Transgenders who defied norms honoured in Chennai

Holding a pride of place at the transgender award ceremony titled Matram (change in Tamil) hosted by the Rotaract Club of Shri ­Krishnaswamy College for Women in Chennai was the veteran Noori Saleem, a transwoman from Ramanathapuram in Tamil Nadu, who emerged victorious after battling long years of societal pressure, taunting, and all other forms of humiliation and discrimination to create a home for over 300 HIV positive children abandoned by their families because of their infection.

RAC Krishnaswamy College secretary Munipriya (third from R) with award winners (from L) Praghya, Kavya Lamba, Inba Ignatius, Noori, Sathyasri Sharmila and Priya.

Noori lost her mother when she was just four, and fled home at the age of 13 when her father and other family members couldn’t accept the fact that she was a transgender and tortured her. She joined a group of hijras and eked an erratic livelihood from dancing at weddings, the birth of children, etc. But this wasn’t a dependable income and all her attempts to get a decent job failed as she was not considered ‘normal’.

Left with no option, she became a sex worker and at the age of 34 found she was HIV positive, becoming one of the first women to be diagnosed with this condition. But despite all her challenges and hardships, Noori took on the task of mentoring HIV positive children and giving them a safe place to live in by setting up the SIP Memorial. “I was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1987, but after 37 years I am still alive, so that is proof that this too is just an infection which can be managed with proper medicines,” adds Noori, the recipient of several awards.

The other six recipients were K Meenakshi (fine arts), Sathyasri Sharmila (law), Inba Ignatius (altruism), Priya (cinema), Praghya (aviation) and Kavya Lamba (business administration).

The Matram event, where these seven transgenders from Tamil Nadu were honoured, was sponsored by the Rotary Club of Madras Esplanade, RID 3232, “as we felt we have to recognise the remarkable achievements of seven extraordinary transgenders, showcasing their resilience and triumph over adversity,” said club president Paresh Jani.

Such events and exposure help to spread awareness in the general community where transgenders continue to face discrimination and other challenges just for the right to live their lives.
Praghya, award recipient

Durgashree, president of the college’s Rotaract club, said that against “the backdrop of evolving societal norms, the Matram awards symbolise a significant stride towards fostering inclusivity and equity in our ­community.” Jani added that since the event was held at the college premises, “it served as a powerful platform to ­celebrate diversity and highlight the invaluable contributions of transgender individuals to society. We honoured them for their unwavering determination and remarkable accomplishments across various fields.”

One of the other distinguished awardees from the transgender community was Sathyasri Sharmila, who is reportedly India’s first transgender lawyer. Her journey too was filled with discrimination, humiliation, torture and other difficulties in a society which refuses to accept the ‘other,’ but she overcame all these to get enrolled in the Bar Council of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry way back in 2018.

Another recipient Praghya, 22, is a drone pilot. Speaking to Rotary News, she said that as a boy, her awareness about her status began when she was in Class 7. “Parental pressure was always on to change me, but it did not work. At least nowadays, some parents are accepting transgender children but in the earlier years there was so much of resistance and negativity. The result was that I too had to leave home.”

Now she stays along with six other transgenders, “three of them are transwomen and three are transmen. We live as a transgender community in a rented place, which the mother of one of the transgenders helped us find. Even getting a place to live in is so difficult for us in Chennai; nobody wants to give out their place to us,” says Praghya.

RC Madras Esplanade president Paresh Jani with award recipients and members of all participating clubs.

She wanted to train as a drone pilot; “it’s a short course of only 10 days and costs ₹75,000 plus GST. A private trust approached the Indian Oil Corporation and they sponsored the training of 15 people, which included four transwomen and five transmen.” Emerging among the top four students from this training course, she is now employed by a private company as a technical assistant.

Jani said that several Rotary clubs in Chennai came together “to champion the cause of inclusivity and diversity in our society.” They were RCs Madras Esplanade, Madras Cosmos, Madras Nungambakkam, ­Gummidipoondi Industrial City and Madras Fort. RID 3232 DEI chair Barbara Bedi, and several Rotarians from the other collaborating clubs were present.

Durgashree added, “These outstanding individuals have not only navigated through challenging circumstances but have also emerged as beacons of hope and inspiration to others, and their contribution is a testament to the evolving mindset of our ­society, embracing inclusion and diversity wholeheartedly. As we celebrate the achievements of these remarkable individuals, let us reaffirm our commitment to creating a more equitable and just world.”

The last word to Praghya; extremely happy to be recognised by Rotary, she says, “I am grateful that Rotarians and Rotaractors have given us this recognition. More than for ourselves, we accept this honour on behalf of the transgender community as such events and exposure help to spread awareness in the general community where transgenders continue to face discrimination and other challenges just for the right to live their lives.”

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