You me and Buddha
what else you could do
You thought a girl is just this….
What is she
Beauty and the Beast
The line drawings by Living Smile Vidya are from a feminist trans perspective and self reflexively evoke her relationship with her body. Most of the drawings are grotesque, yet comical. The internal is externalized and vice versa. For instance, in her piece, ‘The Beast in Me’, the thorns/ tendrils push from the inside, till the lines between internal and external get blurred. The imagined or imaginary body is posited against the real to poignantly evoke a trans narrative. The womb that is not a womb, expels and contains at the same time. The prominent eye in the drawing stares back at the onlooker , as if to challenge the dehumanizing stares that we are subjected to. The dichotomies of good/evil, internal/external, imagine/real, woman/man is what she tries to challenge through her work.
Feminism is a core part of her work. She challenges the ubiquitous control of women by dominant masculinity and patriarchy in her piece ‘Controlled’. In ‘Female Power’ , the Rapunzel–like locks of the woman metamorphosizes into the barks of a tree that are entwined like braids. This woman, unlike Rapunzel is not waiting for a prince to rescue or release her. She is the omnipotent life giver who can destroy with her gnarled fingers just as she nourishes life. ‘What Else Could You do’, sharply critiques the entrapment and harassment women face in patriarchal society. ‘ You thought a girl was just this’ critiques the patriarchal, sexual violence by men who point their fingers/dicks at women thinking she is only a receiver for sexual acts/violence. A critique of women who are seen only as reproductive machines to be used for production of more labour force/ patriarchy is presented here. In “Passage to Genderland’, the physical transition of a trans person is likened to the transformation of a caterpillar to a butterfly.
The body is the site of struggle in all these feminist trans perspectives and a reclamation of the same is crucial to trans people, to live with dignity and self respect. Smiley is a follower of Thanthai Periyar and believes in the annihilation of caste, gender and other inequalities and her work , whether it is theatre or art, is a reflection of her militant politics.
(Trans)gender and caste: lived experience –
Transphobia as a form of Brahminism
This is the transcript of a conversation between dalit transgender feminist writer and theater artist Living Smile Vidya, who lives and works in Chennai, with her transgender brothers Kaveri Karthik and Gee Ameena Suleiman from Bangalore. This conversation took place on a late night after 11 pm in the basti where Kaveri and Gee live, following a day-long discussion between the transgender men and intergenders and lesbian community of Bangalore with a group of visiting dalit activists and intellectuals from Tamil Nadu. After the other women in the basti left the common space on the footpath and went to sleep, the following conversation unfolded:
Kaveri: “Can you tell us a little bit about gender and caste dynamics in your own life while growing up?
Living Smile Vidya: Actually, though we settled in Chennai, we belong to the Arundhati caste in Andhra Pradesh and migrated from there a few generations ago. Our caste is the lowest of the dalits because occupationally we did manual scavenging. So, my mother would have a job everyday doing street cleaning as a government worker, and then do domestic work on the side, in several houses for a couple days of the week each. 50% of her earnings would go to her husband. She had to do both house work in our own house as well as work in many jobs outside to make ends meet. My father was an alcoholic and his income contribution to the family was only 40%. But since he had physical control over her income also, I would have to get my school fees from him, though it was actually my mother’s earnings. My father would drink and physically and verbally abuse my mother and the rest of us. The whole colony knew about this because the houses are close by and small. In big houses belonging to savarnas also, women suffer but that cannot be seen or heard by us because it happens in the privacy of the thick walls of their house. But at least you can hear dalit women shouting back, threatening to hit their drunk husbands etc when these fights happen in our colonies which most of the modest, “good wives” of upper/middle caste families cannot even imagine doing.
Kaveri: What has your experience of caste been when you were young?
Living Smile Vidya: “Food in urban areas for my mother who worked as a domestic worker would be served in a simple leaf. So that she doesn’t eat in their vessels.”
Gee: “But she can clean the vessels for them and then she can touch them, right”?
Living Smile Vidya: “Yes, That is not seen as touching by a dalit. Because then, who will do all their household work? My relatives in the rural areas were coolie workers (manual laborers) and for them, the owners pour the coffee from a great height into coconut shells. This also would be done only outside their houses so that nothing spills on the floor. If there are washed clothes in these houses, we can’t push them aside, can only move around them or bend under them to walk so as to not touch them. Sometimes, when visiting, I would walk from 1 dalit compound to the other which was separated by savarna colony. To go between houses you had to walk all the way around to avoid these house compounds and their lands, because they would yell if you walk near their property. Even in urban areas you find that dalit colonies will be pushed to the outskirts of the city but the major portion of the work in the cities is done by them. Untouchability is practiced in urban areas also, but the forms are less direct sometimes than in rural areas.
Gee: “I have heard that earlier in Kerala, even the shadow of dalits should not fall in the way of the upper castes. Dalits had to move backwards wiping their footprints if an upper caste had to walk the same path.
Living Smile Vidya: “Yes and before my time even the mundaani of women [upper cloth across chest] would have to be removed when upper castes came across you on the path. There was a big protest that happened over this issue in Tamil Nadu – ThoL seelai porattum – and then this practice stopped before my generation.
Kaveri: Yes, a friend Gangatharan told me about this ThoL seelai porattum, this struggle which he said started among Nadars Travancore against the practice of OBC women being forced to not cover their chests in the presence of the savarnas. There were also severe atrocities against dalit and obc women such as assault and mutilation of their breasts which this protest struggled against, as it spread around Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
Kaveri: Did your experience being raised as a child who was considered male by the family and brought up as a boy, but identifying and later living as a woman give you a heightened sense of the privileges given to men over women? For example, the first time I wore men’s clothes and walked down the street, I realized ways in which I was oppressed as a woman that were invisible to me when the world looked at me and saw a woman. I realized suddenly I could actually look around at eye level, without lewd stares from men or disapproving stares from older people – and I realized the social pressure on women to look at the ground as they walked – something I knew in the back of my head but hadn’t realized the full extent of until I dressed in men’s clothes and was liberated from it. It sharpened my feminism. In a similar way for you, seeing both male privilege from society and identifying with women and later living as a woman and facing the dangers of being a woman and a Trans person, can you talk about the way this journey has shaped your understanding of gender oppression?
