On June 8, Akshay Dev, a transgender man from Tamil Nadu, decided to take his life following an argument with his wife in Puducherry. While the incident came as a huge shock for the trans community in the state, they hoped that media coverage of the death would help highlight mental health issues and problems facing the community.
However, adding insult to injury, media coverage of the incident in the state leaves a lot to be desired right from fact checking to sensitivity.
One Tamil television channel branded Akshay a cross dresser and warned of the ‘dangers’ of ‘unnatural love’. Instead of providing facts and views of members of the trans community, the channel resorted to transphobia and bigotry.
Speaking to TNM, Nayana, a transgender rights activist who has been closely involved with the case, says that reportage of the incident shows that the media simply did not do due diligence.
“When an incident happens, both sides need to be investigated. They didn't even mention that he was a trans man. They said he “acted” as a man. He has undergone gender affirmative surgery. He was not fooling anyone. How can you undergo surgery just like that?” Nayana asks.
“Without knowing any of this, they decided to use derogatory language. Media is there to highlight even issues ignored by the law. But when what the media is portraying is wrong in itself, it sets a dangerous precedent,” she says.
The coverage by some media houses was based on a complaint given by Akshay’s wife, Ilavarasi, to the police. In the complaint, Ilavarasi had claimed she was misled by Akshay about his identity. However, friends and community members who have known the couple say that this is not true.
Taking to Facebook, trans activist and artist Gee Sammalar wrote, “They have reported that he was a girl, cut his hair and cheated the girl he married by "acting like a man" and when girl found out the "truth" the marriage broke which resulted in him pouring petrol on himself to commit suicide. This must be countered in all ways possible.”
“It is common knowledge within the community that the girl was fully aware of his identity and supported him through his gender affirming surgeries,” he said.
“Ilavarasi had come as beautician for a trans community function and that’s when they met and fell in love,” says Nayana. “When they both met, he had not undergone surgery. When he underwent surgery, he had her support. She was by his side at the hospital. Even her family was okay with it. Their entire village knew about their marriage,” she says.
With unverified claims being passed off as fact, Nayana says it has hurt Akshay’s grieving family.
Yet another leading Tamil news channel, while identifying him by his chosen gender, implied that he had cheated on his wife.
Speaking to The News Minute, transgender activist Grace Banu says the bottomline is respecting a fellow human being.
“While in India, there is some awareness of trans men, there is very little visibility for them. We trans women have more visibility, and therefore we are in a position to inform people. But people don’t realise that transgender community includes trans men,” she says.
“They also have feelings, they are also humans. There needs to be acceptance of trans people as humans,” she adds.
Grace Banu believes that while media needs to be sensitised in covering issues related to the trans community, their reportage is a reflection of the society we live in.
“We should sensitise everyone – it needs to be there in school textbooks; we must have sex education in schools. We should teach everyone what words they can use to refer to members of the trans community,” she says.
Appealing to the media to learn more about the community, Grace says, “Media has not faced these issues before and media is a huge platform. This is a representation and reflection of the society we live in. They should read the Supreme Court judgement on our right to self-identification (2014 NALSA judgment).”
“They should not misgender us, and they should know what misgendering is. Local channels don’t have that understanding, because only dominant gender people work there, and they don’t know how to handle the trans community’s issues,” Grace says.
Providing some practical tips, Grace Banu says that reporters on the spot should first know the facts of the issue, ask how persons would like to be identified and be wary of the descriptive words they use.
“Already, so many people are committing suicide because they can’t live as they are. This kind of reporting sets a precedent for society. It comes back to hurt the community,” cautions Nayana.
If you are aware of anyone facing mental health issues or feeling suicidal, please provide help. Tamil Nadu: State health department suicide helpline number - 104. Sneha Suicide Prevention Centre - 044-24640050