They took on society and pushed the envelope to create a market of their own in this industry. They not only accepted themselves but also embraced themselves and therefore the world accepted them regardless of the societal norms of the typical Indian mentality shunning all the socio cultural structures and such. Meet Grace Banu, the transgender activist who is popular and living it up every single day.
Photography: Nithin Barath S
Location: Radisson Blu Hotel, Chennai City Centre
Styling: Chandini Khanna
Hair And Makeup: Volt Style Bar
When did you know or realize about your gender and that this is what you would be for the rest of your life?
As a child I was always feminine and I enjoyed exploring that within myself, of course I didn’t really understand till I was 14 that I was not supposed to be feminine. Most of the trans people face discrimination, from these people I am slightly different because I had to face both gender and cast discernment. I come from a small village outside Chennai in South Tamil Nadu and it was quite a journey to get to where I am today simply because I chose to accept myself and embrace all that I was at a very early age. I think most people cannot change who they are and that’s why issues arise, but it is also beautiful if you think about it because the truth of who you are always remains with you.
Living in a village how was it for your gender?
Well I identify myself as a village girl (smiles). Villages are filled with old school patriarchy and on top of that I was a Dalit caste. So; it was like a double weight on my shoulders at a young age. I only wanted to study, from a very young age I was very interested in educating myself and learning about things. This right was not given to me at all. When the school principal found out about my gender, he first banned me then when my mother protested made me sit outside in the courtyard under a tree because I was not the right gender in his mind and therefore, I was not eligible to get education. I could not enter the class room, I had to come after everyone arrived and leave before anyone left and this was not just about my gender but also my caste.
As a child you don’t understand politics, cast systems, right or wrong; you just want to be like everyone else and I was very confused and angry for being treated differently. My mother had drilled it into my mind that education was very important because she had suffered a lot of oppression and that is where revolution begins. This concept stuck with me throughout my life. My father got frustrated and then threw me into a mental home to force my mind to accept that I was a boy and not a girl.
How did this experience frame your mind at such a young age?
I was very upset, hurt and confused as you can imagine. I had a lot of anger and I was adamant until I found education. They had a library with books and I could read so I started to understand politics and regulation. I read up everything I could find and started to make judgements of my own and also learnt that in order to survive I would have to do something drastic. I guess the thirst for freedom and knowledge was so strong that I had hope. I pretended to be ‘fixed’ and was sent home promptly; of course, it was all an act and I ran away from home and went to the big city to look out for my own life. I was scared but I had learnt something very important in that year, I learnt to be fearless and clear about my vision for my own life. That lack of fear is why I believe I am a bit different from the rest, because I see life through an educated perspective where every situation has a solution and all you have to do is find it.
In Chennai did you suffer or did you manage to find your salvation?
I think life is all about how you perceive it to be, I was very sure about what I wanted to do and I wanted to study. When I came to Tirunelveli, I met my first trans mother, who is a person who helps you and mostly it is associated with sex work or begging. My mother asked me what I wanted to do and I told her I wanted to study and become an engineer. I was lucky enough to receive my request but this time I hid my gender and pretended to be a boy. I was so happy to study and my first education after school was to get a computer engineering diploma. And besides we didn’t have the right to get an education as a trans gender person.
Did you get exposed in the college?
Well I had a habit of writing a journal and one day it was found out by my friends and I was actually very worried that I would be thrown out but this didn’t happen. They gave me their full support and wanted me to succeed and do well. I was very happy and got 98 percent in my course. This was a very victorious moment for me.
When did you start with your medical transformation to become a woman?
I left the college and found a job as a computer programmer and at the time I started off as a man in the company. A lot of people found out then as well because it is very difficult to hide who you are. I started at the time to also take the hormonal shots and I was thrilled at the idea even of finally becoming a woman, my voice, my facial hair everything started to change. My boss was very upset and wanted me to leave the company but I asked him to first consider my work and then decide and they put me in customer care. Once I did my entire transformation and got the surgery, I was excited to finally be a woman but I faced now a whole new discrimination in the work place. As a woman I now was paid three fourth the salary I was paid as a man!
What is your goal for the transgender community?
I have always been an advocate for trans rights in society, when a friend said they were not getting a police job because of her gender I said let us go to the courts and fight for your rights. We won that case and that inspired me to keep activating for the community. I enjoyed this and it gave me purpose. I always believe that success leads to even more success because you create a pattern of positivity.
My ultimate goal is to bring about reservation rights in education for the trans community because it is education and thirst for knowledge that has been my savior and I believe it will relieve a lot of negative patterns in the society I am from. It is easy to do the sex work or beg but dignity and respect come from fighting for your rights as a human, that feeling gives you more confidence and makes you believe in the impossible.