The Lede
The Fragility Of Gender
Tamil Nadu

The Fragility Of Gender

Raveena Joseph

Raveena Joseph

Editor’s note: In this 4-part series, The Lede delves into an aspect of transgender lives that is largely ignored – mental health. Studies point to the fact that a frightening majority of transgenders attempt suicide before of the age of 18-20. In this series, The Lede attempts to get to the root of the cause for such mental distress, the lack of access to counseling and therapy and the need for awareness during teenage years to shield our youngsters from suicide risk.

Part 02: Against All Odds: The Tales Of Two Transwomen

The stories of Anjali and Deepshika, who aspire to make their mark in mainstream society, on the strokes they’ve taken against the tide of social and family exclusion

Anjali Varathan left home when she was 16 years old and walked 10 kilometres to get to the house of Ramya, a transwoman she had met at a temple, because she could not afford bus fare. “There were a lot of problems at home because of my behaviour and my parents stopped talking to me, and didn’t even give me food. So I got there, famished – Ramya took me in and fed me,” Anjali, now 33, told The Lede. She was born with the anatomy of a man but has always felt like a woman.

Gender dysphoria, the conflict that arises when a person’s physical or assigned gender is mismatched with the gender they identify with, produces pronounced distress in the lives of people like Anjali. “When I was 10 years old, I realised that my body was different from my mind, and I felt averse towards my own body. I didn’t know who I was and couldn’t analyse why I felt that way. I felt attracted to boys, but I wanted to be in the company of girls, and behave and dress like them,” explained Anjali.

“When I look at the way society treats us, I feel really bad,” said 24-year-old Deepshika. A sex worker, Deepshika dabbles in modelling and hopes to become an entrepreneur some day, to earn respect from a society that currently shuns and sidelines them. “Even if we are just walking on the road, there is so much stigma – sometimes people throw stones at us! This is who we are, just as God made us. Would people behave like this with someone who is handicapped?”

In India, transgenders are revered religiously, but chastised socially. Transwomen (men who have transitioned to women) have pronounced physical features, which make their exclusion instant and inevitable. They are sidelined in society, but ‘allowed’ to make their living by engaging in begging and prostitution, which further marginalises them. For young transwomen who yearn for social and family inclusion, it is a stressful swim against the tide. Anjali and Deepshika, who are a decade apart, have both been feeling this stress for a big part of their lives.

Both transwomen discontinued their schooling early on – Anjali, after class five, because she could not handle the bullying at school, and Deepshika, after class seven, because of the financial situation in her family. Their gender identity and lack of education might seem like road blocks to their ambition, but the conviction to prove themselves keeps them going. “If people see transgenders snatch money on the beach, they would think the same thing about me. But what if they see me first?” asked Anjali with optimism.

The Fragility Of Gender

Anjali’s Story: Beer, Begging and Bharatanatyam

The transwomen who took in Anjali in 2001 made their living through begging, and soon, so did she. “If the people we turn to for support do something for a living, we will also end up learning the same trade,” said Anjali. Everyone was nice to her since she was so young, but still, she yearned to go back home, and hoped to save enough money to buy back the affection of her parents. But this plan never materialized; older transwomen would take her money to fund and fuel their alcoholism, and eventually, she started drinking to cope with severe mental stress. “At 16, I lived, bathed and ate by the roadside in a slum. I couldn’t believe how my life had changed and I felt I would become a drunkard if I stayed there,” said Anjali.

In an attempt to escape her reality, she made her way to Mumbai and from there to Kadapa, Andhra Pradesh in 2005 to get an illegal transition surgery at an abortion clinic for Rs 7000 in the hands of a paramedic. “For them it is like stitching a sack, but it brings us so much happiness because we grow up, aspiring to transition.”

In Mumbai, she lived near a temple, with others who shared her gender identity. “We lived and ate together – it used to feel like a wedding feast and celebration every evening,” recounted a nostalgic Anjali. For those who have been turned away by their family and society, communal living is a great source of comfort and support. But when she returned to Mumbai post-surgery, Anjali was pushed to beg everyday and bring home money, even though the physical stress of the operation made it very difficult for her to do so. Forced to run away again, she returned to Chennai in 2005.

Finding a place to live was again a challenge. She found a house, paid the advance, and stood on the road with all her belongings when her would-be landlords decided they did not want her in their house. “I just stood on the road, crying. I was so ashamed. I wondered what sort of person I was to be treated so badly by other people,” said Anjali.

When she did find kind house owners who were willing to give her a chance, their neighbours weren’t as nice. “We could always hear the harsh things they’d whisper,” recounted Anjali.

It was around this time that she heard about an initiative by NGO Arogya Agam, in Madurai, to train transgenders in classical dance. That’s when she met and befriended Ponni, now 39, a transwoman with an MA in Bharatanatyam. “When you live in a community, you have others around you, who share your reality. But there is no chance of development – you are just one more pea in the pod. But to get to the next level in life, you need the support of people around you. I live away from the community only because I found a friend in Ponni.”

