Tamil Nadu, once a pioneering state for welfare of transgenders, now shuns the third gender

Unspent money, no welfare board, no members to represent transgenders, Tamil Nadu once a model state for transgender policies now crumbles.

Divya Karthikeyan May 25, 2017 07:38:39 IST
Tamil Nadu, once a pioneering state for welfare of transgenders, now shuns the third gender

The jasmine scented smoke from the incense sticks clouds the office as K Jeeva puts away her work for the next meeting. Her hands move nimbly across the desk and sift through the files before recounting her time as a board member. “The Transgender Welfare Board doesn’t exist!” she says, with a drawl in her voice.

Back in 2012, the office turned their file cabinets into drawers carrying safe sex kits and proposals. Many transgenders employed under Jeeva, a transgender herself, laid out pamphlets and sorted the condoms to dispatch among the participants in awareness marches. It was, according to her, a time of jubilance and incessant appreciation. She would chide the others not to let it get to their head.

The Transgender Welfare Board sign at the office on Patel street in Perambur has been taken down, and the flat now serves as Jeeva’s home and office. If one wants to visit the board, the members are absent, but anyone who wants to know the state of affair of the board meets the director of social welfare, who now functions as the entire board.

Tamil Nadu once a pioneering state for welfare of transgenders now shuns the third gender

Transgenders face social stigma. Reuters

“In 2008, we were elated to have a board working with us for our welfare. I, along with seven others, were part of it. One person was from Trichy, one from Salem and each represented a nodal district,” she says. The board was constituted during the DMK’s (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) regime between 2006 and 2011 and kicked off with meetings every six months. Work moved swiftly. “We first went for the essentials – homes, ration cards and Aravani (Tamil for transgender) identity cards. The official members took our proposals seriously and regularly met to get a sense of problems at the grassroots,” she recalls. Geetha Jeevan was then minister for social welfare spearheading the initiative.

But with the change in regime, the meetings trickled down. The AIADMK (All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) under Jayalalithaa’s leadership won the 2011 elections. “Meetings were yearly and access to the official members were restricted,” Jeeva says.

Why Tamil Nadu was once a model state for transgender welfare

In December 2007, a ‘public hearing’ on the issues of Aravanis was organised by a federation of NGOs working with marginalised groups that included transgender community members issued several recommendations to various departments of the Tamil Nadu government – most of which were in line with the recommendations made in the 'sub-committee for rehabilitation of transgender people' (hereafter shortly ‘sub-committee’) under the Social Welfare and Nutritious Meal Programme Department (Hereafter, shortly ‘Department of Social Welfare’). A government order dated 23 October 2003 was issued to authorise the formation of such a sub-committee, with the director of social welfare as its nodal officer. The sub-committee was asked to submit a report on the strategies for rehabilitation of transgender people within a month from the date of its formation. However, the second meeting involving this sub-committee did not happen until October 2006.

One of the jury members at the 2007 public meeting was RK Ramathal from the State Women Commission (SWC). After the hearing, the SWC took the lead in forming a four-member committee and submitted recommendations to various government departments, including the Department of Social Welfare. In relation to these recommendations, the director of social welfare wrote to the Tamil Nadu government, which led to the order that announced the formation of the Transgender Welfare Board on 15 April 2008. Later, the Tamil Nadu government officially announced 15 April as ‘Thirunangai Day’ (Transgender Day) to commemorate the day in which the Transgender Welfare Board was formed.

How the board functions

Tamil Nadu’s Transgender Welfare Board functions under the leadership of the minister of social welfare, the special commissioner and secretary of social welfare and nutritious meal programme department as well as the director of social welfare, president, vice-president and member secretary, respectively, of the board. The board has a mix of official and non-official members.

The official members are the representatives from various government bodies including the Department of Finance, Department of Law, SWC, police, Human Rights and Social Justice Commission, Women Development Corporation, Department of Higher Education, Department of Medical Education, and Department of Employment and Training. Out of the eight non-official members, seven are transgender community leaders, and one person is from an NGO.

What changed since 2011

Laying out policy documents before a DMK meeting, former social welfare minister Geetha Jeevan hurriedly readies herself, tucking away her research and skimming over the pages. “Things have changed since Valarmathi AIADMK’s social welfare minister from 2011-2016 took over,” she says.