Living Smile Vidya: I was a woman in my heart as a child, even as I was being given male privilege. I hated it because I dearly loved my sisters and mothers [my biological mother as well as stepmother]. I identified with them and was so angry that my sisters didn’t get the same things as me. I was mistaken to be male and couldn’t yet articulate that I was a girl and so I was educated much more than my sisters. I still always believed my older sister was very smart, smarter than me, and her life would be very different now if she had been educated. She is doing the same work as my mother only because she was born a biological woman and similar to my mother is the backbone of the household. But from the beginning I was able to influence my stepmother to be different and so her daughter – my sister, is now studying final year B.C.A. This makes me very happy as despite being female born, she has joined the first generation of our family getting educated along with me.
In the beginning, I was thinking, I should act in a way that everyone will recognize that I am a woman. I was very shy, like the way people expect girls to be. I would dress very modestly, etc. Even then, as a child I would dream of myself as a saree wearing, sword yielding, woman. Like of the kind that Bharatiyar described in his writings. Bharatiyaar was a Brahminical feminist, but still, at that time, I wanted to be like that. Bharatiyar was like the Tagore of Tamil literature, a great writer, poet, musician, well-versed in many languages, and a radical thinker, part of the independence struggle and very strongly against caste and gender oppression. We read Bharatiyar at school and college, but having read so much of his work, I can still feel some remnants of his Brahminism – for example, he fought caste by performing the upanayanam, the sacred thread ceremony, on a young dalit boy to “convert” him into a Brahmin, instead of fighting Brahminism altogether. Similarly his vision of a woman was as an embodiment of Shakti, and at first I wanted to be this kind of woman.
Later I realized that since all women get oppressed under patriarchy, and trans women and dalit women through the combined might of patriarchy with casteism and transphobia, I might as well have a loud mouth and be assertive than take everything silently – to be a strong but silent woman was not enough. I decided that I do not want to be modest and soft spoken to please others or to fit the ideal of a “good woman”.
Kaveri: How did your Sex Reassignment Surgery a few years ago change your feelings on this? Many transgender people have spoken of their struggle against the gender they are brought up in, and many transgender women are agonized by the pressure on the one hand to behave in a way that is clearly socially recognized as female, while feeling outraged at the way women are treated and expected to behave – basically the double pressures that come from transphobia due to being perceived as a transgender, and male chauvinism from being perceived as women. Some have said that only after their sex reassignment surgery when their bodies were universally recognized as female in the public realm, the pressure to assert their femininity decreases and they can react to the oppression of being a woman. What was your experience?
Living Smile Vidya: Before my nirvana [sex change operation] I was definitely anxious to prove my femininity. I had a lot of these thoughts about the injustice of the oppression against women and transgenders but I was struggling from day to day to just get enough food to eat, to eat as little as possible so I could save anything extra I made from begging. I couldn’t be active on fighting for anything but survival. After my nirvana, I felt physically like a woman and then, it became easier for me to survive and to start to question my own model of femininity. With age also, my understanding of these things improved and I began to question femininity and masculinity and fixed gendered roles and behaviours more strongly.
Kaveri: Can you compare caste discrimination and transgender discrimination, for example with respect to being forced into some occupations like manual scavenging for dalit communities or begging and sex work for transgenders. How similar or different are they and what has your experience of this been?
Living Smile Vidya: Transgender discrimination is more severe, I feel, than dalit experience in urban areas. On the one hand, transgenders can only get homes in dalit bastis as these are the only places where we can get any acceptance – but we usually have to pay higher rent than others. It hurts a bit when dalits discriminate, even though they discriminate less than savarnas – as it feels like my own people shouldn’t discriminate against me at all due to our shared understanding of oppression as dalit. It is paradoxical for me to face added social disadvantage as a transgender. I feel like oppressed groups should try to understand each other’s pain and work together.
Hijras or tirunangais as we prefer to be called in Tamil Nadu, at least have a community traditionally with an entire system of support [though at times, even the guru-chela system is oppressive and exploitative]. We can go to shops and ask for money. Female to male trans people on the other hand, also known as tirunambi, can’t ask for money in public and do not have this traditional community.
I feel like transgenders who are working class have no dignity of labour because socially they are allowed to only beg or do sex work. But some dalit groups have taken back dignity of labour by assertions from within the community. Like daily wage labourers in agriculture can at least assert that they are making food with their own hands for the whole country to eat or artisans can claim the status of artists, but not transgenders yet. We are reduced to the status of just beggars or sex workers. This is similar to what some dalit groups have faced as manual scavengers. This occupational fixity in both dalit and transgender communities, is done by closing off alternative options. Thus, manual scavenging becomes an occupation enforced on dalits through the exclusion of access to other jobs; in a similar way begging and sex work are forced occupations for transgenders through exclusion from other jobs. But in spite of this, we retain some of our dignity in the face of this exclusion.
To retain dignity we have to think these jobs are normal. Manual scavenging and begging just becomes like a practice. Children are mentally prepared by society to think it is normal. In school when they would ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” We dalits wouldn’t say doctor, engineer, but our boys would say for example, “I will work in a cracker factory”. Girls would smile and not respond. Dalits are socially conditioned to internalise that they are meant to do only some jobs and don’t dream to do anything else or get the access to education and alternative jobs. Transgenders also when they first realize that they are trans women, they immediately think they will have to beg, because they see transgenders only in one place – begging on the street. So, by repetition historically and by not providing alternative options, these jobs become fixed. Amongst dalits with reservation, some changes have happened in the sense that access to educational facilities have opened up a bit but numerous other ways are used to torture us till we drop out or commit suicide or fail. Even in reservations, it is not the lowest of the dalits like us who benefit, but the more elite. This is somewhat like the savarna transgenders who have NGO funding claiming to represent the community and getting all the benefits. This kind of representational politics gives a false picture of progress of these communities from this funding model.
