LILA: How different do you think LGBT or Queer or Intersex are from one another and why do we need to classify them?
Revathi: In India, the activism around gay and lesbian rights is often imported from western models especially the English speaking urban activism. In Tamil, we call it as “Oorinachcherkkai” (homosexuality). I see that many of the gay and lesbian activists in our country are good with communicating in English and are quite well educated. Of course, they face different issues too. I am thinking of LGBTIQA+ people who are illiterate and are facing daily difficulties. This section of the community needs more attention and facilitation.
Transgender is not just one gender. It has 3 divisions: transwomen, transmen and gender non-binary. The common public perceives all three as one. The majority of them could be transwomen, but we can’t generalise it. Even in our Hijra community, some don’t accept transmen even as we are fighting for the rights of sexual minorities. I happen to get questions from University students asking why are transmen less in number compared to transwomen. Let us think rationally. If one is biologically born as female, there starts the discrimination. Imagine them telling their parents in their teens that they feel like a man, what would happen to them? Immediately the parents would get them married to someone thinking all the problems are solved by that. So it is too difficult for transmen to assert their identity in our society.
There are ways of survival for transwomen, like they have the Jamat system, Badai system and so on. They can clap and go out and get money from the public. They can do sex work etc. This community lives as a family. Culturally, India has some sympathy for transwomen as people here know Shiva’s ‘Arthanaareeswarar’, Vishnu’s ‘Mohini Avathaar’ and the Mahabharatha character, ‘Shikhandi’. So when transwomen come out of their houses, our community absorbs them. They get a mother, sister, daughter within the Hijra community. There is no such network available for transmen. Even if the community accepts them as they are, they can’t do what we do today. They can’t go to the shops and clap and ask for money. They can’t get involved in sex work. So what do they do for their survival?
The Government of India started a programme called HIV Target Intervention over 20 years ago. They provide funds to MSM [Men who have sex with men] and transwomen involved in sex work et al, to gain awareness and for other programmes on HIV and AIDS. The network is so strong here to get the fund and other help through the district Collector, M.L.A. , M.P. etc., but the transmen have no such facility.
In general, females in India are suffocated with stigma and discrimination, and when they become transmen, they get more troubles in their lives. Though they wear pants and shirts, have a haircut as male, it is easy to identify them as transmen. It is dangerous because they could get raped. They may not get a job or proper education. I have also written about them in my book, ‘A Life in Trans Activism’ in 2016, which was published by Zuban. I suggest, you read that.
Nowadays, they undergo surgeries and hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to completely transition into men and work as men. Some may work as taxi drivers and some work with different NGOs.
I mainly worked with Sangama, Bangalore. We mainly focused on the LGBT group that lacks knowledge of English as they belong to the labour community. We provided temporary shelter to them, helped them settle down, made a case study on them. Some had married cisgendered men and we worked for effecting their divorce, worked for their income, etc. Since they got the awareness from our support base, quite a lot of them came out of their family structure by declaring who they actually were and joined us.
I could see they were adjusting and getting on with their lives by marrying cisgendered men for the sake of security and society’s recognition. Some of them committed suicide as it helped them cross all boundaries. Our society is quite complicated with rigid structures, and it imagines that love should happen only between cisgendered men and women, that too within the caste and sub caste. So naturally these people feel insecure within the society.
Dalit girls get raped even today and the attention and importance Nirbhaya case received is not given for other Dalit girls. Even today a Dalit girl can’t marry an upper caste man.
Even in our own Hijra community, we have a hierarchy; those who look fair and beautiful are treated specially. Those who are dark complexioned are surely not treated equally.
We never had a caste bifurcation or discrimination during our young age, but now I get to know that even our community suffers from such issues. Though there is no explicit confirmation on this yet, I believe it has already started, and that worries me.
On the whole, when it comes to divisions among transgenders, till recently even I was not that knowledgeable as I am now. Especially, when it comes to Intersex people – this is the second time in my life that I’m going to listen to an Intersex person talk about being Intersex.
Though there are government programmes for us, and NGOs working for the cause, and there is the NALSA order which protects the rights of transgender persons, I still feel our Government lacks a correct understanding about us. In general, they call all categories of transgender persons using the blanket term ‘transgenders’. People have been working for 15-20 years in this field towards bringing awareness to the government as well as the commoners on this aspect, and still we know that most people treat all the above as one category, and that is ‘transgender’.
The differentiation between the different parts of the LGBTIQA+ spectrum is important to understand and address their issues. Apart from the associated stigma and discrimination, individuals in the LGBTIQA+ spectrum face issues specific to their group, which need to be correctly addressed by the government. Census 2011 included transgender persons but the count was incorrect. I strongly believe, it is the duty of the Government to have a correct census on transgender persons, then announce welfare schemes accordingly. Govt should bring awareness to the public.
