Print edition : January 01, 2010

Priya Babu: "Integrating our struggle with that of other oppressed people is necessary."-R. SHIVAJI RAO

PRIYA BABU has been working for the welfare of transsexuals as the leader of the Tamil Nadu Aravanigal Association and the managing trustee of the Social Integration and Development for Aravanis Foundation (SIDA). She hit the headlines five years ago when she filed a writ petition in the Madras High Court demanding voting rights for members of her community.

In an interview to Frontline, she discusses a wide range of issues affecting the transgender community. Welcoming the Election Commission of Indias (ECI) recent decision to allow eunuchs and transsexuals the choice of registering under a separate sexual identity, she wants the commission to go still further to help the community maintain its separate gender identity. She is of the firm view that transgender persons have to join with other oppressed sections of society to win the battle for achieving their rights. Excerpts from the interview:

The Election Commission has decided to allow eunuchs and transsexuals to indicate their sex as Other in the electoral roll and in all other forms used by the commission. Will this landmark decision help to bring the community into the mainstream?

There is no gainsaying that this is a good beginning. In fact, the ECI has taken a historic decision to recognise a community that hitherto did not enjoy basic civil rights. But to what extent it will benefit transgender persons will remain a moot point.

I sincerely believe that the decision will be more useful if it protects the gender identity of the much humiliated community. Bringing the transgender under the other category deprives us of an identity. In our society, male and female genders have their identities. Likewise, we also should be allowed to maintain our separate gender identity. Being part of society as human beings and as citizens of the country, we should also enjoy the fundamental right enshrined in Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution.

Right from the ancient period, the community of transsexuals has been recognised by epics and works of great scholars. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata, Tholkappiam, the treatise on Tamil grammar, and Thevaram, which is part of Bhakti literature, have references to the third gender. In Tamil land, we have been given different names at different periods such as Nabumsakhi, Ali, Pedi, Aravani and Tirunangai.

So, even while welcoming the ECIs decision, we plead with the commission to indicate our sex as transgender or third gender. Such a move will bring about a remarkable change in the attitude of the public to transgender persons, besides creating awareness about the travails of this neglected community. This will enable us contest elections without shedding our identity and improve the chances of a positive response to our demand for reservation in legislatures.

Do you think the ECIs decision will open the doors to other kinds of official identification and speed up the process of social inclusion?

There need be no doubt about this. Big changes have already started unfolding in some parts of the country, for instance in Tamil Nadu, which is a pioneer in promoting the welfare of the transgender community.

That is why I emphasise that the ECI should accord transgender or third gender status to us. That will enhance the level of public awareness in other parts of the country where our community is still neglected.

The move will also boost the morale of organisations working among the transgendered. Transsexuals have just launched a campaign in Karnataka asking the State government to implement projects for their welfare, as is being done in Tamil Nadu.

What are the steps initiated by the Tamil Nadu government in promoting the welfare of the community?

The State government set up the Tamil Nadu Aravanigal Welfare Board a couple of years ago. I am one of its members. A detailed survey to assess the status of Aravanis is on. Though it is estimated that there are around 1.5 lakh persons belonging to this community living in different parts of the State, the actual population and their economic status will be known only once the survey is completed, which will take another two or three months.

Formation of special self-help groups for them is another major step taken by the government. It has also issued a G.O. [government order] legalising sex-reconstruction surgery. The surgery will be done at the government hospitals for those Aravanis who are willing to undergo the procedure even after counselling. Schools and colleges in the State have been informed that admission to students should not be denied on the basis of their sexual identity.

The allotment of houses to Aravanis under the Indira Awaas Yojana is another highlight. This year alone 315 houses have been allotted, and hopefully the scheme will continue. As transgender individuals have already been brought under various government schemes, they are issued ID cards after proper screening. District Collectors have been asked to conduct special public grievances meetings, once in every quarter, to look into the problems of Aravanis.

As a concomitant development, various interactive programmes are also being held. One such initiative is the police advocacy programme, which facilitates meaningful interaction between the police and Aravanis. This programme, aimed at sensitising the police on HIV- and AIDS-related issues, also improves their understanding of the problems of transgender persons.

Classes are conducted in educational institutions on issues affecting Aravanis. Some of us are also making individual contributions to create public awareness. For instance, Rose, a transgender, has already become a popular TV personality who conducts programmes on private channels. I have written two books on Aravanis. Vidhya and Revathy, belonging to our community, have also written books.

It is worth mentioning that several short films on the subject have been made. Even Tamil feature films, which earlier treated transgender persons with scorn, have started showing the community in the proper perspective.

How do you view the attitude of political parties?

By and large, political parties in the country treat the problems of Aravanis as a social issue. In Tamil Nadu, the parties are more sensitive and have been vociferously supporting the demands of the transgender community.

A major reason for the proactive role of successive governments in this State is that the progressive ideals of leaders such as Dravidar Kazhagam founder Periyar E.V. Ramasamy and leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam C.N. Annadurai are appreciated by different sections. Creative writers and artists have understood the plight of Aravanis, who form the most exploited segment of society after women. Politicians, cultural personalities, representatives of non-governmental organisations and activists of various community outfits have come out in support of protecting the rights of transgender persons.

