For the last month, 30-year-old Ria has barely had time to reflect on her journey as she campaigned vigorously for the hotly contested local body polls in Tamil Nadu. This transgender candidate, representing DMK, was contesting to become a Union councillor in Namakkal district. And on Thursday, she emerged victorious, battling past political opponents to defeat social constructs.
By noon, it became clear that Ria had won the seat by a difference of 954 votes, a massive margin in the context of local body polls. "I can barely express my joy to you," she says, as she speaks to TNM after the counting concluded. Ria is already back in her ward after the results to greet residents, and in crisp sentences, she explains what has become a significant campaign in the state's history.
"I was confident I will win and work for the welfare of people," she says, "It has always been a childhood dream to serve people and to give back to society and I believe this is my first step towards making it come true," she adds.
But the society that Ria is keen to serve was not always kind to her. At the age of 15, when Ria began transitioning, her family with whom she lived at Karuvathampetti village in Tiruchengode taluk, did not accept her. "For two years, I struggled to get them to understand how I feel and what I need. But they couldn't accept that their child could have feminine characteristics," she explains. "It was an uphill task to convince them, but I stood my ground. Today, they are supportive of all my efforts and quests to achieve more," she says.
Three years ago, Ria joined Sahodharan, a Chennai based LGBTQI+ rights group in a managerial position. In 2019, she decided to spread her wings wider. "After the elections were announced, I went and met Thalapathy (DMK chief MK Stalin)," she explains, "He gave me his wishes and was happy to make me the candidate. For me, the DMK holds a special place because it was Kalaignar Karunanidhi who first restored some dignity to transgender persons, when society treated us badly.”
In 2008, it was during Karunanidhi’s rule in Tamil Nadu that the state established the country’s first-ever Transgender Persons Welfare Board. The board gave recognition and ID cards to trans people in the state, using which they could apply for ration cards, voter IDs, and other documents.
"But the most memorable thing he did was give us the name 'Thirunangai'," says Ria. "Finally we were recognised as actual human beings. This was around the time of my transitioning, and it helped my struggle in this adolescent period. It shone light on our struggles and our very existence," she adds.
And now that she has won, Ria has a list of developments she wants to accelerate in her ward, to follow in the footsteps of the late DMK chief. "I first want to address the drinking water issues in my ward following which we need to focus on proper road and transportation facilities," she lists out. "The DMK has given me so much support and the people have shown confidence in me. I cannot let them down," she adds.
And while this is a huge step forward for her, she acknowledges that it is also a leap for her community. "This is a huge boost for all transgender persons. When I pave this path to success, it is not an individual victory. I am showing the way for all transgender persons and more importantly changing how the community is perceived by society," she says, "For people like me, who have struggled to survive stigma, what better way is there to create change than to take charge ourselves?”