LILA: You mentioned about a conference on intersex. How was it? Can you share your views on this?
Revathi:Yes, I attended a conference on intersex recently. I would like to discuss the issues concerning intersex itself, rather than talk about the conference content.
As you know, there are people who are lesbians, gays, transwomen and transmen among us. Likewise, transwomen, i.e. the Hijra community, came to be well known in our society as they have also been fighting for their rights.
NALSA (National Legal Service Authority V. Union of India) judgement of Supreme Court in 2014, was a major step towards gender equality in India. Only in the recent years, QI has been added to LGBT spectrum, wherein Q is Queer (an umbrella term for sexual and gender minorities who are not heterosexual or cisgender) and I, is Intersex.
Our Hijra community used to get Intersex babies as they were left unattended by parents. They do not fit the typical definitions of male or female bodies. Such variations may involve genital ambiguity, and combinations of chromosomal genotype and sexual phenotype other than XY-male and XX-female.
In some cases, parents opt for mercy killing, and in other cases they get an operation done to those who have vaginal development to project as female and penis development to project as male. But we need to understand that they will not have normal growth as the male or female organ. Since such operations are done at a tender age, they remove the other organ. It develops as the child grows and sometimes causes certain diseases too.
As far as I have seen, often surgeries are performed on many of the Intersex babies to be raised as girls. They try their best to lead their life as female. In their early twenties, they start questioning their gender. By then they would have completed their education, and the society would have recognised them as a woman. But then, somewhere inside they would feel like a man, and that is when they reject all the above and start living as man. But this is not the case with all. Many identify with the assigned gender at birth.
Santhi Soundarrajan, famous athlete, got around 40 + medals, and then she was told by the medical board that she had male hormones. The government took all the awards back and she is fighting to prove herself to be female, because basically she feels like a female within herself. Pinky, a sports person, faces the same problem. If this is the case of celebrities, you can imagine normal people and their struggles.
My request to the doctors is that they should not confirm the gender of an intersex child as soon as they are born. They need to be given the space and time to come to terms with their own feelings and say who they are, as they grow. Please don’t go for any operation to project them as female or male before they can decide their gender. But that is what happens in general, and it has a great psychological impact.
LILA: If India happens to witness an effective Queer movement in the near future, what would be their demands, according to you?
Revathi: There will be the basic demand for rights. Like, to get rights equal to that of the cisgendered heterosexual men and women in the society. One has to think responsibly about reservations, employability, marriage laws and adoption rights.
Some may argue, NALSA judgement has given provisions for all these and some state governments are facilitating too. But we need to understand that NALSA judgement did not specifically speak about gay or lesbian rights. It only spoke about transwomen, transmen and Intersex people.
Further, the LGB community has a deprived group of people – illiterates and labourers. There is no special mention of them in the NALSA judgement. I say this in response to the Queer movement, for better public understanding of the complexity of the issue.
If there is a Queer movement, these nuances have to be addressed by that. The queer community must demand that the law must recognise particular gender identities and sexual orientations of the members of the community.
LILA: Please clarify this, why do gays and lesbians need reservation, since a male is living a male life and so goes with a female, and they can live their normal social and professional lives in the society?
Ans: Yes, true. You are right. They don’t need special reservation for jobs and education as the transgender or Intersex people do. But they would need marriage rights. Now, I am not saying making a law is the only important thing. For instance, inter-caste marriage is allowed by law, but even today there are honour killings in the name of caste. So, making law is crucial, but the society following the law is equally important.
There should be a change in law which addresses the concerns of all the categories, as well as a change in the society which accepts all of us as we are.
LILA: I can see that all your efforts are getting results, if not 100%, at least to some extent. Can you imagine a transgender person writing an autobiography 50 years ago? You created a new possibility.
Revathi: Yes. Certainly there is a change, though I wish it could be more. I wrote my life down as a book for this purpose. Monetarily, this book didn’t benefit, but yes, University students are reading it and moving ahead with better understanding. I gift my book to district administrators et al, when I happen to meet them. I buy copies and gift them. It is making me happy that students are reading it.
Around 30 students completed their M.Phil on my book, around 30 to 40 people have done their Doctoral research on my book. My question is, how much effect has all this made on the society?
Am I treated as a project or as a human being today? I need to see the change in the society to believe that my story has actually communicated.
Donation to LILA is eligible for tax exemption u/s 80 G (5) (VI) of the Income Tax Act 1961 vide order no. NQ CIT (E) 6139 DEL-LE25902-16032015 dated 16/03/2015