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Rainbow in the Kerala sky

P Anima | Updated on January 11, 2018
Here I am...: A growing number of transgender persons across Kerala are asserting their right to be themselves. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

Here I am...: A growing number of transgender persons across Kerala are asserting their right to be themselves. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat   -  The Hindu

Here to stay ‘What is the point of running away?’ asks Gowri thulasi kakkat

Here to stay: ‘What is the point of running away?’ asks Gowri. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat   -  The Hindu

Ticket to mainstream: Kochi metro intends to increase the number of transgender workers. Photo: H Vibhu

Ticket to mainstream: Kochi metro intends to increase the number of transgender workers. Photo: H Vibhu   -  The Hindu

True colours: Transgender artists take part in ‘Samanwaya’, a 10-day art camp organised by the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi in Kochi.

True colours: Transgender artists take part in ‘Samanwaya’, a 10-day art camp organised by the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi in Kochi.   -  PTI

Forward march: State- and-panchayat-level programmes have been introduced to help members of the trangender community complete school education and acquire soft skills. Photo: Ramesh Kurup

Forward march: State- and-panchayat-level programmes have been introduced to help members of the trangender community complete school education and acquire soft skills. Photo: Ramesh Kurup   -  BusinessLine

Now you see me: Maya finds comfort in makeovers.

Now you see me: Maya finds comfort in makeovers.   -  Special Arrangement

The first State to launch a transgender policy two years ago, Kerala’s efforts to end the marginalisation of this vulnerable community have made the right kind of news. The challenge is to go beyond tokenism and tackle head-on the many entrenched prejudices for a truly inclusive future

Maya walks into the meeting venue — hastily shifted thrice and now in a “comfortable” office room in Kochi — clearly attempting to not stand out. The kohl in the eyes is faint, ear studs modest, kurta demurely white. She accompanies boutique-owner Sharmila Nair earnestly. But the timidity wears off when she begins to talk.

Gowri arrives later, but makes an audacious entry. To be Gowri takes time. She has travelled that morning from her home in Kottayam, the district further south, as the young man the neighbourhood knows her as. Upon arriving in Kochi, she had dropped in at a photographer friend’s place to become Gowri — false hair, polka-dotted palazzos, danglers, nail paint, carefully-lined eyes, coats of lipstick, dark glasses — all aids to becoming the woman she feels she is. “How do I look?” she strikes a pose. Maya and Nair nod approvingly.

As transgender persons living in Kerala, the sexual identity of Maya and Gowri is not public yet. However, closeted is not how they wish to remain. They occasionally tease the norm, at other times retreat into the routine, but realise dual identities are a reality for now. A fragile web of silence, questions left unasked and tacit understanding define their familial relationships, particularly with parents. For a large section of Kerala’s transgender community, as also those elsewhere, coming out has cost them their family. That narrative makes Maya and Gowri uneasy. They want their family, and yet be themselves.

Agreeing to model Nair’s sari collection last year was a risk. They knew it. So did Nair, but her online boutique Red Lotus was not merely looking for props to showcase its Hubli handloom saris.

The pronounced invisibility of transgender people was the norm in Kerala until five years ago. Recently, the community in bigger cities such as Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi had coalesced to form advocacy groups and made its presence felt on social media. Members appeared frequently on television shows and comedy skits, but so did the clichés.

The caricatures they had become in the mainstream had wearied Nair. “I knew I can be different with them,” she says.

She got in touch with the Kochi-based online advocacy group Queerala and met Maya and Gowri. But much was at stake. “What if it backfired?” asked Maya. Gowri worried for her privacy. “My mother was aware of my status.” But that was it. There was never overt support or acceptance from the immediate family. Much rested on the “don’t ask, don’t tell” compact. A modelling project as Gowri could disrupt equilibrium. They wondered aloud, “How will social media react?”

Nair’s conviction prevailed. “We told her we’ll do our best,” recalls Maya. They had little control over what followed. Nair’s struggles, though, had just begun. A location for the photo shoot proved elusive when the identity of the models became known. Often, Nair would call up Maya and Gowri on the day of the scheduled shoot and seek postponement. Support, however, came from an unlikely quarter. The nuns at a church in Vypeen Island, off Kochi, agreed to let out their vast lawns overlooking the waterfront. “They never interfered, instead offered old classrooms for the two to get ready. When they saw Maya and Gowri changing in the open, they chided me and suggested taking them to the washroom,” says Nair.

