Trans persons condemn naming of Chennai event after transphobic slur

Gender nonconforming artist Malini Jeevarathnam defended the name of an event in Chennai saying they were reclaiming a slur they were often targeted with. Trans persons, however, argue that reclamation is not so simple.
Trans activists Living Smile Vidya, Grace Banu and Negha
Trans activists Living Smile Vidya, Grace Banu and Negha
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Trigger warning: Mention of transphobic, queerphobic slur terms

A ‘queer art festival’ named ‘Ticket 9’ held in Chennai on June 23 has received backlash from LGBTQIA+ groups for using a slur term used against transgender persons. The word ‘nine’ (ombathu) is used in many parts of south India, especially Tamil Nadu and Kerala, as a slur to denigrate transgender persons. The festival was organised by Veytikaari Productions, founded by Malini Jeevarathnam, who also curated the festival. Malini is a documentary filmmaker and activist who is a gender nonconforming person.

Malini has defended their choice to use the term as an act of reappropriation, to take back the dehumanising term and proudly claim it as their identity. Reappropriation of words is a way for oppressed groups to reclaim terms used by their oppressors to disparage them, by using them in neutral or positive contexts while removing the hurt and hate formerly associated with such words. But this process of reclamation is usually brought about by the oppressed group as a collective, and their usage usually remains acceptable only by the community that is affected by it. For instance, the reclamation of the n-word by Black people, and the word ‘queer’ by LGBTQIA+ persons. However, in this instance, many trans persons have opposed the ‘reclamation’ of the slur ‘9’ by Malini, stating that any attempt at reclaiming history and such terms must come from within the community of trans women, “after a collective critical debate, from a place of resistance and a lot of political nuances.”

The controversy over the event’s title began days after the festival was held on June 23, which saw the participation of several writers, activists, theatre artists and musicians. On July 1, Malini Jeevarathnam put out a social media post explaining the reason for naming the festival ‘Ticket 9’. They said that the slur word ‘nine’ had been used against them on multiple instances, to insult them. 

Stating that the slur was used not just against trans persons but also towards others, Malini, in the post, said that that the term was their “identity” and that they did not see it as an insult anymore. “If someone insults me by calling me “9”, I would say, yes I am a 9, so what? … I will be a proud 9”, Malini wrote. Malini also said that they would have felt “complete” if they had the opportunity to perform an “operation to become an intersex [person]”. This statement was called out by many LGBTQIA+ persons and allies, as intersex persons are regularly forced to bear the brunt of the lack of awareness surrounding intersex identities, in addition to being forced to undergo ‘corrective’ surgeries which are currently banned in India. On the other hand, gender affirmation procedures including surgeries that are performed with the consent of individuals do not “make” a person intersex, as ‘intersex’ is an identity arising from innate sex characteristics. 

Many trans persons who have disagreed with Malini’s stance have said that while they see and empathise with Malini’s pain, and support Malini’s gender identity, as a collective, the slur remains traumatising for trans persons, femme-presenting gay men and other LGBTQIA+ persons. 

Soon after Malini’s post was published on July 1, many trans persons, including prominent activists Living Smile Vidya, actor Negha, Grace Banu, Kanaga Varathan, and Shalu MA condemned the use of the slur word in the event’s title. The next day, on July 2, Kattiyakaari — a theatre group that participated in the queer festival — issued an apology for participating in the festival and supporting it. Their statement said: 

“We recognise the fact that the marker "9" is one that has traditionally been used and continues to be used as a slur against people of the transgender community. In response to the criticism, the organiser has spoken about the marginalisation and ridicule they have faced in their life in opposition to their gender identity and sexuality, and said that the event was titled that way to spring the liberation of those who, like them, have faced such ridicule. In terms of their personal life, we recognise the suffering they have faced and stand with them in support of their gender identity and stand against any ridicule based on gender identity. However, at the same time, we take strong opposition to the act of re-inscribing the "9" marker on queer and trans folks. We apologise for participating and supporting this event, and regret the hurt we have caused by doing so.”

Following this, on July 5, Malini made another social media post, once again defending the choice of using the slur word. Asserting that they were a gender nonconforming person, Malini made a controversial statement saying that they were not ready to lead their life “falsely” as a trans person for “social acceptability, trans privilege, respect, and to enjoy benefits.” Malini also said in their post that having any identity that conforms to the gender binary, even as a trans man or a trans woman, has its privileges. However, gender identities are fluid, and trans persons can sometimes identify as non-binary too. Besides, those who disagreed with this explanation have pointed out that suggesting that trans persons have privileges stemming from their trans identity is absurd, as they regularly face discrimination and harassment in various forms. 

Despite courts and legislations in India recognising the rights of trans persons, some of them, such as the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019, have been opposed for enabling institutional oppression of trans persons. While the historic NALSA vs Union of India verdict by the Supreme Court upheld the rights of trans persons, the Union and state governments have a long way to go in implementing its provisions. Many other demands such as horizontal reservation for trans persons in education and employment are also yet to be addressed. 

On July 8, a statement was issued against the naming of the ‘Ticket 9’ event, undersigned by nearly 219 individuals and three LGBTQIA+ organisations. The signatories include 32 queer individuals, 73 trans and intersex persons, 114 allies, and three organisations — Trans Rights Now Collective (TRNC), Tamil Nadu Aravanigal Association (TNAA) and Nirangal Charitable Trust. 

The statement said, “It was surprising for many of us from the trans, queer community and allies to know that the event was not only branded/marketed using a highly derogative, insulting slur term that was used against us historically, but the organiser(s) went on to claim they named the event as such to reclaim the slur-term. We find it extremely offensive, triggering and insulting.”

Criticising Malini’s response to being called out, the statement called it “appalling and trans phobic.” “Instead of introspecting, apologising, the response reeks of privilege, insensitivity, and appropriating the trans community,” the statement said. 

Disputing Malini’s claim that they as an individual were reappropriating the slur once used to insult them, the statement said, “We want to make it clear it is a collective shared history and no individual can claim ownership based on their personal experiences. While we do not want to dismiss the claims of the organiser(s) and their lived experiences, we want to be clear that it does not give them any right to represent us and claim ownership to our shared history and struggle. We find this as an arrogant, insensitive, and ill-informed attempt at erasing and appropriating trans history and struggle.” 

Elaborating on why they do not wish to reclaim this particular word, the signatories said, “We have effectively moved away from derogatory terms like 9 over a decade ago and embraced respectable terms like Thirunar, Thirunangai. While terms like Thirunangai, Hijra and Kinner are socio-cultural identities, slur terms like ‘9’, ‘pottai’ are just insults. We see no reason politically or whatsoever to reclaim them and wear those identities. It strips us of our dignity and takes away the power to negotiate for our social, political rights.”

The demanded that the organisers of the festival stop using the slur term and issue a public, unconditional apology “for their insensitive transphobic act to monetise on the trans struggle and their equally problematic response.”

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