Grace Banu, first trans* person in Tamilnadu to get an engineering seat, speaks about the discrimination she faced as a transgender person and as a Dalit, since school days, at her last job, and in her pursuit of studying to be an engineer. Grace Banu urges for a need to have a paid leave during transition surgery, just like paid maternity leave, and speaks on various safegaurds that can be initiated at workplaces and educational institutions to make them safe and welcoming for transgender people. She also speaks on the importance of reservations (affirmative action) for transgender people.
Vanakkam, my name is Grace Banu. I’m studying to be an engineer. The thought of doing engineering came to me first because I had basically completed a diploma in computer engineering and after completing that I worked in a software company for 3 yrs. The company was aware of me being a transgender person. Still it was a big struggle. There was no acceptance in office. I had to overcome major battles to continue working there. As discrimination in the office by my colleagues increased it came to a point when I had to voluntarily leave the job. I began thinking what to do next. The question why doesn’t transgender have the opportunity to go in for higher studies kept coming to my mind. And I had a great desire to go in for higher studies as I had scored 95% in my diploma programme and so I sent an enquiry to RTI asking if transgenders could go for higher studies. I got a reply from them saying it was not possible as it was the Government policy not to allow transgenders into higher education.
Despite that I applied to university for higher education. I had no expectations but I did get a call from Anna University for counselling. No government college had seats for me. Only a few private colleges agreed to give me admission. Since I live in Chennai, in the outer of Chennai near Arakonam in Sri Krishna college of Engineering, a private college is where I got admission. This is where I am studying now. I travel every day, 1 and a half hours morning and evening hour to Arakonam. This has to be challenged as to why transgenders cannot go in for professional studies. What kept me motivated was the drive to prove the point that transgenders are equally talented. Secondly while studying in school I suffered a lot of discrimination. I had to overcome gender-identity and caste discrimination. This isolated me a great deal. I was a Dalit and a transgender at that.
In school, at that non- conforming age, at the plus 2 stage when the school got to know my transgender status, the school discriminated me against my Dalit position plus my transgender state. So both together isolated me a great deal. I was not allowed to enter the school at normal hours. The school started at 9 AM but I was to reach there only at 10 AM. The school finished at 4.30 PM I had to leave at 4 PM itself. I was not allowed in the classroom. I was made to sit in a separate room where the HM kept discarded slippers and there was a tree under which alone I could sit and study. Many such restrictions and rules were laid and still I continued to study. The other students began saying mean things and most of all they were all forbidden from talking to me. At that age I could not take that stress and I left the school and discontinued my plus 2 studies after which I left home too.
Then with the help of community people I joined the 3-year diploma programme.
After the diploma in a campus interview I got selected for a job in a software company. Here too gender problem increased with the passage of time. All this motivated me to study more and go higher in life. The importance of education became clear to me. These events encouraged me to opt for higher studies.
Dalit Camera (DC): Did you study in a government school?
Grace Banu (GB): No in a private, aided school.
DC: In that school the students who discriminated you, were from which caste?
GB: They were all from upper caste.
DC: How many Dalit students were there?
GB: There was a substantial number of Dalit students too.
DC: So all Dalit students suffered this kind of discrimination?
GB: No, not all were discriminated in this manner. Once my gender identity was out in the open, my Dalit identity came to focus. so both together.
DC: Keeping the transgender issue aside for the time being, you may know about Rohit Vemula’s case from Hyderabad. Dalit students suffer a lot of discrimination. What can we do to stop such incidents? In the university space and school space in order to bring about equality, what can we do?
GB: As far as I am concerned, in the university ….an isolated person’s issues only a person who has been through it will understand…Some people from isolated castes should be in position of authority. Only they will be able to find a way out of this.
DC: In the aided school you studied which caste did the teachers belong to?
GB: All teachers were from upper caste.
DC: So you mean to say in the aided schools and the software companies’ reservation should be brought in?
GB: Definitely, also when I was working I went through my surgery. But that one month I had no salary. How was I to manage my needs? The thought came to me; a pregnant woman is given maternity leave but working transgenders too should be paid their salary during this surgery period. This should be part of employment laws. This was an idea that came to me at that time.
DC: You are now working in Tamil Nadu with Living Smile Vidya on the issue of transgender reservation. Tell us more about that?
