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With the apex court officially giving recognition to “transgenders” and a directive going out to state governments to include them in welfare programmes, the group now has the legal seal long denied them in independent India. Fifty-two-year-old Bharathi Kannamma, India’s first transgender candidate, standing for the Lok Sabha elections from Madurai, is thrilled to hear the news. “I have been fighting for this recognition for a long time now. Though we had identity cards, we were still classified as either male or female. As transgenders, we had no legal standing. We could not get bank loans and were denied right to property.”
Kannamma shed her male image in 2004 after her mother died, and for the past decade has been a pillar of the transgender community. A clerk-cum-typist who rose up the ranks to be a sales manager with a private bank, Kannamma says her life wasn’t easy. Her post-graduate degree in sociology helped her immensely though. She was a consultant with the Tamil Nadu aids initiative and was soon the state-level advocacy officer for the transgender community. She now has her own trust, the Bharathi Kannamma trust. “We belong to no caste, no community and no religion. So I don’t seek votes based on those grounds like other politicians,” says Kannamma. Though there is a population of 1.5 lakh transgenders and MSMs (men who have sex with men) in TN, they have always remained on the fringes, sustaining themselves mostly through begging or prostitution. The ’13 EC decision to add “others” to the gender column gave Kannamma the needed push to rise further.
Kannamma says one of her most painful memories is being rejected for her first job. “I had fared very well in the written exams but got rejected in the interview just because my body language was unacceptable to the interview board. I had to wait another year before I got a job. Most people from the transgender community do not complete their schooling because of emotional trauma and sexual abuse. When I was 13, I used to get beaten up by my father for behaving like a girl. Though I dressed like a boy, in my heart I was feminine. I managed to complete my degree and then did my post graduation through correspondence.” In the last decade, Kannamma has trained over 1,500 transgenders. “I have done capability building for transgenders and have been teaching them how to improve their public behaviour. As a Lok Sabha candidate, I have to look beyond the community. Poverty is our biggest bane. Is it any wonder then that the poor, fed up with the politicians, are responding to me.”