Kaveri: Is transgender a kind of caste? The Backward Classes Commission under C.S Dwarakanath has recommended that transgenders be included as OBCs for reservation. What do you think about this?
Living Smile Vidya: We need reservation on the basis of gender, not caste. But it has to be more complex. But I definitely do not want to be OBC. And you will understand why as a dalit, I do not want to come under the OBC category of all things! Putting transgenders under an oppressed caste category erases the caste privileges that savarna transgenders have. It is better for us to have caste and gender based reservation so that dalit women and dalit transgenders get representation. Otherwise reservation will only benefit savarna transgenders and dalit men.
Kaveri: Is there caste within the transgender community? Do people lose caste as they enter hijra system?
Living Smile Vidya: There is not so much caste in the hijra community because everyone’s names are changed. As you enter the hijra community, you lose location, language, last name. A few members of the transgender community who are dalit have figured out I am dalit and have secretly told only me because they knew I’m dalit. They have also told me not to talk about eating beef so that no one in the transgender community figures out I am dalit. Some castes though are very proud, such as Thevars and Pillaimars, who are always proudly asserting their caste. I have seen some kothis and hijras and say things like, “I might be a transgender like you, but I am a Thevar in the village”.
Even I have once pretended to be Thevar when I was confronted by an auto driver for smoking and it was a dangerous situation. I was taking his auto late at night. I saw the picture of a Thevar leader Muthuramalingam Thevar in the auto, so I put on a Madurai accent and pretended to be a Thevar girl to save my skin. He was so impressed he asked if could ask my father for my hand in marriage! [Laughs]. There I was, a dalit, transgender woman passing off as an upper caste biological woman to save my skin and getting a marriage proposal at 2 A.M!
Gee: When you go for a jamaat or some such ceremony in the hijra community, if you even touch a senior hijra’s saree accidentally, you have to pay a fine. Of course this is not a caste practice as it happens if any hijra touches any senior hijra’s clothes, but do you think this practice has come from caste untouchability?
Living Smile Vidya: It is like class, it’s showing respect. It’s not outlawed, but punished with a fine. Since we get no respect outside the community, the elder tirunangais say they have made some rules within like this to get respect with increasing seniority. When I was a younger kothi, I would respect all these traditions but then I found them oppressive and too hierarchical. It is like how victims in some respects become oppressors when they get the opportunity or power. I don’t know where this particular association of not touching means respect comes from. You may be right in guessing that it comes from caste practice.
Gee: “Can you talk a bit about how migration plays a crucial role in our search for freedom whether it is as a dalit or as a transperson. For example, I read in Omprakash Valmiki’s autobiography how he says that when he migrated from his village, he could “pass” as a non dalit. Similarly, we know that all of us as transpeople, move out of our native towns to find freedom and also “pass” more as women or men”.
Kaveri: As someone who could pass as a non-dalit, non-trans woman, how you tell other transpeople or dalits that you are one of them. How do you “out” yourself to them?
Living Smile Vidya: One’s recognition as dalit or transgender within the village gets removed by migration, but some of the markers still remain. Outing oneself as transgender really depends on how you talk, how you walk. I “pass” most of the time in public as a woman. So, if I want to tell another kothi/hijra that I am also a trans woman, I use our own kothi language to give myself away as one of them. As to outing oneself as dalit, the markers are where you live, how you speak- the dialect, last name etc.
From my experience, it is only non dalits who ask what your caste is. Dalits always know their brothers or sisters when they see us. When I want to find out if someone is a dalit comrade, I just ask a common dalit friend. But mostly, when we speak about dalit issues, we can tell if they are dalit or not. Because of sub castes and feeling of superiority, I am sometimes scared of outing myself as belonging to the arundhathiyar caste [manual scavenging]. There is some discrimination even between different types of dalits. The adi dravida castes are considered superior to us and so even at home, my parents never allowed me to learn my mother tongue, Telugu, because they were afraid that the general public would figure out and discriminate extra against me. But because living spaces are so segregated on the basis of caste, it is easy to know who the dalits are in the village. Among the dalits, the Telugu speakers would be clearly identified as the so-called lowest dalit castes. I never hide from other dalits the fact that I am also a dalit, even if I don’t reveal my sub caste. Similarly, I never hide to other trans women that I am also one of them.
Kaveri: What do you tell your dalit comrades when you attempt to unify the transgender and dalit struggles?
Living Smile Vidya: I try to explain that they have also been made to feel less human by savarna castes, in a way similar to how society treats tirunangais. I ask them why they can’t understand our pain when they have had similar experiences individually and historically. When they ask me, “Why do transgenders beg and not work? You will get more respect if you just work like other people”. I say, “Why don’t dalits become bankers, doctors, engineers. Why are they still stuck in the same jobs after all these years? Is it because we dalits are not capable? Or because we are lazy and don’t want those jobs? Actually it is because of lack of opportunity and discrimination. The same goes for transgenders. If you offer transgenders jobs, they will stop begging and work hard and live with dignity like others in society. Begging itself is very hard work”. Dalit comrades need to fight patriarchy and transphobia along with casteism.
Transphobia is a type of brahminism. It gives us no other option but to do “dirty” jobs like sex work and begging and then calls us “dirty”, just like caste system did with dalits. When I draw parallels like that, my dalit comrades understand better and work with me.
Kaveri: What do you think about unifying the oppressed peoples’ struggles?
