Chennai: Seven years ago, 27-year-old Gopal Gopinath walked out of the jewellery store where he worked, unable to bear the lampooning and the mistrust directed at him by his employer.
“I had pierced my ears, and I had grown my hair long, like a woman—and the way I walked and spoke was feminine,” Gopal explained.
No employer he ever worked for quite let Gopal be—whether it was in the jewellery store where he first took up a job, or in a shoe factory, where he endured misery for seven years.
Finally, tired of the posturing, Gopal renamed himself—or rather, herself—Gomathi, and joined the Thamilnadu Aravanigal Association (Thaa), a body run by transgenders that aims to uplift their community in the state.
The association spells its name thus because the acronym Thaa means ‘give’ in Tamil.
“My dream is to have a nine-to-five job in any field, in any capacity,” she says.
What she also means is a job with dignity.
Two agencies, the Stenographers’ Guild and the government-run Women’s Development Corporation, have stepped in to offer free vocational courses in basic computing and hand embroidery for the transgender community—hoping to do just that.
Gomathi took up the course in basic computing, which includes training in spoken English and other interpersonal skills, with the aim to make it possible for transgenders to take up secretarial positions, says Stenographers’ Guild president S.V. Ramasamy.
Ramasamy himself is a product of the guild, after which he joined Indian Bank where he eventually became a senior manager. After retiring two years ago, he has devoted himself to the association that first gave him a leg-up.
The vocational course for transgenders is his brainchild, and the first batch of 10 students, including Gomathi, has just completed the course. The second batch is about to begin.
“The sad fact is, if you are a transgender, you can only do two things—(work in) commercial sex or beg in the bazaar clapping your hands,” says Asha Bharati, who heads Thaa.
Thaa, which is dependent on individual donations and some sporadic corporate funding, has not been able to raise the money to address the problem up to now, according to Bharati. So once the Stenographers’ Guild approached Bharati with this proposal, she was quick to take it up.
“Corporates, who pour money into other worthy causes such as NGOs helping the visually impaired, just don’t seem to be willing to donate to our cause,” says Bharati.
Referring to the embroidery course, Bharati says, “With several garment units in Chennai, there is a demand for hand embroidery, where an employee can work from home and earn about Rs300 a day.”
Asked if any companies have shown willingness to employ transgenders who have undergone the computing course, a reluctant ‘no’ is drawn out of Ramasamy. “These things take time. Our own faculty members at first refused to teach them because they were scared by their ‘manly’ appearance… At the end of the course, they hosted a get-together at one of the faculty members’ houses.”
Getting transgenders to take to the course is also proving a bigger challenge than expected. “The transgenders are asking, ‘If I take off three or four hours every day to do this course, how will I feed myself tomorrow?’ because they can get about Rs50 in that time begging on the streets,” says Bharati of Thaa.
But there are reasons for Bharati to remain upbeat. “An encouraging sign is the active role played by the Tamil Nadu government,” she says.
“In December last year, they passed an order saying that no educational institute or government organization can discriminate against someone on the basis of them being a transgender. This is the first time... that our rights have been protected by a state government.”
But even laws can only do so much. Two transgenders, who did not wish to be named, did take up work in a government office recently, but both quit within 10 days, one citing ‘poor salary’, and the other saying she could not take the attitude of fellow employees.
“Naturally, the world will see it as unusual... This will be a problem for 10-12 days,” Gomathi says. “But if you have the desire, it is possible. You have to believe there’s a future without begging, without (selling) sex.”