In the end, Maya and Gowri walked away with a new experience. Nair’s Mazhavil (Rainbow) collection had been freshly interpreted. “They transformed my saris. I was overwhelmed and extremely satisfied,” says Nair.

For Gowri and Maya, however, their privacy was not theirs anymore. The transgender models became news and their families were pelted with queries. Maya’s uncle rang up her father after reading about the Red Lotus models. “My dad asked, ‘Is she looking good?’” says Maya. Nair received much support from across the country, and the only criticism she got came from her home State.

Thirty-year-old Maya is a certified yoga instructor and lives with her parents. Though her identity is now known to a larger circle, she remains wary. She politely refuses to be photographed when she is not dressed as Maya. “When you see the photo shoot images, I’m hardly recognisable,” she says. She finds comfort in the mystery that the makeover confers. A lot of her yoga students know the truth. “Most are supportive. But a few find it difficult to accept me,” Maya says matter-of-factly.

A fierce sense of responsibility towards her parents holds her back. “We live in a rented accommodation. There is no financial security,” she says. She fears a full revelation might harm the family. She is never Maya in front of her relatives. “I have blocked all of them on Facebook.” Maya knows she can choose to step out, live with the community, dress up and live the way she wants. “But I’m committed to my family,” she reasons. That commitment is holding back Gowri too. “What is the point of running away?” asks the trained beautician and budding actor pointedly. “We need to stay back and fight.” Maya interjects, “Though it might mean we have to act throughout our lives.”

****

In September 2015 Kerala became the first State to bring out a policy to correct the continued marginalisation of its transgender community. The social justice department’s draft was in compliance with the Supreme Court’s 2014 judgement in the National Legal Services Authority vs Union of India case. The judgement, a turning point in transgender rights, recognises the community as the third gender, and directs the Centre and States to protect their constitutional rights. It grants the community socially and educationally backward status, as well as reservation in public education and employment. Recommendations by the ministry of social justice and empowerment’s expert committee to designate State-level authorities to issue gender identity certificates also find mention in the ‘State Policy for Transgenders in Kerala’.

The policy mentions the presence of over 25,000 transgender people in Kerala, and documents the stigma and discrimination they face within family and in society. The State intends strong measures to protect this vulnerable community, at least on paper. In the past two years, two separate governments have initiated slow but determined steps to realise their rights. The policy was introduced by the Oommen Chandy-led United Democratic Front government. Activists acknowledge the initiative shown by MK Muneer, former State minister for social welfare and panchayat and a qualified doctor, in putting the policy in place. The transgender community has remained a priority for the incumbent Pinarayi Vijayan-led Left Democratic Front government too.

Abhijith Pulparambath, senior news photographer with regional daily Madhyamam, has tracked Kerala’s transgender community for almost a decade. His photofeatures and exhibitions focus on their personal narratives; his photo-documentary Avalilekkulla Dooram (The Journey to Her) was screened at this year’s International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala. “Much has changed in the last couple of years. The transgender issue was part of both the LDF and UDF manifestos in recent elections,” he points out.

Initiatives involving the community have grabbed eyeballs; the transgender sports meet and a beauty contest were hits. Token events fare well. But long-term programmes to rehabilitate the community and bring it into the mainstream are proving to be learning experiences.

****

It is mid-morning in June. The sun quietly vanishes as monsoon rains pelt down furiously. Civil Station, the administrative centre of Kozhikode district, is dark at noon under its canopy of ageing trees.

Inside, Sicilly George, a 30-year-old transgender person and district coordinator for the community, waits with her three friends. Sitting across the table are the district panchayat secretary and the district coordinator for the literacy mission. Initiatives aimed at the community are to be implemented and district officials are reaching out to them. For a group consigned to invisibility and long left to fend for themselves, making themselves visible is proving difficult. George has spearheaded a survey of transgender persons in the district. “Only about 80 have identified themselves as transgender,” she says. Some have been forced into marriage. Others have left for cities such as Bengaluru and Chennai.

George, meanwhile, is registering for the literacy mission’s programme aimed at enabling transgender persons to finish school education. “Most of them have not completed school. Many dropped out when their sexual orientation became known. Consequently, they have not kept regular jobs either,” says Valsala MD, the literacy project coordinator. George’s friends are more interested in the panchayat’s skill development programme.

