Two persons dressed in gaudy clothes walk up the pavement, unnoticed by the passersby, along the Kuruvikkaran Salai in Madurai in the evening. They stop at the first shop; clap their hands in a wavy fashion and get a en-rupee note in return. Even before one knows from where the claps came, the duo steps into another shop to repeat the routine. This is how these people, whose gender is identified by their dress and masculine voice, earn a living.
On the other end of the city, a group of women is huddled into a small room, preparing a petition in a computer while a few others in male attire prepare lunch. Among them is a person who was ten years old when he realised that he will not lead a normal life like his classmates in the co-educational school located in Sivaganga district. It was the time when the man in charge of the institution started to abuse him repeatedly. He even thought of suicide as the only option to escape from misery. A decade later, Brinda, after transformation as transgender, is not ambiguous about her gender. The rest of her life is now dedicated for the uplift and well being of the members of her gender.
She is one among the scores of transgender people who visit the home on the first floor of a building on Nattanmai Kasturi Rengayyar Lane off Mahal Vadampokki Street. Disowned by their parents and relatives and driven to the fringes by the society, this unique population of Madurai finds the Bharathi Kannamma Trust, run by their ‘mother’ Bharathi Kannamma, a boon. About 300 transgender people live in the city, according to Bharathi Kannamma.
She says that there are an estimated 1200 people who are not sure of their gender. They also visit the home to be in the company of people with whom they are comfortable.
The attack on Noori Amma of Bibikulam by a group of unidentified persons on the night of December 7 has once again brought to light the vulnerability of this community. Though they organised a demonstration in front of the Collector’s office before submitting a memorandum seeking protection, the transgenders of the city live in constant fear.
The option for them is either the devil or the deep sea to survive. “The transgender community follows one of the two traditions, which originate from Mumbai – the Manjula Amma tradition and Kursheed Amma tradition, referred to as ‘bade vazhi’ and ‘chotte vazhi.’ The first one is prostitution and the other begging,” explains Bharathi Kannamma. She is a shining example of how a person can lead a normal life by fighting against all odds. After being subjected to all kinds of humiliation a transgender experiences, Bharathi Kannamma is working to reform the lives of her community and bring solace to them. The home she runs for the transgender also accommodates bearded ‘male’ members. As a master trainer of Tamil Nadu AIDS Control Society, she is instrumental in bringing about a proper awareness of spread of HIV/AIDS through the transgender community. In her capacity as a State-level police advocacy officer, Bharathi Kannamma has brought about a tangible change in attitude of the police towards the transgender.
“Today, I can proudly say that Madurai is the safest place in the State for the transgenders.”
Bharathi Kannamma says the treatment of transgenders in public is not as bad as it used to be a decade back. She finds lot of sympathy and understanding though the public behaviour of some of the members of her community is not appropriate. Violence and discrimination are the factors that make this community linger on the peripheries of the normal world. Twenty-year-old Brinda from neighbouring Sivaganga district feels that acceptance of their gender should start from the family. “Our gender should be recognised by our families. We should gain access to mainstream education like all other people. Being a transgender is not our fault,” she says. Despite their best attempts to merge with the mainstream society, they are pushed away to the margins. “We can lead a honourable life if we are employed as cooks in government institutions. We are basically good cooks,” says Bharathi Kannamma pointing to the failed experiment of an idli shop run by transgenders in Salem.
Anu (22), who hails from an orthodox family in Ramanathapuram district, is of the view that the life of the transgender will get disciplined once the government recognises their marriage.
“Since we are not included in the system of marriage, the society accuses us with indulging in prostitution,” she says.
The world of the transgender is different from the one that exists outside the home. They do not have a family; they do not have a caste; they do not have a religion and, perhaps, they even do not have a gender.