Enjoyed writing this piece.  Thanks to the Mad Men of Chennai who helped me with this: Venkat, Sunil, Ranvir.  Mucho Gracias!

A space for gender-bending realities

Most sexual minorities yearn for normalcy. Talk to them and they all wish for a family

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

Posted: Thu, Aug 23 2012. 9:50 PM IST

A beautiful young woman in a pink sari is admiring herself in the mirror. Her name is Deepika and she has been a woman for four years. Before that she was a man. Now, she is part of Chennai’s growing community of transgender women or Aravanis as they are called.

I am at Sahodaran, an MSM (men who have sex with men) intervention centre in Chennai. Its founder, Sunil Menon, a fashion stylist, choreographer and erstwhile cultural anthropologist, speaks with passion and empathy about alternate sexual lives. “People around you pick on you constantly and you end up feeling terrible about yourself. Why do you think there is such a high rate of depression and suicide among MSMs?”

Sahodaran attempts to alleviate these sorrows through its outreach programmes and drop-in centres, where MSMs can meet others like them and “have some jolly-jolly”, as Deepika says.


Step by step: The mood is upbeat at the office of Sahodaran, Chennai. Photo: Nathan G/Mint

Step by step: The mood is upbeat at the office of Sahodaran, Chennai. Photo: Nathan G/Mint


Deepika underwent an operation to have her breasts augmented and a vagina inserted. She lives with friends and learned about Sahodaran through its field officers. I ask how she makes a living. “Sex work,” she says with a disconcerting smile. “I walk on the streets. Men approach me. If they pay me Rs.1,000-2,000, we have sex,” she says in Tamil. Does she like it? She shakes her head, the smile in place, and asks, “What else can I do?” 

Transgenders are the focus of the new HIV/AIDS initiatives in India. At the recent AIDS 2012 conference in Washington, DC, India proudly documented a 56% reduction in the prevalence of the virus over the last decade. Going forward, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in this sector are targeting sexual minorities who, along with migrants and truckers, are a core vulnerable group.

Tamil Nadu, along with Maharashtra and West Bengal, has the largest number of community-based organizations (CBOs) working in this sector, according to a 2008 Asia Pacific Coalition on Male Sexual Health (Apcom) report that mapped sexual minorities by geography. Some transgenders are “she-males”, who feel like women inside but do not have the means or money for a sex-change operation. They may wear feminine clothes but retain male sexual parts. They too earn money through prostitution. Homosexual men “specifically ask for she-males”, says Deepika. Many are abused and beaten as they walk home at night. A car full of goons will pull up, drag them in, and do what they will. As Menon says, “There is no redress for sexual harassment against men.”

Deepika is pretty—tall and slim with an hourglass figure. She spends the afternoon in Sahodaran, playing carom, singing and dancing to Tamil film songs. The gold standard for Deepika is Malaika, who calls herself a “big party animal”.

The winner of the 2007 Miss Sahodaran beauty contest, Malaika also represented India at the 2011 Miss International Queen contest in Thailand. She meets people through the Internet and has posted her modelling photos on Facebook.

According to a 2010 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report, “the HIV epidemic among MSM and transgender persons…represents a major source of new infections in many countries in Asia and the Pacific”. Organizations such as Sahodaran, Sahodari Foundation (focusing on transgenders and meaning “sister” in Tamil), Solidarity And Action Against The HIV Infection in India (Saathii), Sangama, People Like Us (PLUS), Naz India, Bharosa Trust and The Humsafar Trust, all work at decriminalizing and mainstreaming sexual minorities.

Sahodari plans to hold the country’s first transgender swayamvaram on 28 September. Its founder, Kalki Subramaniam, is looking for a husband too, she says when I phone her. Her voice is male but her photos depict a pretty woman. She wants a husband who is “bold” and unafraid, who can take on society.

Most sexual minorities yearn for normalcy. Talk to them and they all wish for a family; a filmi-style joint family even. They want to cook, clean, take care of in-laws and have children. Their biggest hurdle is societal stigma, because they are so obviously different. What will it take for the general public to accept people with alternative sexual preferences?

