, hermaphrodites, MSM (men who have sex with men), along with the LGBT group (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) are all labeled as 'transgender'
by the generally confused public, especially in 'conservative' societies. Transgender have been a fabric of the society in all countries from time immemorial, however as a community, transgender people have always faced humiliation and are generally maligned because they are associated with begging, sex work and all kinds of mean activities. Very few among them are able to break the status quo by dint of sheer hard work and education and lend dignity to the transgender community
Tamil Nadu has been supportive of the transgender community. On 19th Dec 2009 it held the first ever 'Miss Transgender Pageant' in Chennai. The pageant saw 120 transgenders participating between the ages of 20 to 35 from states like Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Maharashtra.
Medindia interviewed Kalki Subramaniam, a transgender activist, celebrity and Founder/Director of Sahodari—an organization based in Tamil Nadu, South India, working for the economic and social empowerment of transgender population. A transsexual woman herself, Kalki holds Masters degrees in Journalism and Mass Communications and International Relations, is an independent media specialist featuring on TV shows, developing web based projects and scripting and directing documentary films.
Q. Thirunangai.net—a transgender matrimonial website you have started, has been hailed as the first ever in the world. How is the response for the matrimonial site?
A. Thirunangai.net, the matrimonial website for transsexual women evoked an overwhelming response with more than 700 emails coming from around the world from countries such as England, USA, France, Switzerland and Middle East countries, to name a few. Marriage proposals have come from businessmen, lawyers, doctors, journalists and one college professor.
Q. Tell us about your early years?
A. I was born as the only "son" (or so everyone believed) in a middle class family in Pollachi, a suburb in South India. I have an elder sister and a younger sister. My parents believed that education can lead to empowerment so they sent us to good schools and colleges. I began to sense a difference in me as I was growing, especially after I crossed my eighth birthday and I was initially very very confused. I looked like a boy but felt very much like a girl inside. My mannerisms were distinctly feminine and I felt I was more drawn towards "girly" interests and was uncomfortable with boys.
Ours is a very conservative society and my external appearance of a boy meant I had to be in the company of boys always in school and at play. I was torn between wanting to be a girl and having to pretend I was a boy. The fact that those around me in my school recognized this "other" personality in me was confusing them as well and some weren't kind after that. Finally, when I was about 15-years-old, I burst out to my parents that I couldn't help behaving like a girl. After the initial shock, my parents took me to a psychiatrist who confirmed my status as a transgender person.
Q. Was the transition from a male to female person smooth for you after seeing the psychiatrist?
A. No. Ten years ago there wasn't so much awareness in India about a transgender even among professionals. The psychiatrist who identified me couldn't guide me on the next step. I continued to suffer like a woman trapped in a male body. I browsed the Internet extensively and sought clarification till help came online from Thailand doctors. These doctors were very sympathetic towards my condition and prescribed medicines—mainly hormones, for smooth transition from the label "man" to "transgender." I physically felt the change, such as losing hair on my arms and legs etc. Later I approached a doctor in Chennai, South India, for a sex change operation and got it done successfully.
Q. Didn't you realize that taking hormones without being monitored, amounts to self medication and is very dangerous?
A. Yes. I was perfectly aware that self medication is extremely risky. In fact I had side effects such as gaining weight and becoming "extra sensitive" sexually. But I had no other go. All the doctors I approached in my hometown and in the nearest city refused treatment saying they did not know how to treat my condition. Even today many young people lack direction when they realize that they are not normally male or female and seek to change their gender. Due to lack of reliable information and guidance a lot of gullible youth are lured into clandestine and illegal sex change operations that sometimes prove to be fatal.
Q. In a society where the transgender community is misunderstood and much maligned, you are one of the very few successful ones. How did you manage this?
A. My parents encouraged me to study well and education has seen me through the ups and downs in life. I worked in IT companies and I gave up my well-paying full time IT job and began working to improve the cause of transgender community. Now I work as a freelance Media Specialist—I'm a web designer and documentary scriptwriter as well.
