The government of Tamil Nadu has taken the bold step of officially recognising transgender as a separate sex. For the first time in the country, a government order has been issued by an education department of a state government creating a third gender category for admission in educational institutions. Government and aided colleges will have to admit transgenders (‘hijras/aravanis/alis’) and they will share 30 per cent of the seats reserved for women. A newly-designed application form for the undergraduate courses will include transgender as a separate category, thus permitting these students to join any college of their choice – co-educational, men’s or women’s colleges. This is in tune with the Tamil Nadu governor’s address in the legislative assembly in January 2008 expressing concern about the welfare of transgenders and announcing a number of welfare measures like the issue of ration cards, free surgeries in government hospitals and the establishment of a welfare board.
Until now transgenders could enrol in colleges but only as males. Not wanting to go through the trauma of being forced to study in a men’s college, where they are routinely harassed, a number of them have been waiting for this opening. The inspiration came from Rose Venkatesan and a few other “she-males” as they are often referred to. Venkatesan’s story exemplifies the struggle the community has to face to be in a mainstream vocation. The host of a controversial talk show that has hit the tv screens in south India, Rose Venkatesan is a 28-year-old transgender who was forced to grow up as a boy, and struggled with discrimination and stigmatisation before building a career. Unable to face a gender dilemma, Venkatesan spent adolescence immersed in books and in due course became a mechanical engineer with a master’s degree in biomedical engineering from the Louisiana Tech University in the United States. Rose Venkatesan has been campaigning for gender justice in education, highlighting that education alone can change the outlook of transgender people and empower them economically. The personal struggles of transsexuals like Rose Venkatesan are slowly acquiring a political dimension and the transgender community has been able to mobilise and empower itself, finding a voice that can be heard.
Transgender culture has been part of the Indian community for centuries with an estimated million transgender people (there is no database that maps them) in the country today. Due to the relative prevalence and also the acceptance of transsexualism, they cannot be ignored. Unfortunately, they face extreme discrimination in health, housing, education, employment, law, etc. Facing severe harassment, with little or no opportunity for conventional jobs, most of them earn an income by performing at Hindu religious ceremonies and celebrations, or by begging and also in sex work.
It is the livelihood issues of transgenders that need focused attention. Indisputably the most marginalised and ostracised community, transgenders need special quotas if they are to emerge from the shadows. Unless they are able to integrate with the mainstream social order and share experiences with the general community, the current stigma will not disappear. Being a visible minority and a part of India’s backward group of people, there are attempts to get them into the other backward classes (obc) group. As the general obc category can now have subcategories, this seems a viable proposition and is one way of facilitating the social integration of transgenders. In an age when the boundaries of sexual tolerance are shifting, the time is opportune for an active involvement of and collaboration with the transgender community. Although much remains to be done before the line between acceptability and ostracism is finally removed, Tamil Nadu has shown the way by taking the first step in this direction.