The sun was high by 8 am on April 28, beating down on the athletes who had assembled in the Central Stadium in Pallayam, Thiruvananthapuram, to participate in the first state-level Transgender Sports Meet, organised by the Kerala State Sports Council. The event saw a turnout of over a hundred transgender athletes, from 14 districts of the state. While some ran, jumped and threw in jerseys bearing their district names, others wore casual outfits, even saris and make-up, despite the blistering heat.

“This is the first time in the history of the world that an entire state is behind such an event,” said P Sasidharan Nair, the Administrative Board Member of the Sports Council and Joint Secretary of the Kerala Olympic Association. “We are the first state to take up this challenge, but other states will need to start similar programmes. Only then we will be in a position to conduct a national championship. We are willing to be at the forefront of organising it.” According to officials, each unit was assigned to host district-level championships and choose 20 of the best players for the state-level contest, but there was no representation from Idduki and Pathanamthitta due to the relative lack of transgender population.

While the 100, 200 and 400 metres dash, 4x100 relay as well as shot put and long jump events saw some serious competitors, many participants were present more in the spirit of solidarity, to create visibility for the transgender community.

Photo credit: Makepeace Sitlhou

Arun aka Arunima, who was raised as a girl by a temple dancer and beautician mother, spoke about missing out on sports in school due to the severe gender-based harassment and bullying. “I only took part in 100 metres but will definitely participate in shot put next time,” said Arun. “For me, it was about participation rather than winning and fulfilling a childhood dream. I really liked the freedom that the transgender community enjoyed today.”

There was much visible praise for the Pinarayi Vijayan-led Left Democratic Front government, for taking an initiative for the transgender community, who are mostly shunned by their natal families in Kerala.

Sree Kutty, the President of the Sexual Gender Minorities Forum Kerala, which represents community-based organisations working for transgender welfare, feels there is an absence of transgender culture in Kerala. “There’s too much education here,” she said. “People here don’t worship Gods the way they do in other places, where transgenders are given a lot of respect because of their role in mythologies like the Mahabharata.”

Moral policing is high in Kerala, Sree Kutty said, but that was changing with the new government. Transgender persons have more liberty now. Last year, the finance minister announced a host of measures for the community in the 2016-’17 budget, including senior pension, welfare schemes, financial assistance to NGOs and job reservation.

Anil Arjun, a transgender activist and sports meet coordinator, is optimistic that transgenders will change perceptions by bringing prizes for the state and country. “We want to change the perception of them bringing shame to their families, or to the nation’s pride,” he said. The government also plans to train teachers to make schools more friendly, to decrease the dropout rate of 25% of transgender kids, he added.

Is Translympics the next big league?

By the afternoon, Rakesh aka Ragini, who was representing Malappuram district, had won two golds and a silver, and the coveted title of the fastest transperson, with a timing of 12.3 seconds (for perspective, the national record for 100 metres is Dutee Chand’s 11.24 seconds in the women’s category, and Amiya Kumar Mallick’s 10.26 seconds in the men’s category). Built like Dutee Chand and Rachita Mistry, Ragini’s entry into the transgender community was through her involvement with the National AIDS Control Organization’s work.

“There was no training I underwent for this event,” Ragini said. “I’ve only played some kho kho in school. But I hope to go far with this and qualify for the nationals.”

The Sports Council of Kerala is looking forward to starting a transgender league for other games as well. Nair said: “We found some really good athletes in our 100, 200 and 400 metres races. We will prepare them properly to represent India but the organising Olympic committee has to take the initiative in this regard.”

The international debate has not focused on creating a separate league (like the Paralympics) but on the inclusion of transgender athletes in either male or female categories in competitive games. The “level playing field” argument has been tirelessly used to disqualify women with hyperandrogenism, a medical condition characterised by excessive levels of male sex hormones. Despite the International Olympic Committee changing its guidelines on the inclusion of transgender athletes and female athletes with (naturally occurring) hyperandrogenism in the Rio Olympics, the two transgender athletes who participated in Rio chose not to come out (the International Association of Athletic Federations has a strict confidentiality clause for transsexual athletes).

Photo credit: Makepeace Sitlhou

Formerly, transgender athletes had to undergo surgical transition and hormonal therapy to compete in either category. Women athletes were altogether disqualified if their androgen levels were found to be above 10-nanomoles-per-litre threshold, a decision which was revoked by Dutee Chand’s winning appeal. In Chand’s case, the Court of Arbitration for Sport in 2015 ruled to reinstate Chand to compete in the women’s category, on the grounds that the IAAF had failed to conclusively show just how much advantage naturally occurring testosterone adds to athletic performance.

For the event in Thiruvananthapuram, Nair felt the decision was best left to the medical committee to decide which category transgender athletes may qualify in. Arjun, however, argued that the Supreme Court decision of self-identification and government-issued gender certificates should suffice, to make transgender athletes compete in a category of their choosing, at national or international events. He elaborated: “Can you term gender into first, second or third? Currently, there is no defining difference between gender and sex in sports. Even the Olympic association has said that surgery is not required.” Neither of them specifically commented on the issue of androgen levels, which has been the main contention on the debate of athletic fairness, rather than sexual organs.

A long way to go

“This is the first time the government has recognised their talent, this alone is a victory,” said Prijith PK, an LGBT activist who coordinated the meet with community-based organisations. But the event still lacked the cheering crowds of a sports meet. Basic arrangements fell short of the standard expected from a sporting event, particularly one organised by the sports council, which the chief minister himself inaugurated.

While the newspaper DNA reported that participants had been given three-day training prior to the event, many athletes did not seem familiar with the rules, committing fouls during the shot put and long jump events. Nair told that the record of 12.3 seconds in the 100 metres race was set despite the lack of practice. When asked if the chosen athletes were provided with any training or coaching, he said, “Definitely after this event, we will take initiative and we will select people for national and international events.”

Mary, a counsellor with the Malappuram-based organisation Karma, felt that their performance and scores would have been better with proper training camps for the athletes. “There could been more publicity around this event,” she said. “For an event geared at changing people’s mindsets, the government should have promoted this widely.”

Kavya, the “Mother” or guru and manager of the Kannur district athletes, said, “They [the participants] need more training and technical assistance from the Sports Council.”

The Maleppuram district bagged the tournament trophy with the maximum medals, closely followed by Kannur district. Aziruddin aka Sairabanu, who works as a physical education teacher in Maleppuram, said she dreams of winning medals in the nationals even though she did not bag a medal in Thiruvananthapuram. Despite the lack of recognition , Mary said that they remain hopeful that sports would change their fates.