Winds of change are blowing very visibly through Kerala's political sphere. When Thiruvananthapuram native Nadira Mehrin was chosen as All India Students' Federation's (AISF) vice president and Laya Maria Jaison from Changanassery was made a DYFI State Committee member a month ago, Kerala could see that political outfits understand they can no longer afford to ignore strong voices from the transgender community.
Trans-women Laya and Nadira are aware of their powers to bring in positive changes and they share with Onmanorama their priorities, personal journey, hopes and more:
You have been elected to crucial posts in politically influential organisations. What are the priorities you are working towards, as leaders of the transgender community?
Laya: There are many matters that require attention. For instance, in the health sector, proper protocols should be in place for sex reassignment surgeries, the absence of which lead to medical negligence and instances like the recent death of trans-woman Ananyah.
Government medical colleges should offer free facilities for the same and there should be expert doctors and proper aftercare too. I feel the current system of trans-people first shelling out huge sums of money as surgery cost and than getting it reimbursed should be done away with. Ideally, the surgery should be done free of cost.
As for the career prospects, bodies like the Public Service Commission should offer reservation to the community. Steps are being taken towards this direction, but the progress is very slow. There is also a survey going on to figure out the number of transgender people here, to ascertain the reservation percentage. There was also a case in the High Court regarding the same. The court had ruled that the government should finish the survey procedures fast and implement reservation. We wish the process was a bit faster.
The proper implementation of ration cards and shelters for transgender people are the other important matters. Now, those ousted from homes are staying in pricy lodges or rented homes. There should be steps to either include them in programmes like the Life Mission, or arrange separate facilities for them. Even in my case, as someone working in a government project (Laya works as a computer assistant in a Social Welfare Board project) with a one-year-contract, I can rent a space only when I am employed. After my contract is over, and if it is not extended, I would be in a crisis.
Nadira: Trans-people themselves are trying their best to get opportunities in various fields, as that in itself is challenging and an important priority for us. I, too, came into this student organisation's state committee as part of the same, to voice important matters when required. And it's not just in politics.
I am also an actress (She is currently shooting for the Sreenath Bhasi-starrer Life Line of Bachelors aka LLB), who is working in the industry as someone who has revealed her true gender identity. It's a priority to keep stating that we are transgender people as that shows we, too, are talented and can get things done. It's important to tell society, as well, that it is their responsibility to give us opportunities.
I am someone who feels that nobody else should have to face the same hurdles that I did. I was the first trans-woman student of Kerala University. As no transgender student had taken admission before me, I did face issues, initially. Take for instance, common toilets. During my college days, the washroom facility wasn't gender-neutral, but I could work towards making it so. Most importantly, I am not involving myself in important matters around me just as a transperson. The issues of marginalised communities are as important. Ensuring equal justice and rules for all and a system that works towards it is my aim.
How far will reservations help the transgender community in professional and higher education courses?
Nadira: There is a two per cent reservation now in arts and science colleges, but it's important to extend it to professional courses as well. I, too, am a student who benefited from Kerala government's Mazhavil programme, which ensured the presence of transgender students in colleges. I, for instance, have two post-graduate degrees and I would say it's all thanks to this programme.
If trans students are given reservation in professional colleges, it would definitely help those who had to discontinue their studies owing to various personal battles. PSC, too, should institute the transgender reservations.
Laya: I feel there are many in the community who wants to enter professional fields like MBBS, LLB, engineering and more, and reservation in professional courses will help them realise their dreams. We can see winds of change even at primary school and graduate levels. Why not implement it in professional colleges too?
Political bodies like DYFI and AIYF have a say in the selection of candidates for the Assembly and the Parliament. Will you push for transgender candidates in the next local body and Assembly polls?
Laya: Party decides who should contest in elections. But at the same time, I feel there should be an attempt to include transgender people also as candidates. The parties at the forefront have not made such declarations so far, but I am hopeful that it will happen in the future.
Many have been asking me about such a possibility, and I always say that if opportunities beckon, the community will definitely step in.
