Madras HC asks TN govt for glossary of terms, queer community asks for wider consultation

Queer activists in Tamil Nadu say that the state government must consult the community while preparing such a reference guide for wider inclusion and sensitivity.

The Madras High Court, on December 23, 2021, suggested that the Tamil Nadu government come up with a prospective glossary containing Tamil and English words and expressions to address the LGBTQIA+ community. The court's recommendation came during a hearing on the welfare of the community, with the original petition being by two women same-sex partners seeking protection from their families who opposed their relationship. The counsel for the petitioner has submitted ‘illustrative but not exhaustive’ relevant words and expressions to address the LGBTQIA + community, the court said. “However, at some stage, there must be a beginning where persons belonging to this community are addressed in a more dignified manner,” it added.

"The learned Additional Advocate General shall take note of the words and expressions that have been suggested supra and it can be forwarded to the government of Tamil Nadu, facilitating it to come up with a standardized guide/prospective glossary containing the words and expressions to address persons belonging to the LGBTQIA+ community. Once the government publishes the same, it will have more force and will be easier to implement. This court expects that such a prospective glossary will be placed before this court before the next date of hearing" on February 18, Justice Anand N Venkatesh noted. He also directed the media to follow this glossary to refer to queer persons in their work for dignified identification.

While many from the Tamil-speaking queer community have welcomed the spirit of the court’s direction, they have also called for a more consultative process. They have pointed out that several terms used by the state government presently are outdated or exclusive, and therefore, those making an effort to making Tamil terms for queer identification more sensitive, inclusive, and diverse, should also be involved in the governmental process.

Queer terminology is ever-evolving

Some activists in Chennai have pointed out that terminology referring to the queer community is ever-evolving, and therefore the government recommending a list of terms to address them instead of the community itself, may not be ideal. 

“A common example of an outdated usage is Nambi and Nangai – used for gay men and lesbian women. This is never used by the community because it simply doesn’t make sense. It just means woman and man in old Tamil,” says Moulee, an LGBTQIA+ activist and co-founder of Queer Chennai Chronicles. 

The list of 24 terms given by the counsel of the petitioners in the court case has been compiled from several sources, including the media reference guide published by Orinam Collective.  L Ramakrishnan from the NGO SAATHII who also volunteers as a peer counselor with Orinam, also insists that certain words in the reference list and the court order need updating.

“A decade ago, using phrases such as ‘sex reassignment surgery’ was accepted. But now it is wrong and outdated and we use ‘gender affirmation surgery’. But the list in the court order – although clearly states it is illustrative – uses the Tamil translation for sex reassignment surgery. This needs to be looked into and updated,” said Ramakrishnan. 

He adds that such terminology referring to the queer community is evolving in English too. “In 2014, the NALSA judgement by the Supreme Court used the term “eunuch” to refer to the trans community. Today it is considered offensive. Similarly, expressions such as “same-sex attraction” have been replaced by “same-gender attraction”. 

Moulee points out that incorrect translations can be problematic too. “For instance, “polysexual” has been used for “pansexual” in the Tamil translations of the illustrative list. These are errors that can really misinform the public,” he explains. 

Lists can lead to exclusion 

Another problem that could arise with a set list or glossary, points out writer and activist Gireesh, is that it could become exclusionary if it is not kept dynamic. “In this case, it can never be exhaustive due to the many layers of the queer identity,” he says. For example, none of the 24 illustrative terms used in the Madras High Court order addresses intersex persons.  Intersex is an umbrella term used to describe people whose bodies do not fit into the male-female binary. This can include chromosome patterns or external reproductive parts. “Similarly, terms for gender fluidity have not been covered,” Gireesh adds. 

“The fact is that there are several layers to queer identity and several sections within the community with varying opinions. It is difficult to encompass them in one list. And when the government prepares the list and leaves out terms or groups, then the exclusion can be detrimental when it uses this reference list for policies and welfare schemes,” explains Moulee. 

Activists are also questioning why the government should be making a list of LGBTQIA+ terms when it may not have the expertise. “Currently, official government terminology does not even differentiate between trans man and trans woman. They are both referred to as Thirunangai (trans woman) which is wrong and only represents half the community,” explains Gireesh. Further, standardizing nouns, terminologies and ways of expression could lead to limiting the queer community to “acceptable” or “correct” ways of being queer – which goes against the spirit of self-identification, activists say.

“Queer identity is a whole spectrum. There are many layers that have to be learned and deciphered. Although this could be a step in the positive direction, these efforts have to be boosted by making sure that media coverage and government language are not queerphobic. The state has money for research funds and scholarships so that students and independent researchers from the queer community to delve deeper into the subject of queer identity and understand its nuances, to enable better discussions in society,” Moulee says. 

Wider consultation, adopting good approaches 

A good categorization technique is the SOGIESC framework, used by UNHCR and multiple global organisations. SOGIESC refers to Sexual Orientation, Gender Identities, Gender Expressions, and Sex Characteristics. This approach lists out various descriptions such as ‘Persons who are attracted to the same sex’ and ‘Persons who do not identify with gender binary’ and descriptions of sex characteristics, instead of labels. “For instance, some persons who use clothing to express themselves are simply reduced to the label of ‘cross-dressers,’” Moulee explains. 

Ramakrishnan adds that a wider consultation process with the community is a must before the government prepares the glossary. “With evolving terminology, it is important to understand which words have been adopted or accepted by the community and which words are not in use. Constant review and updating are required in order to make sure that the terms are relevant,” he says. 

Activists also suggest that the government could support ongoing efforts by the queer community to come up with sensitive terminologies on gender and sexuality, including media style guides such as the media reference guide being worked on by Queer Chennai Chronicles, TNM, and other journalists.

With inputs from PTI

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