Kasaragod: For the past month, the hall above the Kanhangad Block Panchayat office has been doubling up as a dance school.
The students -- around 15 trans women -- practise cinematic, classical, folk and fusion dances from 10 am to 5 pm. A few students, who are yet to come out, make excuses to slip away from their homes and turn up for the practice. The students might have been late a few days but they haven't missed a session.
"We have been training for the past one year. But we stepped on our practice one month ago to get ready for our big day," said trans activist Esha Kishore, an accomplished Kuchipudi dancer and one of the trainers.
The big day is on October 25, the day after Diwali, when the trans women will give their debut performance or 'arangettam'. "They will be Kerala's first professional transgender dance troupe to be promoted by a local body," said K Manikandan, president of Kanhangad block panchayat.
He said the block panchayat would tie up with the Kerala Folklore Academy and ensure the 'Transgender Kala Troupe' is engaged in public functions routinely. "We are doing this to create a space for trans people in the mainstream and also to ensure they have a steady income. Many of them are struggling without a job," said Manikandan.
Minister for Local Self-Government MB Rajesh will inaugurate the 'arangettam' at the Block Panchayat office on Tuesday evening.
Kasaragod has around 120 trans people but only 30 of them have made their gender identity public. Despite the government's initiatives, the threat of stigma and shame they face is still real in society, Manikandan said.
The block panchayat decided to support the dance troupe financially when it conducted a 'transgender sabha' ahead of the budget last year. "We asked the trans community what the block panchayat can do for it. The idea came from them," Manikandan said.
Based on their feedback, the block panchayat included the project in its annual programme and set aside Rs 3 lakh for it. "Now we released another Rs 1 lakh to conduct the 'arangettam'," Manikandan said.
The 15 transgender women who have come together to form the troupe are either dancers or inclined to art, said trans activist Esha. Each member has mastered at least three dance forms. The troupe has classical dances such as Bharatanatyam, Kuchupudi, ritualistic dance Thiruvathira, festive dance Oppana, a fusion of Kathakali and Yakshagana and other folk dances of Kasaragod, and cinematic dance in its repertoire. "Coming together for practice for a year now has not only given us the hope that we can make a living through this troupe but also given us the confidence in our gender identity," said Bharatanatyam teacher Charulatha (35).
Till recently, she was Babu Krishnan of Nileshwar. She has a PG in Bharatanatyam from RLV College Of Music And Fine Arts in Thripunithura and had enrolled for research at the Music Academy Madras. For more than 12 years, she has been teaching dance in Nileshwar. She was also the Kuchipudi teacher of Esha Kishore. "But only after I was hired to teach dance to Transgender Kala Troupe that I got the confidence to come out," said Charulatha.
Education and financial independence do not insulate trans people from society's sneers and jeers, said Sajina Ubais (33). She works as a top secretarial officer in Kasaragod's district collectorate under her male identity. Her boss and colleagues know she is a transgender woman but she prefers to go to the office in a shirt and trousers and not in women's clothing. She has her reasons. "When I fix appointments for my boss with other officials over the phone, I can feel the respect in their voices. But when they see me, they judge me for my mannerism and make gestures behind my back. Now imagine if I go to the office wearing a saree," said Sajina, one of the founding members of Kshema, a collective of trans people in Kasaragod. In the dance troupe, she plays the coy bride in Oppana.
Then there is Jennifer (50). Nothing about her clothes or mannerism give away her identity as a transwoman. "In her public life, Jennifer is a married man with a daughter and a son. She can never make the transition without hurting her family," said Esha.
Jennifer, however, comes for the dance practice every day. Her friends have given her the role of a folk artiste so the colourful costumes and mask will hide her identity. "This is the only place where I can be me," Jennifer said.
High school dropouts, no jobs
Concealed behind the mask, the blush and liquid lipstick is the secret pain of every transwoman in the troupe.
They said the rate of school dropout was much higher among trans children than other children because of the discrimination and harassment they face at the hands of uninformed classmates and teachers. "After losing several years, we enrol for equivalency programmes to restart our education," said Agnes K J (24), who had to drop out after class 10 because of her internal conflict and harassment in school.
She wanted to be a doctor. Now, she wants to restart schooling and become a lab technician because her gender identity would not be a factor for the job.
After leaving school, Agnes learned to become an ayurveda massage therapist. "But neither male nor female patients wanted me. After some time, the clinic fired me," she said.
Lavanya C J (22) has a diploma in accounting and business management. In three years, she applied for a job in at least 20 companies. "They will call me for the interview but will not give me a job after finding my gender identity," she said.
The last was a telecom franchise where she was almost selected for an accounting job. "When the manager found out that I was a transwoman, he said he cannot give me the job because he cannot predict the reaction of his other employees," Lavanya said.