The evidence is damning. Inconsistencies, money bouncing back to the government and a lack of initiative is evident in the state’s performance budget for the Transgender Welfare Board.

The AIADMK’s defence

After a slew of women’s day programmes, V Amudavalli, current director of social welfare pauses to take a look at the performance budget numbers from 2008-09 to 2016-17. According to the constitution of the Transgender Welfare Board, the director holds the post of member secretary. Explaining where the Rs 1 crore allotted for the past three years went, she says, “There are two possibilities. We received the money and kept it aside for paying for sewing machines for which we had issued tenders. The machines have not yet been supplied.” Asked where the rest of the money went, the director did not have an answer. “We’ve had a tumultuous few years in the government, you have to understand.”

“The past few years, we have not been using the money because the board has not been fully constituted. We had written to the government to ensure non-official members be elected. But the government has not responded to our proposals or requests.” Asked why the non-official members were not constituted immediately after the three-year tenure of 2008-11, the deputy director answers that the government did not direct them to for the next three years.” However, money was still spent despite the non-constitution of the panel.

Replying to the inconsistency in 2013-14, where the performance budget showed Rs 2.28 crore but the next year’ budget showed Rs 1 crore, the director called it another clerical error. She then explained that the pension amount of Rs 1.28 crore was taken into account because it was the first year pensions for transgender has been introduced.

That, though, is a wrong claim. The pension was introduced a year earlier in 2012 and Rs 1 crore was set aside for it. The director maintained it was simply a "human error". “We also had a fire that destroyed a few documents. She was referring to a fire that broke out in 2014 in Ezhilagam. So that was an issue,” she said.

In the fiscal year of 2015, the budget showed an achievement figure of Rs 35 lakh. But in the 2016 budget, the number seems to have changed to Rs 55.4 lakhs. “It was money we spent later on. There is no other explanation for it.” But since the fiscal year had ended and the next had begun, to change the figure in the next budget by carrying it over instead of adding it to the next fiscal year was again justified as a "clerical, human error".

Apathy towards schemes

It is not only “clerical, human errors” that appear to dog the Transgender Welfare Board. Apathy is equally crippling.

Noori is an AIADMK member who handled transit homes for transgenders, under a government scheme introduced in 2008. Pensions, Aravani identity cards and homes are the government’s focus as outlined by Noori. “The Transgender Welfare Board does not meet even though official members have called for meetings. We are all in different places and not all of us get along,” she says.

Transit homes for trangenders who had fled home to seek refuge in Chennai were initially an important scheme of the government’s. But Siva J, a transgender activist with Nirangal, an NGO which provides temporary shelters for transgenders, says the transit home that was once in Tambaram is non-existent now. “It was a shelter for everyone, not just transgenders, which is unsafe. These are people who run away from their homes or even their jamaats (a traditional community with a head) which are themselves patriarchal in nature – and come to Tambaram to find a dirty, unprotected home,” he says.

The SRS conundrum

Outside the newly built Burns Unit at Kilpauk Medical College (KMC), discharged patients rally for a checkup and a transgender woman leaves after consulting with the doctors about her date of procedure. “It takes months. This isn’t a procedure you just go in and get and come out of,” says Nirmala P, head of the department at KMC’s plastic surgery unit. Tamil Nadu is the first state in India to provide free sex-change surgeries at two government hospitals, KMC and Rajiv Gandhi Government Hospital, since 2010.

Patients sit through a six-month psychiatric evaluation as per policy and some stay on but not for post-operative care. There are no specialised doctors to provide sex reassignment surgeries, and there is no special training either but Nirmala maintains that it isn’t all that necessary. While burns’ patients are a priority, sex-reassignment surgeries have no designated doctors, thereby delaying the surgeries until patients choose to leave for private hospitals. Hospitals provide breast augmentation, emasculation (removal of penis and testicles), and vaginoplasty (creation of vagina) as part of SRS.

In 2012, the Madras High Court had called for a separate ward for transgenders which saw many transgenders walk in and demand that they receive priority treatment. But the government hospitals vehemently defied the order and placed patients in the male ward. The costs, they argue, are skyrocketing already, and money from the government is yet to come. “They come back with complications and expect us to treat them for free,” says Nirmala. These complications include painful urination due to the removal of the catheter in the urethra before healing has begun and a dysfunctional vagina due to the removal of the mould.

