A phase of ‘fight, fight, fight’
Interview by Afrah Asif
“Why do we see only male and female bodies in our textbooks? Where are the trans bodies?” asks Grace Banu, the Dalit transgender activist, who was responsible for the reformation in Tamil Nadu school syllabus for classes 8 to 10 to include information on trans persons and their livelihood. “That was a small change. I am now pushing for a scientific explanation of gender and identity to be included. Educational reforms are a way forward to ensuring a trans-friendly society.”
In 2014, Grace was the first trans person to get admission in an engineering college in Tamil Nadu. She has since fought for trans-inclusive education spaces for she believes, “Education is the most important tool to uplift my community.” When Tharika Banu, Grace’s adopted daughter, sought to study at an all-girls higher secondary school in Chennai, the school administration denied admission since they “weren’t willing to admit that a trans woman was a woman”. Grace persisted and protested against the discrimination. Tharika was eventually admitted in the school, where she completed class 12. Their fight continued when Tharika aspired to enroll for a Bachelor of Siddha Medicine and Surgery (BSMS) course. They approached the Madras High Court, which ordered that Tharika be admitted for the course and declared: “The minimum mark of 50% prescribed for admission into BSMS is only applicable to male and female genders and not for third gender.”
As Grace began thinking about “permanent solutions” to the problem of lack of access to educational institutions and influenced by Babasaheb Ambedkar’s works, she saw the power of reservation in the fields of education, employment and politics. She is the petitioner in a public interest litigation that seeks to implement horizontal reservations for transgender and intersex persons in admission into educational institutions and public appointment in Tamil Nadu. Currently, trans persons are only eligible for vertical reservation, within the category of Most Backward Class, in the state. “This is necessary so that trans persons belonging to marginalised caste groups aren’t forced to give up their caste status in order to be able to access reservation under the MBC category,” Grace explains.
Even with affirmative action, Grace says problems faced by the transgender community are far from over, so long as the menace of transphobia continues to lurk in society. “We need to create safe spaces for the community.” High dropout rates among transgender students can be attributed to lack of support mechanisms to overcome discrimination and isolation in educational institutions. “Community-based allyship and informed solidarity with the trans community can reduce such instances. A trans-inclusive education would help connect allies’ solidarity and sympathy to proper understanding and action,” she says.
“Respecting and valuing transgender persons and their rights cannot be left to an individual’s choice, a degree of compulsion is warranted,” Grace says. Solidarity should stem from a universal acknowledgement of the rights of trans persons to live, thrive and be recognised as a fellow human rather than from personal beliefs and political choice.
Recalling Ambedkar’s aphorism “Educate, Agitate, Organise”, the founder of Trans Rights Now Collective stresses the need for intersectionality both within and beyond the queer rights movement. “Our liberation is incomplete without the liberation of Dalit trans persons, Adivasi trans persons and Muslim trans persons. Everyone should be educated, everyone should agitate and organise.”
Drawing from her personal experiences, Grace says, prejudice against her gender identity was compounded due to her caste identity. “The queer community is as casteist as the society at large. To those who feign caste-blindness within the queer movement, I want to say, recognise the importance of taking everyone along. Recognise that there is a diversity of experiences and issues even within the movement,” she says.
She cautions against token representation: “Of late, it is trendy to say, ‘Hey, look, we have a trans person amongst us.’ It’s how people from the upper castes are deflecting blame for discrimination.” “Those who have the privilege should first acknowledge that privilege and then share that privilege with the underprivileged,” she says. The seemingly simple act of ‘knowing’ – of having awareness – is backed by tremendous institutional privilege. The privilege of knowledge is inextricably linked to the privilege of being able to find solutions.
‘An empty paper’
Grace says the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 is an “empty paper”. “In that empty paper, they are criminalising trans persons. The Act does not ensure we get our rights.” She had protested against the legislation since it was first debated in 2016. Grace enumerates the problems with the Act – the requirement of a certificate from a District Magistrate affirming the trans person’s gender identity; awarding lesser punishment to an offender who has sexually abused a trans person (the maximum punishment of two years provided in the Act, is much less than the minimum punishment of seven years stipulated for the rape of cis-women); and non-addressal of the issues and rights of gender-nonconforming children at home and school. It doesn’t talk about the abuse – mental, physical and verbal – that the community faces in spaces like schools and colleges and from the civil society. Grace further elaborates how the Act evades the topic of reservation and fails to protect a trans person’s livelihood. “It’s like they want to criminalise the trans person and simultaneously make the impression of extending support to the trans person.”
The pandemic served as an easy distraction for the government to bulldoze dissent and implement the Act. “The Centre went ahead and formed the National Council for Transgender Persons,” Grace explains. “This highhanded attitude of the government has pushed us to the edge, but we have a lot of fighting power left inside us. We are holding on to it. Whatever the situation, we are going to fight,” she says. Grace, along with transgender activists Vyjayanti Vasanta Mogli, KMV Monalisa, Anindya Hajra and Sirra Santosh, has filed a writ petition before the Supreme Court seeking that Sections 4, 5, 6, 7, 12(3), 18(a) and 18(d) of the Act be declared as unconstitutional and in violation of fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution.
Her judicial activism has shown her that the legal profession, much like the society it thrives in, is patriarchal, casteist and misogynist. “In my court visits, I have met very few trans-friendly law professionals. The majority have lacked even basic empathy.”
Grace’s hopes for the future stem from her hopes in herself, the next generation and the promises of the Constitution. She says the present is a phase of “fight, fight, fight”, where young trans persons like her are prepared to persist. “We are fighting because we want the future generations of our community to live in a peaceful society. We have the Constitution in our hands, and the time is not very far when we will have our rights too.”
Afrah Asif is a law student from Hyderabad. She enjoys sharing anti-capitalism memes, eating out at new places, taking long walks and reading. Her areas of interest are Feminist Studies, Muslim History and the intersection of the two.