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)

A life of dirt, danger, drudgery


holed up

Twenty rupees is all he gets for plunging into a manhole from which there is no guarantee of returning alive. Sami* does it nevertheless, oblivious to the neat people walking past him on the road, holding their noses.

He does it bare-bodied, save for a loin cloth to cover his manhood and a belt secured around his shoulder and waist, which a helper holds by a jute rope. Only, he prays to his kuladeivam (clan God) Muneeswaran before taking a dip into the sooty black waters of the sewer tank.

Eyes and mouth shut tight, he dives deep into the 15-foot deep tank. Besides human waste, such things as blades, knifes, pet bottles and discarded sanitary napkins and condoms clog the drains. These he scoops with his bare hands.

Thirty-five seconds later, he emerges from the hole, hands filled with waste matter. He looks up, his hair and moustache dripping with sewage water and says: “Don’t look so surprised. I have been doing it for five years now.”

“If you can hold your breath for long and not be fussy about dirt, you can do this job,” he says. The over-200 men who clean these toxic gas chambers in the city for Chennai Metrowater are employed on contract.

They say they are denied the benefits of a permanent employee despite putting in four to five years of regular service.

Several of them, including Sami, are poor tribals who migrated to the city in search of work years ago. They have settled in localities such as Tambaram, Nerkundram and Koyambedu in the city.

Sami said they clean 15 sewer tanks per day for ten days a month. The work is divided between three to four cleaners in every depot. “Sundays are off, and we don’t get paid for it,” he adds. Thus, he makes a little over Rs.3,000 a month.

Being contract labourers, sewer cleaners say, they suffer several disadvantages at work. “The contractor keeps changing every six months or so and there are no fixed terms of employment,” says Nathan*, another cleaner.

“Cleaners often get trapped in the narrow passages within the sewer tank. Sometimes we hurt ourselves against the rough edges of the drain. Blades and used syringes pierce our hands,” he adds.

He drew attention to the five different injury marks on his arms.

There have been occasions when deaths and serious injuries have gone unreported, he says. Sometimes, cleaners have dropped the heavy metal lids of the manhole on their feet, crushing them. But they do not have access to medical assistance which permanent workers enjoy.

Sewer cleaners say for several years now no new workers have been recruited and that they are overworked. “When there is a shortage of labour we are summoned to other depots for work when drains get clogged there,” he says.

Sami says officials at the Metrowater depot do not even provide them a soap to bathe with and he carries his own sunnambu soap. There are days when he cannot find enough time to clean himself before lunch. “On such days I sit on the pavement outside the hotel and eat. No one would let me in like this,” he says, pointing to his soiled self.

(Originally published in The Hindu, Chennai edition on Jul 06, 2008)