Madurai (Tamil Nadu): Several men are training on the grounds of the homoeopathy college in Madurai, 450km from Chennai. They want to join the home guards, a voluntary paramilitary force that assists the police. All are dressed alike, in white vests and white shorts.
There’s nothing to distinguish the six this reporter is watching, except that one seems a little uncomfortable in shorts, tugging it down to cover more of his legs frequently, and another had unusually well-shaped eyebrows.
Their drill is no different from the others. At the end of the training, they salute the inspector training them smartly, and, in the first sign that they are not like the others, head for a separate changing room, away from the communal one used by the others.
Once there, the stern exterior the six have maintained during the training dissolves into giggles. A. Shanmuganathan turns back into Trisha.
His companions also resume their aliases; they have chosen the names of film actresses such as Amala Paul, Priyanka Chopra and Sharmiela Mandre.
The six are transgenders training to be home guards in a first-of-its-kind initiative taken by any police force across India.
They are part of an initiative that predates the 15 April order by the Supreme Court that recognized transgenders as the third gender in a landmark ruling that promised rights such as the right to vote, own property, marry and to “claim a formal identity” to the community. All identity documents, including birth certificates, passports and driving licences would recognize the third gender, along with male and female.
Though the term “transgender” was not introduced until the 1970s, the experiences of people from the community have been recorded through history, across cultures and continents. Still, this is a community that has faced ostracization from all quarters—from families, schools, employers and the society at large—due to its apparent deviation from the two widely accepted sex categories of male and female.
Transgenders such as Shanmuganathan, physically born as men, associate themselves more with the feminine gender—they feel like women on the inside and are attracted to men. Some may undergo a sexual reassignment surgery, but many do not, fearing excommunication. Many consequently live and dress as men among families, and yet they feel to be in their true skins when wearing saris or churidars in the presence of other transgenders. They are known as the Aravanis in Tamil and their wish is to live out a gender expression contrary to the sex of their birth.
Subject to constant harassment and ridicule, the Aravanis have confined themselves to mainly two professions: prostitution and extortion. It is only through schemes like this one by the Madurai police to induct transgenders into the home guards that the community has had a hope of reintegrating into society in a dignified and independent manner.
A way of life
Though this vivacious community has been poorly understood by the rest of the population, it has built a support network for itself through the guru-chela tradition wherein a transgender who guides another through the initial years becomes the mother or “guru”, while the pupil becomes the chela, or daughter.
“I feel more close to my guru rather than my own biological mother,” said Trisha, slim and of medium height, with flawless dark skin that highlights her sharp features. Her companions say she was a beauty much in demand during her sex worker days.
Trisha speaks with a drawl in her voice and walks with a gentle sway; she is resolved to let go of her past as a sex worker, which is why she wants to make a new beginning as a home guard.
“I always felt like a girl when I was growing up. I used to dress in my elder sister’s churidar, wear my shirt backwards and button it from behind and wear the towel as a bun,” she said. As a teenager, her Class X maths teacher was the first among the many who would sexually exploit her. She left the school.
Sexual abuse is a common reason for transgenders to give up on their education, fearing the ridicule and exploitation. Even though Trisha found herself a job as a courier boy, her mismatched identity brought her trouble and she was asked to leave.
Eventually, without a job and with five people in her family to support, Trisha turned to commercial sex work in a brothel in Bangalore, where, as a 25-year-old, she earned Rs.50,000 a month, which helped her two sisters get married, and her brother with his education. “I could not even attend any of their weddings,” she said. “I didn’t want them to get into trouble with their in-laws.”
The money was good, but the risk of contracting HIV loomed and Trisha was worried. “All kinds of men used to visit, from beggars to VIPs. Sometimes, when they didn’t have money, they would even give their mobile phones as payment,” she said.
Even education does not make a difference to the lives of many transgenders. Sharmiela, 26, has a Master of Computer Applications degree but was denied the chance of a dignified life when she was thrown out of a job in the IT department of a bookstore-chain, for being a transgender, and resorted to extortion from shops and commercial sex.