Poornima Sumesh (30) too had to drop out of school. Before she came out, Sumesh went to Dubai and worked in a supermarket. "The money was good yet I felt yuck about my body. It was suffocating to live as a male," she said.
She returned, underwent hormone treatment and sex change surgery, and took the identity of Poornima. Now she is happily married to Sandeep, a vegetable vendor.
Later, Poornima, Amrutha Naryanana (30), and Karthika Ratheesh of Kottody in Rajapuram did a diploma course in nursing assistant. "We are qualified but hospitals refuse to hire us because of our gender," said Karthika.
Poornima was once hired as a home nurse. "The consultancy got me the job by telling a family that I have the strength of a male and female," she said. "But I am just one woman. I wore out soon."
Huda (34), a construction worker, said the hormone treatment tires her out. "I'm hoping this dance troupe clicks," she said.
No home to stay
Transpeople are often forced to leave their houses because their families refuse to accept their identity. "But getting a rented house is very difficult because of the prejudice against us," said Sajina. "So I use my identity as a male government employee and get houses for my friends," she said.
"The neighbours are initially sceptical about us. That's because they are not familiar. But in a month, the neighbourhood accepts us and residents visit us too," she said.
Treatment and surgery
Unlike inter-sex persons, most transpeople crave surgery to change their sex. But these surgeries remain inaccessible because of exorbitant rates, said Karthika.
A transwoman has to undergo hormone therapy for at least a year before she goes under the knife. "We need Rs 1,000 every month for the hormone tablets. And we have to take them for life," she said.
To top it, the nearest endocrinologist or hormone specialist for trans people in Kasaragod is in Kochi. "It takes three days for us to go to Kochi, get the prescription, and return," she said.
The surgery and treatment cost around Rs 3 lakh to Rs 4.5 lakh, she said. The government reimburses Rs 2.5 lakh. "The government should recognise our plight as an identity crisis and fully sponsor the surgery. It takes a huge toll on our mental health," said Lavanya.
Not just sex-change surgery. Transpeople said they have to go to Palakkad or Kochi for laser hair removal. "It costs Rs 15,000 for full body hair removal and Rs 2,500 for hair on the face," said Karthika. "The clinics say we have to do it only 10 times for lifelong effect. But we have to do it every month for life," she said.
Transwomen say doctors in government hospitals have little knowledge of the physiology of trans people. "If we go to the hospital with stomach pain, they send us to the gynaecologist," said Poornima, between uncontrollable laughter.
Crimes against trans women
Fathimath Thanas (41) used to work as a clothes purchaser for a textile shop for women and children in Kozhikode. She lost her job when she came out. After the sex-change surgery, she could not live in her house either. That's when she fled to Kasaragod.
On March 28, 2021, two men stabbed her belly and left her for dead. Her intestines were ruptured out.
She somehow managed to reach a hospital from where she was referred to Kannur Government Medical College in Pariyaram. She regained consciousness four days after and remained in ICU for another 15 days. "Two Kasaragod town police officers took my statement when I was in the hospital. They said it was an attempt to murder case. But later I found the person who stabbed me has gone abroad," said Fathimath.
After six months, when she went to the police station to get a copy of the FIR, "the officers sneered at me". Though she had given the phone number of the accused and the knife used to stab her, the FIR did not name anyone, and the case was registered under section 341 of the IPC (wrongful restraint) and section 326 of the IPC (voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons).
Fathimath Thanaz said she was surprised an attempt to murder (section 307) was not invoked. "This is how police treat trans people. How can I expect justice," she said. The next hearing is scheduled on December 14. "I don't think the accused will turn up," she said.
Fathimath is now preparing for another surgery because the bowels have dislocated again.
Gender 'N' in passport
On April 15, 2014, the Supreme Court recognised transgender people as the third gender, saying that it is "not a social or medical issue but a human rights issue". But one month ago, when Fathimath applied for a passport, there was a commotion in the Passport Seva Kendra in Payyannur.
The application form had the option to choose transgender but the passport officials refused to accept it. "They discussed among themselves for a long time. And when I got my passport, my gender was marked as 'N'," said Fathimath. "What does N stand for? I am a transgender woman," she said.
Eight years after the Supreme Court ruling, the Delhi High Court on April 11, 2022, pulled up the Union government for insisting on a sex realignment surgery to classify a person as transgender. The court asked the government to change the rules, and classify transgender people as transgender with sub-classification for trans male or trans female, depending on their orientation.
The transpeople in Kasaragod said their passport should have transgender as their gender not 'X' or 'N'.
They said the discrimination against them is embedded in society and the government reflects the bias through its policies and rules. "Families should start telling their children about us so that trans children do not have to drop out again," said Poornima.
"We can also make a living in our chosen fields without depending only on dance and song if society stops pushing us away to the margins," she said.