Towards life and liberty

Last Updated : 17 July 2010, 10:11 IST

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Kalki is someone who has been fighting for something that most of us take for granted – a normal life. “I want to scream out that we transgenders are just different, not abnormal. We want the same things in life – love, relationships, work; and we pretty much do the same things as you”, Kalki says.

Kalki has received many awards that acknowledge her extraordinary work,  such as the ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ awarded by the Lioness Club of Chennai in appreciation of her transgender rights advocacy.  She is also one among the three Indian women listed as Transsexual Successes in the Transsexual Women’s Successes Directory.

You meet this transgender woman and her eloquence, grace, and grit blow you away. To make you see beyond gender was the very idea behind a  special poster exhibition - ‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ - on the life and times of Tamil transgender women (Thirunangaikal). These images were all about hope and grace.

And they also called out for help and for acceptance. In these 16 poster images, graceful transwomen talked about their identity, concerns relating to equality, unity, diversity and love. Alongside the images were stirring  quotes. Sample this: “Yes, I am a transsexual, but that is not who I am”.

The idea was to convey that transgender people are much more than our perceptions about their  gender identity.

Eight of these poster images have been made into postcards, and the proceeds of the sale will go for the education and training of 25 poor transgender artists in the Liberation Performing Arts Troupe (http://liberationarts.blogspot.com), which trains talented transgender women from poor backgrounds to become world class performing artists.

A traumatised community
In their devastatingly marginalised and misunderstood community, transgenders suffer for no fault of their own; they suffer because their bodies have been built mixed up or imperfectly. The stigma and discrimination they face are relentless. Very few parents like Kalki’s, are supportive. “I owe a lot to my mother, who had the courage to accept me and do the best for me”, voices Kalki. With a masters’ degree in journalism and mass communication under her belt, Kalki is a successful media professional and script writer now, besides being a firebrand activist.

Most transgenders are thrown out of their homes after they reach puberty, because their parents are unable to accept the transition. Others run away, unable to withstand the violence, abuse and ridicule they are subjected to.

This happens well before they complete even their basic schooling. So then, without education, what hope have you? “Leave alone empathy or acceptance, most of us are denied education, jobs, houses to rent and other crucial tools of empowerment. That is why there is so much of begging among us. Because society has closed all avenues for us”, points out Kalki. Then there are the rumours that some transgender people are into crime and go around kidnapping children and neutering them. Whether or not this rumour has any grain of truth, the fact is, there are criminals in any community. But that cannot classify a community. 

As for female to male (FTM) transsexual people, the reality is even more traumatic, if that were possible. “Unlike male-to-female transsexual people who have a support system called Jamaath, FTM people have no support system at all”, says Kalki.  It is a  battle not easy to win.   

Education holds the key
Brave efforts like Kalki’s Sahodari foundation try to set the balance right. Sahodari tries to help the transgender community find its economic feet, social standing and legal rights. For instance the Butterflies project of Sahodari has been getting transwomen equipped with skill training and loans for jewellry design and marketing, with Chennai’s Shasun Jain College for Women providing the training.

“The first exhibition of our products at the Duchess Club in Chennai was a moderate success”, Kalki says, adding, “We have submitted a proposal to the Social Welfare Board, Chennai. I hope they will sanction our project”.

Then there is the video project wherein Kalki has been encouraging transwomen to make movies to tell their own stories of change, to inspire acceptance in society. But perhaps even more progressive of all is Thirunangai.net which is perhaps the world's first ever matrimonial website for transwomen. “The response has been massive, we have got queries from even Muslim countries”, Kalki says.

There is so much work ahead. The community is plagued by discrimination, unemployment, lack of access to education, homelessness, health issues because of unsafe surgery, HIV risks, depression, substance abuse, and many other issues.

“Lack of education, employability and social acceptance are the reasons that conspire in making the community fall prey to depression, insecurity, substance abuse and other ills. Education brings with it not just employability, but also legal awareness and social acceptance among other things”, she says. Transition of her traumatised community to a better life is a vision she is steadily working for towards.  

Need for state reforms
The Tamilnadu Transgender Welfare Board offers scholarship money for transgenders for pursuing education in colleges and universities and has constructed a ‘short-stay’ home and allotted money for a group housing scheme, and even performed free sex reassignment surgeries for 30 transgenders.

But with the exception of Tamilnadu, no state has taken up the cause of this marginalised community. “The state and the central law ministries, health and social welfare ministries need to recognise transgender people’s rights and work on reforms. The states should set up Gender Dysphoric Clinics where treatment for transgender people should be free”, Kalki pleads. 

The World Health Organisation reiterates that the transgender community is not suffering from any ailment, but has just different sexual orientations. Transgenders in mythology (like Arjuna as Brihannala in Mahabharata ) are accepted but not as part of contemporary society.  Only empathy and knowledge  can cure this blind ignorance.

Published 17 July 2010, 10:11 IST

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