Monday, May 9, 2016

The Woman in Gender’s No Man’s Land - Part II

Published on May 9, 2016
Read Part 1 here

By Karthik Shankar

Makeshift families are vital for transgender people in a society that constantly belittles them.  Stereotypes are perpetuated from all corners, including the film industries. Transgender women are alternately portrayed usually as murderous deviants or buffoons. A 2015 Tamil movie ‘I’ caught flak with transgender groups for portraying a transgender woman as a villainous shrew who constantly violates the personal space of the hero. 

When I ask Kalki, what the biggest misconceptions about her community are, she wryly asks me to list some of them. I trip over my own words, hoping not to offend her. I tell her a lot of people fear the eunuchs who come begging. She listens to me patiently. She then asks me to define a eunuch. I then immediately reel out my definitions of a eunuch, transgender and transvestite. I begin to realise that I sound more and more ignorant.

She corrects me on my etymology. “Eunuch is a derogatory word for a transgender. Transgender is an umbrella term which encompasses transgenders, transsexuals and transvestites. Those people who are begging are also usually transgenders.”

 In our culture the image of most transgenders as eunuchs is constantly invoked. It both reinforces the idea that they are missing an appendage and that any of us could get forcefully converted. Moreover, few of us stop to think about the violence that is perpetuated towards transgenders through language. In southern India, transgenders are derogatorily referred to as ombothu (nine). While no one is sure about its origins, there are some indications that it is because the number’s symbol can be flipped either way; a cleverly cruel insult for people who switch their biological sex or gender.   
In the north, the term most commonly used for this community is hijra (eunuch). This has a basis in our cultural history. In ancient India, castrated men used to stand guard for women of royal households; ensuring they would not force themselves on the princesses.

Things are obviously different in 21st century India. However, most Indians still look at identifying with a third gender as a choice made under duress rather than something that emerges naturally. 
The transgender community is still the source of numerous boogeyman tales. Little children are fed with tales of transgenders stealing boys and castrating them for nefarious purposes.  Kalki says that in her entire activism career, she has come across only one boy who was castrated. Thejaswin prods her a little about the case. His short film script concerns a young boy who is castrated and then sold into prostitution.  He tells her that the film aims to be hopeful, focusing not on the ordeal the boy has been through but his resolute nature. Kalki scoffs at this idea. “I’m sorry but the transcommunity will not support such an idea. One of the things that we are trying to do as activists is convince people that we don’t kidnap children and castrate people for sex work.”

Still prostitution is rampant in the community since economic opportunities are limited. Yet, prominent transgender activist A. Revathi explains in her biography that sex work for transgender women like her was not merely about eking a living but also about fulfilling sexual desires. Kalki has many friends who dabbled in sex work to earn money for their sex reassignment surgery and then returned to more respectable professions.

Thejaswin tries to engage her with his script’s castrated protagonist. She listens patiently and explains that in a scenario, the boy would still be a male, even if his development faculties may differ. “It’s like losing a leg. It’s tragic but life still goes on. He might be able to impersonate the other gender for a while but it’s an act of survival. It isn’t his identity.”

While Kalki describes herself as soft spoken, she has little patience for those who discriminate against transgenders. She rails against those who sympathetically declare transgenders, nature’s mistake. “Being a transgender person is natural. Looking at it as nature’s mistake is a mistake.” She has a special vitriol for the melodramatic poems that are commonly published in Tamil magazines by cisgender authors. The poems pity transgenders for being born the way they are.  “We don’t need sympathy” she snaps.  “We are happy with who we are.”

She uses poetry as her mode of retaliation. An upcoming lyricist in the Tamil film industry who worked in a few prominent films had a crush on her. Unfortunately, he kept asking her extremely personal questions about her body. She fishes out a notebook from one of her rooms. The poem titled Mun Kurippu sees a man constantly posing questions to a transwoman. Are your breasts real? Are your genitals real? Are you really a woman? The woman keeps answering yes to each one of them. The poem ends with the transwoman posing a question to the man. Are you really a man?
The poem was posted on Kalki’s Facebook account and created a minor storm. Even a few transgenders questioned Kalki, asking her what was wrong if someone had questions. After all, she could have sensitised him. However Kalki retorted, “Would he have the guts to ask such a question to a biological woman?”

