For the dawn of dignity

The term ‘third gender’ finds a place in too many areas of life, despite active opposition from the transgender community
Illustration: Sourav Roy
Illustration: Sourav Roy

It was only in the year 2013 that the US dropped the term ‘Negro’ from its census surveys. In the year 2017, its government was still debating the removal of the term from its federal documents; a change that the previous president, Barack Obama tried to bring in place to catch up with the generational shift within the black community. The transgender community have had to contend with a similar stalemate here. 

While it was the 2011 national census that first counted the transgender population, they were termed the ‘third gender’ in the survey. The enumeration form, under the column for sex, gave the options: Male, Female or Other. Over a decade later, in a world where trans advocacy is much stronger, our awareness has increased manifold, there are terms in Tamil and English better suited for the purpose, and when we simply should know better, the term ‘third gender’ finds a place in too many areas of life; despite the active opposition from the transgender community.

A long history

Paalputhumai, Queer Chennai Chronicles’ blog, talked about the indignity associated with the term when the free bus tickets for trans persons offered by the TNSTC (Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation) read ‘’ for moonram paalinar (third gender). “The term third gender has been used for a very long time; even centuries ago when people started talking beyond the gender binary and heteronormativieness. However, it depends on the cultural aspects of how it was used and when. Only in recent days are we talking from the point of rights or aversion. Earlier, it might have been in a very different context,” points out Moulee C, publisher and co-founder of QCC. 

He recalls the use of the option ‘Others’ in Tamil Nadu in the mid-2000s. Naturally, this drew quite a lot of criticism from the community. Around 2013 though, the Union government — for its Sixth Economic Census — brought in forms that offered the three options for gender but categorised it as this: 1. Male, 2. Female, 9. Third Gender. It was the late M Karunanidhi who wrote to the government against such usage and the practice was eventually dropped. However, it was the Supreme Court NALSA (National Legal Services Authority) verdict that sealed the deal for use of ‘third gender’, details Moulee, laying out the history of such usage. 

In the face of change

Arun Karthik, a transman and one of the 12 members of the Board, points out that use of the term ‘third gender’ is far more prevalent with all things associated with the Union government — be it census forms, UPSC applications and the like. Many educational institutions too continue to use it, he points out. Even the Welfare Board had its origin as Aravanigal Nalavaariyam in 2008 during the then DMK government. It was during the AIADMK regime that followed that it was renamed Moondram Paalinam Nalavaariyam, when there was insistence from the Union Government for the implementation of the Supreme Court judgment (NALSA case), he points out. It was the return of the DMK government last year that took the advice (partly) of the Board members and changed the name to Thirunangai Nalavaariyam.

“They consulted us and used the name Transgender in the title. However, it was limited to thirunangai in Tamizh. They (DMK) follow the term that Karunanidhi coined — thirunangai (transwoman) for sentimental reasons. This excludes transmen from the title when the word thirunar could have been used instead. During Karunanidhi’s time — or even now — there was little awareness about transmen and there were fewer of them disclosing their identity,” he reasons.  

The call for more

Such legacy notwithstanding, it was only after opposition that the bus tickets were printed afresh to read ‘’ to indicate thirunangai. However, when transgender activist Grace Banu was honoured for her contributions to her community and the society at large, her award still read Best Third Gender Award 2021. “When I insisted on the use of the term transgender right there on the stage, the higher officials gathered promised to get the change done soon; after all, it has only been a few months since they came to power. Six months since, they are yet to reissue the certificate with the correction,” she notes. 

The opposition to all such use has been pretty standard all these years. “When you say third gender, who are we terming as first and second gender? If men are listed as first and women as second, then there is a hierarchy and hence, gender-based disparity there. That should be done away. Also, when there are very dignified and reclaimed terms from the community, why should we go by the terms from the past?” questions Moulee. 

While Grace is grateful to the DMK government for the work they have been doing and the changes they have been trying to usher in, there is much that is expected of them, she says. “When you say ‘Dravidian Model’, would you categorise people by their gender? All are equal, after all. Our policies should reflect it. States like Karnataka and Kerala have a transgender policy. But trans history cannot be without the mention of Kalaignar, or the contributions of trans persons from Tamil Nadu. So, the government’s progressive policies should reflect in this aspect too. Hopefully, there would be something in time for Transgender Welfare Day (April 15),” she concludes.

Not there yet

Transgender Welfare Board is named Thirunangai Nalavaariyam in Tamizh. It’s still one step away from what the community wants, Thirunar Nalavaariyam.

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