Living Smile Vidya: If I give a talk on, transgender issues, I tell people they have to join with our struggle if they believe in social justice. I always talk about working together, along with women’s struggle. But I know that most so called feminists think that I am a man in woman’s clothing. They would treat me as if I am not quite a woman. The general public accepts me as a transgender quite readily so why do activists take longer? Some of these feminists will wear fabindia clothes and their gold and think women must be modest. They talk as if the strongest and most satisfying thing in the world is to give birth and take care of their children. As a trans woman, though the fact that I cannot have biological children, is used against me to make me feel less like a “real” woman, I sometimes feel grateful that I have been spared being thought of just as a baby producing machine! They also are very patronizing about caste and can talk progressively but will have a dalit woman making tea and serving them at their meetings instead of also including her and learning from her experiences. Dalit movements also have to be worked with internally, so that their perspective on gender broadens. In another way, savarna feminists should broaden their perspective to include trans women and also work really hard to lose their caste bias. But ultimately we have to understand that we are all people under attack whether the enemies are Brahmanism and caste, gender oppression, patriarchy, NGOs, the State, capitalism, multinational companies, Western neo imperialism etc. We must all unify to fight an effective struggle against these monsters.
 Savarna is used to refer to people born into castes that are considered to be “upper” as opposed to “lower”. Historically these castes have exploited the “lower castes”/dalits economically, sexually, socially and politically.
 An assortment of sub castes in Tamil Nadu that are categorized as Other Backward Classes [OBC]
 Now called Trivandrum or Thiruvananthapuram located in the state of Kerala. The Kingdom of Travancore at its peak comprised most of modern day southern Kerala, Kanyakumari district, and the southernmost parts of Tamil Nadu.
 The Central Government of India classifies some of its citizens based on their social condition as Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST), and Other Backward Class (OBC). There is at present some affirmative action for improving the social and economic condition of OBCs. For example, the OBCs are entitled to 27% reservations in public sector employment and higher education. In the constitution, OBCs are described as “socially and educationally backward classes”, and the government is enjoined to ensure their social and educational development. The dalits/ Scheduled castes have a contentious relationship with OBCs as the graded system of caste hierarchy places SCs below the OBCs in the hierarchy but the OBCs also benefit from affirmative action. In the recent past, atrocities on dalit communities have been perpetrated by OBCs as a possible effect of the newly found upward mobility amongst dalits which hurts the caste pride of OBCs.
 Bachelor of Computer Applications
 Refers to the ceremony of doing puja and tying the “sacred thread” of caste purity on a Brahmin boy. Here, instead of rejecting it altogether as Brahmanical, Bharatiyar tries to invert it by performing it for a dalit boy. Smiley is critical of this act of attempted subversion.
 Guru- chela system is one in which the senior hijra adopts a young hijra as her daughter and becomes her mother. Traditionally, the young hijra has to serve her mother like a dutiful daughter , give her half her earnings and look after her house. In return for which her mother will give her protection and also facilitate her sex change if it is to be done traditionally and outside the medical system. Though hierarchical in nature, it is a culturally created system of alternative familial relations and support.
 For the first time in India, the Karnataka State Backward Classes Commission recommended inclusion of transgender community in the OBC list under the name “Mangalamukhi” and inclusion of children of sex workers and HIV positive people under the name “Sankula”. C S Dwarakanath was the Chairman of the Commission. Though the recommendations were given over one and a half years back, none of the recommendations have been implemented yet.
 Thevar (Derived from Sanskrit Devar) means God. In the early days, Kings were portrayed as god and called as Devar. Devar is not a caste name but a surname used by Mukkulathors, a dominant caste in Tamilnadu.
 Kothis are female indentified trans people who may or may not choose to undergo sex change operations/ dress in what is considered to be women’s clothing. Kothis can join the hijra system but respect for post-op transwomen is greater in most hijra communities.
 Hijra derived from Persian word “ezra” meaning “wanderer”, is a term used for transgender women in India. Most hijras are post-op and live in hijra houses. Hijras used to serve in the courts of the Mughal emperors as attendants of the queen. Culturally and religiously they have some amount of sanction as people fear the curse of a hijra on a new born baby and she blesses the child in return for money. Hijras also dance at weddings for which they are paid. Apart from this, begging and sex work are the main occupations and they face a lot of phobia, discrimination and violence from their families and society at large.
 A jamaat is the legal system developed by hijra communities to resolve conflicts and to mete out punishment to wrong doers. Senior hijra Gurus are the decision makers in these functions and there are strict codes of conduct that hijras should follow when attending jamaat.
 Valmiki, a leading Hindi Dalit writer and author of the celebrated autobiography Joothan (1997) has published three collection of poetry – Sadiyon Ka Santaap(1989) Bas! Bahut Ho Chuka (1997), and Ab Aur Nahin (2009); and two collections of short stories – Salaam (2000),and Ghuspethiye (2004). He has also written Dalit Saahity Ka Saundaryshaastr (2001), and a history of the Valmiki community, Safai Devata (2009).
 A chain of ethnic, “Indian” clothes worn by most well to do civil society activists and feminists.
Living Smile Vidya, was born to Veerammal R on 25th March 1982 ,in Trichy, Tamil Nadu. She identifies as a dalit transwoman artist. She is a professional theatre actor and has worked with more than nine renowned directors in theatre. She has worked in Tamil and Malayalam movies as assistant Director. Living Smiley Vidya has written her critically acclaimed autobiography “I am Vidya” which has been translated into English, Malyalam, Marathi and Kannada. She started doing line drawings in 2010 and has received no formal training in arts.