This dehumanisation is something Kalki and her friends have to put up with on a daily basis. Once, a group of them entered a photo studio and were met with snickers by one of the attendants. One of Kalki’s friends unleashed a tirade of profanities against the young woman in front of the entire staff and customers. The attendant didn’t utter another word. 

She still maintains though that Tamil Nadu is a more accepting place for transgenders especially compared to states like Kerala. Kalki who has been to the latter state several times describes it as utterly transphobic and homophobic. She remembers one instance just a day after she had given an interview with Malayalam Manorama, the state’s largest circulating daily. At a train station, on her way to Kumaragaon, Kalki and her friends found themselves being stared at by almost three hundred men. Many of them also passed crude comments in front of them in Malayalam.  “It’s so horrible the way men treat transgenders there. It’s completely vulgar and this is a state that claims to have 100% literacy. It makes you question what education is.” She laughs impishly and declares only half-jokingly “I think people there are sexually oppressed. I wouldn’t be surprised if masturbation was illegal there!”


Ironically, the same discrimination that alienates Kalki from mainstream society insulates her from societal norms. Kalki lives a free and independent life in Auroville. She is free to smoke, drink, date guys and dress as she pleases.

Kalki explains that transgenders enjoy greater independence compared to biological women because they navigate gender roles. “We are actually fighting to be put into a box, even at the cost of losing our individuality and freedom.” Some of these cultural expectations are placed on Kalki by her mother. “It is impossible for me. She expects me to act the same way like my sisters; do household work, wear traditional clothes and no makeup. She expects me to be a typical Tamil girl and I can’t do that.”

 “If I wanted to live, date or sleep around with a guy I can do it. I can also tell him to get lost. If a biological woman does that she is labelled a prostitute. A woman rarely sets foot into a Tasmac (one of the thousand government liquor stores across the state of Tamil Nadu) but transgender women drink and smoke. If we dress flamboyantly, we are just expressing ourselves. We are the only women in the country who enjoy our womanhood.”

What Kalki says might be a broad generalisation but there’s an inkling of truth to what she says. Most women in India are still constrained by ugly noose of patriarchy. Kalki minces no words. “Women in Indian society are still treated as subhuman. Women may be an accepted sex but they pay a price for it. When they are young, they listen to their father. Then they get married, they have to listen to their husband. She has to sacrifice her life for her babies and keep the honour of the family intact. She doesn’t have the freedom to be herself. She doesn’t have the freedom to say no to her husband, even if he wants sex.”

Kalki also has to deal with another unsavoury part of being a woman in India; being stalked by men. “It’s always married men who are frustrated with their sex lives. Sometimes I am followed for miles. I usually stop and ask them what they want. Sometimes they want to take a picture of me. Sometimes they want to ask me out.”

Kalki says the experience sometimes make her feel it was better off being a man. She is a fan of night bike rides but can’t usually join her male friends who fear for her safety. Kalki emphasises however that any moment of bemoaning has to do with her freedom. “Just because I change my gender, I become a victim of all these cultural norms. Even among the transgender community, there are certain stereotypes about knowing how to cook, draping a sari or indulging in vices. I know what I want and I know that I am a woman. Luckily I was not biologically born a woman, otherwise I would have been married off to a man and my life would revolve around staying at home cooking food and watching television.”

Kalki and her friends have on occasion tried to give women a taste of the kind of social life that is usually denied to them. In 2012, she and a couple of friends ushered in the new year at a beach house in Chennai which was attended by over forty women from a nearby fishing slum. Kalki, already good friends with most of the woman, was frequently invited for their family events and was glad to return the favour. The soirée had copious amounts of food, beer and cigarettes.  Kuthu songs (a popular folk music genre in the Tamil music industry) blared from the radio behind closed doors. All the women let their hair down; dancing for several hours. Some of them tasted beer for the first time. As Kalki describes it, “They were living life for the first time. Although, we made sure they didn’t drink too much. We didn’t want them to go home drunk!”

