Transgenders in Kochi Metro: the unsaid story
Kochi Metro's move to hire 60 transgenders, in keeping with Kerala's progressive tradition, has been praised. Life on the ground is another matter altogether
She walked out of the office of Kochi Metro Rail Ltd after her first day at work and had to find a customer for sex because she did not have enough money to pay the house rent the next day.
“It was the first time I was doing it, I had no other option," she says over the phone.
Home is the terrace of a lodge, covered with a tin sheet, she says, requesting anonymity. The owner charges Rs600 daily. It’s a steep price to pay but people are unwilling to rent to transgenders. “Who has the money?"
She is one of 23 transgenders hired by the Kochi Metro, which started operations on 17 June. The move was widely publicized, with the world press lauding the organization and the Kerala government as socially conscious employers. The Kochi Metro plans to take the number up to 60.
But several of the transgender employees, hired for work ranging from ticketing to maintenance, say that although an assured income will make life easier (the ticketing staff get about Rs10,000 a month and the housekeeping staff, about Rs9,000 in hand), it still won’t be enough.
There are social costs too. Almost all the transgenders come from suburban towns where prejudice is deeply rooted—some say they hadn’t even told their parents about their gender identity. Till the newspapers published their photographs (allegedly without permission).
One person, who did not want to be identified, says her family has threatened to kill her if she returns home.
One of the employees, ticketing officer Sheethal Shyam, is a leading face of transgender activism in Kerala, and will soon be seen in a Malayalam movie, Arsha Bharata Samskaram, in a supporting role. Faisal C., another activist, working in the housekeeping department, says she had to battle the double prejudice of being a Muslim and a transgender. Their respective roles, while welcome, don’t really give them opportunities to display their skill sets.
Ragaranjini says she was the manager of a three-star hotel in Kanyakumari, earning a salary of Rs50,000, until she decided to go public with her gender identity. She says she lost her job, and had to beg for a living until this job came along. .
Has the job changed their lives? Not yet—their first salary is still a week away. The job and the limelight have helped, no doubt—yet they struggle to live a normal life, just like the rest of the transgender community in Kerala.
Their story stands out in sharp contrast to the exceptional optics surrounding the state, known for its progressive governance and laws to benefit the transgender population.
Building on the transgender policies of the previous Congress government, the current Left government has allocated Rs20 crore in two successive budgets to fund development initiatives for transgenders.
The yearly Queer Pride March in Kerala will be in its eighth edition this August. Last year, a gender park (an “equality convergence centre") was inaugurated to promote gender studies and discussions, and a special school was launched for transgenders in Ernakulam. A sports meet and a beauty contest for transgenders have been held this year.
It’s the transgenders’ fight against the system that led to the Kochi Metro’s decision to hire them. Eleven of the employees were involved in a tussle with the local police a year ago; it ended with them being jailed for about 20 days, which led to an uproar. The police and the authorities then sat down and chalked out an employment plan, which eventually led to the hiring by the Metro.
The Kochi Metro spokesperson was unavailable for comment.
It is a classic case of everything looking bright on paper but less so on the ground, says J. Devika, a writer and associate professor on gender at the Thiruvananthapuram-based Centre for Development Studies.
“There’s so much to do. But we end up using them as a showpiece instead of committing ourselves to their rights," she says.
Coming from a small village in Kerala’s Kollam district, Ragaranjini is proud of her academic accomplishments—a postgraduate degree in commerce, a diploma from the National Institute of Technology, Delhi, and a diploma in hotel management. She worked as a manager for one-and-a-half years in a three-star hotel, drawing a salary of Rs50,000—until she appeared as a transgender in a television programme. That’s when she lost her job, she says. Along with Jasmine, Ragaranjini is a ticketing staffer in the Kochi Metro. “Earlier, I wasn’t getting great job offers, but I could always go for a little modelling and earn up to Rs3,000 per day. This is a more formal employment, so I don’t feel like leaving this job, but I don’t know how I will manage."
Antony comes from Kerala’s tourist paradise, the Fort Kochi region, a 20-minute boat ride from Kochi. She says she is of college-going age but didn’t want to give us her exact age. She lives away from her family, but says she is in touch with them. “The people there weren’t that welcoming about my identity. They wanted me to cut my hair, and do this and that. So I moved," she says. At the Kochi Metro, she has been hired for housekeeping work. “But I think I can do more than housekeeping," she says.
Neena Unni, 26
A graduate in Malayalam who went on to study hotel management, Unni worked in hotels but hid her identity. The housekeeping job at the Metro gives her a chance to be herself, and it’s comfortable. After all, it is a “government job", she says. “But I don’t have the money to pay my room rent (Rs400 a day), so after work I beg."
Jasmine (Kukku), 26
She was in her teens when her brother cut her long hair while she slept. She packed her bags and left home. She has worked in non-profits, even resorted to begging, to make ends meet. Now the Kochi Metro has hired her for a ticketing job, she says. Her family is upset—photographs in the papers mean they can’t keep her identity a secret any longer.
Faisal. C (Faisu), 30
Faisal moved to Kochi from Thrissur district after she was hired for a housekeeping job by the Metro. In Thrissur, she says, she has been a known face among transgender activists. She worked closely with several outfits which have presented some major cultural shows for the community in Kerala, like the yearly Vibgyor film festival. She has sharp opinions on some of the state’s policy initiatives taken for the welfare of the community. “Let’s take the case of the government handing out a scholarship for transgender students in schools. Foolishness! Who in Kerala will enrol their kids in schools as transgenders?" she says.