Little Samo Bunny
but you’re only the undertaker
because entertainment media is the fanciest graveyard.
they need to shut up because people
are killing to be buried here.
you bury your queers because you love them
it’s not like you bury them because you’re fucking frightened
it’s not like you murder your darlings because you are terrified
they’ll conspire with your readers and plot the death of the author.
maybe you bury your queers as to grant no one any incentive
lest your actors be unshackled from your offered arcadia
lest they go mad and film their own unlicensed pornographies
that violate your copyrights of your queers buried between your frames.
and when you bury your queers between the pages
blame the bigotry of your editor
who will blame the bigotry of the publishers
who will blame an irate imaginary audience
and all of you will blame an indifferent imaginary public.
introspection is too close to breaking into graves
so just bury the queers down there
with the skeleton service.
the skeleton service is all i know
it pours me my drinks
we speak about the myth of mirrors
we speak about stripping ourselves down to the bones
(you unbury us when you need shambling contradictions
you unbury us to craft villains and frankensteins)
first they are saints and then they are exhumed for parts.
you bury mad men
the way you bury martyrs
we turn to dust and
dust buries the invisible.
you don’t have to suffer guilt
you’re only the undertaker
there’s a reason you don’t check for a pulse first.
(if all else fails bury them in ennui
bury them in uninspiration
bury them fettered to a story so insipid
no one answers the chimes in the graveyard shift)
i’m tired of graverobbing in the deserts of your narratives
i’m tired of unearthing tombs that tell me everything
you think i should know:
that i am irrelevant
Ashwin Shakti is an artist and poet. He lives in Chennai India. Check out his work at www.auctoricide.com
intergenerational time travel interview:
trans masculine-femme brown bears on healing justice
with raju rage and mîran n.
This interview is also published with “Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung” http://migration-boell.de/web/diversity/48_3638.asp
This kitchen table discussion between two trans masculine-femme brown bears (of colour) models healing justice through non-academic personal/political narratives. This interview uses imaginative time travel dialogue as a tool for empowerment. Mîran and Raju talk to each other and their younger selves to create a transformative discussion about what it means to be us: trans people of colour in a world full of struggle and survival. This project embodies healing justice as a way through oppression, for our current and younger trans of colour selves.
Raju: I really like this idea of doing this actually-at-a-kitchen-table informal interview as a form of empowerment and healing. I had originally been suggested a similar idea by my therapist and was reluctant to do it in front of someone without the life experience to understand what it means to be trans and a survivor. But with you, I can’t think of a better person to do this with and I think the time is also right for this.
Mîran: First of all, I want to thank our friend Jin Haritaworn for connecting us with this publishing opportunity. I was having dinner with you, Raju, and told you about my spoken-word-piece- -which-is-still-not-done-and-god-knows-when-will-be, where I, as my adult self today, write a letter to my younger self. My therapist also suggested I work with my inner child, but I don’t know if I, as a queer, trans, working class, fat poc with health struggles, want to talk about such intimate things with my white, abled-bodied, upper class therapist. I’m glad we realized this was something we are both interested in and want to work on together.
Raju: Yeah, that makes sense. So often we don’t have places to really voice how we feel because we are told we are ‘crazy’, paranoid or too angry, so we just end up shutting up and sometimes even shut down. It can start to feel stressful and uncomfortable to discuss the oppressions of being brown and trans, and so I like how this organically happened. I guess we have, from our many conversations before, shared our very similar backgrounds and upbringing, and so it makes sense that this would work for us as something that we would both find empowering and have both thought about. I see our conversations as a community collective therapy already anyway, and feel safe to discuss this with you. I feel it would be a great exercise for each of us personally, and hopefully, something that other (trans/ gender nonconforming) people of colour of all ages could also get something from? I hope so. Plus, I like time travelling. 😉
Mîran: Speaking of silence and paranoia, I think paranoia often protects us. Since as queer/trans of colour people, we don’t have many spaces in which we can safely exist, or just relax and be ourselves. We have to make compromises every day, just to survive. That’s why I think it’s important to see this interview as a space to share something that we would normally not be able to share, because we don’t have the privilege to find each other easily, because we don’t live on the same continent, borders separate us, we don’t have the finances and many other reasons… Lets begin!
Younger Mîran interviews Raju:
Mîran: So I would like to start with my younger self asking you questions about me today.
Younger Mîran: How do I look?
Raju: You are handsome, Mîran [adult Mîran laughs out], you always have good hair and you talk about it ALOT,haha, but you have the best hat collection even though you don’t need it. Over time I have seen you become more comfortable with yourself.
Younger Mîran: Why do you call me Mîran? Do I have long or short hair?
Raju: Your hair is short. Right now you shaved it and its growing out, but when it is a bit longer it looks really really good. Your name is Mîran because you chose that name for yourself. I also chose my own name and it’s different from my younger name.
Younger Mîran: That’s so cool! I always wanted short hair but my mother never allowed it. She said I wouldn’t look like a girl anymore. But I never really cared about looking like a girl or a boy. I don’t understand what she is talking about. And I like the name Mîran!
Raju: When I was younger I felt similar to you. I had shorter hair but never in the style I wanted it, and my parents always encouraged me to style it and make it feminine, especially as I got older, but I did have it short. When I was 18, I left home and I cut it real short and felt so good! When you are 20 you will also do that, you will shave your head, too!
Younger Mîran: I will? Wow!!! And where do I live?
Raju: You live in Berlin.
Younger Mîran: What?! Berlin? Really?
Raju: YES! And you live on your own in your own apartment. It’s really nice and I have stayed there sometimes. There are pictures of you there that I have seen.
Younger Mîran: I’m cute, right? 🙂 Wow, my own place. I can’t believe that. I thought that I will always live in Remscheid, study here, and probably marry someone.
Raju: Well you have lived in Berlin for a few years.
Younger Mîran: Really?!! Wow! …but, Raju, can I tell you something? But don’t tell my parents.
Raju: Of course.
Younger Mîran: Sometimes I don’t feel comfortable in my body or I imagine myself differently. Yesterday, I was playing soccer with boys and it was really warm out, so I unbuttoned my shirt like them and they yelled at me. I think I like air on my chest but I also wanna cover it sometimes. Also I like longer hair and I wanna put make up on, but not all the time. It’s confusing.
