ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Third Gender and the Crisis of Citizenship

Migration from Kerala to Tamil Nadu

Why do transgender persons migrate to Tamil Nadu from Kerala despite the latter having high development indicators? A comparative study looks at the experience of the transgender community and their citizenship rights.                                                                                                                                     

This article formed part of the author’s masters dissertation at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. 

Belongingness towards a nation is reaffirmed through citizenship.  Citizenship is associated with diverse rights of an individual in relation to their community and society. The multiple dimensions associated with citizenship have evolved since modern democratic countries came into existence.

Sexual citizenship is a term that was coined in the 1980s when third wave feminism had established its space. The idea was recognised globally as it contributed to the diversity as well as integrity of the idea of citizenship.

In this article, I have analysed the evolution and formulation of citizenship theories in the context of transgender people in India by looking at the achievement of citizenship rights of transgender people in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

Understanding Sexual Citizenship

T H Marshall (1950) in his essay “Citizenship and Social Class” has divided citizenship into three parts—civil, political and social. Civil citizenship is about individual rights such as freedom of speech, right to own property and right to justice. Further, the political and social rights imply the right to exercise political power, right to economic welfare and resources such as health, education, etc. The idea of citizenship has been evaluated by the West through multiple schools of thought. Marshall said that every citizen has the right to their social and economic needs and they shall be ensured by the state.

The discourses and practices of citizenship transformed following the unprecedented economic growth in the post-World War II era when despite increased participation of people in public life, the relations of domination and subordination existed. There was tension between the universal notion of citizenship with the plurality of social identities of marginalised groups (Purvis and Hunt 1999). This tension is evident from the following. Civic republican thought exerted that the state shall act to protect citizens in their exercise of rights while individuals can act rationally to advance their own interests. That also meant that people’s political identities as active citizens and individuals’ right to participate in community affairs were more important over their localised identities (Oldfield 1990). Counterpoising it, Miller (1998) proposed that the role of citizenship is to discipline the subjects in the cultural realm in capitalist social formations in the pretext of reinforcing one’s own right.

The idea of disciplining and homogenising citizenship was criticised by many feminists due to its gender-blind nature. Most of this citizenship is premised on institutionalised heterosexuality, thus the sexual minorities lack legal protection from discrimination or harassment. Therefore they have limited access to civil, political, social, cultural and economic rights affecting their individuality.

Transgender in India

Across India, transgender people are called by different names such as hijras, Khusras, third-sexes, neutrals and eunuchs. All of these point out the “inappropriateness” of the sexuality of these individuals. Though historical evidence in India indicates the presence of transgender persons since long time, it is largely ignored. Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra is an important treatise that traces back the presence of transgender persons to the fourth century. Valmiki Ramayana, the Hindu epic, also talks about their presence. With the advent of the colonial period, sexual identities were viewed and interpreted through the lens of Victorian morality. Section 377 of Indian Penal Code was framed in this context by Lord Macaulay that criminalised voluntary carnal intercourse against the order of nature.

After independence, India framed a constitution that ensured equality, liberty and freedom as fundamental rights. India also endorsed the universal declaration of right to equality, protection from discrimination. But different studies (Bharat and Chakrapani 2014; People’s Union for Civil Liberties–Karnataka (PUCL 2001, 2003) point out that often such human rights declarations are violated in the case of transgender issues in India. A report on the human rights violations against transgender persons (PUCL 2001) has reported that the prejudice they face has translated into violence in public spaces, police stations and even at homes. Most of the transgender persons have had to move out of homes to live by revealing their identities either forcefully or by themselves. The discrimination also extends in terms of deprivation of educational and job opportunities which in turn further leads to their powerlessness in the civil, social, economic and political spheres (Magre 2012).

Similar but Different

With high literacy rates, strong social indicators and various progressive caste and gender movements, Kerala and Tamil Nadu are similar in many respects. But the recognition for transgender people took different trajectories in these states. The threatening situation that exists regarding the lives of transgender persons has been consistently reported by various social activists as well as progressive forums in Kerala. Many of these individuals in Kerala have migrated to cities beyond the geographical boundaries of the state to escape the social prescriptions and marginalisation they faced. Some of them are forced to remain in the state due to various constraints by concealing their sexual identity. It raises questions about the welfare orientation and high human development indicators of Kerala (Nair 2015).

However Kerala’s neighbouring state, Tamil Nadu, has reached far ahead in establishing and understanding the third gender’s historical, cultural and political factors. Tamil Nadu has taken affirmative actions such as formation of Transgender Welfare Board, comprehensive sex education programmes in schools, vocational training centres, access to free and concessional housing schemes and free sex realignment or reconstruction surgery (SRS) in selected government hospitals for transgender persons.

Nevertheless in the last five years, Kerala has indeed achieved a gradual progress in the visibility of transgender population within the state. The separate policies and recent discussions in the legislative assembly for the welfare of transgender persons depict an evolving situation in Kerala.


A two-month long field study explored the lived experiences of transgender people who were forced to migrate from different parts of Kerala to Chennai in Tamil Nadu. Detailed interviews were conducted with 10 transgender persons who were engaged in different jobs—from peon to sex work, in Chennai. The interviews aimed to understand the reasons for their migration and their experiences before and after migration.