The two transwomen moved in together and started staging dance dramas – on subjects like dowry, unemployment, empowerment and the transgender identity – across Tamil Nadu from 2006 to 2008. “We were doing this for free, but we wanted to make money through our art because we still had to beg even to eat,” said Anjali, who strived to push past the few economic opportunities available to transgenders.

In 2011 their work inspired the confidence of The Tamil Nadu Industrial Investment Corporation, from where they received Rs 80,000 to start their own dance school in Vysarpadi, called Abhinaya Nruthyalaya. “Since Bharatanatyam is usually for the upper class, we wanted to teach it to children from the slums. We also want to teach transgenders, but only four are enrolled with us currently,” said Anjali. She triumphantly added that all the neighbours who had a problem with their presence in the locality now send their children to her dance academy.

Today, Anjali teaches Bharatanatyam to children from difference socio-economic backgrounds in three schools in Chennai, and one in Erode. She dabbles in craftwork and tailoring when she is not teaching, and recently won recognition across the state for her striking role in the critically acclaimed 2017 Tamil film Aruvi.

The Fragility Of Gender

Deepshika’s Story: From Former Cook to Aspiring Hotelier

When she was 10, Deepshika worked in a Brahmin household to supplement her impoverished family’s income. She enjoyed cooking and doing household chores, and aspired to dress like the dolls she stitched clothes for. “I left home when I was 15, and my transgender friends taught me how to clap to get money. It used to be so scary and humiliating. Sometimes share autos would not stop for us, and we would have to walk everywhere to beg in the scorching sun. I wondered what would happen if people saw me and told my mother, and worried about how bad she would feel. I would cry every night. So much of my life has gone in just crying,” recounted Deepshika.

In 2012, she could afford her sex change operation in a private hospital for Rs 15,000 with the money she made through begging. Right after the surgery, she went back to the Brahmin household, hoping to find work as a cook. “The watchman tried to turn me away and the boss’s personal assistant kept winking at me – no one recognised me. I left feeling really bad.”

Unable to find employment, she took to sex work in 2013. “We weren’t born to do sex work and begging. But in this society, who will give me work? While walking the streets, we constantly have to worry about abusive customers, policemen who chase us and rowdies who try to take our money. If we don’t talk to school or college kids, they throw stale food at us while driving past. Some men push us out of moving vehicles to avoid paying us. Whatever money we make, we have to split with a crowd. Because if we stand alone, we have to face these challenges by ourselves.

With the money she makes, she pays for her sick mother’s medication, her nephew’s education and cosmetic expenses which feed her fashion pursuits. In 2012, Deepshika finished Top 10 in Miss Koovagam, an annual fashion show held in Villupuram, and has since then participated in Miss Sahodaran, Miss Transgender Chennai and Miss Born2win.

In 2017, she took part in Miss TransQueen India and took the title of ‘Miss Vivacious’. This has won her a lot of mainstream attention. “Sometimes, at press conferences, people say they’ll help my endeavours, and ask me to call them about it. But when I do, they don’t help. They behave differently in public and in private.”

In 2013, a year after her sex reassignment surgery, she met a man, won his love and the approval of his parents. “But I could not bring myself to tell him I did sex work and would cry often. He always asked why I cried for no reason. Then, one day, he saw me with a client and understood how I made a living; it caused a lot of friction between us. I thought when a guy loves me truly, why should I ruin his life? I broke up with him last year.”

Many men still approach Deepshika. “They are willing to comment on my Facebook and flirt with me, but no one is willing to support me in my endeavours. I get very annoyed,” she said. She has decided she does not have time for men. “There is so much I want to do before I settle down with someone,” she said.

Deepshika stitches, does flower design, dress design and hairstyles, and also teaches others from her community. She started work at Thara Fashion Academy in 2017, founded by her friends in the memory of Thara, a transwoman who self-immolated in front of the Pondy Bazaar police station in November 2016 after alleged harassment by policemen. “We train transgenders to take part in fashion shows. We want people to know about our community, our talents and our abilities instead of simply sidelining us.”

Transgenders, from the time they are children trying to discern their own mental make-up to the time they are adults attempting to find relevance and acceptance, have very little social or familial support. Lakshmi Vijaykumar, mental health expert, explains the stress created by such exclusion: “As children, they feel they are not normal and that nobody is accepting of them. In mainstream society, they face pressure from everywhere – family, friends, peers – those an individual usually derives support from. It reduces their self-esteem as they grow older and kicks off the triad of loneliness, shame and guilt.”

This mental health strain becomes a constant part of their life and manifests as anger, alcoholism, boorishness, depression, dejection, etc. Many in the community attempt suicide. Some, despite all odds, still strive to swim against the tide.