Face of the third gender

priya babu
Priya Babu

Five years ago, transgender rights activist Priya Babu had filed a writ petition in the Madras High Court demanding voting rights for her community. Ahead of the next general elections, a majority of transgender persons in Tamil Nadu possess voter ID cards that designates them a gender of their choice.

“That our community persons have received voter’s identity and ration cards is a very encouraging development. It is a sign that society is accepting us the way we are, at last,” Priya Babu says.

From a life of invisibility and marginalisation, Ms. Babu has come a long way. For someone who was once the pet son of her mother, the realisation that she was not a man, changed the course of her life. She was trafficked from her hometown Tiruchi to a red-light area in Mumbai, where she lived as a sex worker for many years. Rescued by the then municipal commissioner of Mumbai, G.R. Khairnar, she took to social activism later.

Today, she participates in political meetings and conducts awareness programmes on issues concerning transgender persons for college students and police personnel.

With an estimated population of nearly two lakh in the State, transgender persons are an important vote bank, though dispersed across towns. The Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi has an ‘Aravani Ani’, Bharatiya Janata Party has started admitting them as members and Vijayakant’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam has given them memberships.

“Political empowerment is necessary for transgender persons. It is one way of making our presence felt,” she asserts.

Ms. Babu is also petitioning the Centre for a nominated seat in the Lok Sabha. “Only if we have representation in the Central and State governments, can we bring about tangible change in the lives of transgender persons.

Most of them are today condemned to a life of begging and sex work due to lack of education and employment opportunities,” she says.

Tamil Nadu is far more progressive than other states as colleges are giving admission to transgender persons and the recently opened Welfare Board has been extending financial and other assistance, she adds. She also expresses hope that government hospitals will continue to perform sex-change surgeries for the benefit of the community as had recently been done at the Government General Hospital.

Ms. Babu also draws attention to the emergence of transgender authors in the literary scene in Tamil Nadu.

The books by transgender writers Revathi and Vidya are popular, she says. She herself has authored two books so far.

The first book ‘Aravanigal Samuha Varaiviyal’ is an ethnographic study of the community that explores the member’s secret societies, ritual practices, and belief systems.

The second book ‘Moonrampaalin Mugam’ is about the emotional journey of a mother and son after the son discovers his transgender status.

“The second book was widely appreciated within the community as I had detailed the suffering of our community persons at the hands of moneylenders, police personnel and clients,” she says.

But she is not stopping at that. Working on a third novel dealing with transgender sexuality, her plea to society is: “Nobody is asking for heaven, but at least don’t push us into hell.”

(Originally published in The Hindu, Chennai edition, Mar 09, 2009)

Published by Vidya Venkat

Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at SOAS, London. Formerly, journalist at The Hindu, Chennai.

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