The difference between the two states in terms of evolving the idea of sexual citizenship and the influence of the history, culture, literature and religion was also discussed.

Being Transgender in Kerala

Kerala has never promoted the transgendered people or even recognised their presence. A majority of the respondents’ pointed out that the people in Kerala never acknowledge the presence of transgender people in the state. One of the respondents initially believed that she was mentally ill, until she found someone with similar feeling.

I went to mental hospital because of them. I explained to the doctor that I am perfectly fine. The doctor said it is all about hormonal problem; we can inject hormones. I was always kept unconscious. They gave me 15 tablets a day. I went mad in the hospital after seeing other patients. I even wanted to die due to mental pressure. I tried running away from the hospital but the guards caught me. You know those guards, right? They are trained to be like that. I stayed there for one month.

The precarious situation of transgender persons in Kerala also stems from the strong patriarchal hold in the society (CDS 2008). Though women in Kerala have high education and employment records, they face several problems, ranging from property rights, rapid growth and spread of dowry, and rising gender-based violence (Kodoth and Eapen 2005). As one of the respondents pointed out, being a woman is a big deal in the state, on top of that for a man to be a woman is even more difficult.

For that matter, to be a woman itself is a big question (in Kerala) as the respect for female individuals is evidently very less. On top of that for a man to be woman is a question that they call them chandhupottu (character in a movie who wanted to be identified as a different gender from the one ascribed).

Moreover, the rigid religious principles across all religions have always projected that being transgender is sinful. There have been circumstances where the church has denied their right to be part of the service.

By then, the entire world came to know this and the pastor in my church asked my father not to bring me to the church. They said that I am a sinner. I was not allowed to attend the funeral of my uncle also.

The immense scare of the breaking the normative structure exists among them.  Those who are associated with them are also under threat. It is difficult for them to survive there because even educated individuals do not consider it important to stand up for their rights. The absence of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that could strongly fight for the rights of transgender people has also reduced the opportunity to share their concerns and grievances. The NGOs that work for the sexual minorities have kept their identity concealed in localities where they have their office. The staff informed that this is due to the possibility of objection from the neighbourhood. Apart from this the cultural aspects also contribute to the hostile attitude of the people.

The popular media has also played its part in fanning this prejudice—transgender people have been projected as a subject of contempt. All these factors together make an impression that heterogeneous norms are the right way of living in Kerala.

Transgender in Tamil Nadu

The visibility of transgender persons through multiple platforms is evident in Tamil Nadu. Such spaces have contributed in creating a livable space for the third gender. The Koovagam festival and the history behind it are important for fighting for the rights of transgender persons. In this festival the participants marry the lord and re-enact the ancient myth of Lord Vishnu who married by taking the role of a woman called Mohini. Tamil literature especially Sangam literature, Manimeghalayam, Devaramthiruvarthakaland Tholkapiyam clearly depict the presence of transgender persons and has celebrated their presence. Such influences have had an impact on the people regarding their presence, according to Priya Babu, an activist who is a transgender. She also pointed out that educational institutions in Tamil Nadu were supportive unlike the ones in Kerala.

In Tamil Nadu all the major colleges are continuously working on transgender issues. Last year we had a film made and screened in all these colleges like Loyola and Women’s Christian College. I was a part of it. So I know how effective it was. We also arranged a session for the students to interact with us. Awareness is important.

Support from political parties has also contributed to their welfare (Nair 2015). The Tamil Nadu government established an exclusive welfare board for transgender persons in 2004.  Nirvana surgery (where people undergo an operation to change their biologically assigned sex) was also provided at a subsidised rate. The effect of these was evident in the life of the transgender where most of them led a life that was free of harassment and ostracisation. They rented houses, worked in various organisations and many of them married as well.

Long time back, people in Tamil Nadu may have been prejudiced. But now things have changed. Look at me, everybody in the street knows me and they are very supportive. So the community should come out and ask for their rights or strong pillars which can create a noise should fight for their right. Sabdham (voice) is necessary.

Chennai has always recognised transgender persons. None of the transgender persons is sad about their decision to migrate to the city. But they do agree that they had to struggle in terms of language and culture. They were sad to leave their family. While many migrate and move out of the state, many of them due to various circumstances have to stay back and lead a concealed life.

I was the youngest of my family. I did not have many responsibilities to take care of. So it was not as complicated as many of my friends.


Despite the different similarities in the sociopolitical circumstances of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the transgender people choose to migrate to Tamil Nadu from Kerala due to the enabling treatment evolved for them in Tamil Nadu and hostility towards them in Kerala.

The acceptance and political recognition of the population by the government plays a crucial role in achieving the rights of these individuals which is evident here. This acceptance happens through multiple factors that are evolved due to unique sociopolitical and cultural factors.

The perspective of sexual citizenship could contribute to the transgender policy as well as other structural changes in the society for sexual minorities. The objective should be to create a space within the community, ensure the redistribution of resources and a shift from looking at transgender persons only as recipients of welfare benefits.


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