In India, girls growing up in traditional middle-class families are often told that they become the beacon of hope and prosperous change – akin to goddess Mahalakshmi herself – in the families they marry into. This idea itself is rooted in patriarchal value system, but 52-year-old Bharathi Jalandar is a mother who turned it around like true feminist would.
In over ten years, she has single-handedly transformed the hearts of everyone in her community – from her husband to remote aunts, grandparents and neighbours – to become a proud family to Hasini, her 30-year-old trans daughter, Bharatanatyam dancer and actor.
“Our extended family ostracised us, our neighbours stopped talking to us, and my husband would come home drunk, beat up my daughter and throw her out of the house in a fit of rage,” says Bharathi.
And every single time, she quietly stepped out of the house and stood there with her daughter through the night.
For any stigmatised community, a progressive state policy cuts closest to a safety net its members are otherwise deprived of at home and in society. Close to seven years after the Supreme Court recognised transgendered people as the third gender, and almost 12 years since Tamil Nadu formed the first Transgender Welfare Board, the dominant trans population continues to be invalidated first and foremost by its known and trusted family – often the immediate support system. But it takes no more than a few stories of trans-positive parents to demonstrate that trusting and nurturing a child’s journey as they transition this delicate spectrum can create strong, resilient adults and leaders of social justice.
“At 12, Hasini began wearing makeup and by 17, she had fled home to Bengaluru, where we tracked her down and found her dressed fully as a woman. It broke my heart,” says Bharathi. “But I also caught her attempting suicide a few times and being harassed by strange men outside our home. I knew there was so much more to what we could see or comprehend.”
Bharathi, who went for numerous counselling sessions at the NGO Sahodaran where Hasini has been as an outreach worker, was also by her side when she underwent her sex-reassignment surgery. “Today, the family that denounced us flocks to our home, celebrates festivals with us and wants to reacquaint with my daughter. I firmly believe this has happened because as a mother, I trusted her journey, even when I couldn’t fully understand it.”
“We recognise the importance of engaging with the family, but are also aware that bringing them to counselling is not easy,” says Magdalene Jeyarathnam, director at East West-Center for Counseling and Training Chennai. “To them, it’s like losing something familiar – so they go through the same stages of grief; shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance,” she says. “Most children will know they are trans by age three or four, but it takes them at least 15 years to fully settle into their actual gender identity. So, I explain to the trans children I’m addressing that when it took them this long to fully understand themselves, it’s unreasonable to expect their parents to embrace them on day-one of coming out,” says Magdalene.
About eight months ago, Nirangal, the Chennai organisation that has been involved in advocacy, community building and crisis management for the LGBTQIA+ community, helped put together an exclusive organisation for transmen (trans people identifying with the male gender but assigned female at birth), called the Tamil Nadu Transmasculine Foundation, where they engage with families of trans men from resorting to corrective therapies and rituals. “Because being assigned female at birth means the stigma is that much higher and the struggles way harder,” TD Sivakumar, co-founder, Nirangal.
In a country like India, whose culture is rooted in hegemonic joint family systems, many parents struggle to meet their kids on the other side of the generation gap characterised by high digital exposure, where kids imbibe their values from queer people in popular culture, the global LGBTQIA+ movement and their unabashed assertion of rights. “Changing mindsets in India requires patiently educating parents of children as well as the children themselves when they are young,” says Yazhini (name changed), an economics professor from the city, and a single mother to a trans boy.
Yazhini, who grew up in an extremely liberal family that stood by her through her divorce from an abusive marriage, adopted her child who was assigned female at birth, when she was in her early 40s. “My family respected my decision, and I believe the same foundation of support and solidarity helped me embrace my child’s gender identity when they came out to the family on our WhatsApp group. Every single person texted back to say they would be loved just as they are,” she says. “Even as my child struggled at school or with the clothes they wore, it was the entire family’s unflinching backing that helped them sail through. We even adapted to calling them by a different name they have chosen for themselves,” says Yazhini.
“There was just one mantra I have repeated to my child over the years – ‘If your chosen path makes you happier, stronger and kinder, that’s reason enough for us to stand by you.”