Kalki Subramaniam was the first transgender rights activist to play the lead role in a movie — the 2011 Tamil film Narthagi. She is also an artist, writer and entrepreneur who founded the Sahodari Foundation. We caught up with her in Kochi where she inaugurated India’s first transgender school launched by Sahaj International. The interview:
On relevance of transgender schools
It is the first such centre in India for transgenders. I am really overwhelmed and excited about it. As an activist I believe only education can empower transgenders. Many of them, almost 60-70 per cent, have been abandoned by their families. Because of rejection, they lost the opportunity to get good education and thus are not eligible for good job, good money, good livelihood. That is why most transgenders are taking to prostitution and begging. With little money they can’t meet their medical expenses, surgery expenses, living in a separate room, etc. Now, we have this opportunity. Sahaj International is a learning centre and a shelter also. Even if they are going for other livelihood options they still have a place to stay and study. The school, though supported by a Christian organisation, is also backed by other religions and political parties. In spite of religious and political differences everybody is coming forward to support transgender empowerment, which I always wanted in Kerala.
On opening such schools in other parts of the nation
Kerala has evolved and progressed fast in equality, much faster than other states, even faster than Tamil Nadu, which was the pioneer state of transgender movement in India. Kerala has moved forward and once again the state proved that when it comes to education they will be the pioneer. It is laying the first stone and the first seat for most such schools in other states. I am sure there will be one school in Tamil Nadu and so many other schools in other parts of the country as well. I request the state governments and district authorities and political parties to support such initiatives.
I, too, wanted to start one such school in Tamil Nadu. My dream is a community learning centre where I wanted to teach not only formal education but also teach them about human sciences. About yoga, spirituality, naturopathy, etc. Because I think for transgenders though we have been abandoned by our families we are highly creative and spiritual people. We could contribute a lot for the welfare of human being.
What is the reason behind Kerala’s wider acceptance of transgender community
I think the kind of lobbying the activists here have done and the kind of support they received from other parts of the state have played key roles. Politicians, academicians, students are all part of this lobbying and I think this movement has come to this stage because of the efforts of the activists. Activists like Seethal, a firebrand activist, Vijayaraja Mallika, who holds a master’s degree, Faisal Sreekutty and people who get the opportunity to excel in their professions like Surya Renjith, have played their roles in this. John Money, Ranjith, Seema are doing make-up for top-level film stars and people like Surya are top filmstars. It is a tremendous struggle for them. They are role models for other transgender people. And the struggles are important. The activism in Kerala is important. They are very helpful in lifting up the community.
Can we justify people going into sex work?
I will tell you the truth. Why are transgenders going into prostitution? Does this society have an answer? They are on the streets begging and doing sex work because their families have rejected them. Had the family accepted them, provided them good education and acknowledgement, love and support, why would they come on the streets to beg and go into prostitution? Because the family is afraid of the society, that the society will tease them and discriminate them, and it is the same society that criticises transgenders for being in the streets. It is the same society that exploits them sexually also. You look at who are the clients. They are all men who have wives and families. Again, it’s rejection and exploitation by society. When society changes and when the family accepts them as their children and treats them well, then the community will not come to the streets.
Police atrocities on transgenders
It could be because of the prevailing law about sex workers and beggars. We don’t have friendly laws for these people. They are considered a nuisance by the police and the society. Here, the policemen also need orientation. There must be mass awareness programmes conducted for top-level police officials as well as the lowest level. This should be conducted districtwise and profession-wise. It should be implemented and the government should take necessary steps because transgenders are vulnerable to human rights violations.
Government policies and social media’s impact of social situations
It has definitely made positive changes. Now communication has become easy. If there is a transgender at home who wants to communicate her problems, she has Facebook and websites. We have our websites and office telephone numbers where they contact us and seek our support and counseling. So community and approach has become very easy because of the social media. Activists like me, Sheethal and Vijayaraja Mallika, while speaking, we give a hope of better future for transgenders. In that way we have made things easy. When a family rejects a transgender, we try to counsel the family. But it is also essential that the government takes initiative on this.
What do you think about contesting election even though you opted out on the last minute.
I think for a marginalised community, political participation is essential. Twenty years ago in Madhya Pradesh, Shannan Mousi was elected as an MLA but then the court said she is not a woman and should be considered as a man. Even though people accepted her, court rejected her. So political participation is not something new for transgenders in India. It was done 20 years ago. As a minority we need representation in the local level and in the assembly, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.
