With a tight budget and a humble autorickshaw, a pioneering Indian transgender is campaigning in her southern hometown for a seat in India’s parliament, just days after the country’s highest court recognized “third gender” people.
Describing the Indian Supreme Court judge’s ruling as a “milestone,” 53-year-old Bharathi Kannamma hopes to build on the momentum and overturn prejudices against India’s several million transgenders.
Running as an independent candidate in the city of Madurai in Tamil Nadu state, she is thought to be the first transgender accepted as a candidate in an Indian general election.
“Even when people come to see me talk, they have certain set notions,” the social activist told reporters ahead of Madurai’s polling day on Thursday, in the phased general election that winds up in the middle of next month.
“It is only when they hear what I have to say and see me in person that they can get past the fact that I am a transgender,” she said.
In the Supreme Court ruling on Tuesday last week, the judge said a person can be legally recognized as gender-neutral and transgenders should be included in Indian government welfare schemes offered to other minority groups.
Often known as hijras in South Asia, transgenders are classified as people who have had sex change operations or who regard themselves as the opposite of their born gender.
They often live on the extreme fringes of India’s culturally conservative society, sometimes falling into prostitution and begging.
Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia Director for Human Rights Watch, welcomed the court’s ruling, but said the lack of previous political intervention “is a reflection of the neglect and bias that the community endures.”
However, Kannamma is positive the judgement will help transgenders access education and employment opportunities, which in turn would help them contribute to their families’ earnings.
“When transgenders make an economic contribution to their families, families will also hesitate to shun them,” she said.
Kannamma herself only came out in 2004 as a transgender. Until then, she lived her life as a man and held the position of area sales manager at a bank in Madurai.
With a master’s degree in sociology, she chose to leave behind the corporate life and devote her time to sensitising society to transgenders, especially in schools and colleges.
She runs her own Bharathi Kannamma Trust, with the aim of helping the transgender community and those who live below the poverty line.
When she first ventured into politics, Kannamma said she found she was excluded from certain events.
“I noticed they would extend an invitation to me to participate in smaller gatherings, but fail to invite me to larger ones,” she explained.
She withdrew her support, but decided to run independently to help end discrimination against transgenders.
Her campaign team includes two transgenders, four men and a woman, working on a daily budget of 5,000 rupees (US$83). She also has a personal advisory board, which includes lawyers, doctors and other professionals.
Despite the challenges she faces, Kannamma said she found her status as an independent candidate, without family, had won her backing.
“I have nothing to fear and I have no vested interest in being corrupt and the people see that,” she said.
She is also campaigning on a wider ticket than transgender rights.