An all-women’s club in Tiruchi combats transgender phobia

From L: PDG Zameer Pasha, his wife Shakila, S Hemalatha, past president, RC Tiruchirapalli Shakthi and Maj Gen (retd) N R K Babu.
From L: PDG Zameer Pasha, his wife Shakila, S Hemalatha, past president, RC Tiruchirapalli Shakthi and Maj Gen (retd) N R K Babu.

Around December 2018, as S Hemalatha was getting ready to become president of the Rotary Club of Tiruchirapalli Shakthi, an all-women’s club with 41 members, like all new incoming leaders she too was searching for an iconic project her club could do during her year — 2019–20.

“It was at this time that one of my club members, Sunitha Reddy, asked me if I would be interested in giving shape to a project designed to help transgender children get housing, dignity, education, and through all this, a decent place in the community. That project was building a hostel for transgender or gender nonconforming (GNC) children,” she recalls.

As it happened, Sunitha’s husband, N R K Babu, a retired major general from the Indian Army, was, and continues to be, the CEO of a high school run by a charitable trust (Swami ­Sivananda Vidya Samiti) in the city — the Sri Sivananda Balalaya, Tiruchi. The school has 450 children, including 100 special children, but only one of these is a transgender or GNC child.

Above: DG A L Chokkalingam and PDG M Muruganandam in the Transgender awareness programme on zoom.
Above: DG A L Chokkalingam and PDG M Muruganandam in the Transgender awareness programme on zoom.

Hemalatha immediately warmed to the idea and decided to make it the club project during her year. With a district grant of ₹8 lakh, ₹1 lakh donated by the club members and one of them, Sinduja, an architect, contributing her professional services worth ₹1 lakh totally free, the bhoomi pooja for the project worth ₹10 lakh was done on July 27, 2019. In the last week of August the hostel was inaugurated by PDG Zameer Pasha with Maj Gen Babu, current club president Valarmathi, secretary Priya Vanaraj and Hemalatha participating.

 

Sad plight of GNC children

Hemalatha, who runs a business in printing and corporate gifting, said that while she was researching this project, she found the plight of such ­transgender children being really pathetic. “In so many cases, because of the social stigma, the parents reject these children, by simply throwing them out of the house.” At a vulnerable age, the children fall into the evil hands of criminal gangs and are sucked into a life of crime and violence. Now, of course, the government has amended the law to stipulate that parents who throw out their children because they are GNC are liable for imprisonment.

The land for the hostel, a two-storeyed building which can accommodate 38 children on bunk-style beds, was donated to the club by the school, which is also committed to admitting these children and ensuring they get a decent education.

Hemalatha said that at present due to the Covid pandemic the school is shut so they haven’t yet found inmates for the spanking new hostel. She is happy to add that there are parents in the larger community who are willing to take care of their GNC children, support them and give them a good education.

Kalki Subramaniam, transgender rights activist.
Kalki Subramaniam, transgender rights activist.

Her club organised over Zoom a well-attended Transgender Awareness programme in mid-August, presided over by RID 3000 DG A L ­Chokkalingam. “DG Chokkalingam is very supportive of this project that we have titled Sivasakthi and for this year, has appointed me district chair for the transgender welfare and empowerment programme,” she says, adding that the core committee of this project has the local government child welfare officer as its member.”

On how the club will find 38-odd trans or GNC children, she says that this officer will help identify such children and the Rotarians will also spread awareness on social media. “As this is a residential facility, anybody from anywhere in India can refer to us a trans or GNC child who has nowhere to go, and we will give her shelter in this hostel and an education in this school.” For those who cannot afford to pay the school fees, she adds, the club members will find sponsors.

As this is a residential facility, anybody from anywhere in India can refer to us a trans or GNC child, and we will give her shelter in this hostel and an education in this school.
S Hemalatha, District chair Transgender welfare and empowerment programme

She added that the club was also keen to help such young adults by organising for them training in tailoring and other livelihood enhancing skills.

Additionally, this project also hopes to spread awareness about the need to treat GNC children as normal children, and give them a decent education. Giving an example of Kalki Subramaniam, a transgender rights activist, actress and writer, who was the chief guest at their virtual meet, she said Kalki was born a boy, and later had a sex change operation. “Because her parents did not throw her out, supported her totally and gave her an education, she was able to become a useful member of society and start her own NGO for supporting such children.”

Hostel for transgender or GNC children.
Hostel for transgender or GNC children.

Addressing the meet, Kalki said, “What is most important for these children is a non-discriminatory environment where they can live with dignity.” Sharing her personal experience, she stressed the need to work hard to integrate transgender kids into their biological families. For this a well-thought-out awareness programme for parents and other family members, teachers, media, and the medical and judicial fraternity is essential, she said. Unless this kind of a support system is developed for GNC kids, they will not be able to have a decent future.

In his opening remarks DG ­Chokkalingam appreciated the efforts of the chair of this project Hemalatha, co-chair Vijayashree and coordinator Kavitha in spreading greater awareness about the problems faced by transgenders and enhancing the prospects of a better life for them. In a well-attended virtual meet, about 300 Rotarians participated and the DG was hopeful that they would go away sensitised to the plight of transgenders and help them.

Because her parents did not throw her out, supported her totally and gave her an education, she was able to become a useful member of society and start her own NGO for supporting such children.
Hemalatha on Kalki Subramaniam

Major General Babu spoke on how this hostel would give shelter to GNC children. This hostel “will not only accommodate  them, it will also accept them, nurture them, and most importantly, make them feel normal and accepted by all other children. It will also be an avenue for parents who wish to abandon their GNC children due to societal stigma.”

Dr Kavitha Fenn, a psychiatrist and Rotarian, gave out a list of five points to people to remember when dealing with a transgender child.

  • Learn facts about why they are different and then teach others.
  • Words can hurt and kill too. Therefore, teach people to respect GNC children.
  • Be inclusive: Teach tolerance to your own children. ­Parents of transgender persons go through pain during their child’s transition. Don’t isolate such children. Invite them to birthday parties and other social events. This will help prevent runaways from home.
  • Protest against discrimination. Lend your voice in support. Just sitting at home and expressing sympathy is useless. Show your sympathy and support through your action and help in every possible way.
  • Be proactive and spread awareness on the need to combat trans phobia.

PDG M Muruganandam, ­district trainer, quoted the existence and acceptance of transgenders from our ancient epics, such as the Mahabharata. He quoted the story of Shikhandi, who is male but was born female. She was the daughter of King Draupada and elder sister of Draupadi who married the Pandava brothers. Although she was born a female, Shikhandi was raised as a man, being taught warfare and statecraft. When Shikhandi changes her sex, she becomes Shikhandi, the warrior, said the PDG and urged Rotarians to spread empathy for transgenders. He congratulated women Rotarians for taking a leading role in the advocacy and action for better opportunities for the third gender.

Students at the Sri Sivananda Balalaya, Tiruchi.
Students at the Sri Sivananda Balalaya, Tiruchi.

As a token of Rotary’s immediate support for the cause of transgenders, there was good demand for buying the paintings done by transgenders which were auctioned by Kalki Subramaniam.

But, added Hemalatha, “the real success of the programme was evident, when after our Zoom meet, fellow Rotarians called the organisers and offered to support transgenders by employing them in their organisations.  With such support from Rotarians, RID 3000 is sure to empower more and more trans people to come forward fearlessly and say: This is who I am. We are hopeful of igniting that spark and be changemakers.”

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