Let's talk terms. *conditions apply
Activists and members of the LGBTQIA+ community react to Kamal Haasan’s use of alternative terms to address trans persons
What’s in a name? The world is quick to throw that question in the face of difficult introspection and change. ‘Does the intention not count?’ is another FAQ. But, when you belong to marginalised communities that have had names thrust upon them (be it Harijan or Divyang), have had their liberties hang in the balance for this very reason, have lost many a bigger fight because of everyone else’s preoccupation over these very names, you tend to look for more than mere good intentions.
The introductory episode of Bigg Boss Tamil Season 5 laid out the practical implications of this debate when host Kamal Haasan used the platform to suggest alternative terms for transgender — paal kandanthor or paal ina thervu kandanthor. While there is no questioning the actor-politician’s intentions, that it wasn’t representative of the community or even perhaps the person at hand — contestant Namitha Marimuthu — is criticism that cannot be ignored.
It was at the introduction of the show’s first transgender contestant — model, Trans Star International 2019, and founder/ CEO of Miss Trans Star India and social worker — that Kamal chose to offer alternatives for the queer terms thirunangai/ thirunambi. That he didn’t ask Namitha herself what she chooses to identify as was not lost on some from the community.
“Each transwoman knows what her gender identity is, what her life has been like and what her struggles are. If Namitha identifies with the term thirunangai, she does so because she likes it. There are transgender people who prefer to be addressed as women instead of transwomen. When you claim the term ‘man’, we treat you as such. So, you should do the same for us. You don’t have to prove your knowledge to us because we know about ourselves,” offers Kalki Subramaniam, artist, activist, writer and author.
Making representation count
Namitha’s addition to such a mass entertainment platform is a big step forward in trans representation. Like Namitha herself says in her introductory video, it is a means to let the common public see a transwoman in her natural element — beyond the shackles of stereotypes and discrimination — as a succesful woman-next-door. Appreciating the programme for this inclusion, Moulee C, publisher and co-founder of Queer Chennai Chronicles, suggests that the show and its host should take up the responsibility of not misrepresenting the community.
“They should not overwrite whatever the larger community has done for so many years. In this case, the terms he offered do not align with what the trans identity refers to. And there has been advocacy from the community for years to use the right terms. It’s only in the past few years that trans people are being referred to as thirunangai, thirunambi or thirunar, in Tamil media especially. We’re still in that stage, where the media and our society still do not have a complete understanding of transgender persons (I’m not even going to the larger queer spectrum).
This is also a discourse people need to have. But not every discourse from the marginalised community has the power or privilege to tell people what terms they need to be called by. We cannot leave it at the mercy of cis-heterosexual people, especially in the entertainment industry,” he explains. After all, our movies and media have been notorious for poor representation of LGBTQIA+ characters, points out Kalki. Moulee’s primary concern is that this could lead to a lot of confusion.
Given Kamal’s standing in the society as an influential actor, an accomplished writer and a nascent politician, people are likely to follow his example and pick up on the terms he offered, creating more chaos. “What would be his stand as a political leader, when the community is asking for the right term to be used in official documents? I think, rather than having his personal thoughts and linguistic skills reflected, he needs to understand that a community’s language or identity doesn’t always have to align with grammar or linguistic syntax,” he points out.
Fighting the big fight
While the Bigg Boss incident is just one among many that people from the trans community, and the LGBTQIA+ community at large, encounter often enough. Jaya of Sahodaran points out that we had to go through terms like ali, aravani, moonraam paalinar, maatru paalinar and more to arrive at thirunar. The vocabulary of even well-meaning people is littered with the casual ‘ungala maathiri aalunga’, chips in Kalki. Yet, at this juncture, it is important to focus on the healthy representation that comes with Namitha’s entry into such a big show, says Jaya.
“How Namitha makes use of this opportunity is what I want to look at. If she wins the title, it’ll bring great joy to the entire community that is still being denied access to many professions. We are taking steps to address this in all our advocacy and sensitisation meetings. So, we should look at this as the host offering his personal opinion. Transgender itself is an adjective; the proper noun is thirunangai/thirunambi.
More than looking at who has accepted this or not, the focus should be on how much the public has accepted this. As a representative of a 25-year-old organisation, I’m afraid the magnitude of our journey would be lost in small fights like this,” she elaborates. While paal inam kadanthor might work for some in the trans community, here are queer terms in Tamil that are already in practice. Perhaps this could serve as a starting step for the uninitiated.