‘More dignified’: Madras HC prefers community’s Tamil LGBTQIA+ glossary over TN govt’s

TNM spoke to some persons who were involved in putting together the glossary that the queer community submitted to the court.
Pride march
Pride march

In a historic moment for the LGBTQIA+ community, the Madras High Court on Monday, February 21, published in its order a Tamil glossary of LGBTQIA+ terms prepared by queer communities and individuals, and said the court preferred this list of terms to the one presented by the Tamil Nadu government. Justice N Anand Venkatesh has asked the Tamil Nadu government to consider the glossary presented by LGBTQIA+ community members, as it is more dignified and inclusive than the one presented by the government. The community’s glossary has been put together by Queer Chennai Chronicles (QCC), Orinam, The News Minute and other individual contributors.  

On Monday, February 21, 2022, Justice N Anand Venkatesh, while appreciating the efforts of the state government for bringing out such a glossary to ensure that the media, press, and society at large address LGBTQIA+ persons in a more dignified and respectable manner, added in his order that representatives of the community had taken exception to some of the terms in the government’s glossary that was submitted to the court last week. “The whole purpose of creating this glossary is to use the appropriate words, terms and expressions while addressing the persons belonging to the LGBTQ+ community and such usage should not continue to derogate them in any manner. Hence, I decided to give preference to the alternative glossary submitted to me by the members and stakeholders from the LGBTQ+ (sic) community,” the court order said. 

TNM spoke to many people involved in framing the alternative glossary on the need to involve the community, and why the language used and its connations are important. 

The community’s glossary has a list of 28 terms in English and Tamil, following the SOGIESC (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression, and Sex Characteristics) framework. The glossary offers Tamil terms that are dignified and used by the community — like thirunar (திருநர்) for transgender persons; paalpudhumaiyinar (பால்புதுமையினர்) for queer persons; adhikka palinam (ஆதிக்க பாலினம்) for cisgender; magizhvan (மகிழ்ென்) for a gay man; etc. The Tamil glossary includes terms for intersex, genderfluid, pansexual, as well as explanations and phrases for gender dysphoria, coming out, conversion therapy and romantic orientation, among others. 

The Madras High Court also directed all media to use words contained in the alternative glossary while referring to and addressing LGBTQIA+ persons. “The Department of Social Welfare and Women Empowerment is directed to publish a fresh glossary in line with the suggestions made by the members and stakeholders from the LGBTQ+ community,” Justice Anand Venkatesh said in the order. 

The issue of the glossary came up when Justice Venkatesh was hearing a petition of two women in a romantic relationship, who were seeking protection after facing opposition from their families. During the case, in a heartening move, Justice Anand Venkatesh said in open court that he needed to educate himself before he could give an order on the issue. Following this, the High Court Justice gave several directions to the government, police, and media for the dignity and protection of LGBTQIA+ persons. One of the directions was for the government to come up with a glossary of terms in Tamil for the media to use. The original petitioner’s counsel at this point had submitted an “illustrative but not exhaustive” list of words to address the queer community. The judge, while asking the Tamil Nadu government to come up with a glossary of phrases, had asked the media to follow the list of sensitive terms while writing about the queer individuals. 

However, many LGBTQIA+ persons had pointed out that such a list could result in exclusion by prescribing a “correct” way to be, or to express their gender or sexuality, if wider consultation with the queer communities was not done. Several LGBTQIA+ persons said that terminologies are dynamic, and change from time to time — for instance, “gender affirmation surgery” is now considered a more enabling and accepted term than “sex reassignment surgery.” The glossary submitted by the TN government last week, too, had several issues, LGBTQIA+ persons said, including the use of derogatory terms, and terms that no one in the community uses.

Why the community must be involved 

Queer rights activist and co-founder of QCC, Moulee, said that a glossary should reflect the queer communities’ movement in the last decade, especially of Tamil-speaking people. “The government's definitions were not reflective of the community,” he said. “Though they are brought in by academicians or experts during discussion, they cannot be in common usage.” 

“The glossary that we presented has words used by the community members for self-identification and advocacy,” Moulee said. 