The Delhi High Courts historic judgment decriminalising unnatural sex has evoked strong criticism from certain astrologers, heads of religious institutions and conservatives. Would you like to comment?

Much of their criticism is ill-founded. It is wrong to say that lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders and intersexuals, also known as LGBTI, would like to have unbridled freedom. They only want to live with a partner of their choice. Claims that this would result in the spread of HIV and AIDS are baseless. Their argument that this kind of relationship reflects an alien culture can also be disproved. This kind of relationship between consenting adults cannot be held as a sin as it is not born out of lust but is based on love and affection.

It should be kept in mind that even those who oppose Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalising unnatural sex do not demand its total repeal. On the other hand, they only demand a suitable amendment to ensure the much needed legal status for relationships that could not come out of the closet all these years. The critics of the judgment conveniently forget the fact that Section 377 of the IPC is a colonial era provision that was done away with in Britain and in many of its former colonies several decades ago.

More over, the depth of the problem can be gauged only if things are looked into from the affected persons angle. Even the family planning programme in the country has undergone many changes from advocating the we two, ours two concept to the single-child norm. Now the changed socio-economic environment has given rise to the living together concept.

I am quite confident that decriminalisation of LGBTI will lead to the curbing of misuse of the provision to harass sexual minorities. At the same time, I am of the firm view that legal action should be taken against those who indulge in child abuse.

How do you evaluate the role of transgender organisations in promoting the communitys welfare?

Relentless activism by such organisations in the past 15 years has led to welcome changes in the State. Organisations such as the Tamil Nadu Aravanigal Sangam and the Social Integration and Development of Aravanis Foundation are involved in helping transgender persons submit application forms for the survey conducted by government personnel, enrol in special self-help groups [SHGs], submit demands to the Collector at the special public grievances meetings and represent their cases in the welfare board.

As we need some proof of identity even for starting a bank account, we are assisting Aravanis to secure ration cards and voter ID cards. Because of our intervention, the government has proposed to provide various skill development training programmes in vocations such as fashion jewellery making, tailoring and painting. The government has plans to give commando training to Aravanis so that they can be inducted by private security agencies.

We have also decided to launch a campaign for reservation for transgenders in education and employment. We have been urging the Central and State governments to nominate transsexuals as members of the legislature as they have done in the case of Anglo-Indians. This will enable transgender persons to have their voice heard in Parliament and State Assemblies.

Though several organisations are working for the welfare of the transgender community in the country, they focus mainly on creating awareness on HIV and AIDS. I feel that they have a greater role to play. We want to create a network of all these organisations to ensure a concerted effort to promote the interests of transsexuals.

You are one of the first transgender persons to do research on the communitys involvement in folk art. You have also donned the role of a journalist. Can you tell us about your work in journalism and literature?

It is true that I, along with another transgender person, Priyadarshini, worked for a magazine for some five months in 2006. The brief stint as a reporter helped me learn a lot from people. When I met people and interviewed them for my column, they responded well.

My first book, Aravanigal Samuga Varaiviyal, is an ethnographic study of the community of the transgendered. The research work emanated from my association with the National Folklore Support Centre. For an individual fellowship, I extensively travelled in Virudhunagar, Tuticorin, Tirunelveli, Coimbatore, Salem and Cuddalore and the Union Territory of Puducherry, collecting materials for the research work.

During the study, I was able to find that as many as 20 temples, apart from the Koothandavar shrine in Villupuram district, have been built for Aravan [the patron god of transsexuals]. I could see several transgender persons involved in cultural activities in some of the southern districts, including Virudhunagar and Tuticorin.

All these facts fuelled my desire to do an ethnographic study of the community. Prior to this I had thoroughly gone through the ethnographic studies of the Narikoravar and Parathavar communities. Aravanis are generally viewed as persons begging for alms at the bazaar, clapping. But the public seldom knows that transsexuals have a life and their own family structure. The book speaks of the origin of Aravanis; their historical and cultural background; their language, family structure, biological changes, beliefs and rituals; and their relations with the rest of society.

My second book, Moonram Paalin Mugam (Third Genders Face), deals with the emotions of transgendered persons during their transition from being a male to a transgender.

We are making serious efforts to create an information and resource centre in Chennai to enable people to have access to information about the life of the transgendered in different parts of the country.

Do you think that transsexuals can succeed in the struggle for asserting their rights without joining hands with other oppressed sections?

Integrating our struggle with that of other oppressed people is absolutely necessary. That is why we have been interacting with the activists of organisations working for the welfare of Dalits and women. We have been attending their functions and we invite them to our programmes.

But you cannot wish away the difference between the issues concerning transgender persons and the problems of other oppressed people. For instance, a Dalit in the village may escape humiliation if he migrates to a city, but transgender persons are harassed wherever they go. And we have been deprived of our gender identity itself.

However, I wont deny that there is plenty of scope for joint efforts with other oppressed people.

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