In a first-of-its-kind move, the Tamil Nadu government gazette has published a glossary of LGBTQIA+ terms. In this context, it becomes essential to examine the importance of pronouns and language in the politics of inclusion and also discuss how such moves impact the advocacy of queer rights in a country like India.
As a country, India is on an odd road in terms of queer rights — while the Supreme Court, in a recent statement, called the ‘atypical’ queer families as worthy of deserving social benefits, the central government has opposed the same-sex marriage rights and even opposed the live telecast of the case. Notably, the use of the word ‘atypical’ in acknowledging the existence of queer relationships and families actually others them more.
Within the queer rights discourse in India, this is not the first time there has been a positive step toward affirming queer community. However, it is a rare time that the move has been welcomed by queer rights activists and members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Before this, in 2021, NCERT Manual did a tremendous job at highlighting gender-sensitive and trans-inclusive approaches to education. More notably, Madras High Court ruled for the removal of queerphobic material from medical textbooks in India.
The present glossary has adopted the terms that have been preferred by the community and developed by Queer Chennai Chronicles, Orinam and The News Minute, who further built on the work done by QCC-TNM media reference guide and Orinam’s terminology.
Notably, this was also included in one of the interim orders by Justice Anand Venkatesh in the Sushma (2021) case. The major difference is the replacement of the word ‘Thirunar’ (an umbrella term for transpersons) with ‘Maruviya Paalinar/Maariya Paalinar.’ The Glossary also includes terms such as Thirunangai (transgender woman), Thirunambi (transgender man), Paalputhumai (queer), Oodupal (intersex), among others.
Moreover, the glossary clearly states that it’s wrong to assume all intersex persons are transpersons, highlighting that they have diverse intersections of gender identity, gender expression and sexuality.
Furthermore, only they can identify their own gender identity, sexuality and sexual orientation. It further gives a detailed, diverse definition of gender, gender identity, and gender expression (with pronouns) along with gender non-conforming person, gender fluid person and gender non-binary person.
Importantly, it highlights that gender expression does not correspond to gender identity, advises against the usage of ‘transgender’ as a noun instead of an adjective, advises against the usage of deadnames, and differentiates gender dysphoria from gender incongruence. It even has brief information on allyship, queer pride, and coming out.
India has largely recognised transpersons as ‘third-gender,’ neither male nor female, even though their socio-cultural identity exists in multiplicities. This is where this glossary can lead to a positive change in the way people refer to queer and trans persons in India.
Tamil Nadu is considered one of India’s most progressive spaces for transgender rights, welfare, development, and activism. It is the first state in India to constitute a transgender welfare policy (provision of free gender affirmation surgery, among other benefits) and to ban intersex surgery.
Further, in 2019, The High Court of Tamil Nadu (Madras HC) ruled that “bride” extends to transwomen. A marriage between a man and a transwoman can be registered under The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955. In June 2021, a single-judge bench of the same court banned “cure therapy” for LGBTQIA+ individuals in a landmark decision.
Tamil Nadu was unique because it accepted aravanis as a body lying outside the gender binary, being referred to as thirunagai (a welcome change as per the community) solely prior to this glossary. However, so far, there has been no acceptance of genderqueer, fluid, non-binary, and other marginal, non-normative gender identities. It is crucial because such language provides access to transpersons, non-binary and queer people. It’s an act of resisting the Hinduisation of trans identity, which has been done through the NALSA Judgement, Section 377 Judgement, and through the limiting The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019. The NALSA judgment was crucial as it recognised transgender-identified persons as “third gender.”
Even being one of the most progressive legislation judgments in post-colonial India, the discussion around identity in the judgment was done through subtle themes and ideologies. It failed to incorporate hijras (whether they are considered emasculated men or identify as women) and intersex persons with the erasure of transmasculine persons. Furthermore, the judgment used the derogatory term “eunuch,” which has been rejected by the trans community.
In The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019, the definition of transpersons includes ‘intersex’ people who are individuals with Disorders of Sexual Development (DSDs), socio-cultural identities like Kinner, aravani and jogta (encompassing both transpersons and intersex people), and also ‘gender queer’ people. Social exclusion here takes place through the non-recognition of identities and was also based upon language as the text of the law was predominantly in English, not accessible or understandable by all.
In Ditilehka Sharma’s paper, The State and The Construction Of The Non-Normative Citizen, they discuss how historically, “Inclusion is done in particular ways through criminalisation and removal of those who challenge heteronormativity as only ‘obedient’ citizens are rescued or provided protection.” Within the wider Indian state, the inclusion of transpersons as ‘welfare citizens’ has been a trap towards neo-liberal citizenship and a setback for radical trans politics. Although academics have pointed this out, many of them have restored to using transphobic language, like the work done by Serena Nanda.
The glossary by the Tamil Nadu government gazette is welcoming because it does not homogenise queer people or transpersons through a single identity framework. Instead, it acknowledges their identity in its complete understanding and, in this process, gives them the dignity and respect they deserve.
More importantly, after medical science has marked a shift in clinical literature from medicalised and pathologised terms towards more affirming terminology, like using gender affirmative surgery instead of sex reassignment surgery; it is high time that the government, law and its subsidiaries also make a shift towards affirmative, intersectional, and respectful language.