Besides using sex as a means of earning, transgenders can be unabashedly promiscuous and this stems from their longing for affection, according to Sharmiela. “Sex for money, I know is demeaning. But we long for the love of a man. If he just asks me if I have eaten, my heart melts for him, because no one really cares about us,” she said.
“Men come to have sex with transgenders for a different kind of sexual experience, and also transgenders are much more giving, sexually,” said LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights activist Lakshmi Narayan Tripathy, an activist of the Naz Foundation, a non-governmental organization. “The intrigue, easy access and an inability to protect themselves from abuse makes them a favourite target,” she said.
Most transgenders, though not legally married, have pictures of themselves with their “life partners” that they proudly show off. “I don’t live with my partner as he is married and has children. But I meet him every day,” says A. Nirosha, who also has a tattoo of a handsome man on her back, and wears a mangalsutra around her neck.
However, Trisha and her friends say they also know these men aren’t loyal to them, which forces them to have multiple partners. “After all, I am no Sita to wait for Ram,” said Sharmiela.
Window of opportunity
V. Balakrishnan, the superintendent of police of Madurai district, said he came up with the idea to induct transgenders into the district’s home guard force after a visit from Bharathi Kannamma, a transgender activist, who came to him to ask about employment opportunities for the transgender community.
The home guards perform non-core police activities like driving, crowd control, traffic control, issuing summons and assisting the police. And the only criterion to be a home guard is to have written Class X exam. Home guards’ services are used only when the need arises and it is not a regular form of employment. The transgenders will earn Rs.150 for a day of duty and the police are considering increasing duty days for transgenders to 25 days per month from the 16 days assigned for men and women, to help them earn more. However, for Balakrishnan, it was more about making an attempt to empower transgenders socially and presenting a different image of transgenders to a society that is accustomed to being harassed by transgenders for money. “We had vacancies for men and women home guards, but we left it to them to join the category they are comfortable in, as the awareness about their gender is still poor among us,” says Balakrishnan.
At news of this opportunity, Trisha and her five other friends were among the first to enrol for training. They wanted a chance to lead a dignified life. “We picked to be men because it is easier to blend in,” said Trisha. “We are eager to assume duty. We will be good at it as we have the strength of men, and people in general fear us,” said Sharmiela, with a smile. “We want to be disciplined, that is why we have even reduced our sexual activity.”
The police force is, meanwhile, being educated on transgenders and sensitized about the need for them to be a part of more mainstream activities. While Balakrishnan was transferred in early February to Chennai as deputy commissioner of police, he is confident the scheme will proceed smoothly in his absence, he said.
This is not the first pro-transgender initiative to come out of Tamil Nadu, which is emerging as something of a trailblazer in this area. The state increased its budgetary allocation for welfare of transgenders to Rs.2.28 crore for fiscal 2014, from the Rs.1 crore earlier. It was also the first state to constitute a Transgender Welfare Board in 2008, which implements transgender-specific schemes like grants for self-employment of up to Rs.20,000, and also facilitates access to both social protection schemes of the state (registering at the state’s employment exchange, free sex-reassignment surgery) and the central government (ration card and free housing under Indira Awaas Yojana).
In Tamil Nadu, transgenders are issued a legally valid identity proof by the welfare board, which can be used to obtain ration cards, passports, and open bank accounts. One transgender aspirant to the civil service, S. Swapna, was finally allowed to write the Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission exam last year under the women’s category after a long battle.
“Transgenders from neighbouring states like Andhra Pradesh migrate to Tamil Nadu, because of the huge support offered by the state,” says Sindhuja Parthasarathy, a documentary film-maker, who is making a movie on the lives of transgenders in different parts of the country.
States such as Maharashtra and Karnataka, too, are in the process of setting up similar welfare boards. In Karnataka, the state backward classes commission recommended that the state government include lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders in the backward classes category in 2010; it is yet to be implemented.
“While the benefits given to us are a significant step, they are still our fundamental rights. What we need, and what will make a difference is social acceptance,” says Tripathy.