I had support from my parents and good friends all through my college days and from IT companies. One IT company sanctioned 45 days leave for me to undergo the sex change operation (SRS- Sex Reassignment Surgery) and even allowed me to use the ladies toilet after the operation. I was the Editor and Publisher of a magazine called Sahodari (meaning "sister" in Tamil) to create awareness among the public about Transgender status. We have now hosted a website, Sahodari to highlight our cause.
The government of Tamil Nadu is very supportive in our attempt to restore dignity to the transgender community. I agree, many from the transgender community are unable to make a decent living for themselves and some others are exploited in the sex trade.
Q. We are aware that not many jobs are on offer for members of the transgender community. But what sort of jobs is this community looking at?
A. If people stop laughing at us we can do pretty much everything the majority of the population is capable of doing. As far as I have observed, transgender persons excel in creativity and aesthetics—they are especially good at performing arts, designing, choreography and computer work.
At Sahodari, we have launched the 'Butterflies project' to enable transgender persons to gradually become economically independent and lead a dignified life. Shasun Jain College for Women provided the training for low priced fashion jewellery and an initial loan of Rs. 6000 to exhibit our products. We were encouraged by the first successful exhibition of our products at the Duchess Club show in Chennai and now we are training members of the community is other such skills and marketing their products.
Q. Can you mention a few steps taken by the Tamil Nadu government to facilitate living as a transgender?
A. Tamil Nadu government is a pioneer in taking practical steps to help sexual minorities join mainstream society and contribute to the nation's development. The Transgender Welfare Board established by the Tamil Nadu government in 2008 has issued food ration cards and distributed land and built houses for members of the community. The government has initiated issue of Identity cards for their use in documentation needed for availing bank loans, medical insurance etc. In an effort to improve their education, the government has provided scholarships for transgender students and has issued an order to create a third gender to facilitate their admission to Government colleges. There is a helpline for members of the community and several welfare schemes to include transgender persons in mainstream media and film industry.
Q. Is there anything you would like to tell the readers to make them realize the longings of the transgender community?
A. All we are asking is the right to a decent living without fear or favor. True, there are many in the transgender community who behave oddly, but people need to realize that transgender persons express negative behavior because on most occasions they are pushed to subhuman levels of poverty, indignity and rejection by even their closest family members.
We long for love and relationships like any other human being and want to be one with the rest of the society despite our sexual identity. If some among us seem unfriendly it maybe because we have been mercilessly bullied and exploited for no fault of ours. To a society that generally sets premium on outward appearance and money, we are asking to look at the beauty within us and help us become one among you. Please do not discriminate us as abnormal because of our 'different' sexuality. Given a chance we can contribute tremendously as good citizens in every sphere of life.
Most importantly, I would request parents to stand by their children when they suffer the gender identity crisis. Most children end up in streets because they are either driven out by their parents or choose to run away from an abusive, unsympathetic family that refuses to stand by a child in emotional distress.
Q. How can Medindia help in your quest to empower members of this minority transgender community and make available a decent and dignified life for them?
A. Medindia can sensitize the medical fraternity about problems faced by youth undergoing gender identity crisis and help them and their parents understand the transgender challenge. For that to happen, more medical professionals should come forward to study the transgender condition and help others understand better. Even today, most doctors prefer to steer clear of this sexual ambiguity and as a result there are very few people medically qualified to deal with the health problems peculiar to transgender persons.
Medindia can connect Support Groups in various parts of India and the world so people can network and learn more about conditions that will guide them and help improve their quality of life.
Medindia wishes Kalki Subramaniam all success in her brave struggle to establish a respectable life for sexual minorities. Her unrelenting efforts to create public awareness on the problems of transgender people and highlight the need to remove the social stigma attached to the community, will hopefully lead to more transgender persons making a positive contribution to the world while boldly stating, "We are here. We are queer."