes.
In 1994, Sekar Balasubramaniam, a Chennai-based activist and volunteer working among AIDS patients, became one of the first people in India to openly declare that he was gay and HIV+. His act helped change social perceptions; many others followed suit. Sekar advocated strongly for gay people to be educated to protect themselves from HIV. Along with others, he started Social Welfare Association for Men (SWAM), a community-based MSM (men who have sex with men) organisation in Chennai to create awareness about safe sex.
Proactive judicial interventions have kept the fire ignited behind the LGBTQIA+ movement in Tamil Nadu. They have prompted governments to devise inclusive welfare policies, giving them jobs and a right to dignity and equality. After the NALSA judgment, Tamil Nadu was among the first to officially declare trans people as ‘third gender’, which allowed them to fill a different form for school and university admissions as well as for other official purposes. In 2017, the Tirunelveli-based Manonmaniam Sundaranar University started free coaching for trans students. Today, many of them are post-graduates and research scholars.
The Madras High Court in a 2015 ruling strongly supported the demands of the trans community to be recruited in the uniformed services. Following this direction, the State police amended the rules of the Tamil Nadu Uniformed Services Recruitment Board to allow trans people to participate in its competitive examinations. Since then, more than 30 trans people have joined the State’s police force, including K. Prithika Yashini, the first transwoman sub-inspector. They are also being recruited in State transport organisations.
Tamil Nadu, again after a judicial intervention, was also the first State to ban sex reassignment surgeries on intersex infants. The State’s Health & Family Welfare Department issued an Order in 2019 banning the surgery on intersex infants and children, except in life-threatening circumstances. The Madurai Bench of Madras High Court issued the direction while hearing a petition brought to its notice through the efforts of Madurai-based activist Gopi Shankar.
Tamil Nadu, after Kerala, also created special health infrastructure by establishing three Multi-Specialty Transgender Clinics in three of its hospitals, where transgender citizens could undergo free sex reassignment surgeries as well as access necessary healthcare. They would earlier go to private clinics in Mumbai, Bangalore or Thailand, where the costs were prohibitive.
“I spent Rs.2 lakh for Australia-made breast implants in a Bangalore hospital, besides Rs.1 lakh for other transformative surgeries,” said Solu, 29, a transwoman who had to spend her life savings on surgeries.
Today, many more trans people use government health facilities. In September 2021, two people underwent female-to-male gender reassignment surgery at the Madurai Government Rajaji Hospital in September 2021, which is much rarer than male-to-female conversion. “Many transwomen are registered with us and are waiting to undergo breast implant surgeries,” said a surgeon in a government hospital.
Change in perception
Compared to a decade ago, many trans people feel a significant transformation has taken place in the perception of society towards them, but family rejections continue to haunt them. Solu, with the help of activist groups, got herself a post-graduate degree in physiotherapy and works as a therapist in a government clinic. Her home is in a village near Sathur in Virudhunagar district. But she lives alone, abandoned by her “educated” family.
“At the age of 15, as my feminine features became obvious, my family rejected me. Society profiled and belittled me for who I was. They made me feel non-human,” Solu told Frontline.
When asked if her parents contact her, she said, “Yes. Occasionally they call, to say I should not return to the village or attend any function that my birth family conducts.” But Solu is now used to rejections. “I live alone, with my identity and dignity. I am happy I am living the life I wanted,” she said.
Jeson, a transman from Alanganallur village near Madurai, was rejected by his farmer family at the age of 14 when his sexual orientation became clear. He has missed most moments of life that heteronormative people take for granted. But today he is happily married to a straight woman. The couple runs a fancy goods store in Madurai. “We earn enough to run our small family, although I never reveal my birth identity to anyone in my neighbourhood,” said Jeson.
But the fight for the right to dignity and freedom continues.
June 2022: A group of activists has been battling for weeks now to rescue a 19-year-old from his home in Suseendram in Kanyakumari district, where he has been kept in forceful confinement by his birth family, which objects to his intimacy with a 26-year-old man from Kerala. The boy, who found his soulmate on a dating app, ran away to live with him. But his parents brought him back and have locked him up at home.
A spokesperson from Orinam, a Chennai-based LGBTQIA+ rights group, said they were trying to assist the gay couple legally. He told Frontline that since the boy had requested to be rescued from his forced isolation, his partner had decided to move the court.
“A petition has been submitted to the Superintendent of Police, Kanyakumari district, but no action has been taken yet,” he said.