Shyama’s 26th birthday was the best day of her life.

She had concealed her gender identity for nine years before she came out as a trans-woman at 22. As a child, classmates had hurled sexually-explicit barbs at her. In college, students leered at her. One day, a student even called her a hijra in front of everyone. “I lost my cool and gave it back to her,” Shyama recalled. “I told her to mind her business and never worry about my gender.”

Through it all, Shyama remained determined to complete her Masters in Malayalam, which she did in 2014. But on June 15, a day after her 26th birthday, she achieved the most important milestone of her life thus far – she was crowned Queen of Dhwaya 2017, at the first-ever professionally organised beauty pageant for trans-women in Kerala.

Reliving the best moment of night, Shyama said, “During the crowning ceremony, the television actor Madhu told me ‘You are awesome’. It made me ecstatic. It was a fantastic experience.” Photo credit: Justin Anthony

Speaking to a day after she won the title in mid-June, Shyama said: “The realisation is yet to sink in, I am rewinding those moments over and over again on my mind. Forget about winning. Before the event, I didn’t expect to even be a final contender.”

The pageant saw 15 talented competitors from different parts of the state, such as Thiruvananthapuram, Ernakulam and Kozhikode. They were selected from a pool of 300 aspirants who took part in the regional auditions during the first week of June. The event was held at the Cochin International Airport Limited Convention Centre in Kochi and was organised by Dhwayah Arts and Charitable Society, a Kochi-based association for the transgender community in Kerala. It was attended by Kerala’s Minister of Health and Social Justice KK Shailaja, Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, film actors, models, and television personalities, among others.

Contestants at Dhwayah Arts and Charitable Society's beauty pageant. Photo credit: Justin Anthony

Shyama said the victory was more important than anything she had done before, because it was more than just a personal milestone. “It is not easy for people in Kerala to shed their traditional beliefs and accept the transgender and intersex community quickly,” she said. “But with events like this, I hope to see gradual change.”

The crowd cheers. Photo credit: Justin Anthony

A slow churn

Concerted efforts are being made by the state government and various transgender associations to help the marginalised transgender and inter-sex communities gain visibility over the past few years. The beauty pageant was the second high-profile event held in Kerala for the trans community in 2017. On April 29, Kerala made history by organising the first-ever transgender sports meet in Thiruvananthapuram.

The most visible aspect of this change came in 2014, when the Department of Social Justice conducted a survey which looked at various aspects of the lives of transgenders, such as awareness about one’s body, civil rights, self-esteem, access to healthcare and their ability to live with dignity. The survey also attempted to understand the expectations, needs and priorities of the community.

The first-ever transgender sports meet in Thiruvananthapuram. Photo credit: Makepeace Sitlhou

The results were disturbing because they revealed the extent of the trans-community’s exclusion from the public sphere. Of the nearly 25,000 transgender people surveyed in Kerala, 68% were suffering from depression and had suicidal thoughts. They were the poorest community in the state. A majority of them hid their gender identity for fear of harassment and job loss. Fifty-nine per cent trans students dropped out from school before their first board exams, and 71% before completing school, because of the harassment, humiliation, and intimidation they suffered on campus. They were excluded from the health care system. A majority of them suffered from mental health issues.

A year later, in 2015, Kerala became the first state to introduce the State Policy on Transgenders in India. Later, the government launched the Centre for Continuing Education, which provided educational scholarships for trans-people. Shyama was among the first students to receive this scholarship while she was studying for her Masters in Education last year.

Initiatives like the survey of trans-gender people and educational scholarships by the state government have convinced Sheetal Shyam, a prominent transgender activist and president of the Dhwayah Arts and Charitable Society, that Kerala is on its way to becoming a trans-friendly state.

“During the last elections, the Left Democratic Front and the United democratic Front – two dominant forces in Kerala’s political scene – introduced transgender rights in their manifestos,” said Sheetal. “It changed public perception about us.”

Photo credit: Justin Anthony

Sheetal is one of the 23 transgenders who were employed by the Kochi Metro Rail Limited. The Metro line was inaugurated on June 17. She has also participated in seminars and delivered lectures on transgender rights in colleges across the state.

Soon, Sheetal will make her debut on the silver screen in the Malayalam film, Abhasam.

Sheetal said the change in attitude of mainstream Malayalam film directors was a positive sign. “There was a time when Malayalam movies depicted us in bad light,” she said. “Now, they are welcoming us.”

Celebrity make-up artist and actor Renju Renjimar, who founded Dhwayah Arts and Charitable Society in 2017 to promote cultural activities among transgender, was the main organiser of the beauty pageant. She said Dhwayah Queen 2017 was remarkable because both the participants and organisers were trasgender people.

“Transgenders are endowed with men’s strength and women’s will-power, which make them almost invincible,” she said. “The well-organised beauty pageant was a testimony to our abilities.”

The winners with transgender activists Sheetal Shyam and Renju Renjimar. Photo credit: Justin Anthony

Jijo Kuriakose, founder of Queerala, an organisation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer people, feels that transgender issues may have gained visibility over the years in Kerala, but a lot remains to be done. “Providing jobs for the community is a major issue,” he said. “Moreover, the government should decriminalize Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.”

A round-table discussion held at the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram on May 29, attended by members of the State Planning Board acknowledged that implementing policy decisions for the transgender and intersex community was slow work, but it also observed that the atmosphere in Kerala was changing, and was perhaps more conducive than ever towards ending the marginalisation of trans-people. It also suggested ways to include LGBTIQ people within the frame work of Kerala’s Panchayati Raj.

At the beauty pageant, as veteran politician Kodiyeri Balakrishnan inaugurated the ceremony, he said that he wanted to see an LGBTQI representative in Kerala’s State Assembly. This might be the surest path to change.