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Grace Banu fights for Dalit Trans empowerment

She is spearheading campaigns for India’s Dalit trans community


TW: Mentions of Transphobia, Casteism and Mental Health

 

The pandemic has greatly exacerbated the plight of trans folks in India.

While pride month may be a celebratory, even joyous time for many, countless queer and trans people around the world face the pain of public shame, discrimination, and systemic economic and political marginalisation. COVID-19 across the globe has disproportionately hit queer and trans people. The pandemic has been particularly devastating for Dalit trans folks, who face the double brunt of Brahminical patriarchy and transphobia. The second wave continues to rage on in India. Trans people, who have been disproportionately pushed into sex work and musical performances, have been deprived of their incomes due to the lockdown. The government has left the community high and dry. For instance, with medical resources diverted to tackle COVID-19, trans patients battling HIV were abandoned.

Amid this disastrous pandemic (and for years preceding it), Dalit and trans freedom fighter Grace Banu has led several grassroots efforts to spearhead financial empowerment and independence for trans people in India. Grace is the first transgender person to be admitted to an engineering college in Tamil Nadu. She has battled horrific discrimination against both her caste and gender identity since she was young.

 

 Grace's struggle led her to fight for trans liberation nationwide


"I faced two kinds of oppression - caste and gender," Grace told South Asian Today. "My childhood memories are full of caste and transphobia." In order to pursue her education, Grace was forced to follow a number of conditions imposed by the school. She had to arrive early, was not allowed to enter the classroom, had to sit isolated under a tree, and was forced to exit school early. Grace left her school after facing such rampant discrimination and harassment and having no safe space to turn to.


Subsequently, due to her gender identity, Grace's parents admitted her to a mental asylum for conversion therapy. Amid this horrible experience, Grace encountered B. R. Ambedkar's work. "When I read the historical leaders, I realized why these people are treating me differently," Grace said. "For so many trans persons, our livelihood doesn't have anything. I want to live a dignified life, but we don't have the opportunity. That's why we are doing sex work." Grace was inspired by these writings to persist and fight for her community and hasn't looked back since.

 


Upon leaving the asylum, Grace continued her education with the support of her trans family and others, with no support from the government. She graduated from a school of engineering with a grade of 93%, continuing to face discrimination in an upper-caste-run private software company. After her surgery and transition period, she tried to take a government examination and was denied on the basis of being trans. "We are taxpayers of this country, but they are not ready to give us our rights -- education, employment, and all these rights. We want some reservations," said Grace. Reservations, a form of affirmative action including some guaranteed seats for jobs, would assure employment for trans people who are currently not only denied work but are unable to sit for government examinations and are thus precluded from upward mobility. 


Grace's adopted daughters, all trans women, came to her for help in pursuing their own education. Her daughter, Tharika's application for medical school, was rejected, but after Grace challenged this in the Madras High Court, she is continuing her studies. Another daughter is studying nursing. Thus, the fight for education as a basic right continues largely through individual litigation. Grace told South Asian today that she and her trans family are guiding over 50 trans individuals in training for writing government examinations, fighting the inaccessibility resulting from state discrimination and a lack of documents.


Sandeep Nagar's success

 

Grace's face lit up when talking about Sandeep Nagar, a town where 30 trans people are living on their own land with cattle for sustenance. "It is a very big dream," she said. Grace explained that in a rural context, livelihood for trans persons (particularly Dalit and Adivasi trans persons) is quite challenging. "We don't have any safe spaces to show our identities," she said. "If we have to access the mainstream platform, we have to speak well-known English; the language barrier is there. So I thought our priority is for rural area trans persons, especially Dalit/Adivasi trans persons across the country who want to continue their education. We are creating this safe space."

 


The fight for Sandeep Nagar had been ongoing for over seven years due to resistance from government officials. Due to a trans-friendly district administrator (Sandeep Nanduri, who the cooperative was later named after) in 2019, 2 acres of land were procured for the trans community. Thus, the residents of the town were freed from the hostility and insecurity of casteist and transphobic landlords who made renting very difficult. "They're all landlords, and they live a dignified life," Grace smiled. "The village is full of joy; it's a safe space and a secure space."


Grace is currently hosting a fundraiser for this coop in order to pay off the outstanding balance for cattle and cattle feed so that the community may eliminate their dependence on aid and finally jumpstart their livelihoods. Due to a lack of access to documents and a limit in numbers, the group is unable to obtain the FCRA certificate that would make fundraising easier, particularly from international sources. The group has also faced bureaucracy when applying for funding from various agencies. Thus, they have primarily crowdsourced from mutual aid efforts and individuals. To contribute, you can donate at this link (closing by July 10th, 2021).


Amid the ongoing second wave, rural areas have been particularly devastated. "We have so many requests from various rural areas," Grace said. "In the rural areas, we don't have a safe space; there is so much fear. They live in rental houses; the major challenges are ration kits, house rent, medical kits, and travel to get medication." The group of activists has received over a thousand requests, getting more and more calls daily from community members who can't afford ration kits, masks, or other necessities.  


Mobilising the international queer community


When asked how the international community can best stand in solidarity with India's trans people, Grace said, "We are all talking about racism and Islamophobia, but we are not ready to talk about caste. We need solidarity from the globe. The global queer movement should know about caste. We are all talking about white supremacy, and you should know about caste supremacy." She is right - although many South Asians and others may believe that caste is solely an issue in the subcontinent, the often masked system of caste apartheid is thriving in India, the United States, and around the globe. "Wherever South Asians are going, caste is there," said Grace. Thus, due to the interlinked nature of the struggles, to be an ally with the global queer community necessitates some political education to stand in solidarity with the global Dalit community.


"Intersectionality" is an empty buzzword unless it is accompanied by an analysis of how different material connections affect various and overlapping groups. Grace's activism is particularly powerful, operating at the nexus of caste and queerness, centring the material security and empowerment of rural Dalit and Adivasi trans people. They are at the furthest margins of Indian society. The Dalit queer and trans struggle require grappling with brahminical patriarchy, and a simplistic analysis of homophobia will leave allies ill-equipped to handle the issue. While queerness was present, even celebrated, colonialism is not the only enemy in certain ancient contexts. It is pre-dated by caste apartheid.

 

Pride is neither an empty slogan nor an unambiguously happy event. Pride is a protest. Our freedom is bound up with queer liberation in the global South and the material struggles of trans people abandoned by the government. We can engage in the collective struggle by learning about caste in India and the diaspora, moving material resources to Dalit queer and trans folks, and untying queerness from corporatised symbolism. Grace Banu's fierce leadership stands at the forefront of this movement.


The main graphic for this piece is inspired by Rohan Hande’s work on Grace's feature for Vogue India.

About the author

Ria Mazumdar is South Asian Today's US political analyst. A Bengali-American, she is originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico. A recent graduate of Tufts University, her interests include politics, economic development, and postcolonial thought. Ria is currently working as a Research Associate in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Instagram: @ria.maz  / Tweets: @riamaz

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