As individuals, we map our existence and the multiplicity of our identities within binaries – of the rational and irrational, of male and female, of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Uprooted from its personal origins, gender today, has been placed at the very centre of socio-political discourse. Gender identities are no longer an individual phenomenon, but a collective recognition based on social belief systems. These underlying beliefs attempt to neatly compartmentalise and fix people within categories, as per the rules of heteronormativity, assigning gender roles in the process. As such, many individuals who do not ascribe to the normalised ‘male’ or ‘female’ categories but find themselves to lie somewhere in between, are deemed to be transgressing against the immutable norms governing society. They, therefore, become an anomaly that lie outside the purview of acceptability, sentenced to a life of exclusion and extreme deprivation.
Within the contextual framework of a marginalised existence, A. Revathi, through her words and activism, attempts to answer the vital question – what does it mean to be a transgender in this day and age?
A Tamil writer, poet and activist, A. Revathi identifies as trans-feminine and is a leading voice for the rights of transgenders and other gender minorities. Her works, including A Life in Trans Activism and her autobiography titled The Truth About Me–A Hijra Life Story, draw from personal experiences to participate not only in the politics of gender, but also to highlight the social ramifications of being ‘different’.
Admittedly, the discourse around gender has expanded significantly, drawing a range of identities within its fold and increasing visibility of the LGBTQIA community. However, even in this age of growing awareness, mainstream society continues to harbour a myopic view of what gender and sexuality mean for an individual. It is this reduction of gender to binaries that results in exclusionary practices being the norm rather than the exception. How do we, as members of this society, begin to understand the discrimination and stigma non-binary identities grapple with on a daily basis?
This is where Revathi’s works are of immense importance as she brings forth a nuanced understanding of transgenderism, highlighting the everyday struggles faced by alternative identities against the larger framework of gendered structures of power.
Born as a male in Tamil Nadu, Revathi (previously Doraiswamy) developed an interest in poetry and theatre at a young age. However, it was only much later that she would come to pursue the arts, by penning her autobiography along with several poems, all rooted in the cause of gender rights. The raw magnetism of her works stems from the candid and unvarnished nature of her writing. “There is no better teacher than one’s lived experience,” Revathi writes in her second book A life in Trans Activism. Taking cue from this belief of hers, she lays bare her vulnerabilities for the public, documenting the unending suffering she experienced in her search for acceptance and solidarity. Her autobiography charts her life through its various turning points: the ostracism she experienced at the hands of her family and peers for her effeminate mannerisms, the moment she ran away to join the hijra community only to find herself engaging in sex work to make ends meet, the sexual harassment she suffered at the hands of all and sundry, the psychological, emotional, not to mention physical distress she experienced in a world where personal identities are clouded by social expectations.
Post years of attempting to forge an existence along the margins, Revathi decided to quit sex work and by an unexpected turn of fate, landed at the doorstep of Sangama, an NGO in Bengaluru that works in the realm of human rights for minorities in gender and sexuality. Here, she began her life as an activist at the grass roots, working tirelessly to rise from the post of Office Assistant to Director.
Her intimate prose mirror that of her inspiration, the Tamil Dalit writer Bama. Concise in its linearity, her works bear the mark of art that comes from a seat of pain and suffering… of personal anguish. It is the confusion of attempting to align body, heart and mind, initial resistance and final search for acceptance faced by individuals lying beyond binaries that Revathi channels, bringing transgender, intersex and queer persons into mainstream consciousness.
Her writings further her engagement with the politicisation of the gender discourse to locate it in the sphere of trans-activism at the grassroots. As Nandini Murali states in her introduction to A Life in Trans Activism, Revathi’s is a “rights-based approach.” Considering the pervasive nature of gender that finds expression in every moment of our lives, inextricably linked to social functions, Revathi, through her activism, attempts to create an atmosphere not of passive tolerance but active acceptance. What makes her activism unique is that she has been working toward bringing trans-men into the public sphere, such that their concerns are regarded at the same level as those of trans-women. Her activism is not limited to gender diverse persons but extends to include other marginalised communities such as Dalits and Adivasis as well.
Revathi thus, is attempting to create a space for transgenders and other gender diverse persons in society through the written and spoken word. In order to do this, Revathi takes recourse to history and mythology, highlighting the accepted existence of hijras in The Ramayana, Mahabharata and even as a religious deity, Ardhanareeshwara—a half-male, half-female avatar of Shiva. Thus, even her activism takes recourse to the belief systems that shape Indian society, whether religious or social, to reveal how inane the stigma and hatred towards transgenders truly is.
She advocates strongly against the binary definition of gender based on anatomical sex, and reveals the trials and tribulations of a population living at the edge, their visibility being the very vehicle that renders them invisible to the public eye. Her work, both as a writer and activist, hinges on a pluralistic reimagining of society, where gender or sexuality is no bar for obtaining and exercising one’s rights as a citizen, where diversity is celebrated and differences no longer divide.
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