It was on December 19, 2016, that I came out as a transman, conceding my journey from female to male to the world. Little did I know then that I was to endure an array of riddles, wrapped in government procedures, pertaining to sex and gender change. Kerala, with its envisioned transgender policy board and a significant amount set aside in the state budget, has no solid provision to respond to gender change applicants’ concerns. Whilst the Supreme Court’s judgement on transgender rights (NALSA vs Union of India) on April 15, 2014, can be exerted to address the basics regarding gender transition, irrespective of surgical transition as a mandate, I had to face adverse predicaments that vividly contradicted the NALSA judgement.
After an excruciating six months of treading through government offices and hospitals, struggling to educate the concerned officials about my requirements and rights as a transman, I received the Kerala gazette notification. While my family and friends celebrated this occasion – as I could finally start living my new life in my true identity, the trapped man who was finally liberated and accepted by the state – an unsettling feeling lingered in me. I felt numb and sad thinking of the same tormenting process awaiting every transperson in Kerala, who wanted to acquire the basic right to their identity.
This feeling of unsettlement slowly started fading as I heard members of the state planning board and panchayat bodies from all over Kerala pledge their alliance and resolve to build an inclusive society for the LGBTIQ community. The day-long roundtable held on May 19 at the Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum, to discuss the integration of LGBTIQ rights into the local self-governance framework in Kerala, was perhaps a stepping stone to an ideal model of an inclusive society. I couldn’t help but think of how if the system permitted, how much easier and simpler it would have been for me to approach and ask assistance from the panchayat members of my residential area (who knew my family for more than a decade) for my identification-related processes.
More than any other place, perhaps, this may work in Kerala. After all, Kerala’s experiment in political decentralisation has been the most successful of all such efforts in India. The network of local bodies here is practically a huge grid laid close to the ground, capable of transmitting new ideas to society at large. There is therefore much hope, and the community here intends to put pressure on the government. Again, this is a society which has, historically, responded to such pressure: the famous ‘public action’ upon which Kerala’s welfarism rests.
The issues raised by the LGBTIQ community varied from education, medical help and employment to marriage and family, and legal and state recognition. However the underlying glaring truth was that these people – who the mainstream renders monstrous – were once individuals with families, friends and neighbours. In other words, they were ‘normal’, just like anyone else. Their problems began once they were disowned by their kith and kin or had run away from the heteronormative family system that they were being coerced into. Story after story that was told there showed us how important the panchayats were to these oppressed people, since the local bodies alone could bring positive change from the grassroots. Doing away with the stigma through awareness creation was termed vital by speaker after speaker and the panchayats allow this to happen from below. In other words, when panchayats take it up, the plea for acceptance of sexual and gender diversity becomes an instrument of democratising both public and private spaces.
One quick and simple way to begin this process, according to the LGBTIQ community that participated in the discussion, was to release a handbook of sexual orientations and gender identities in laypeople’s terms. This handbook could also include details on the law and regulations in the areas of education, hospitals and employment for LGBTIQ persons and be circulated to all government offices, police stations, schools, hospitals, pharmacies and residential homes. To begin with, such a handbook addressing officials and elected representatives in local bodies would have an immense impact. Having access to a government-produced document adds authenticity to the LGBTIQ community, apart from creating increased awareness and normalising them in mainstream society. If such facilities were already in place, I would have greatly benefited from this during my experiences at government offices where the officials were completely unaware of the existence of transmen.
The LGBTIQ movements of the past two decades have addressed their demands to the state or central governments. Although this has resulted in creating awareness and initiating some programmes and policies, we are yet to see real change. This will perhaps happen when the local bodies decide to take up the challenge of including the LGBTIQ community; with this, for sure, welfare will cease to be the prerogative of heterosexual people.
At the end of the roundtable discussion, it was heartening to see officials and elected members from local bodies discard transphobia and homophobia, and declare their determination to support the inclusion of LGBTIQ people in local democracy. Such consistent efforts will, no doubt, set in motion further studies and research about the lives of LGBTIQ persons. As of now, there are no relevant statistics or bodies of research that document the lives of LGBTIQ individuals in Kerala. The realisation of such work at the panchayat level will surely move the focus upward, to the district and state levels, and perhaps this will emerge as an ideal model among others that Kerala sets forward to other states and the nation. Yet another Kerala Model, this time a more inclusive one, is what we hope for.
Vihaan Peethambar is a media professional with experience in India and the UAE. He is a board member of Queerala, an LGBTIQA+ support group based in Kerala, and identifies as a queer feminist.