That festive experience was a game-changer for Kalki, who for long had placed psychological barriers between her and biological women.  “I realised women are not different from us. It’s just that we transwomen have the freedom. It was a wakeup call for most of us because we wanted to be like these women; get married, have a husband and kids; but  on the other side, they wanted to be like us. That day we realised we just have to be ourselves.”


Kalki has kept up her promise to her parents. Her heavy involvement with transgender rights has seen her become one of its most prominent spokesperson for the community in India. She is regularly invited for sensitisation programmes by schools, colleges and corporates. Schools are her favourite. School students stand around talking to her long after her seminar. They also treat her like a celebrity and she is inundated with autograph requests. Many of them add her on Facebook. “Children are amazing” she says with a glint in her eyes. “They are so open minded at that age and immediately accepting. They also come up with the most insightful questions. Positively influencing the mindset of a new generation is the noblest thing one can do.” Kalki is writing a guide book for teachers to support gender confused children. She also has plans of creating a comic book about the issue and distributing it among children.

Kalki has also presented the community’s problems to judicial academies, high courts, district courts, states legal rights authorities and even the Supreme Court. In 2010, she was an official guest of the United States government. Over three weeks, she visited federal offices in Washington DC, New York and Salt Lake City that were working on minority issues. She also visited Amnesty International, New York Commission for Human Rights and the United Nations. She says the level of commitment she saw towards gender rights inspired her to work even harder on her activism.
However, she is disillusioned by the fact that only NGOs involved in sexual health projects are able to raise funds in India. Legal rights and awareness are rarely seen as priorities by international donor agencies like USAID and World Bank. Kalki has strong words to say about this. “In one way all the money that comes in for these sexual health projects is just hedging prostitution. I’m not denigrating sex workers but they should give more funds towards creating awareness and viable economic opportunities. If we got any legal victories in India, it’s not because of the NGOs but because of the people on the street who raise their voices.”

Kalki played an instrumental role in the judicial process that led to the Supreme Court’s landmark 2014 judgement on transgenders, which legally declared them a third gender. This ruling may seem anathematic to transgenders in Western countries who fight to be included in a gender binary system but in India, transgenders have always considered themselves distinct.In ancient India they were referred to as Trithiya Prakirthi, which loosely translates to ‘third type’.

In 2010, the Tamil Nadu State Judicial Academy, the Social Reformatory along with the Madras High Court invited Kalki and her friend Priya Babu to give a seminar on transgender issues. Dignitaries like Altamas Kabir, the then Supreme court Chief Justice and other prominent justices like IK Iqbal and P. Sathasivam were in attendance. Kalki and Priya’s presentation was a wake-up call to the judges who for the first time were confronted with the problems of the community.

A year later in Delhi, they presented yet again at a national seminar by the National Legal Services Authority and United Nations Development Programme. The programme was well represented by the judiciary across India. In 2012, NALSA (National Legal Services Authority of India) filed a public interest litigation against transgender discrimination. After much deliberation, the judges agreed. On April 15, it was legally ruled that provisions should be made by all government and private bodies for a third gender.

Kalki has a more tempered take on the verdict. She rues that the verdict barely addresses transgender men. “Also, this legalisation has arrived after almost 150 years of British era laws. This is just a step towards acknowledging us as human beings. There is a long way to go with regards to social reforms. Transgenders need to be accepted into families first.”

There is a small lull in the conversation and Thejaswin uses the opportunity to steer the conversation back to his film script. He explains how the movie indicts the mainstream community rather the transgender community. He talks about a notorious doctor in Bombay who castrated several boys for a kidnapping ring. She nods silently while taking a drink of water. “There’s a strong film to be made but it really depends on the presentation. I’m fine as long as it doesn’t perpetuate the same old transcommunity stereotypes.”

“How about changing the story to a boy dealing with gender issues in a conservative household?” I say. My helpful suggestion is immediately shot down by both Thejaswin and Kalki, who say it’ll change the whole script. I shut up immediately.

Kalki declares that the best way to bring transgender issues into the mainstream is to make a positive transgender character an integral part of a commercial movie. “Most movies rely on men dressing up like women for comedy. It’s horrible.” I bring up Dallas Buyer’s Club which won Jared Leto an Oscar. She hasn’t heard about it but she is pleased to hear that he won an award for playing a transgender woman.

