“We are also humans”- Grace Banu
The time when we are born till the time we die, our fate is always determined by civilised society. With every decision that we try to make for ourselves, we are hurdled back by societal norms. In Indian society, the caste structure plays a dominant role in deciding people’s lives coupled with their gender identities. A person belonging from a marginalised Dalit community and also identifying as a trans person often have to bear the brunt of exclusion and oppression meted out to them because of their unequal position in the society. This often means, missing out on opportunities and basic privileges which should be accessible on the account of being a human. Our second cover story features Grace Banu, a Dalit trans activist.
Born in a Dalit family in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, Grace Banu told us that from the very beginning, the society has been very harsh to her and discriminated against her in the name of caste and later for her quickly emerging gender dysphoria. At school, she was not allowed to sit with other students and instead made to sit under a tree isolated from others. “All Dalit students at the school was not discriminated in this manner. Once my gender identity was out in the open, my Dalit identity was even more focused on”, she recalls. These students whom she considered her friends also started looking down upon her and didn’t interact with her which caused her severe mental distress and she felt more isolated. “When I was at my school all the other students said that they cannot sit with me and the facial expressions made by them gave too much pain to me.”, she said. She was not even allowed to attend the school at regular times but was told to come late and leave early. The discrimination faced by her from her teachers and fellow students forced her to discontinue her studies at her 11th grade.
Picture Credit:The Hindu
Growing up, as she embraced her gender identity, her biological family admitted her into a mental institute rejecting who she was. There Grace Banu discovered a library with many books of Babasaheb Ambedkar, Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and other political leaders which provided her with a plethora of knowledge. This was an important part of her education and she began to develop a voice of her own. “That was the beginning!”. Taking up the example of the women’s movement, she said “Without being educated, the trans people in this society have only two ways of sustaining themselves which involves mostly begging and sex work.” She became more determined and realised that education can help her change this situation and help other people of the trans community.
Starting her life from a new leaf, with the help of her new family she completed her schooling and then a diploma in computer engineering. Grace Banu scored 95% in her diploma program and excelled at a campus interview which led to her successful employment at a software firm in Chennai. While she worked as a programmer many of her co-workers hurled transphobic abuses at her. Unable to face the daily discrimination which caused her mental distress, she quit her job after working there for 3 years.
She wanted to continue her education but was sceptical whether trans people were allowed to appear for a public service entrance examination. After filing an RTI her concerns came true when she got to know that the Tamil Nadu Public Service Examination “didn't have a policy that allows trans people to write a government examination”. Even after this she was not discouraged but wanted to get educated with a far greater zeal. She filed another RTI and found that trans people don't have the right to get enrolled in a professional course like medical sciences and engineering. She applied anyway but got rejected. Fighting against the system, she filed a PIL (Public Litigation) at Madras High Court. This time she emerged victorious and this meant that she could finally get enrolled into higher education. Grace Banu got admitted to Sri Krishna College of Engineering, Arakkonam - a private engineering college. Despite facing several odds, her zeal to continue her education did not fade.
Pursuing her education put a strain on her limited financial resources. This was exacerbated by the fact that she didn’t get any financial support from the government or any NGO. She narrates that when she was in her 3rd year of college education, she wrote an open letter on social media stating that she would be forced to get involved in sex work to continue her education if she did not get any help. This sparked many transgender friends and people from the cisgender community to help her economically endorsing her to continue her education. One thing she is happy about that she did not have to face any discrimination from the college faculty and her friends in college.
“I said I don’t have any money and I also don’t receive any government funding to help me in my education. How can I pay the fees?” Unable to pay the fees demanded exemption of the examination fees, not just for her but for many students who are in the same condition. Her fee exemption came to her as a birthday surprise. The struggle for getting a basic right as education and emerging victorious led her to realise that activism is the only way forward for her own community to get equal rights, eventually paving her way of becoming the first transgender person to get an engineering degree in India.
“When I face discrimination I amplify the trans voices as well as the Dalit voices but I face silence from the cis-savarna civil society. Their silence is taking the lives of our sisters.” she said. She then points a poignant question towards the society, “How long will you be silent?” All over India the community faces continuous verbal, mental and physical abuse. People use different kinds of slur words against the trans community. Such discrimation also gets doubled when caste intersects with gender.
“The state is there to accept our taxes but takes no positive action to ensure basic rights to the people of our community.”, she said. Many trans people get involved into sex work because of inaction by the state and civil society people. She emphasizes that in order to bring change to the marginal condition of the transgender community the cis upper caste civil society should come forward and question their own understanding and practices which has led to the exclusion of the transgender community. But questioning should not be the end, rather all egalitarian minded people should actively participate in order to change the narrative of segregation of the Dalit trans community and all other marginalised groups.
Grace Banu was devoid of support, care and even basic human rights that are meant to be extended to her by the virtue of her being a human. Her identity was questioned, mocked at and she was isolated in every way that was possible to push her to the edge. However, simply saying that Grace Banu had a tough path ignores her perseverance in achieving her goals. She always refused to bend to the odds that society has brought before her and remained optimistic in her outlook throughout her journey of getting education.
Most importantly her narrative inspires us to take action towards making change. Even when Grace Banu was facing the difficulties she did not stop looking for ways in order to make the life of the people of her community better. The discrimination she faced during her early years emboldened her to devote her life to the empowerment of the transgender community. She founded and is the director of Trans Rights Now Collective (a Dalit-Bahujan and Adivasi centered collective) which is aimed at creating better opportunities for trans people in education and jobs. “ With a group of 90 people our collective is battling to get our basic rights which the public enjoys. We are also trying to educate our trans community.”, she told us. The collective actively works to educate trans people who want to sit for a government exam or want to further their education in fields like medicine and engineering.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, Grace Banu rallied for support and raised funds for the people of the transgender community by launching two fundraising campaigns on Milaap directed towards trans folx. She said, “the society which was there even before 10 years has changed considerably and many people from the cis community have come forward to understand and stand beside the struggles of the trans community.” The values like Equality, Liberty and Fraternity enshrined in the Indian Constitution is an important part of providing legitimacy to the struggle against oppression. “We have the Constitution with us and the values such as equality is what we are fighting for!”, she exclaimed.
Grace Banu says, her whole life is devoted towards working for the transgender community and their fight for equality. She adds “We have the responsibility to write and narrate our own history, We are the writers!!”, said Grace Banu.
Interview conducted by: Srijani Roy and Manish Dutta
Written By : Manish Dutta