Raju: I felt similar when I was growing up. I also played with boys when I was younger, but I knew I was different in some way and also confused about that. I was sure about being masculine, but knew I was born female. I felt comfortable being masculine and didn’t even really question it, but friends and family had an issue with it. I felt that I wanted to be in a male body if I could choose that, but knew I wasn’t, and I wasn’t like the other ‘tomboy’ girls who still wanted to be girls. I also liked being feminine when I was younger but wanted to be able to decide and choose and do it when and how I wanted to. So, I liked to be masculine and feminine but it took a while to realise that was ok. I think your gender will always affect other people, and other people always want you to be what they want you to be, and see what they want to see. The main thing is being comfortable in yourself. That’s easy to say sometimes and in reality it is difficult when people make fun of you and tell you that you should look and act a certain way, and when there is also racism on top of that. I think those people are also struggling with their own gender. It may make it easier to realise that?
Younger Mîran: Thank you for saying that, Raju. I think that is the answer to my problem. I don’t have a problem with how I look or what I wear. Other people make me feel uncomfortable.
Raju: So Mîran, how old are you? Who are your role models that you look up to? Do you have any?
Younger Mîran: I am 12. My idols are Leyla Zana and Freddy Mercury. My uncle says we like Leyla Zana because she wants to free our people. I like how she talks, she has shorter hair and she is very strong. I like Freddy Mercury because my uncle listens to his music, and I like the makeup! And the outfits! Sometimes I wish I could wear leggings and tighter things but my mother tells me I’m too fat and it doesn’t look good on me. She also says that we are migrants and attract attention anyway, so we should keep a low profile. Also, I like Prince, too.
Raju: People think it is important to fit in and not stand out. I think it is more important to be yourself. The role models you mention are also some of my role models too! And none of them seem to fit in to me, they all stand out and are very powerful people. Freddie Mercury is queer and also a person of colour and not many people realise that. He has struggled with his identity, and then Prince always gets called gay because he is feminine and he just carries on being himself. Sometimes it’s hard to be yourself because in some cases that may make it harder for you to survive. That might be why your parents say these things to you. It is hard for immigrants to survive. I was also an immigrant so I know how it feels. Tell me more about Leyla Zana as I don’t know who she is.
Younger Mîran: Leyla Zana is a Kurdish freedom fighter. She is very important and I think she is very strong. She was in prison a lot and she spoke Kurdish in the Turkish parliament, even though it was illegal, , but she doesn’t give up. And I like her hair.
Raju: Leyla Zana sounds like a very good role model. Some people are bold and daring and have the strength to fight. Sometimes you don’t always have that and that is also okay because it is a struggle. The older version of you is such a fighter!
Younger Mîran: Really?! So, what am I doing? I always wanted to be an artist.
Raju: You are doing many things. As I said, you are definitely a fighter. You stand up for your community and fight for their political issues. You are involved in a lot of anti-racist organising with other queer and trans people of colour. Do you know what queer and trans are? You and I work together on projects, too. Oh, and I forgot to say you are a dancer!
Younger Mîran: I think I understand. Queer and trans are people like you are and what I wanna be? A dancer? Wow, I hate dancing! But actually I like it but I never dare to. But sounds good! And what are people of colour?
Raju: Being of colour and using that term is empowering for us. It means we identify our selves instead of letting people tell us that we are scum and not worth anything just because we are not white and don’t look like we were born here in Europe. It is a very political term. Not everyone uses this term and may use other words to describe themselves in a similar way, but many people do. It makes us feel good about ourselves and means we discover things about ourselves that we may otherwise not.
Younger Mîran: And of colour is probably people like us? Things are unfair for us. So the other students in my class are not of colour.
Raju: Yes, exactly! It also means we can find each other and build community and chosen family. I wish my younger self could meet you. I’m sure we would be friends, just like our older selves, because we have a lot in common. Actually, we call each other brothers now and we really take care of each other!
Younger Mîran: I would like to be your friend, there are lots of things I would like to know about you! You sound really nice and I always wanted a brother! Sounds like I’m going to look like I imagine and I even have friends! Now I’m really less scared of the future.
Now the adult Mîran interviews the younger Raju.
Mîran: Hey Raju! Tell me, how old are you?
Younger Raju: Are you talking to me? My name isn’t Raju. But I like that name. One of my cousins is called Raju, too. I am 7.
Mîran: Oh, excuse me! I forgot to tell you that you chose the name Raju for yourself, recently. Is it ok if I call you Raju now?
Younger Raju: Wow, I like it! I didn’t know you could choose your own name. My parents called me a name that is very unusual and not many people here can pronounce it properly. They make it into an English name which I don’t like, and people don’t think I’m Indian because of it, so I like Raju.
Mîran: So, I’m Mîran and I am a friend of the adult person you are going to be in the future. Do you have any questions you want to ask me?
Younger Raju: Yes, I have so many questions!!!!! So, am I old? How old am I and what do I look like and what is my personality like and where do I live? And, and… how do I know you?
Mîran: Wow! So many questions! I will try to answer them all. So, you are 34 now and you are still based in London, but you lived in many other places like Vancouver and Berlin. Actually, you are going to fly to India very soon. Right now, you are in Berlin, and that’s how we met 4 years ago. You were part of a performance group and I met you and Jin at the same time. Jin is also a good friend of ours. By the way, you look fantastic! I want to look like you do! Right now you have shorter hair again but a couple of months ago your hair was longer. It’s wavy and curly. You are 5’5, very handsome and I have to tell you: great style! You always know how to look good and combine your clothes. You are very outgoing and yes, shy sometimes. You are one of the most sensitive people I know and helped me a lot when I was very confused about a lot of things, like gender. You told me it was okay however I want to look and who ever I want to be. Oh, and you are VERY smart and a great and important activist. AND a masterbaker!!!
Younger Raju: I am soooooo old! Wow, that is amazing. I could never imagine those things about myself! I am so shy I could never imagine being on a stage performing. I don’t like how I look now because people make fun of me and tell me that because i’m Asian, that is a bad way to look. Or, that I look like a boy and I should look more like a girl, so I feel ugly. I do like dressing up but I am confused about gender, I’m not sure I know what gender means. Do you mean being a girl or a boy? Because I want to be both!
