Tag Archives: #trans

Tirunangai Women ARE Women, J.K. Rowling

(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 KatjuLGBTQ 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. 

Transwomen at a fully paid tailoring class set up by Born 2 Win.

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.”

South Asian Queer Voices Fill The Void

“Not straight, not gay, not girl enough,

miles away from man. Just queer, man,

as in queer.

I dentif i

As queer.

I like the way it sounds like the start

Of ‘weird’. The way I don’t have a plan.

Queer.”

—From the poem ‘Queer As In’ by Delhi-based non-binary, femme disabled poet and journalist Riddhi Dastdar. 

The World That Belong To Us: An Anthology of Queer Poetry from South Asia is a first of its kind anthology that brings together the best of contemporary queer poetry from the subcontinent. The collection, which has been jointly edited by poet, writer and artist Aditi Angiras as well as poet, translator and teacher Akhil Katyal, took more than a year to put together. The themes in the poems range from desire and loneliness, sexual intimacy and struggles, caste and language, activism, the role of families, heartbreaks and heartjoins. 

In the book’s Preface, Angiras and Katyal write that the call for the anthology was widely circulated online, emailed to friends, copied on Facebook groups and WhatsApped to acquaintances. Over a period of time, the text of the call kept evolving from what it was to what readers wanted it to be. In order to increase its reach and spread, it was also translated into several South Asian languages. In no time, submissions began trickling in from cities across the globe—Bengaluru, Vadodara, Benaras, Boston, Chennai, Colombo, Delhi, Dhaka, Dublin, Kathmandu, Lahore, London, Karachi and New York City.

Aditi Angiras (left) and Akhil Katyal (right)

The more than hundred contributors, poets and translators in the book are all varied in terms of their language, region, caste, gender, sexuality, class and publication history. While many are established queer poets from South Asia, many are also first-time poets. Apart from English, the book features poetry translated from a number of languages, including Bengali, Hindi, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Nepali, Punjabi and Urdu.

In his poem ‘What is Queer?’, Chand, a queer, agender trans research scholar, sets about trying to explain to his mother what queer is: “Queer is being the lowest of the low/ The absolute scum of the sexual pyramid/ And somehow still taking pride in it.”

Nepal based Phurbu Tashi elaborates further on the plight of queer people like himself in his poem ‘This World Isn’t For You’: “This isn’t nature’s fault, these are your own desires/ Why would I embrace desires that make life harder for me”.

US based Sehrish Rashid, a bisexual woman from Pakistan, writes in her poem ‘Shame’: “What for you is a thing of shame, only spells my truth, my name.”

Gee Semmalar, a queer trans man from Kerala writes in his poem ‘Resistance Rap’: “New skin stubbornly/ Grows over old and new wounds/ Proud scars/ That tell stories of tender love.”

Coochbehar based Arina Alam, writes in her poem ‘I Know’: “When I revolt against this construction of gender, I will keep my head held high.” 

Lahore based Asad Alvi’s poem ‘La pulsion de mort’ talks among other things about the impossibility of queer love “for whom the only future carved out is death,” which he illustrates by citing examples of famous writers Tennessee Williams and Virginia Woolf, both of whom committed suicide. 

Abhyuday Gupta, who identifies as agender, non-binary, writes about the angst of growing up in his poem ‘Bildungsroman’—one that feels like “the ache of the attic floor which squeaks at the slightest touch and dissolves into a wallflower to apologize for its insolence.”

Shaan Mukherjee Ghosh, who identifies as non-binary and bisexual, writes in his poem ‘Pantomimesis’: “I can’t be gay or trans or depressed./I won’t hurt my body even when it hurts me. I will not abuse others as I have been abused. Everything I thought was wrong. I suppose. I was too young to know.”

Sahar Riaz, a psychiatrist from Pakistan living in Dublin, writes in his poem ‘Do you want to get to know me’: “All day I wait for the night to come/ So I can wipe off this mask, Reveal something real, If only to myself/ I know 3 a.m. like the back of my hand.” 

Though an anthology of separate poems, this unique collection advocates a singular voice—of diversity, compassion and justice for this historically marginalized community—one that thrives within the complex multiplicities of South Asia and its religions, sexuality, cultures, and languages.


Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world.