As of now, it is essential for the transgender community to enter politics. That we can be good politicians, even though we may not have a chance directly, if we became a film star or top star, then the parties will be ready to give seats. Because the transgenders need the support of the masses, so they should work hard and prove themselves that they are worth it.
How about a political party for transgender people?
I don’t think it is needed. it will not be practical. I always look for an inclusion. Will a separate political party for men or women work? It will not. So a separate political party on gender identity will not be practical. Even if it is BJP or Congress there should be men, women and transgenders as members contesting in elections, given special seats and reservations. That is inclusiveness
Why did you opt out of contesting in the last election?
I decided to participate without having any political experien. In politics you need so much of people support and if they had given me a ticket I would have contested. In the last Lok Sabha election I asked for a seat with the DMK but the constituency was given to an alliance party. So nobody contested from my native place in DMK from Pollachi. If I do have a seat from DMK, then naturally I will be supported by the party members as well. I don’t want to join a party because of my popularity. I want to participate in politics, be genuine and honest work hard and prove to people that I worth it.
On support from governments in Kerala on transgenders
Both the governments, the previous one and the present, have been very supportive of the transgender movement. The previous government introduced the transgender policy and the LDF government, through their ministry of social justice, has its own initiatives and agenda for supporting and helping transgenders. I don’t find any difference between the two governments in Kerala but I think the transgender policy introduced by the Congress government should be continued by the LDF. The LDF government already have a transgender community support if they introduced the transgender policy they will get more support from the community.
On Manabi Bandhopadhyaya’s resignation as principal from a West Bengal college
It is very, very unfortunate and I am very sad that Manabi had to resign. It was the first time in a country like India that a transgender became principal of a college. But within one and a half year, she had to resign. I can understand how much pressure she would have faced from her colleagues and from her institution. I do not really know the details, the situation. But what she says is that she wanted to reform the institution but they wanted it to be like a typical government institution — laidback, redtapism, corruption and all that. Transgenders are honest people. We don’t have families. We work for the community and the society. We want things to be right. Manavi wanted her college to be corrupt-free, efficient, more pro active, but the teachers were not co-operating. It is very unfortunate that she could not continue as the principal and had to resign. Even though she has social support, the organisation takes the decision to have her or not to have. Teachers also don’t want her as the principal. She submitted her resignation with the district authorities and it is forwarded to the respective departments. I hope the authorities will not be accept her resignation.
Religious support in the modern times
I am happy that religious groups and political parties are coming forward to support transgenders in spite of their political and ideological differences. It is a very positive change and this should continue.
Sex work and transgenders
This is the problem I am facing in Kerala. We have offered jobs to many transgenders who are begging and are into prostitution but they are not interested. They say it is hard because they have to work seven to eight hours a day and paid very less. When they go for sex work and begging, they get at least 1,000 rupees a day. They need money for their surgery, medicine, survival and all. Since they are uneducated they are eligible only for less-salaried jobs. Because of the discrimination that prevails in society, they have a wall that they are unable to break. We need training programmes and counseling. The society should provide platform, space and support for transgender community which gives them the feeling that they are part of this society.
Personal experiences as a transgender
As a teenager I have faced discrimination in school and as an adult I have faced sexual violation and discrimination in college. And it continued for many years. But I had to battle very strongly against this and had to protect myself. It was difficult. But I did it because of the parental support.
On social acceptability of talented transgenders
People like John Money, Vineethamayi Seema, Renjith, Surya, they all are top in their profession and well-recognised . But there are a lot others who still need recognition and opportunities. They are denied that because of their gender identity. We need equality in all fields, only then more and more transgenders will come out and establish themselves and contribute to society. In academics, corporate companies, government sector, everywhere transgenders should be able to work participate and study freely.
Transgenders in cinema
Five years ago it was different. Movies like Thamanna, Dhaira and Dharmaya were wonderful movies that projected transgenders in a very positive manner. Then in Malayalam, Mayamohini was an initiative. There are few more movies, like Ardhanari, that are positive and real. In Tamil, Kanjana, my film Narthaki in which I acted as a heroine, Bala’s film Naan Kadavul, Mani Ratnam’s film Bombay showed the reality of transgenders. The portrait of transgenders in Indian film industry is also changing. These days, movies show transgender people not as clowns, perverts but as professionals and people with hearts, feelings and emotions.