The death of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa on December 5 has plunged the state’s politics into turmoil. But even as the story of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the party she led sees many twists and turns, lakhs of Tamil Nadu residents continue to mourn the passing of the much-loved leader.

Among those who are deeply feeling the loss of Amma, as the five-term chief minister was fondly called, is the state’s transgender community.

“To us, she was a symbol of courage,” said Jaya, the general manager of Sahodaran, an intervention centre for the community. “Like her, we are also single women who have faced discrimination and exploitation. When I see someone like her being so strong – I think, why can’t I be like that?”

Sutha, a social worker, said that although she did not care too much for the AIADMK, she felt affectionately towards Jayalalithaa and grieved her death.

“We know how difficult it can be for a single woman, with no one to support her, to survive in this world,” said Sutha. “We have all been in the position where we had no support from our own family. She also has the same struggles. But because of her attitude and boldness, she was someone I loved.”

Support for the marginalised

Tamil Nadu is the only state where the welfare of the transgender community is given importance, said Sutha. The state has a Transgender Welfare Board and was the first in India to grant the community the third gender status, in 2008. Last year, the state made headlines when it recruited India’s first transgender police officer, Prithika Yashini.

In her previous term as the chief minister (2011-’16), Jayalalithaa implemented two key welfare measures for the community.

The first was to grant a pension of Rs 1,000 a month to transgender people aged 40 years and above. “Very few transgender people live beyond the age of 60,” said Jaya. “Most of them start to age considerably after the 40 years, because of the number of surgeries they might have gone through or other health complications.”

Towards the end of her term in 2016, just before the state elections in May, Jayalalithaa allotted a 260 houses exclusively for the transgender community in Chennai. Kavya, the President of the NGO Thozhi, said her organisation had persistently requested such a scheme.

“There are so many obstacles transgender people face while buying a house,” said Kavya. “Until Jayalalithaa Amma finally gave us 260 flats in North Chennai this May, we were constantly threatened with eviction.”

The scheme has eased things greatly for the community, said Kavya, who is now preparing to move into her flat in the complex. It has, for the first time, enabled several members of the community to live together in a secure environment, she said.

“Four months after the sex-change surgery we undergo, a function called the paal ceremony is held,” said Kavya. “Most houseowners would not allow us to hold it in their flats. We would have to arrange a separate hall for this. But now we can hold it in our own houses, and save a lot of money.”

The case is still on for transgender reservations. Credit: Living Smile Vidya via Facebook
The case is still on for transgender reservations. Credit: Living Smile Vidya via Facebook

Not quite enough?

However, some members of the community said that she was inaccessible and found that she did not interact with the community. Jaya, for instance, said that despite her admiration for Jayalalithaa, she felt the AIADMK leader could have done much more for the community.

“If you could present your problems to her, it would get solved,” said Jaya. “But it is just so hard to access her. You had to go through at least five other people before you could get to her. Everywhere, there were barriers.”

Jaya said that in contrast, it was extremely easy to reach out to leaders of the DMK government. For instance, Jaya said, just before the 2016 state elections, several organisations together had filled out forms for transgender women seeking candidature in the AIADMK and its rival, the DMK. The team first went with the forms and bouquets to Poes Garden, the chief minister’s home, to submit to her the candidacy forms. However, they were turned away at the gate, and asked to give these to the party headquarters instead.

Taking a cue from this, they went straight to the DMK’s headquarters, but were directed to party chief Karunanidhi’s residence, where, Jaya said, they were warmly greeted by the patriarch and his son, Stalin.

Apart from the creation of the Transgender Welfare Board in 2008 and the decision to recognise them as a third gender, both of which were taken under the DMK government, the party had also introduced a pension scheme for the community and provided identity cards to all members. Sudha said that Karunanidhi’s wife Rajathiammal and daughter Kanimozhi took a special interest in transgender issues, which influenced development policies in their favour.

“The DMK always support the minorities, maybe even because they’re a vote bank,” said Jaya. “But we have only 4,000 members in our community scattered across Chennai, similarly in other parts of the state. What political power do we have?”

Long way to go

Sajeev Kumar, an advocate who had filed a Public Interest Litigation before the Madras High Court in 2013 seeking reservations for transgender people in employment and education, said that the AIADMK government did not support this effort. “Even if it were 0.1% reservation, at least one or two transgender people would get the benefit,” he said. “But the government instead responded saying that such separate reservations cannot be given.”

In 2014, when the Supreme Court came out with a landmark verdict granting the third-gender status to the community in recognition of their rights and unique identity, it had also said that the Centre and state governments should give them the same benefits that Most Backward Communities are entitled to. Kumar said the government misconstrued the order.

“The Tamil Nadu government included them under the Most Backward Communities quota instead of creating a separate one for them, like the Supreme Court had specified,” said Kumar, “This is not enough for the upliftment of this community. There is still a long way to go.”