At the medical superintendent’s office in SRM University, Jayaraman P rests after his lunch break and meets with assistants who deliver to him the itinerary for the rest of the day. Retired from his post of plastic surgeon at the KMC Hospital, he now performs sex reassignment surgeries at Hope Hospital, a private entity that charges Rs 30,000 a procedure. But Jayaraman has gone pro bono and performs these surgeries for free. His clients, as a result, have followed him and moved from government SRS to private. “I get a good 15 patients in a year,” he says.

Madurai Home Guards: An exercise in tokenism

The Home Guards is a force that assists the police. What was a first-of-its-kind initiative in 2014 taken by no other police force across India soon became an exercise in tokenism.

Fifteen transgenders were selected of which nine dropped out and six are part of the initiative that predates the 15 April order by the Supreme Court that recognised transgenders as the third gender in a landmark ruling that promised rights such as the right to vote, own property, marry and to “claim a formal identity” to the community.

“They left for home. We don’t know why. We thought they liked the training but after six months they were all gone and they lost interest,” says Madurai Home Guard deputy commissioner Indira Gandhi. The trainees were paid Rs 5,000 a month, barely enough to send back money to family. “We weren’t given any direction to hire them back, so we left it at that,” she says.

“I heard of transgenders harassing men in Madurai and immediately took it upon myself to do something,” says Mylapore deputy commissioner of police V Balakrishnan, who was then Madurai’s superintendent of police. “I felt this was a constructive way of employing them to do something that actually matters,” he says. But there are no plans of reviving this programme.

Balakrishnan had pioneered the model which later fell flat due to zero attendance and trainees reportedly going back to sex work, as per Madurai-based activist Gopi Shankar. “The problem is, they have no sense or rather, don’t want to engage with the transgender community to even ascertain their needs. They make Rs 15,000 a week just from sex work, how can they be retained here?” he says. (He is the preferred pronoun of genderqueer and intersex people.)

“Yasini (the first transgender police officer) had to fight it out. The state cannot take credit for her success. We don’t get offered our share on a silver platter. We have to fight for it. That’s why these models don’t work. We can’t trust the system, the system wants us to put up a fight,” he says.

A lackadaisical minister

P Valarmathi’s tenure as minister of social welfare ended with her loss in the 2016 elections in her constituency, Thousand Lights in Chennai. Her willingness to talk to the press about the board is a plus, but many questions were fielded with safe answers, revealing little of substance. The Rs 1 crore that drew a blank in terms of achievement from 2013 to the 2016 fiscal years is indicative that nothing was done during the time. Two conflicting answers emerged from Valarmathi – “The money has been used somewhere else in another department”, and “The money may have not been released.” The word “may” is cause for concern.

“We’ve done a lot for them – grants, pensions, cards and homes. What more? We’ve given them sewing machines,” she argues. Deep rooted stigma and a negative perception of transgenders as being “incorrigible” has clearly seeped into the the board and government at large. No effort has been made to reconstitute the board with non-official members since 2011. Asked why, she answered, “There are no capable transgenders out there that I can see who can take up these roles.”

But the community begs to differ. Sudha Palani speaks passionately about her event management venture which employs other transgenders looking for work other than begging or sex work. “We enjoy planning and executing various events, particularly dance programmes. They are paid well and don’t need to return to their previous jobs that we are so stereotyped with,” she says. The self-help group programmes and the loan programmes by the government provide capital for jewellery making, tailoring and petty shops - but there are no takers for these. “The problem is, they are completely out of touch (with reality). This is why non-official members need to be there. Official members (who are not themselves transgenders) in the comfort of their own offices will not fully understand,” Sudha explains.

“You should meet this person called Sudha,” enthuses Valarmathi. “She is a brilliant, sensible woman who will help a lot of transgenders.” She then ponders on the suggestion on taking her on as a non-official member. “I’ll think about it. Good idea.” But her ideas matter little. V Saroja is the new minister for social welfare. She could not be reached for comment.

The Kerala model

In 2015, Kerala chief secretary MK Muneer unveiled the 'State Policy for Transgenders in Kerala 2015' at the first International Conference on Gender Equality, held at Kovalam.

The schemes mirrored that of the Tamil Nadu Transgender Welfare Board - counselling, pension for destitute trangenders, free sex reassignment surgeries, ration cards, self-employment grants, free homes and transit homes.

