* With inputs from Tejaswi Subramanian
This pandemic has been, and continues to be, hard for all of us. But for people of certain marginalized identities, the challenges only seem to worsen, making life harder. Recently, Dalit-transgender activist Grace Banu filed a petition in the Madras High Court asking for targeted aid in the form of INR 4000/- in cash to each trans person in the state without a ration card as well as hold a special Covid vaccine drive after dispelling misinformation. This is a reasonable request and we hope the State considers assuming this responsibility. It is the need of the hour as the state is presently under lockdown and cash transfers are more responsive to the immediate needs of the community, especially when compared to the recent announcement of free bus passes for trans folx in the State.
However, we anticipate hiccups in implementation as presenting some form of state-issued identification card (besides a ration card) is likely to become a bottleneck here. Even though people may have medico-legally transitioned, many continue to be without the aravani card issued by the State of Tamil Nadu. It still excludes genderqueer, fluid, nonbinary, and people of other non-normative gender identities. And even if the HC makes a ruling in favor of the petition, and also includes fluid identities with no mandatory ID card, there is still a high chance of failed coverage. Given the risk of violence and alienation faced by trans-persons, this requires deeper systemic transformation.
The revival of the Welfare Board for transgender persons, which was established under the DMK’s rule in 2008, is crucial. Since then, the term ‘Aravani’ was replaced with ‘Thirunangai’ in official parlance, which was a move welcomed by the community. The card issued by this Board gave the holder access to schemes such as housing and ration. However, in 2019, AIADMK party changed the name to moodrum paalinathavar, which means ‘third gender’, without consulting the community members.
In the early months of the pandemic, under the pressure of the community, the AIADMK-led government had provided Rs. 1000 and 12 kg of rice to the cardholders, but this stopped around August 2020, even though the community continues to struggle due to social alienation, widespread economic crisis, and the continued spread of viral infection. Trans folx had to resort to crowdfunding in order to help themselves. Prominent trans leaders have pointed out that this is largely due to a breakdown in the functioning of the Welfare Board since about 2016.
The Union Ministry of Social Justice and Welfare had also extended aid to trans persons across the country in the form of a one-time cash deposits of Rs. 1,500. However, for this, people had to provide their Aadhar card for identification and also their bank accounts. Moreover, the registration was via a website that was only in Hindi & English, excluding many early on in the process. Several who had managed to jump through these hoops and apply have also shared that they did not receive the money. There was again a problem of identification for those who had recently ‘transitioned’ or have not yet received medico-legal approval of their gender identities.
To receive such a certification from authorities, trans women have reported being subjected to a lower abdominal scan in a bit to affirm their gender, even though it is a social construct and not a biological classification. This is a humiliating and intrusive process that once again excludes those who don’t require or cannot afford/access the requisite surgical procedures as well as non-binary folx.
Since the start of the pandemic, several trans leaders have successfully advocated for the community’s right to livelihood, so as to safeguard them from the virus as well as poverty.
For instance, Sangeetha, a 60-year-old trans woman, started the ‘Covai Trans Kitchen’ in Coimbatore, which was run entirely by trans people to help the community sustain themselves. However, things came to a shocking standstill when she was found murdered in October. While the remaining employees decided that the kitchen will remain open, to lose one among them, especially an activist and advocate, must have dealt them a hard blow.
The Mantithope Transgender Milk Producer Society is yet another trans collective doing their best to sustain themselves during the pandemic in the Thoothukudi district. It is run entirely by trans women on a 2-acre land with about 85 employees in all. It was the outcome of 7 years of tireless self-advocacy by members of the community.
The government has barely given any thought to the community and their specific concerns during these terrifying times, leaving them to fend for themselves once again. Although their achievements are commendable, we need to stand up and hold the government accountable for their well-being and continued survival.
We need systems and processes that recognize the fluidity of gender identity, and work towards de-stigmatizing our expressions and exploration of the same. This has to be woven into the public life through inclusive education as well as doing away the requirement of medico-legal transitions. Self-identification must be upheld as the norm, thereby acknowledging people’s lived experiences. We need to start thinking about ways to be more inclusive of fluid identities without taking away their right to resources.