Mîran: Well, that didn’t change! You still like to dress up! You like to play with looking masculine, feminine, etc… gender, basically means how you see yourself (in terms of being a boy or a girl) but that doesn’t mean it’s how people read you and it also doesn’t mean that you have to be a boy or a girl.
Younger Raju: Does that mean that I can be both? Because I sometimes think I am a boy and want a boy’s body but I don’t want to be exactly like the other boys I know. I also like dressing up and make up and jewelry, too, but people say that’s girls’ things.
Mîran: One of the cool things with growing up is that you have more freedom with choosing your surroundings. You, for example, found a community with queer and trans folks of colour, who respect who you are, how you look and what you think. I understand that it’s confusing right now, but later you will see that you don’t have to choose between boy or girl. You are great the way you are and the way you look. No matter what other people tell you, okay?
Younger Raju: That is good to hear. Nobody ever told me that before. I’m surprised to hear those things about myself.I’m also surprised that I’m going to India! Because my family were originally from India and I’m so curious about the place that my family is from. I was born in Kenya and only know about that place and I don’t like it here in England.
Mîran: I understand how you feel. When I was growing up I also never got to hear people say things like that. As brown people we grow up with a lot of white people telling us we are not smart enough, not pretty enough, not skinny enough, etc. These messages are also all over television. But you are so cool! I don’t know you as a younger person, but I know you today as an adult and you are pretty fantastic!
Younger Raju: Are you like me? Because I don’t imagine having friends who knew about me and my gender? And being my friend. It’s also not cool to be a brown person – are you brown, too? All the popular kids are white and you can’t wear Indian clothes or you get bullied. You have to fit in here, my parents tell me that, and I can see it is true, but I don’t fit in. Does that mean that the older me has friends who are like me?
Mîran: Let me tell you one thing, young sibling. It is SUPER COOL to be brown! We are actually pretty similar with the way we grew up. I am also trans and brown like you are. And yes, you have more friends like me! We have a big chosen family of queer/trans of colour folks who love you and admire you. Don’t worry about the popular kids! Later, they won’t be important. They won’t be relevant in your life. You are going to be so much more than just popular. If they were still lucky enough to know you, they would probably envy who you are and what you made out of your life.
Younger Raju: WOW! You can choose your family too!? Just like your name. That is so cool. I like that. I love my mother but I don’t like my father at all and I want to be like my brother because he is a boy and I want to be one, too. It’s so funny to hear that the future can be so different! It sounds so good! And to hear that you also had a similar life, because I feel so different to my friends now.
Mîran: Yes, from the things you told me over the years, we both had to and have to deal with white middle and upper class kids. They are so much more different from who we are and what we face in our lives. Also, those kids still exist today in our communities — the people who look down on us for being who we are — and it’s tricky to deal with, but don’t be scared, we have our own people, people who grew up like you and me and we support each other, laugh with each other and also cry with each other sometimes.
Younger Raju: But how did we find each other? I wish I could find you and the others now! I never thought about my gender but now I can see that it is something that bothers me a bit because I can see that other people aren’t like me and it makes me feel like I’m different in a bad way. I want to meet people like me. I want to meet you!
Mîran: The problem is that the world that we live in, separates us from each other and isolates us. But you are smart, you will break out of it, and find me! Very soon! Until then, you can read books by bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and other black feminists. Read about Stonewall (but not the whitewashed version) and try to find books about queer and trans of colour experiences. Maybe in a library… Another cool thing, later we will have the Internet (connecting all computers — computers are also cool! — and then you can get information with that! Oh, by the way, you also publish about these things!
There are other queer/trans people of colour who live close to you, that you don’t know yet.
Younger Raju: That sounds incredible!!!! This sounds like a sci-fi movie! I love sci-fi and I also love reading. All I am allowed to read right now is encyclopedias and educational books that help me learn English and fit in, but I want to read these instead. I’m not sure what they are or what they say, and I don’t know some of these words, queer and trans and the names of those writers, but it sounds amazing and I have a feeling that I will learn a lot! Thanks for telling me about them! I can’t wait to grow up now. I hate this place, it doesn’t feel safe and I want to leave! This makes me feel so much better to know there are these things out there and that my life will change.And it sounds like I am happy and I have a good life!
<time travel ends>
Mîran: Wow, I don’t know how you feel, Raju. But that was very intense! I feel like this was more effective than a lot of therapy sessions. It’s so healing to talk to a good friend/comrade, watch and listen to your younger self. I never would have guessed how much we can learn from our younger selves. I was too scared to publish the letter I am writing to the younger part of myself but this encourages me to do so! Thank you, Raju, for sharing this intimate piece with me. Again, I see how important it is that we listen to and write our own stories, witness our strengths and supports and heal ourselves and each other. I like kitchen table (this one literally!) discussions with my cutie poc (qtpoc) siblings! Thank you for guiding each other through the scary past. It makes it a little easier to look into the scary future. Like the Black scholar Ruthie Wilson Gilmore said, “We should plan to win. And we can win.”
Raju: I liked using this narrative form of self therapy as a way to unfold and reach out to our younger selves. I feel these conversations have been healing to a younger part of me, and also very much the older present me, who felt and often feels isolated. I also enjoyed time travelling with you and would love to do this again, maybe continually, with you and for myself as a way of healing from past trauma that we often forget about or bury deep when we get older and have too much to deal with still, and when our struggle takes over. I feel it is important to share those moments to gain strength and solidarity. I feel like this has been quite a journey from the kitchen table to the inner depths of our fragile, but strong surviving younger souls, that carries us into a less scary and more safe future! Thank you, Mîran, for sharing this with me, for carrying me and protecting me, and showing me now and infinitely, that there is always a way out and/or a way forward!
