“It was in the eighth standard that I began to feel something about me was different. I wasn’t like the other boys in my class,” says Grace Banu. Grace’s school days were not like that of the other children, weighted as she was by the double pressure of disadvantaged caste and sexuality. But Grace used her own history to change lives, emerging as a voice for those with similar experiences as her.

A Dalit and transgender activist and founder of the Trans Rights Now Collective, Grace created history by becoming the first transgender to secure admission to an engineering college in Tamil Nadu. Today, she is at the forefront of the anti-caste and transgender rights movement and is undoubtedly one of the fiercest voices in transgender rights in the country.

Grace was born and raised in Tuticorin district, Tamil Nadu. As a Dalit-transgender person, she dealt with discrimination on a daily basis in her life. She was picked on at school because of her caste and subsequently because of her swiftly developing gender dysphoria. She was not allowed to enter the classroom, had to sit under a tree, far from the other students, and asked to come late to school and leave early. It was made clear to the other students that speaking with her would result in punishment. The world doubled down on her, and Grace became an alien in that world. She had little access then to announce to the world “This is gender dysphoria – where you wrestle with your gender identity and the sex-related gender characteristics society has forced on you . . . you will get through this.”

Feeling isolated and defeated, she attempted suicide. She was only 16 at the time. Banu confessed to her parents that she was a woman and that the male identity thrust on her was a burden. “My parents weren’t [educated] – they didn’t know anything about trans persons . . . They thought they’d lost all their dreams, like [their] children have this kind of “problem” – and they put me into an asylum.”

At the asylum, where she was going through conversion therapy to get “cured” of homosexuality, Grace was introduced to the writings of Dr BR Ambedkar and Karl Marx. Dr Ambedkar, who led the crusade against the caste system in India, had a major influence on Grace’s understanding of the world around her. She became aware of why she was discriminated against all her childhood. Her mother, however, did not want her to give up on her education. “Every day, we stood outside the principal’s office, and my mother begged for my readmission. After several days, they decided to permit me.”

Grace was eventually rejected by her parents in 2008 for her transgender identity. “I had a tormented childhood . . . The people I had around me disappeared the very next day I decided to come out of the closet,” she said of that time. But despite all the challenges, with the support of her trans family and others, Grace finished her diploma in computer science training in 2011 and landed a job in Chennai, working for a software company. Here, too, she faced discrimination and had to leave due to the hostility she faced. But Grace wasn’t ready to give up. She decided to continue with her studies and get into a college.

To learn if transgender students were admitted at Anna University, she filed a right to information (RTI) request. They did not, she learnt, but Grace still applied against their guidelines and secured a seat at Sri Krishna College of Engineering, in Arakkonam, a private college, to study Electrical and Electronics Engineering in 2013. At barely 19, Grace had become the first transgender person to be accepted into a Tamil Nadu engineering institution. But her college journey was not easy. Even though her fees were waived, she was still struggling financially. She had used up all her savings and the money she had borrowed from her friend. Being a transgender, she was unable to find accommodation near her college and had to spend Rs 60 to reach the college.

Hearing about her troubles, Sinthu Govindaswamy, a business consultant for an IT company, launched an online campaign to raise money, and there was considerable response. Grace later completed her diploma and scored 95 per cent. Alongside her education, Grace became an activist and began to fight for transgender rights. She petitioned the Madras High Court, pleading with them to order the Tamil Nadu State Public Commission to permit transgender people to take the admission test.

Prithika Yashini was appointed as the nation’s first transgender sub-inspector of police as a result of that plea. The Trans Rights Now Collective Grace founded centres on issues faced by the Dalit caste, Bahujan political party and Adivasi population. She also adopted a daughter, Tharika Banu, who, thanks to her mother, has become the first transgender person to pass the class 12 school-leaving examination in Tamil Nadu. Grace has also fought to get Tharika admitted into the Government Siddha College through Madras High Court, where she had been denied admission. After adopting Tharika, Grace adopted 11 more trans daughters. She swells with pride as she recounts each of their achievements.

The term intersectionality might be new to politics but it explains the struggles and obstacles Grace faced in her life. Because of this term, she also had the rare ability to see transgender issues through the lens of caste. Grace believes that casteism in trans spaces is prevalent and cannot be veiled and that upper-caste transgender personalities dominate leadership positions and get better opportunities. “What governments need to understand is that the transgender community is not homogenous. Trans people come from various classes, castes, regional, and economic backgrounds. Clubbing them into one homogenous reservation category erases the experiences of Dalit-Adivasi communities. It is unjust,” she said.

Since the NALSA (National Legal Ser. Auth vs Union Of India & Ors on April 15, 2014) ruling, in which the Supreme Court acknowledged their constitutional rights to equality, liberty and dignity, the transgender community has made the struggle for horizontal reservation a top priority. Grace is a key figure in this fight.

Horizontal reservations meant separate reservations for transgenders within each category – Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), Other Backward Classes (OBC) and the General Category. In December 2014, Member of Parliament from the DMK Tiruchi Siva proposed a Private Member’s Bill seeking horizontal reservation for transgender and intersex persons in education and employment, on the lines of reservation available for women or people with disabilities across caste categories. The Rajya Sabha overwhelmingly approved the measure. However, in 2016, the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill 2016 did away with the reservations, resulting in extensive demonstrations spearheaded by the transgender community.

The battle for horizontal reservation has been a protracted one, and transgender persons have been deprived of numerous possibilities because of the delay. Currently, Grace is protesting against being included in the OBC category, a proposed move by the Union Government that amounts to a vertical reservation. This means trans people will face competition from other OBCs for the reserved seat or position, thus decreasing their chances of securing it. Grace believes that the fairer method would be for the provision of different reservations inside each vertical, SC/ ST/OBC/General category, via horizontal reservations, which will cut across all caste groups.

Excerpted with permission from Over the Rainbow: India’s Queer Heroes, Aditya Tiwari, Juggernaut.