Kalki is no stranger to films. She played the lead role in Narthaki. The 2011 Tamil movie is a bildungsroman about a young transgender being kicked out of his home, turning to prostitution in Mumbai and finally becoming a Bharatnatyam dancer in Thanjavur.  While Kalki admits the movie is technically lacklustre, she stands by its content. “The screenplay is very strong. The music by G.V Prakash is also lovely.” The movie received several accolades, including ‘Best Social Message’ award at the Norway Film Festival. Kalki admits while she’s thrilled about the movie’s success, she’s a little tired about people assuming that the film is autobiographical. “Almost none of it is based on my life” she smiles.


We then move on to the topic of love. Kalki enunciates love in the flighty manner you would expect a Jane Austen heroine to. Kalki and Priya always spend several hours discussing the nature of love, which is complicated as it is even for cisgenders. “My first love was the most exciting thing in my life. When you have transitioned and someone is attracted to you, it’s an acknowledgement that you really are a woman. It’s so psychologically satisfying.”

However she believes many men break up with transgender women due to societal pressure, in the process giving up a relationship that makes them extremely fulfilled.  She bursts out an old Tamil saying that roughly translates to “A man may leave the woman, but he will never quit her.”
Kalki emphasises that a transwoman’s love for a man doesn’t come with tags. “A transgender relationship is very intense. The love is not about marriage or commitment. With a biological woman you marry her, you’re marrying the family. A transgender woman’s love is not shared with the family.”

Kalki has been luckier in her love life than many friends. One of her friends, a transman, fell in love with a girl. The pair wanted to run away together but his family forced him to marry a man. He was later raped and impregnated by his husband. With no choice he ran away to Bangalore and moved into prostitution to make ends meet. Kalki’s voice falls to a whisper when discussing him. “He contracted AIDS and died a few years later. It was horrible.”

All the transgender experiences of romances, heartbreak and unfulfilled desire inspired her to start an international project on the love stories of transgender women around the world. She’s also writing a film script for an action drama with romance that has a transgender lead. “All the things you read about transgenders in the media – books, films, it’s all the perspective of your world. It’s about what you think about us” she pointedly tells the two of us. “But what we think about and what we feel, that has not been documented much and that can be documented only by us.”

 She then tells us we’ll go for lunch. We’ve barely looked at the clock and it’s 3 p.m. already!


We change locations and go to Secret Garden, a restaurant run a close friend of Kalki’s. We order a few different items but Kalki recommends the chicken curry with rice. The conversation continues in full swing over savoury morsels of rice and gravy.

Today Kalki leads a fulfilled life. She is finally secure in her gender identity. “It’s not a choice. It’s me. I’ve never regretted my transition.” She has also finally found acceptance among her extended family.  “I’m the darling of the family. Today, I am living an independent life because my parents supported me with education. Unfortunately many transgenders do not have that support. They are chased out of their homes. They are very vulnerable. They get raped, get infected with HIV or even killed. We need to change that.”

She recounts the painful tale of a one of her closest friends Somya. The spirited woman was akin to a sister for Kalki. However, even as a proud transgender woman, her problems got the better of her. In December 2010, she hung herself. Kalki was devastated. As a tribute to her she made a ten minute film. The eponymous short was based on footage Kalki had shot of her friend with a handicam. She admits the sound quality wasn’t great but the movie won a lot of hearts. It was screened at the Bangalore Film Festival and was shared over six hundred times on Facebook. “There’s no acting in it. It’s just footage of someone who was truly alive” she says. 

After hours of deconstructing her life, Kalki finally asks us questions. Interview subjects are not always curious about their interviewers but Kalki displays an endearing interest in our lives. She teases out of us our likes and ambitions with a warm smile, never betraying whether she thinks of us as bland or impressive.

We say our goodbyes. It’s time for the long haul back. As Kalki gets on to her scooter and zooms off in the distance, it conjures up images from popular television advertisements in my head. Modern India’s Elysian ideals of a liberated woman.  Oh what a journey it took to get there.