“We are keen on the beautician, make-up and massage courses,” says Susmi. She considers herself a veteran of the community, having left home years ago. As testimony, she swings her long braid to the front. “I started growing my hair much before these people did,” she says. Most of them make a living getting dancers ready for programmes. There are the occasional temple festivals they take part in. But never enough to make ends meet.

Most struggle to find a place to stay. They cannot afford lodge rents. Some of them pay as much as ₹500 a day for a room. “We are pushed back to sex work,” Susmi explains. At 45, Neetu is the oldest among the four. She had lived by begging in trains most of her life. On good days she earned as much as ₹3,000. No longer in good health to spend a whole day in trains, she is keen to learn a skill. Among the options the panchayat officials present, Neetu considers ‘craft work’. “Maybe I could learn to make paper flowers... but what we need is a place to stay,” she says.

Rehabilitation is priority, says PD Philip, district panchayat secretary. The panchayat has set aside ₹5 lakh for training transgender persons in soft skills. George and company are instructed to consult with other members and come up with a skill they would like to learn. They discuss tailoring, driving, plumbing, electrical work or forming a small catering unit. The discussions remain nascent for now.

But the foremost requirement remains an identity card, which will entitle them to benefit from government schemes. Susmi wants to know the status of her application. “We came for the meeting riding a bike in the rain and got wet,” she says. She vents her angst — of turning up for rallies and meetings for years on end. “Then one gets tired,” she says. A moment later, she concedes that things have gotten better. There is greater freedom for transgender persons in public spaces. Though some of them continue to get into trouble with the police. “We are now able to sit across a table and talk, isn’t it?” Valsala asks Susmi. She nods. “We need our identity cards soon.”

****

In the first week of July, the newly formed Transgender Justice Board (TJB) held its first meeting in Thiruvananthapuram. Headed by the minister for social justice, the board has representatives from different government departments as well as the transgender community. “The district-level committee headed by the collector has been authorised to issue identity cards,” says Anupama TV, director, social justice department.

Now, transgender persons in Kerala will hold an official document that certifies and recognises their gender.

After verifications for place of residence, the candidates identified by community-based organisations are given identity cards. It has so far been given to 50 people.

****

A few months ago, the Kochi Metro Rail Corporation (KMRL) decided to employ transgender persons in its workforce. The narrative around that move has shape-shifted considerably over the past month-and-a-half. Breathlessly hailed as a first-of-its-kind initiative, some sheen was however lost when the transgender employees cited the low pay and the stigma that prevented them from finding accommodation. As the dust settles, the corporation and its transgender employees are slowly learning to deal with issues as they unfold.

At noon, Raga Ranjini is busy working at the ticket counter in Edapally station. Three hours later, she is on the bus back home. Ranjini is among Kochi metro’s first batch of trangender employees, all of whom work in the ticketing and housekeeping sections. She holds a degree in hotel management. Choosing to come out with her transgender identity was akin to giving up her ticket to a good life.

Hence the job at Kochi metro is a challenge she does not want to fail at. Over the past 45 days, as she handed out tokens at the counter, she has watched customers turning into acquaintances. Visibility matters — she now knows. “The public conception of us was as mere sex symbols,” says Ranjini. Being part of a workforce is a new experience. “I’m enjoying it. Initially it was difficult. When our difficulty in finding accommodation became known, I had customers who enquired if things were sorted and if I am alright,” she recounts.

Recruited through the Kudumbasree initiative, the employment of transgender persons has been facilitated by KMRL. It took them a while to understand the technicalities of their employment. Ranjini recently received her first salary — ₹10,400 after deductions. Those in housekeeping earn even less. “The salary is low. But it is the first I have earned in my identity as a transgender person,” she says with pride. “I have become a role model for the community.” The transition, though, has not been easy.

The hospitality industry spurned Ranjini after her transgender identity became known. She lived with the community in Coimbatore and moved to Kerala after the State brought in its policy. “I survived doing make-up work and conducting awareness classes on gender.” At the metro rail job, besides the low pay, there was a fresh set of challenges. “The transgender community is not used to regulated hours of work or interacting with the public. And then there were problems with accommodation,” says Ranjini.

