Babilona sits cross-legged on the floor of her small hut, her Videocon TV playing on mute in the background, as four friends gather their saree pallus and seat themselves around her. Babilona, the eldest at 39, plays the matriarch to this chosen family of nine trans women living in a small cluster of houses in Puthur village on the outskirts of Anaicut, Vellore.
"For the past ten years, we've lived here together," says Babilona. She was born and raised in the village but the others trickled in slowly over the decade, escaping families that did not accept their identities as trans women.
But even as they battle for acceptance in the outside world, these women found support and a livelihood in this small group – thanks to the Self Help Group (SHG) they started with the help of K Ramya, a local activist who works for the Tamil Nadu State Rural Livelihood Mission.
The women earn around Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,500 a day through begging: At places where they previously worked, the women were subject to nasty glares and taunts. "Some men would even ask us to lift our skirts to ‘prove’ that we are trans women," says Monika. This sort of daily discrimination pushed them to earn through begging.
And every month, they contribute Rs 300 each towards the SHG fund. This fund is used to lend money to the members.
For instance, when Babilona met with a bike accident, she needed to get surgery to fix a rod in her leg and the costs came up to Rs 1.5 lakh. The SHG fund came in handy at that point, as most of the women haven’t had access to banks or other formal money lending avenues.
“We started the SHG in February 2017 with Ramya Ma’am’s help. Each one of us had some problem or the other and coming together as a group changed that,” said Babilona.
Today, the group is a solace for these women who have been left in the lurch by the society and the state.
Sumitra and Monika at Babilona's house.
The women in Puthur – like trans women across the country – struggle to find housing and employment. Access to healthcare, including Gender Affirmation Surgery, is limited. All of these issues were addressed in the NALSA judgement that was passed on April 15, 2014 – however, four years on, not much has changed on the ground.
The National Legal Services Authority vs. the Union of India was a landmark decision that aimed to serve the pressing needs of the transgender community in India. Not only did the judgement recognise that fundamental rights in our Constitution are applicable to transgender persons, but also gave them the right of self-identification of gender as either male, female or ‘third gender’.
However, the bill that has been drafted by the central government following the Supreme Court judgment, and is currently in Lok Sabha, dilutes the very essence of the NALSA judgement. The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill 2016 also takes away the teeth of DMK MP Tiruchi Siva’s Private Member Bill on the subject, which made history when it got passed by the Rajya Sabha in 2014, and is currently languishing in the Lok Sabha.
Among many other problems, the central government’s new bill removes provisions for reservation, and shows a clear lack of understanding of transgender identity and the status they are relegated to in society through systemic discrimination.
TN Transgender Welfare Board defunct
With a toothless bill showing the Centre’s disinterest in their welfare, and with the Tamil Nadu government showing little interest in reviving a now-defunct Transgender Welfare Board in the state, Babilona and her friends, and Tamil Nadu’s trans community find themselves out in the cold, four years after the historic NALSA judgement.
Housing support not provided
Given the difficulty and discrimination that transgender persons face while looking for housing, the Transgender Welfare Board of Tamil Nadu had included free housing and house pattas in their assistance schemes. However, according to an RTI filed by The Hindu, only 29 such houses have been handed over in the past nine years – all of them in Coimbatore district.
"We went to the government and pleaded with them to build homes for us, but they said that there wasn't sufficient land," says Babilona. The houses they currently occupy are semi-pakka brick houses with thatched roofs, through the sides of which rain water seeps in during the monsoon.
Free gender affirmation surgery promise forgotten
Trans individuals were also promised free gender affirmation surgeries under the DMK government in 2009, but like the rest of the schemes, this too has petered out. The women claim that perhaps the free scheme was shut down after one trans woman died during surgery in Vellore.
This surgery is viewed as an assertion of the human rights of trans persons. While not all trans persons opt for surgery, these women consider it a ritual which is part of their transition to a new life.
According to Babilona, the surgery now costs upwards of Rs 50,000, not including expensive post-surgery painkiller tablets and after care that costs upto Rs 10,000. A trans person who is HIV positive would have to pay even more. Getting silicone implants for breasts is very expensive and none of them opted for it, quoting health risks as a reason.
Even getting identity documents is a struggle
As Babilona asks 26-year-old Monika to fetch a folder which contains their Aadhaar cards, she mentions that identity has become a problem, quite literally, in accessing basic needs. She lays out the Aadhar cards in front of us – all of them display pictures of the trans women before their transition.
Last year, the women had dressed in their finest sarees and gone to get their Aadhaar cards updated with their chosen names and current appearance. Their new photos were taken at the center. When they received their cards later, they realised that the names were updated but the old photos remained; they were told by the staff at the center that they would have to wait for the next elections, which are more than a year away, to get those changed.
When Babilona and the others display their Aadhaar cards now, officials ask them why they have “photos of men with female names.”
“At least Aadhaar has a ‘transgender’ option,” says Monika. “PAN cards still don’t and without them, we cannot apply for loans.” (The interview was done before the recent announcement regarding a ‘transgender’ option in PAN card applications.) Despite an RBI directive, KYC forms at banks, too, don’t have an option other than ‘male’ and ‘female’.
"The government hasn't given us ration cards either, despite our many letters of grievance," says 19-year-old Shanthi. In the absence of the same, they have to borrow bags of rice from shopkeepers and pay the debt off through the month.
Babilona (in red sari) and her friends.
‘Respectable’ employment opportunities, not practical
Some of the women vaguely allude to doing sex work earlier, a choice that most trans women are forced to make given lack of employment opportunities. In December 2017, the Tamil Nadu State Rural Livelihood Mission had made news for proposing that a Power Laundry Unit be set up in Anaicut to exclusively employ the women from this SHG.
While the proposal asked for Rs 30 lakh, the collector, SA Raman, has till date only handed over Rs 15,000 as seed money.
"They need to find a place to rent, build a workplace with machines and employ people. They have promised to pay us Rs 5000-6000 per month for the laundry job," says Babilona. This amount is about a fifth of what the women are currently earning through begging.
Babilona and her friends also face prejudice at home from families that refuse to accept their identities, but now rely on them to send money back home. "Nobody from home helps us. We help them. They take money from us, whatever we get from our work, but even if we fall sick we don't get any support from our family," says Babilona.
But today, in Puthur, these women are each other’s chosen family, drawn together by empathy, acceptance and shared circumstance