Nadira: I believe there is a good chance for transgender candidates to be part of polls in the future. One should start at the roots to work their way up to be good candidates, as it is important to understand people at all levels of the society and also mingle with them freely.
As of now, it's great that Kerala's political parties are involving trans community too in their activities, and it can lead to candidates emerging from among us.
After revealing your identity as a transgender, how easy or difficult has the journey been, for you?
Nadira: Though my family wasn't supportive initially, there is a change now and I'm at peace being in touch with them. It's probably because they felt I can take care of myself, and have earned a place for myself despite no support. Nonetheless, like in the case of any child, parental love and guidance are necessary for kids of the third gender, too.
A person becomes capable of taking care of herself and her family only if the family provides her support till a certain period in her life. That said, I don't want to assign too much importance to that factor.
Laya: My parents have always been supportive, but I guess it is because they were keenly observing my changes. My change did not happen overnight. I understood I'm different when I was 13, but being scared of many things like societal reactions, I spoke about it openly only a few years later, in 2016.
I told them I am not going to live pretending as a man. I assured them that I understood their concerns, and I will be with them. I also explained why it's their responsibility to hold me close, and vice versa. My parents aren't too educated, but they got me.
In my opinion, youngsters who are coming out need to properly and patiently communicate with their parents. Yes, they won't get you right at the beginning, but one needs to explain how their lack of support would be a lot more dangerous, probably leading to a difficult life in the street.
While there are parents who fail to understand their transgender children, there are also youngsters of the community who don't give their family an opportunity to understand them. Probably it's fear but I feel we should help the parents also to understand what their children are going through.
For example, I have been helping the parents of a trans-woman who had left home to live in Bangalore. I am trying to help them to get in touch with her. The pain their child is suffering could be too complicated for them to comprehend but they are also aware that utter desperation could lead transgender people to suicide. I have been telling the mother to not give up hope. Basically, I mean to say that both situations exist among us.
How have things changed for transgender people after the Kerala government introduced the transgender policy in 2014-15?
Laya: Though introduced in 2015, it took till 2018 for the policy to start working. When the transgender cell was created, I was one of its first project assistants. Many projects for the community could be initiated through it, but there are many more areas that need focus. As of now, only Rs 5 crore is allocated as part of it, but we need more funds to get things done properly.
Nadira: While it is important, I personally feel that many things need to be spelled out clearly in the policy, be it the details about property rights of trans people or several of our basic rights, which need work from the basic levels. A policy needs to be a comprehensive one and therefore, I am someone who has some reservations about it.
There are many instances when police have taken crimes against transwomen lightly, saying that they are prostitutes. What can be done to change such wrong perceptions?
Nadira: I would say we are forced to confront questions on prostitution simply because we are trans people. Is anyone asking men or women what they are doing, considering that the world has more women and men working as prostitutes? I am not someone who is against prostitution, I believe it is someone's personal matter. Then again, I would just like to say that not everyone is the same, and not everyone goes through similar circumstances in life. Those engaging in it are probably going for it due to the lack of any other means.
Laya: First of all, people should try to give their attitude an overhaul. Many factors like traditional binary notions, family and religious beliefs and more can be the factors behind such perspectives. Regardless, there are youngsters who understand the truth.
In the family system, not much change has happened and we have to start campaigns to help them understand who transgender people are. Just how one learns 'father,' 'mother' and the like, we should be taught who a transgender person is. While government initiatives like Kudumbashree, Anganwadi, police and the like are given classes about it, others learn about the gender through the media, internet or hearsay. That's the main problem.
We should also understand that there are many talented transgender people who are achievers, and others too will not have resorted to prostitution if things were favourable for them in life. More than anything, there are also men involved when they engage in prostitution, which is often forgotten. People should try on their own to understand that this is a world of diversities and not just binaries.
Many transgender people have been victims of faulty sex reassignment surgeries. How can the community be protected from unsafe medical choices?
Nadira: We have given many requests to the government already for the same. We are living in a state where this surgery procedure faces many issues. Kerala should put in place government-approved surgery procedures, and medical colleges here also should provide the facility for the same. Only then can we avoid faulty surgeries by doctors who treat their trans patients as just specimens for them to experiment.