The Tamil Nadu government has published a glossary of LGBTQIA+ terms in Tamil in the government gazette in a first-of-its-kind move in the country. The glossary has been adapted for the most part from the LGBTQIA+ glossary published by Queer Chennai Chronicles, The News Minute, Orinam, and several queer individuals, although the TN government's latest version has some changes. The move comes on the back of a series of judgments given by Madras High Court Justice Anand Venkatesh to improve the lives of LGBTQIA+ people in the state. The High Court had asked the government to come up with a list of terms in Tamil for the media to use, in order to stop derogatory references to LGBTQIA+ persons.
The glossary includes terms such as ‘Paal Puthumaiyar’ (queer), ‘Thirunangai’ (transgender woman), ‘Thirunambi’ (transgender man), ‘Oodupal’ (intersex), and several others. LGBTQIA+ communities in the state, and Tamil LGBTQIA+ persons and communities across the world, have welcomed the move by the Tamil Nadu government. “It is great to see that the Social Welfare department has largely adapted the glossary prepared by us,” says C Moulee, co-founder of Queer Chennai Chronicles (QCC), who has been working on Tamil LGBTQIA+ terms for several years now. “I hope the glossary will be updated frequently, as the language of LGBTQIA+ people is continuously evolving,” he says.
Member of Tamil Nadu State Planning Commission, and Bharatanatyam artiste Narthaki Nataraj, who was also part of the team that finalised the TN government’s glossary, says that the glossary has curated Tamil terms that are equivalent to English words for LGBTQIA+ persons. “As the word ‘Thirunangai’ was made respectable and popular, these words also should reach everyone, and the media plays an important role in it,” she says, adding that she hopes people would stop using derogatory terms for LGBTQIA+ persons.
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This is not the first version of an LGBTQIA+ glossary that the Tamil Nadu government has come out with. In February 2022, the state submitted a glossary of terms to the Madras High Court, which was considered highly problematic by several LGBTQIA+ persons and communities. “The first glossary prepared by the Social Welfare department with no community involvement was completely unacceptable,” Moulee says. Justice Anand Venkatesh however decided to publish the queer-led glossary made by QCC, TNM, Orinam and others in his order, and asked the government to use that as the base for their final list of terms. “Now, the government has adapted the glossary that was prepared by the community, and we appreciate this,” Moulee says.
Changes from glossary published by QCC, TNM, Orinam and queer individuals
While the glossary published by the government has accepted most of the terms published by QCC, TNM, Orinam and queer individuals, one of the major changes is for the Tamil term for transgender persons. While the original glossary contained the term ‘Thirunar’ for transgender persons, the TN government’s latest version has the terms ‘Maruviya Palinam’ and ‘Maariya Palinam’ instead. ‘Thirunar’ is an umbrella term for transgender persons that has been in common usage for several years.
When asked about the change, Narthaki Nataraj says she believes the term ‘Thirunar’ would mean ‘a group of men’, and is therefore unacceptable. “As a trans woman, why should I be taken back into an older umbrella term?” she asks. Echoing this, Kalaimamani Sudha, a transgender woman who was part of the team finalising the terms for the TN government glossary says, “Taking ‘Thiru’ from the Tamil words ‘Thirunangai’ and ‘Thirunambi’, the term ‘Thirunar’ was coined. While people understood the former words, they could not understand the latter. Words should be coined in a way people can understand. So when we say ‘maariya paalinam’ or ‘maatru paalinam’, people can understand easily.”
Moulee however points out that the ‘Thiru’ in ‘Thirunar’ is a term of respect according to several Tamil dictionaries, and the term ‘Thirunar’ has been included in the Crea Tharkala Tamizh Agaradhi, which was created in consultation with several trans persons. “‘Thirunar’ is a widely used term by the communities at the grass root level, and also by Tamil speaking queer persons outside India. I expressed this in the consultation meeting as well. Including the term ‘Thirunar’ in the glossary has to be taken into consideration by the department,” Moulee says.
Hari Rajaledchumy, a writer and curator of the Jaffna Queer Festival, says, “There are at least two organisations that I know functioning in Sri Lanka that has the term ‘Thirunar’ in their names - Jaffna Thirunar Valaiyamaippu (Jaffna Transgender Network) and Tamil Thirunar Peravai (Tamil Transgender Forum).”
Vandarkuzhali, who is a part of Kovai Vaanavil Koottam, says, the term ‘Maruviya Paalinam’ evokes borderline gender dysphoria, “as the notion is that a person becomes another person, it might be problematic for many people in the community. Also, ‘Thirunar’ is used in a widespread way and bringing that word back would be better,” they say.
Another term that has appeared in the TN government’s glossary that was not in the original list is ‘Nilaiyatra Palinam’ for gender fluidity. The original term given by community members was ‘Dhiravanilai Paalinam/Neernanilai palinam’. Hari says that the term ‘Nilaiyatra Palinam’ can have harmful implications if mainstreamed. “The word ‘nilaiyatra’ means something that doesn’t have a ground — it’s close to meaning ‘baseless’. It has harmful implications to the community. When it comes to the mainstream, it can be misused to say that a person is of ‘baseless gender’, which is very problematic,” she says. A gender fluid person is someone who identifies with multiple genders, however, the term ‘Nilaiyatra Palinam’ has connotations of ‘confusion’, which is problematic, several community members say.
On the same note, Vandarkuzhali says that the term ‘Nilaiyatra Paalinam’ brings out a tone of uncertainty. “It doesn’t feel right to say that we are uncertain about our gender. The alternatives ‘Thiravanilai/Neernilai Paalinam’ sound good,” they say.
Hari points out that while the glossary has been published by the Tamil Nadu government, its implications do not stop within Tamil Nadu — it goes to all parts of the world where Tamil is spoken. “Whatever happens in TN also impacts how we adopt the language in Sri Lanka or other places where Tamil is spoken. The terms ‘Thirunambi’, ‘Thirunangai’, ‘Thirunar’ have a long history of usage in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Europe, Canada and elsewhere. The glossary has been prepared without any international input. I am not saying that a person should be hired from elsewhere for this purpose, but at least some sort of attention towards the fact that Tamil is being used elsewhere also and that Tamil Nadu has some sort of influence over how the language is used elsewhere is not present,” she says.
“The glossary prepared by us reflects the diversity of the community, and the diversity is reduced in this glossary,” Moulee says. He adds that while the government introducing a glossary can help reduce the use of derogatory terms in the media, there are other long term measures that the government should consider — including bringing in anti-discrimination policies to protect LGBTQIA+ communities.
A note on the QCC-TNM media reference guide:
The News Minute and Queer Chennai Chronicles are working on an LGBTQIA+ media reference guide, and published Part 1 of the guide in June this year. Large parts of the original glossary submitted to the Madras High Court are from the glossary section of the reference guide. You can download Part 1 of the guide here.
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