Gender, Sexuality and Media
Kalki was speaking on media inclusion and representation of gender and sexuality at a state-level conference on Gender, Sexuality and Indian Media.

The topic of media inclusion and representation of minorities in India is a much-debated subject. While the narratives have been focussing on major identities, minorities – be it based on religion or on gender – were either left out, misrepresented or received mere tokenism.

A state-level conference on Gender, Sexuality and Indian Media was held on September 5 and 6 at The American College, Madurai, organised jointly by the college’s Social Work Department and the Transgender Resource Centre, Madurai to highlight the issues plaguing this topic. The two-day event saw participation from many students, academicians and journalists. 

“First of all, the very thought that those belonging to the LGBTQI+ community have greater sexual feelings is a stereotype. They don’t fall in love with anyone and everyone they meet,” began assistant professor Mahalakshmi Raghavan, sounding incredulous.

A faculty at GTN Arts College, Dindigul, Mahalakshmi spoke about some of the stereotypes foisted upon the community at a panel discussion titled “Stereotypes on LGBTQI community in Indian Media,” moderated by Professor J Bala Subramaniyan at the conference.

Other panellists in the session included Kalki Subramaniam, founder of the Coimbatore-based Sahodari Foundation, and Sreejith Sundaram, founder of the Kattiyakari theatre group.

In news and media

While representation in cinema was to be discussed in detail during the session, Mahalakshmi drew attention to the kind of reporting that was being done by news agencies on the trans community. Explaining that the phrases and words used in news reports mattered a lot to those from the community, Mahalakshmi said, “While reporting suicides, my request to all journalists is to write, “parents refused to understand” instead of “parents refused to accept”. Trans people do not need anyone’s acceptance. It is the failure on the part of the parents not to have understood their children,” she said, referring to the Tamil print media.

Kalki, while answering questions later, also listed some of the alternate words the press can use. “The word ‘Tirunangai’ came into use only recently, earlier people used a slur. So mistakes can always be rectified. Reporters can use ‘Orupaal eerpu kondavargal’ instead of ‘orina chiyarkayalargal’, and also use ‘magizhvan’ and ‘magizhvi’ for gay and lesbians and ‘idailingainar’ for intersex people,” she said.

‘Directors owe us an apology’

Mahalakshmi also drew attention to the kind of dialogues and scenes shown in movies that are disrespectful to the community. “Take for instance Vadivelu’s ‘Avana nee’ line. What does it mean? How is it funny?” she asked adding, “What is shown on screen is far from reality. The jokes in Nayanthara-Sivakarthikeyan’s Mr Local with a trans man too were in bad taste.”

While speaking on the topic, Kalki listed some of the most regressive depictions of trans people in cinema. “For long in cinema, portrayal of trans people has always been for the sake of comedy. All the directors owe us an apology but we never get it,” she said, listing films like Palabishegam, Paruthiveeran, Ninaithale Inikkum (2009), Sillunu Oru Kaadhal, Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu, Super Deluxe and Iru Mugan.

“Directors like Shankar, Ameer, Gautham Menon, Thiyagarajan Kumararaja, Anand Shankar owe us an apology,” she said. “When I sit to watch a film together with my family, imagine how they’d feel when someone from the trans community is shown in such an insensitive manner?” she asked.

Sreejith pointed out that when the trans community speaks up and protests against a particular portrayal, the film industry remains mute. “We did so even after Super Deluxe came out. Although I loved Ramya Krishnan’s role in the film, I was appalled by the way they portrayed Shilpa’s character. No trans person ever makes an entry into their house the way Vijay Sethupathi does. When we told him how wrong it was, as someone who had been very supportive of the community, he remained silent. That was disappointing,” he said.

Pointing out that very few from the film industry have listened to the community, Sreejith said it was important to make those changes for future viewing. “When one Rajinikanth fan felt bad for an innocent joke in Comali, the director, producer put out a video apology. That scene was immediately modified. But in spite of the number of protests we’ve done, especially for Shankar’s I and Thiyagarajan’s Super Deluxe, no one even acknowledged our voices,” he said, the anger in his voice evident.

Sreejith further shared an experience where the community expressed disappointment over a slur used in Mari Selvaraj’s acclaimed Pariyerum Perumal, and the team spent a lot of time and money to beep out those words. “Small changes like these matter the most to us,” he said.

The past and the future

Mahalakshmi drew the participants’ attention to the presence of trans women in Tamil history. “There are literary proofs to indicate that trans women were not just present in the harem but they were brigadiers, spies of spies and commander-in-chief during the Chola dynasty. It would make sense for researchers to explore more on this topic rather than just showing them as people with greater sexual feelings,” she explained. Mahalakshmi also added that activist Priya Babu, Founder of Transgender Resource Centre and organiser of this event, has been doing a long-term research on the topic and would know more on the topic.

Mahalakshmi further pointed out that the media always tended to equate the Koovagam festival to fashion shows whereas there is a deeper, historical meaning to the festival. “It is culturally rich. The press should stop asking them irrelevant questions like ‘how are you feeling?’ at the Koovagam festival and instead try and show a little about the culture and history of the festival,” she said.

Kalki asserted that only when trans people are given a chance to be a part of cinema, news rooms and publishing houses, can there be real justice in representation. “Right now, we are mostly the audience. Only when we become creators will things change,” she stressed.

She also added that narratives should venture beyond just the trans community and explore other gender identities in the spectrum.

When the session was opened up to the audience, some suggested how more artistic works written and made by trans people, from books to cinema, will make a huge difference in changing people’s perspectives.