“The world has many different species of birds, animals, etc. and when it comes to human beings, they say there are three. They say a trans person comes third after male and female. Even the Supreme Court calls us the third gender. Who gets to decide that a transgender person comes third? Does the man come first and the woman second? A man should be looked at as a man and a woman as a woman. I'm a mix of masculine and feminine. Shouldn’t I come first?” asked Kerala-based human rights activist and actor Sheethal Shyam while those in the audience agreed with loud cheering.
Sheethal’s question highlights a prevalent prejudice that society holds against trans persons - by calling them the "others". Who gets to decide a trans person is the third gender, indeed?
Sheethal was speaking at a panel discussion held at Raga Sudha Hall in Chennai’s Mylapore as part of the month-long Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha, the annual cultural festival that brings together all forms of art, out into the public spaces.
This panel discussion titled 'Reaching for the Stars' was the concluding event of the two-day Thirunar Vizha organised by Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha in partnership with Nirangal NGO and Kattiyakkari theatre group on January 18 and 19.
Sheethal went on to list the progressive policies for trans persons in Kerala, in healthcare, employment opportunities, and the likes, adding that people in Kerala, including students and ministers are coming forward to listen and help the trans community. She also pointed out that it was important to encourage trans persons to be involved in different fields, to claim their own space in art, writing, education and more.
The panel, in fact, began with Kamali, who's employed at Kolapasi restaurant in Chennai as its branch manager, sharing her experiences of finding employment in the city. “When I ride the train, I’ve had people come to me and offer money, thinking that I’m asking for it. When I wear my work tag, a few of them have apologised for their behaviour. But to be honest, every day is a challenge when you are a trans woman,” she said, adding, “Be it a thorn or stone on my path, I will overcome and keep walking.”
Elaborating on the challenges faced by trans persons, Chennai-based queer activist Sabitha shared her experiences from one of her crisis interventions. “Over the past four years, we’ve been regularly fighting for the rights of close to 40 trans women who are bullied to pay Rs 5,000 monthly to the local goons. These are trans women who beg for their living only because they could not find any other employment. Imagine, taking a cut from them. After almost four years, we were just able to get the necessary intervention from the police,” she said.
She also pointed out that the common misconception among people is that trans persons are all either sex workers or that they beg for a living. “This needs to change. We make sure that no one from our community indulges in any kind of law-breaking act. To ensure that, we are forming a strong network across the state with the elders in our community,” she explained.
Popular trans couple Surya and Ishaan from Kerala too were part of the panel and some of the sharp and witty lines that evening came from Surya. Surya, who spoke a mix of Malayalam and Tamil, called out transphobia and the offensive curiosity of many when it comes to a trans person’s sex life. “Someone once asked my mother-in-law how Ishaan and I were having intercourse. She gave it back to them saying, 'They do it just like how you do it,'” said Surya to loud cheering from the audience.
The panel discussion was preceded by a lively dance show put together by Surya, Sheethal, and Deepthi. Padma Shri and Kalaimamani awardee Narthaki Nataraj presented Ambai’s story from the Mahabaratha with an energising Bharatanatyam dance. “Although this is a mythological story, it is very close to my own struggles with love, my disappointments, loss, my unrequited yearnings and more, and so I have used Ambai’s story as a medium,” she said. She concluded her performance with a ‘thaalattu’ (lullaby) set to the words penned by Ravi on orinam.net, adding that this stage was the first to see this performance.
Kattiyakari’s play Manjal, a hard-hitting theatre drama on the lives of manual scavengers, directed by Sreejith, was among the moving performances that evening. Nirangal’s founder Sankari too was among the performers, making it her very first stage performance.
Filmmaker P Abhijith’s documentary Ennodoppam (By My Side) that chronicles the lives of Miya, a trans woman, and Ishan K. Shaan, a trans man, was screened. The hall also had an exhibit of Abhijith’s photography.