As I entered the auditorium of the Madras School of Social Work at Chennai, my attention was drawn to T Rajakumari (38), decked up in finery and set to give a Bharathanatyam performance. She started learning dance from age 11 and runs a classical dance school, Amrita Arts Academy. There were also present Shwetha Sudhakar, founder of the NGO Born2win; Prithika Yashini (25) ready to assume charge as a sub-inspector of police; Noori, who runs an asylum for HIV/AIDS afflicted and orphan children in Chennai; Kavi and Andrea pursuing a course in fashion designing with plans to open a boutique; and Selvi Santhosham, a physiotherapist at the government general hospital.
Wonder what sets these ‘women’ apart? All of them are transgenders (TGs) who are proud to call themselves ‘achievers’ first, having risen above their mammoth challenges. What is more, Prithika Yashini and Selvi Santhosham are the nation’s first TGs to hold government posts.
Five Rotary Clubs of D 3230 — RCs Chennai East RA Puram, Chennai Gemini, Chennai Golden Star, Chennai Kodambakkam, Madras Downtown and Madras Mount — jointly organised the felicitation of Sundaravalli, a Tamil scholar and activist, who crusades for TG rights and works for their uplift. A talk show with TGs also formed part of the event.
“Don’t ask us mundane questions like how we felt when we knew that we are transgenders or the harassment we faced. We don’t want your sympathy. Instead, ask us what our skills and qualification are and give us an opportunity to earn a decent living,” said Noori, who has been HIV positive since the age of 11. She runs a home for abandoned children providing them food, shelter, education and medical care.
Given the right opportunity, where is the need for them to resort to begging or sex-work?
– ISAK Nazar
Ask her about her qualification and she confidently says, “I have studied up to Class III but have travelled to 24 countries addressing people there with PPTs to raise funds for my institution.” She has fought for TG rights braving harassments and spent months in jail during the 1990s. Rotary and Lions clubs and other well-wishers extend financial help to meet the expenses of the Home. Recently, a Lions club member donated Rs 35 lakh for purchase of land where Noori plans to construct a better shelter for the children.
Shwetha (born Sudhakar) unveiled their third annual calendar which has transgenders as models. Priced Rs 350, the money these calendars bring funds activities of her NGO, which also works for HIV/AIDS and cancer patients.
Presenting the Woman Achiever Award to Sundaravalli, IPDG ISAK Nazar lauded the initiative to bring TGs and their achievements to the limelight. “Rotary clubs across the country must emulate such initiatives and bring these people into the mainstream. Given the right opportunity, where is the need for them to resort to begging or sex-work?” he asked.
If society starts accepting TGs as ellow human beings their parents will not be ashamed to acknowledge them as their children.
Most TGs are shunned by their parents and family forcing them to run away from home. But if society starts accepting them as fellow human beings their parents will not be ashamed to acknowledge them as their children, for, ultimately it is the fear of societal response that shapes their parents’ action, reasoned Sundaravalli.
Echoing Nazar’s thoughts she stressed the need to train them with income generating skills and lauded the unique project of the Rotary clubs of D 3230 to involve TGs in training the public about traffic rules. “Moving away from their characteristic clapping hands and begging, they drew road users’ attention at traffic junctions by clapping hands and advocating the use of helmets, observing traffic signals, etc.” She is now fighting for TG rights to property and wealth and better recognition by the government.
Programme convener and Director, Women’s Empowerment for D 3230 Rtn Mythili Muraleedharan said, “Instead of shooing them away, accept a TG as one of us. They are God’s creation.” She added that Rotary clubs are associated with programmes such as ramp walk organised by RC Chennai Aadarsh, a course in beauty care at Naturals salon by RC Madras Temple city, etc. to promote their social acceptability. Few Rotary clubs such as RC Tirupur Kumaran (D 3202) and RC Tiruvallur (D 3230) has set a trend by inducting transgenders as Rotarians.
Rtn Suresh of RC Royapettah announced that he is ready to recruit qualified TGs for administrative work in his educational institution, and Noori and Shwetha said they will forward the CVs of a few candidates for the job.
Pictures by Jaishree