At 31, Vijayraja Mallika forayed into the activism arena, and the state policy gave her space at the Planning Board. She, however, decided to go one step further. Travelling across the 14 districts of Kerala, she looked for rent for her school for transgender children. “We were told that what would be a school, would turn into a brothel,” she said. But that’s telling of not just how transgenders are stereotyped, but also how their emotional and social space revolves around sex work. “They get the love and care from their tai ma’s (mother figure) in a way they don’t get from their biological families,” she says. Mallika wanted to create this loving space while transgenders were young to nurture their ambitions of being integrated into society with jobs everyone else could access. “I don’t see any transgender women wanting to drive G Taxis or work at the Metro. They want to be teachers and businessmen.” G Taxis is an intiative by Kerala’s Gender park, a civil society group, to provide jobs driving taxis. The school is Sahaja Foundation, and Mallika picked the name over the use of the word transgender. “It means normal, like we should be. We shouldn’t be seen as different from anyone else.”

Tamil Nadu once a pioneering state for welfare of transgenders now shuns the third gender

Life as a transgender is not easy. AFP

As for policy, Mallika says it’s too soon to tell if it’s tokenistic or watertight, but the first hurdle remains self-declaration. “As per our survey, there are 25,000 transgenders in Kerala. The NALSA judgment of 2015, which I personally don’t agree with in terms of its definition of transgenders, creates conflicts for us.

The NALSA judgement’s definition of gender identity is that “Gender identity refers to each person’s deeply felt internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond with the sex assigned at birth, including the personal sense of the body which may involve a freely chosen, modification of bodily appearance or functions by medical, surgical or other means and other expressions of gender, including dress, speech and mannerisms. Gender identity, therefore, refers to an individual’s self-identification as a man, woman, transgender or other identified category.”

“What do we do when men who identify as men, wear sarees and ask us for benefits under the policy?” she asks.

Classes start in June. “Everyone keeps calling me the principal,” laughs Mallika. “What do I call myself? Hmm, secretary?”

In Thiruvananthapuram, actor Anjali Ameer is recovering from a bad cold and a busy schedule. She's about to wrap up shooting for an upcoming Tamil film Peranbu. Starring alongside Mammooty, she's still over the moon about her big break. "Years ago, I was the boy crying over a broken makeup box. Now I'm doing movies!" she exclaims. Her laughter rings of relief as she tells a story of an effeminate boy who ran away from home to see a transgender woman she met during a school trip to Mysore. "I was armed with makeup from Dubai and my friend’s old skirts. Why can't you be like the others," my grandmother would tell me. Well, I'm not and I didn't want to be a burden anymore," she narrates. She joined a call centre in Coimbatore and paid for her surgery. In modelling and dancing, she found love. "I wanted to model and act, and be a woman while I did," she says. In a serial she shot for in Kochi, she was open about being a transgender woman, but her producers wouldn't have it. They kicked her out and she was back to auditions and screen tests. "I got through like anyone else. Director Ram liked my acting, and the rest happened just like that," she says. "I didn't act that well and all. But I'm happy I'm being seen as a woman now and not given a transgender role," she says.

A long way to go

“We are people. We are not only male to female transitioned peoples, we are female to male transitioned, we are intersex, we are genderqueer, we are so much more than what the cis community portray us to be. (cis is the term for those who identify their gender with their biological sex),” says Gopi Shankar. Shankar works tirelessly for Transgender India and for Srishti, a support, research and 24-hours helpline for genderqueer, gender-variants and LGBTQI and informational services for public. “We are fragmented. Some popular faces attempt to represent us. But they will never know the patriarchal and shocking system of the jamaat, and the ground realities of it. The Board is for Transgenders but not by transgenders,” he says. Jamaat is a collective of transgenders with a mother figure and is ideally a safe space for them, but most are usually engaged in begging or sex work or both.

In Chennai, Jeeva does her errands of the day and wears her floss pink sandals to sprint to the bank for some unfinished business. She stops in her tracks and turns, wearing a look of concern while appearing to have forgotten something important. “If there’s any one thing that hurt us, it is this. Even though our tenure was over, we made a regular visit to the director of social welfare. We were ear to a ton of excuses, and then conveniently turned away. All we wanted was a seat at the table,” she says.

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