Sex-change for free

Tamil Nadu’s innovative schemes lessen the stigma of being a eunuch

Written by Vinay Sitapati | Published: March 14, 2009 12:20:14 am

Ippadiku Rose (Yours,Rose) is by any yardstick,an unusual TV programme. The Tamil talk show deals with sexuality and sexual taboos. And its host,the lovely Rose — formerly Ramesh Venkatesan,  graduate of Lousiana Technical University — underwent a sex-change operation and is now a transgender icon. It’s no coincidence that the show’s a hit in Tamil Nadu. The state has perhaps the world’s most creative schemes for transgender welfare.  

It’s not easy defining who a ‘transgender’ is,but the term broadly includes those whose self-identified gender and physical gender don’t match. The pedant may quibble over precise definitions,but society doesn’t — India’s one million transgenders (colloquially called eunuchs,or more uncharitably  hijras) are targets of focussed discrimination. Officialdom is slowly waking up to this injustice. In 2005,the Centre introduced the category ‘E’ in passport forms for eunuchs,and in some states they’ve entered politics. But they still face social ostracisation and economic boycotts,and attempts for even a national census have faltered. The Supreme Court last month refused the plea,by a eunuch,to set up an All-India Commission for Transgenders,similar to those for scheduled castes and tribes.  

In the midst of all this,Tamil Nadu stands out in how it treats transgenders. The state has set up a Transgender Welfare Board with a budget of 50 lakh rupees per year. That’s around 100 rupees per eunuch — meagre but without parallel in the rest of India. More than money,it’s the schemes themselves that are eye-catching: special ration cards for eunuchs and “admission to transgenders in government colleges,” to quote DMK MP Kanimozhi. But it’s Tamil Nadu’s decision to pay for sex-change surgery that is truly path breaking.  

And how! For one,state-sponsored sex-change is  without precedent anywhere in the world,except for Cuba and Brazil. It’s also the only instance in which the state targets not merely the consequence of discrimination (lack of access to education,jobs etc.),but the cause of discrimination itself. It’s a bit like the government paying for the lame to get limb-correction surgery. With one difference. Being transgender is not just a disability; it’s also an identity. The sex-change scheme might not fit into traditional ideas of affirmative action,but as transgender activist Priya Babu gushed,“it’s wildly popular amongst us.” This is perhaps because the scheme understands that unlike caste and class identities,‘aspiration’ to change one’s physical gender is at the heart of being a eunuch. To be sure,the scheme only pays for genital surgery — not hair transplants,voice change,and hormone-pills (which at a couple of lakhs each,are too expensive for most eunuchs to afford). But by honestly trying to fulfil the desire to “want to become”,the scheme is wildly successful amongst transgenders.  

Special schemes of this kind are not always popular with transgenders. As this newspaper reported (IE,March 9th 2009),the Chennai Municipality’s decision to build transgender-specific toilets faces opposition from many eunuchs. It’s that rare instance of a government benefit which some of the direct beneficiaries don’t want. The reason: separate toilets ignore another crucial aspect of the transgender identity — its transient,fluid nature. Many eunuchs consider themselves as women,and don’t want a separate identity. This creates a paradox: targeted government measures,by the very act of identifying transgenders,go against their fluid identity.   

Why is Tamil Nadu the place to be if you’re transgender? Perhaps it’s political mobilisation. Eunuchs are concentrated in the north-western districts of Tamil Nadu,which are PMK strongholds,and it helps that the PMK’s Ramadoss’s are doctors with progressive views on sexuality.  In addition,as V. Geetha,author of a book on Dravidian politics,points out: “Dalit panthers have supported transgenders — many of whom are Dalits themselves.” But at a mere 60,000,transgenders in Tamil Nadu don’t ride on just their voting power,but also on the historic gender-sensitivity of the Dravidian movement. Its founder E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker,  popularly known as Periyar,placed gender-justice at the heart of his social reform initiatives. On women’s issues,Tamil Nadu is near the top of India’s chart. Transgender rights fits into this larger social movement. And as cultural critic Sadanand Menon said,“this might explain why in popular Tamil cinema,the ubiquitous eunuch is a source of humour as well as sympathy.” 

It’s not just political and cinematic support for eunuchs in Tamil Nadu that is cutting edge; the out-of-the-box welfare schemes are markedly different from how the government usually targets disadvantaged groups. India’s constitution does not recognise ‘sexuality minorities’ as being recipients of “special provisions” — under articles 15(4) and 16(4),only scheduled castes,scheduled tribes,‘socially and educationally backward classes’,women and children can benefit from quotas,scholarships and other forms of affirmative action. But Tamil Nadu’s willingness to stretch constitutional imagination (traditionally confined to just reservations) through innovative ideas means that the way it treats transgenders is rivalled by few.  

There’s a lesson in all this: One size doesn’t fit all. When the government tailors solutions to the specificities of group disadvantage,it makes a bigger impact and faces little opposition. The eunuch identity — fluid and aspirational — is unique. When the government doesn’t factor in this uniqueness (separate toilets),it is less popular than when it does (paying for sex-change surgery). All it takes is a bit of imagination. And care.

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