She and 11 of her transgender colleagues were paying upwards of ₹500 a day for lodging. “Raids and harassment were common in the hotels.” Their plight was highlighted by the news media. The employers then found them accommodation at a convent in Kakkanad. Only two have taken it up, as the rest are uncomfortable with the restrictions in the convent. It is certainly not an option for those like Ranjini who live with a partner. She, however, is now willing to make a change. “My partner works far away, making daily travel difficult. I am thinking of moving in with my colleagues at the convent in a few days,” she says.

Sherin Antony, a housekeeping staff member at Palarivattom station, lives with her partner at a lodge near the railway station, paying ₹600 a day. She earns only ₹9,000 a month. Before joining the metro, she did odd jobs at hotels and often begged for a living. She scrapes through with the money she has saved, but is unsure for how long she can do this. The fear of falling back into the old life is real for her. For now she is fighting back. “I want to show we can work.” It helps also that she is happy at work. “I work at a good station and my colleagues treat me as one of their own. They are helpful and there is respect,” she says.

“We’ve been watching their work closely,” says Elias George, managing director, KMRL. “We are delighted with their performance. They have integrated well with the public and other officials. Outside of work, they have struggled to find accommodation and one or two of them got into trouble with the police,” he adds. A Kochi metro employee is reportedly among a group of transgender persons who were recently arrested for attempted robbery. “I would just say they were at the wrong place at the wrong time,” says George. The significance of “going the last mile” with his transgender colleagues is not lost on George. Transport facilities are being arranged for them at night. Two transgender candidates who did not make the cut initially are being inducted into the workforce after a review. “We will have more people from the community in our next phase,” George adds.

Ranjini, meanwhile, has decided to hang in there. “Isn’t it testimony to the community’s struggle that we are here now?” she asks. Having recently undergone sex reassignment surgery, she can choose to identify herself as a transwoman. Ranjini, however, opts for the unspecific transgender or transsexual identity. “That is how I want to show solidarity with my community,” she says. Solidarity, she knows, is still key. “A transgender hotel manager is still a long way off, isn’t it?”

****

A considerable segment of Kerala’s transgender persons associate themselves with the beauty and entertainment industry, albeit on its fringes. But the stories of newsmakers are emerging more frequently now. Anjali Ameer became one after she was cast opposite Malayalam actor Mammootty in the bilingual film Peranbu.

A day after Eid, boxes of half-eaten biryani lie on the table in her hotel room in Kozhikode. Her cousins had sent them. Hailing from an orthodox Muslim family on the outskirts of the city, Ameer admits family elders find it hard to accept her. The last few days have been hectic, shuttling between television shows, film shoots and public functions. She is currently working on three Tamil films. She has worked hard to get this far. An intense awareness of her sexuality saw her leaving home after Std X. Reality soon hit her after she moved to Bengaluru and saw the transgender community from up close. “Most of them were into begging and sex work. That is not what I wanted.”

She saw education as her way out. Moving to Coimbatore, she earned a degree in social work. Ameer didn’t want her sexuality to become an impediment. “I wanted to achieve something.” And films were high on her list. A painful surgery later, she was ready for modelling assignments and ramp shows. But the intense suffering she underwent to become a woman is still fresh in her mind. “I kept telling myself, ‘Isn’t all this to be beautiful?’” Ameer makes a pretty woman and she knows that. “You might look at yourself in the mirror 500 times a day and know how you look. But when others say you are beautiful, it is a whole new feeling.”

Ameer acknowledges the growing acceptance for her community in the State. She feels it when she gets mobbed, as happened when she attended a public function at a mall in Kozhikode the day before. “I swear I have not seen such selfie frenzy before. They were pulling me, shouting my name…” At most places she goes to, she has found acceptance. “All you can do is be yourself.”

****

A growing number of transgender persons across Kerala are asserting their right to be themselves. Surya Abhilash is vociferous in this. She attended the first TJB meeting as a community representative. “It was historic since we could talk directly to department representatives. Discussions were about basic facilities for the community.” Apart from identity cards, the other promises to be kept include homes under the EMS housing project and health insurance for the community. “Follow-up is needed to ensure the schemes benefit “real” transgender people,” she says. As a long-term project to evolve into a gender-sensitive society, Abhilash has suggested incorporating a chapter on transgender identities in the school syllabus.

Transgender persons are not outliers. And incorporating and accepting them into the mainstream is not a favour, Abhilash says. “It is our right,” she asserts.

Published on July 21, 2017

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