After decades of battle for a place to build their houses, 33 transgender families finally found light at the end of the tunnel in 2006. Their protests and cries reached the ears of the government. Just over two acres of land was identified in the outskirts of Kanchipuram town, 75 kilometres from Chennai, and they were asked to move in.
But a place to rest does not mean peace and dignity.
On Monday afternoon, when the very severe cyclonic storm Vardah struck the coast of north Tamil Nadu, about 15 transgender women in this settlement of Thirunangai Nagar (Thirunangai in Tamil refers to transgender) were scampering for help. In matter of minutes, thatched roofs of their homes were blown away in the 120 kilometres per hour winds.
Fearing injury, all of them decided to huddle together inside the only house with a solid asbestos roof.
Hours later when they tried to reach out for help to feed themselves, the community around them flatly refused to come to their aid.
“We do not know when they will treat us like humans,” one of the transwomen said, picking up vessels from a house ransacked by nature’s fury.
Vatchala, a transgender woman, said they collect money from local traders for a living.
Culturally, the blessings of a transgender woman are supposed to bring luck and prosperity. Traders usually give them some money in the belief that the day’s business would pick up. Transgender women are also invited to certain rituals, especially connected to puberty, by a few communities.
“If it is a weekend, we could manage Rs 100 each,” she said. Contributions vary from Rs 2 to Rs 20 depending on the size of the shop.
On Sunday afternoon, most of the transgender women in this settlement left for Thiruvannamalai, the temple town 140 kilometres away, for the “Karthigai Deepam” festival. “During such festivals, we make better money given the huge crowd and religious fervour,” Vatchala added.
In a way, this turned out to be a blessing. Had the entire settlement been around, they wouldn’t have been able to cramp together inside a single house.
On Tuesday morning, those who had left for Thiruvannamalai, began returning and were overwhelmed by emotions when they saw the houses torn apart.
But none from the communities nearby even thought of checking on them. There was no food or electricity. Fear of poisonous snakes that took refuge in the small temple at the entrance of the settlement forced them to stay indoors.
This was when the families reached out to rights activists of the Makkal Mandram to help tide over the crisis.
The cyclone Vardah has dealt a terrible blow to this community already facing the wrath of its neighbours and real estate sharks.
With the settlement now brought under Kanchipuram limits, land prices have escalated. Plots around this settlement have been developed by builders, who are not able to sell the plots since buyers are reluctant to move next to a transgender settlement.
The real estate mafia has reacted violently. Over the last five years, at least 10 houses in Thirunangai Nagar have been burnt down to instil fear. Some of these transgender women have been beaten up.
“In the night, they will get in and beat us up and go away,” said Meena, another transgender woman whose house was severely damaged in the storm on Monday.
To improve security, they built a compound wall around the settlement. But constant damage to the houses have left them without much savings. The storm has come as the latest oppressor.
“All our appliances have been hit,” Meena added. Adding to their woes is the fact the despite even changing the name of the locality to honour transgenders, the government has not issued legal deeds. Hundreds of petitions to the district collector have done no good, making them worry about possible collusion between officials and real estate agents.
More than material damage, it is the attitude of the people that hurt more. “But nothing can move us out of this place. We got this after unimaginable struggle,” Vatchala said.