(Featured Image: Swetha, a transwoman and Founder of the nonprofit Born 2 Win, with actor Kamal Haasan, a supporter)
Sarah McBride, Democratic candidate from Delaware, will become the first transgender state senator in the U.S. All over the world, including in India, transmen and transwomen are claiming their rightful place in civil society.
So then it becomes hard to imagine that one of the world’s most influential people, who created Hermione and Luna, two female characters fighting oppression, is opposed to trans rights.
J.K. Rowling’s latest book Troubled Blood, released September, is a tale of caution: A man in a woman’s clothes mustn’t be trusted. The adult thriller comes on the heels of the author’s long-held opinion that biology alone determines sex. Perhaps Rowling means it when she expressed concern for the struggles of transwomen. Clearly, though, she is unable to accept them as they are. Transgender people have been all but screaming from the rooftops: Transwomen are women. Transmen are men. With or without gender change surgery.
Rowling raises concerns about safe spaces for ciswomen. A man pretending to be a woman, she worries like many ciswomen understandably do, could put women and girls at risk in public bathrooms. But there’s little proof of this. According to Lambada Legal, one of many organizations advocating transwomen’s rights, a recent survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force of 6,450 transgender people in the US, found that less than 25% of transwomen and fewer than 5% of transmen underwent genital surgery. Even so, Lambada concludes: “There is no evidence that gender-segregated restrooms are “safer” for cisgender women than unisex restrooms.”
Gender fluidity might be a familiar concept to the Indian mind through centuries of exposure to temple art and Hindu mythology. The Ardhanarishwar, for instance, blends the male and female as Shiva and Parvati in one body. Mohini – an enchanting feminine form of the Hindu male god Vishnu, tricks a silly but dangerous demon. Shikandini, king Drupada’s daughter in the Mahabharata, transforms into the male warrior Shikandin after penances.
Is there one among us who has taken public transport in India without encountering hijras wearing the brightest of salwars or saris, and the reddest of lipsticks?
The fact is, transwomen are at a high risk of abuse. When in her twenties, Shambavi, a transwoman sex worker, was approached by a policeman at a busy Chennai suburb one night. “He asked me to follow him down an alley and perform sexual acts, which I did because I needed him to protect me from (male) rowdies,” Shambavi told me. “Afterwards, he demanded money and I gave him 300 rupees, which was all I had. That was the endpoint. I decided that I wanted a better life.”
Laxmi Narayan Tripathi – Indian transgender rights activist, Meneka Guruswamy and Arundhati Katju – LGBTQ rights lawyers, alongside lesser-known transgender activists like Swetha, Founder of Born 2 Win Social Welfare Trust, are continuing to empower Trans people in their communities in India through adopted kinships, education, advocacy, and jobs.
Shambavi, now 30, had fled her tiny hometown of Theni in South India after completing grade ten, unable to bear the harassment from boys in her class. In Chennai, she met Swetha, an older transwoman who ‘adopted’ her per the custom of family kinships among the tirunangai (transgender in Tamil) community, shepherding Shambavi through a sex change surgery. Swetha then invested her own savings to set up a Desktop Publishing business for Shambavi, while raising more funds from her friends to help the venture get off the ground.
Swetha is godmother to countless transwomen and transmen who throng to Chennai from small towns to find a sense of belonging and to earn a living.
India, for the first time in its 2011 census, included transgender people in its count – 487,803 individuals identified themselves as transgender, with a literacy rate of just 56 percent.
Swetha herself would have remained on the wrong side of the statistical divide if not for a serendipitous turn. Born Sudhakar, a cisman, she survived years of abuse at school. “The boys who liked me harassed me teasingly; those who did not were aggressive physically,” she says.
Determined to escape a life of bullying and poverty, she earned a bachelor’s degree in public administration and a master’s in sociology from Madras University with the help of her mother, who worked as a house cleaner and a tailor. Then, Swetha was fired from her job due to what she says was discrimination.
“I thought this was how my life was going to be,” she recalls. “I would always be marginalized, always be ridiculed because of who I am.” An “inner fire” prompted her, she says, to launch the nonprofit Born 2 Win Social Welfare Trust.
The organization is supported by private donors and puts transgender students through college; secures them jobs; provides drivers’ training to transmen; and vocational training to transwomen in beauty, fashion, and tailoring.
Andriyasaen, 27, winner of the Miss Tamil Nadu Trans Queen title, earned her diploma in fashion design through Born 2 Win and makes lehengas, pavadai davani, and Western-style clothes inspired by the Hollywood movies she watches. “My community women like dresses with low necks and low backs that are figure-hugging, shiny and colorful,” Andriyasaen explains.
Before a tirunangai was condemned for her sexuality, Hindu mythology celebrated her. It was not until the British colonized India that homosexuality became a criminal offense in 1864 under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which was eventually quashed in 2018. Now, the 2019 Transgender Rights Law is under criticism for its mandate for proof of sex-change surgery to be evaluated by a government official.
Meanwhile, many Indians think of transwomen beggars as holy women. “My driver, when I was visiting India, gave 10 rupees to a hijra who was begging at a traffic light, and I asked him why he gave it to her. He said, ‘Oh, so that way her blessings will keep me safe,’” Annapurna Devi Pandey, an anthropologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told me.
Pandey said the new legal rights for the community, despite their need for further reform, have enabled transgender people to carve out roles as community organizers. “But what’s really needed is the recognition of an economic space for them,” she says.
And that’s exactly what activists like Swetha have set out to do.
“I want to transform every trans person who comes to me into an entrepreneur,” she declares.
Sujata Srinivasan is a business and healthcare journalist in Connecticut. Find her on Twitter @SujataSrini.
*Tirunangai typically stop using their birth names and last names after “coming out.”