Raju Rage, being disciplined from a young age with learning English and studying, wants to be a writer and artist and have his work published one day (he will!). He hopes to be successful, handsome and grow up to be a superhero living in a hot country!
Mîran N. likes ice cream (going to suck in the future with lactose-intolerance), music and soccer. They hates spiders, aftershave and white beans (will never change). Mîran wants to be a famous artist.
21 + genders…… by Gopi Shankar
1. திருநங்கை– Trans-women
2. திருநம்பி- Trans-men
1. பால்நடுநர்– Androgyny
2. முழுனர்– pan-gender
3. இருனர்- Bi-gender
4. திரினர்- Tri-gender
5. பாலிலி– A-gender
6. திருனடுனர்– Neutrois
7. மறுமாறிகள்– Retransitioners
8. தோற்றபாலினத்தவர்– Appearance gendered
9. முரண்திருநர்– Transbinary
10. பிறர்பால்உடையணியும்திருநர்– Transcrossdressers
11. இருமைநகர்வு– Binary’s butch
12. எதிர்பாலிலி– Fancy
13. இருமைக்குரியோர்– Epicene
14. இடைபாலினம்– Intergender
15. மாறுபக்கஆணியல்– Transmasculine
16. மாறுபக்கபெண்ணியல்– Transfeminine
17. அரைபெண்டிர்– Demi girl
18. அரையாடவர்– Demi guy
19. நம்பிஈர்ப்பனள்– Girl fags
20. நங்கைஈர்பனன்– Guy dykes
21. பால்நகர்வோர்– Genderfluid
22. ஆணியல்பெண்– Tomboy
23. பெண்ணன்– Sissy
24. இருமையின்மைஆணியல்– Non binary Butch
25. இருமையின்மைபெண்ணியல்– Non binary femme
26. பிறர்பால்உடைஅணிபவர்– Cross Dresser
“Gender” is related to physical and emotional perception of an individual. Restricting gender in the binary categories of female and male is erroneous as we have to be aware about the existence of more than twenty categories of gender. The same is also true for the sexual orientation where the dominant public knowledge is only limited to the heterosexual orientation. Here we do not want to narrow down our emphasis on homosexuality, rather here we emphasize about Gender-variants, which transcend the binary categories. Gender and sexuality are the rights of an individual and interfering to those refers to the interference in personal freedom.
In India, thanks to the colonial legacy of shallow Victorian values, we have come to see this as a deviant behaviour or violation. Indian culture is originally abundant with legends and mythologies where heroes and heroines have chosen various genders without guilt and their choices have been accepted and respected. Ironically, today the western nations are progressive in researching and educating about gender and sexuality expressions, while we, despite our rich cultural heritage respecting and accepting gender variations and choices are lagging behind and even lacking that sensitivity.
While the students of medicine, engineering, law and literature specialize to practice their own functions, what we lack is that there are no studies or synthetic discipline to study the biological, bio-ethical, legal, psychological, social dimensions of the very basic emotions concerning sexuality and gender. Though the Indian universities can offer worldwide recognized studies, we certainly lack any basic axiomatic framework pertaining to gender and sexuality, while the foreign universities have even started their own departments and research activities. The most painful condition is that even psychologists are mostly unaware of Gender-variants and their localized issues pertaining to Indian conditions.
India’s pre-colonial traditional as well as various localized folk traditions have taken a far healthier attitudes in dealing with sex-education, that may surprise many people on both sides of the fence of sex-education who want to map Indian culture with dominant Victorian male value system. Various folk deities and traditions emphasize fluid nature of gender and mythologies have stories that reinforce this idea. So a child growing up will not have a strong shock value or guilt feeling in relating to one’s own sexuality or others as gender-variants. Devi Mahatmya and Mahabharata are two such examples. Koothandavartemple festival in Tamil Nadu is another example of local folk tradition organically linked to the pan-Indian culture in dealing positively with creating awareness for and empowering gender-variants. These cultural possibilities need to be taken up and explored to create democratic social space for gender-minorities.
Hence a very comprehensive solution for this problem is the induction of social awareness starting from the school days with stories, and progressing into the high school curriculum with a biology and psychology of gender issues over the whole spectrum of gender variance. And then initiate healthy debates and open minded discussions on the issue at the college level.
However this social responsibility has been neglected by both government and social organizations for decades even after independence. Our social and political institutions still suffer from gender bias and colonial mind set of the Victorian era.
Hence we demand that efforts be made and let the governments and institutions come out with what efforts have been already done in understanding and creating an awareness about the Gender-variants issues in any field, such as law, education and medical sciences.
Generally the terms gender, sexuality and sex are taken to be the same. But they all mean different things. Sex is a biological definition and gender is the self-identity and it also means the sociocultural and behavioural perception, while sexuality refers to the sexual attraction towards a particular sex. That even within the mainstream LGBT community in India, the existence of these many genders is largely unknown.
Some forms of genders don’t even have a proper word in the dictionary and we have coined terms both in Tamil and English for a few, there are more than 20 different types of genders other than male, female and Transgender. A total positive transformation in public awareness and perception will at least take another 20 years, the government, educationists and social activists should put an effort together and the change should start from the education system. We insist that gender and sexuality education should be part of the educational system from the primary schools itself and slowly through spiral methodology enter the main syllabus in high schools and colleges with appropriate discourse value.
People are ignorant about the existence of various genders and sexuality and due to this, for over a century, women &other minority gender-variants have undergone a lot of ill-treatment and abuse. It is time to put an end to this inhuman treatment to our gender-minorities. Hence we request through this PIL that all actions that have been done so far in the field of education, culture, social awareness, medicine, research, psychology, legislation and media etc. for the empowerment of gender-minorities be brought to light, the schemes for their empowerment be brought out to public awareness so that we can take them to the gender-minorities, make them aware that the society and government respect them, make them aware of their rights and empowerment affirmation programs and also suggest improvement based on our own field study and experiences
(keep posted about this campaign here…..)
Confessions of a fucked up mind