GB: The way I look at this issue is that the transgender community is an isolated community. In order to bring them up as equals in mainstream society, the effort has just begun. In order to make transgender people fully empowered and bring them up as equals, the community has to come out of begging and sex work and that is possible only if there is reservation for transgender people. To walk hand in hand with cis people, I see reservation as a good initiative. To go to work, a path has to be found but for a person who has been stopped and discriminated at every stage, their education has to be facilitated through reservation. They will surely benefit through reservation not by giving charity, idli-vessels, sewing machines etc. In order to bring in equality reservation is the only way out. Charitable ways cannot change the whole society at large. For the community to reach better standards of living reservation is the only way. Living Smile Vidya has been working since 2006 on this issue. From 2012 I have begun voicing my opinion regarding transgender reservation in education along with many transgender communities who have come forward to support it. In many government forums we have expressed our opinions. We have legally filed a reservation case. We could not take the Tamil Nadu Public service examinations. We did receive a favorable judgement in that case. The reservation case is still pending in the court and there has been no response so far.
DC: They say there are no caste in the transgender community. Tell us more about this.
GB: The way I look at it is, normally if you ask a well settled person do they suffer caste discrimination, they are bound to say “No” because they did not experience what it means to be discriminated. That there is no casteism amongst transgenders is like putting a whole pumpkin on rice and expecting to gobble it down. Internally caste feelings exist in all. If we see Indian history caste division has always existed. Therefore, from that angle, casteism very much exists amongst transgenders too. If you see the senior ones in the community, they are always from upper caste. The ones who earn for them are Dalits. The ones who beg or do sex work and bring money for the community are Dalit transgender people, surely from the more isolated castes. So this sweeping statement that there is no caste division among transgender people is totally false and there is as much casteism here as there is in the society at large.
DC: Most transgender people, if they leave begging or sex work come to work in NGOs only. So would you say NGOs don’t discriminate?
GB: I admit; it was only through NGOs that the transgender issue came out in public. But here too in higher positions as far as I know there is no transgender. If you see the Tamil Nadu Welfare Board council under which all NGOs fall, there are surely no transgender people. Even if they exist they are from the upper class. The lower level jobs like supplying condoms etc. is what most lower class transgender people do in NGOs.
DC: So when you are fighting the transgender reservation issue how do you deal with the caste related issue?
GB: It has been seen that when reservations are made for transgenders only the upper class transgender people benefit. The lower class transgender people don’t even get an opportunity to make use of these reservations, so we are asking for a subcategory in our reservation pattern which fits in based on economic needs just the way they have SC, ST and other categories. But we have a lot of opposition from our own transgender community people itself. And they are mostly transgender people from the upper class. As far they are concerned they have the Hindutva philosophy ingrained in them. They had to fight through the rules laid out by the Hindu society to come up in life. So they prefer to project the image that among transgender people Hinduism is the only issue and there is no casteism in our community and that we are all one caste, which is transgender. Therefore, people who are opposing this reservation are also transgender from upper class.
DC: If you were asked who are your role models, what would you say?
GB: As far as my role models are concerned, in the transgender community it is Living Smile Vidya. With regard to society at large my model has always been Ambedkar, Periyar and his philosophy.
DC: To the youngsters watching this video, what is your advice?
GB: Please do not walk out of your houses in your frustration. Stay within and fight your battle. Acceptance by parents is very difficult but still try to look at the reasons which makes acceptance of your gender difficult for your parents. The youngsters are now boldly coming out but when you come out in the real world you need to be qualified. Instead if you just come out join the transgender community and get into begging and sex work it is not worth the battle. Work towards living a dignified life and develop the attitude that we too can live a life of dignity and honour. It is due the work of transgender people like Living Smile Vidya and other transgender people that we have an improved position in society today. So please create and avail of the opportunities available in society to come up in life.
DC: Thank you. Jai Bhim
GB: Jai Bhim.
Heartfelt gratitude to Jayshri Kannan, who volunteered to transcribe the video from Tamil into English for Feminism in India.
Jayshri Kannan has taught English language in schools and has worked in publishing houses as an English Language Teaching (ELT) expert and resource person.
Featured Image Credit: Grace Banu