As a state, Tamil Nadu is a little better than others, according to Karthik Lakshmanan, a counsellor at Chennai Counselling Services. The state gives voter-ID and ration cards to transgender people. Lakshmanan advocates a quota system, like the “one used for SC/ST people to provide jobs, so that sexual minorities don’t turn to prostitution or begging”.

Sandhya has a job. Clad in a shiny lavender salwar-kameez, with short hair, Sandhya proudly says she eschews “easy money through sex work”, to work at e4e, a business process outsourcing (BPO) firm. “I really fought for this job,” she says, and shows her company badge, which lists her as Santhosh Kumar. “That was before the operation,” she says. Sandhya was the first transgender to work full time at e4e and since her recruitment, other transgenders have also been recruited. When I ask Sandhya why she fought so hard to get a regular job rather than sell her body, she replies softly, “AIDS”.

Companies such as e4e are to be lauded for mainstreaming minorities. They present a potent way to prevent the spread of the HIV/AIDS virus in India. As someone who doesn’t intersect with this world on a regular basis, I am as prejudiced and/or tolerant as the next person. But given India’s commendable success in bringing down the prevalence of the HIV/AIDS virus, mainstreaming sexual minorities will provide a potent push in this area. One way to do this would be to support the NGOs that work in this area. Or appeal to your company to hire sexual minorities. Simpler still is to intersect with sexual minorities; not because they need your help, but because they are interesting.

Shoba Narayan wonders why swayamvarams fell out of fashion. Write to her at


  1. Dear Shobha Narayan..
    that was a well written article about transgenders.It is written with compassion and respect for them. Kudos.


  2. Shobha, this is Kalki Subramaniam – the male voice. I was indeed disturbed at your judgemental writing on me, particularly my voice. You have written “Kalki Subramaniam, is looking for a husband too, she says when I phone her. Her voice is male but her photos depict a pretty woman.”

    I wanted to tell you, until today, I had no problem of being with this voice, Actually it is neutral according to many people. And I am proud of it. Even if I do have a male voice, why is it so important to put it in writing? Are you trying to say I am still a male?

    I like your writings, but not at the cost of hurting someone and being judgemental.


    1. Dear Kalki:
      I am sorry if I hurt your feelings. As a writer, my goal is to write every piece with the inside-outside perspective. In other words, I want to draw in the reader who has their own prejudices and then hope to get them to understand what it is like on the other side. This applies to artists, dancers, minorities and transgenders. This is why I mentioned your voice. The thought in my head was: how can I make the average judgmental reader connect to this piece? For that, I needed an inside-outside perspective.

      I have posted this reply in my blog. Please send your comment to
      They may post this in the letters to the editor and this may develop more awareness.

      Sorry again!


    2. In my opinion, human psyche is more important than changing the facade of body. For example, a man changed to women and behaving 100% like women in all respect including voice, so that no body can find out that she is actually he, if left alone in a dark and dangerous room for some days without light, food and water, then the voice of crying will come out of men not women, because at that time the voice will come from inner psyche which is made up of men and not women. This can be treated as a test to find out whether a person is really men or women or trans.


  3. I would like to appreciate and thank you for writing a article about Transgenders. Writer’s words brings our problems to limelight, and the public and Government can be aware about the day to day problems of the Transgenders in society. Corporates and other business organizations should come forward to recruit the talented and educated Transgenders. We need proper education, Opportunity in employments, Basic living conditions to survive in society as a normal men and women live. (


    1. Thanks Ayesha. I had a quote from you as well in the piece, which we had to cut for lack of space. It was about the four things government can do to help sexual minorities. Thanks for your work in this area


      1. I chanced upon reading your articles and it started with the ‘BULLET’. I recently read your article ‘In the words of a Daughter-in-Law.’ Now, this one is the third. Really appreciate you multidimensional writing skills and look forward to a continuous reading.


              1. Dear mam,
                I like your writings on transgenders .I am vinshy , research scholar in Dept.of politics, university of Kerala and. My reseach topic is “Transgender Right in India: A Study based on Nongovernmental Organizations”.if don’t mind could u pls share your idea and suggessions about this topic


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