Gireesh, writer and festival director of QCC, who was part of the glossary team, told TNM, “It makes me happy to see that Justice Anand Venatesh has noted that it was the glossary made by the queer community that was dignified and inclusive out of the two that were submitted. It’s possible to understand this judgment as implying that it’s only when queer people choose terms for themselves that it (the glossary) can be considered truly inclusive. We have to wait and see how this is going to be implemented in the future, if the Tamil media is going to start using these terms from now on and if the guidelines will all concerned parties.”

L Ramakrishnan from the NGO SAATHII, who also volunteers with the Orinam collective, and worked on the alternative glossary, said, “I want to reiterate what Justice Anand Venkatesh said in his recent interim order: if the main intent of the glossary was to present Tamil terms for the community that are non-derogatory, the best move is to have a glossary developed by community members.” 

Nadika, a writer who also contributed to the glossary said, “What is most heartening is that the High Court has been open to listening to us, to our concerns and responding to them, and has asked everybody to take note of the fact that the terms we’ve come up with are more inclusive, more dignified and provide personhood. This is what approaching an issue with a rights-based perspective accomplishes. This also sets a precedent for a way to start talking about the rights of all marginalised people — such as listening to disabled people or those coming from a marginalised caste location about how they want to be addressed.” 

Senthil, programme director at QCC, pointed out that the queer community is happy that preference was given to a glossary “made, edited and informed by queer individuals” and one without “a heterosexual gaze”. He added, “I see tweets from people that say, ‘this is the first time I’m seeing a Tamil term for gender-nonconforming’.” However, Senthil also pointed out that it is important to acknowledge that these terms could evolve. “We need to remember that the terms we use are not only inclusive and respectful at this point, they are also adaptable. They are not written in stone. They could change in the coming years. People, governments, and institutions have to be mindful of needing to adapt to those changes,” he said.

Why language and connotations matter 

Moulee recounted that it was when M Karunanidhi was the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, that the Tamil word 'thirunangai' (trans woman) was brought in and popularised by him. "However, even after the word became common and an accepted term by the community, in 2008 when the Transgender Welfare Board was set up, it was named 'Aravanikal Nala Variyam' in Tamil. In 2019, it was changed to 'Moondram Paalinam Nalavariyam' (Welfare board for the Third Gender). Even though the terminology keeps evolving, bureaucracies don’t reflect that because orders need to be passed for government departments to change the words they use.”

He added that while many words put forth by the Social Welfare Department in their glossary are true to language, the question is not what they literally mean, but also whether they have connotations that could be harmful to the queer community. “Are they used by the community to self-identify? What do they imply? And how were they used in literature?” Moulee said. 

"Many words have loaded meanings. For example, the Tamil term 'gourava kolai' (honour killings) was changed to 'aanava kolai' (caste bigotry killings or caste killings). In our glossary, we have tried to use terms that step away from any kind of supremacy or patriarchal mindset, and prioritise equality over accepted usage in language and literature," Moulee explained.  

Ramakrishnan added that what needs to happen now is for the government, media, and other stakeholders to start using the preferred glossary. “For example, if you look at the Tamil news coverage of the police rules amendment, “thirunangai” (trans woman) was widely used in place of LGBTQIA+. This needs to change. Even after Justice Venkatesh began issuing directives to the media last year, many have persisted in depicting certain communities, particularly trans men, dismissively as women who choose to ‘become men in order to be with a female partner,” he said.

Keeping the conversation going

Moulee said that one way the glossary can be kept updated is to have discussions with university linguistics departments, gender and sexuality departments, and experts from the community, who can together update the glossary at regular intervals.

Nadika said that this could also potentially form the basis for setting up a process for holding the media accountable for using derogatory and queerphobic terms. “Of course, in the event a particular newspaper uses a derogatory term instead, we cannot directly go to the courts. We will have to follow a process. We will have to understand the context in which the newspaper has used an unacceptable term — does it come from ignorance or does it come from hatred. In the case they are aware of the court order and are choosing wilfully to use derogatory terms, it is possible to go to court. It may be a complicated process, but there is hope from this order that there is a recourse to getting justice,” she said.

Queer Chennai Chronicles and The News Minute, along with individual contributors, are also working on a media reference guide for journalists and organisations reporting and writing about LGBTQIA+ issues. Sections of the glossary submitted to the court were adapted from the guide, which will be released soon. 

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