Published: 28th October 2020
Beating stigma with positivity: How Kerala's transgenders are carrying the state's education legacy forward
This year, eighteen transgender students passed the Kerala Government's Class XII equivalency examination. We spoke to three of them and understood their backstories
Social stigma and other challenges have pushed them back, but the transgender community in Kerala is not ready to give up. Recently, 18 transgender people passed the class XII equivalency examination conducted by the Kerala State Literacy Mission Authority. We listened to the stories of three of them.
Hold on! Life must go on
The first time he wrote his class X board examination, Ishaan K Shaan was quite sure that he would flunk. He tells us that if he had a choice, he would have chosen to not write the exam. Two decades ago, suffocated and bullied in a body that he knew wasn't his, he wouldn't have imagined a day like today would come.
"I had to go through a lot of taunting and bullying from my peers and teachers because I was different from everyone else. They would mock me because I behaved like a man, while I had a woman's body. My appearance infuriated me at that time," says Ishaan, who is among the 18 transgender persons who recently qualified for the Kerala Literacy Mission's Class XII equivalency examination. "I was quite a good student initially. But as I grew up, I was uncomfortable in my body and this took a toll on my studies. I couldn't remember anything that I learned when I wrote my board examination. I was born into a conservative Muslim family. I feared that my parents may lock me up or send me to a mental asylum if I came out to them," he says.
Ishaan and Surya on their wedding
Today, he is quite proud of passing the exam. However, he has decided to put his plans of pursuing higher studies on hold. "I always wanted to go to college and get a degree. But that doesn't look like a feasible idea right now. The pandemic is still not contained and society often tends to look down upon us transgenders. Also, I am not that young to go to college. My plan right now is to concentrate on my work," says Ishaan, who makes pickles for a living. "At the same time, I am happy for this particular opportunity. I wrote my Class X examination too under a program by the literacy mission. This was before the government introduced its transgender policy. I had to write that examination under my previous identity. However, my instructor knew my plight and helped me out a lot at that time," he says.
Two years ago, Ishaan and his wife Surya made headlines for being the first transgender couple in Kerala to get married legally. Surya is now prepping up to write the Class XII equivalency exam this year. "Surya is quite ambitious and wants to do her bachelor's degree. All my hopes are on her right now," he says. "She is a fast learner. Since the syllabus is the same, I sometimes help her clear her queries," he says, proudly.
Even though this 36-year-old believes that his chances of going to college are bleak, he is quite proud of the others from the transgender community who plan to continue their studies. "Karthik, a young transman from Thiruvananthapuram is going to college next year. He is like a little brother and I am quite proud of him. I want more young people like Karthik to come up, study and scale heights," he signs off.
When a family went back to school
Karthik B's excitement has no limit. This 22-year-old who passed the Kerala State Literacy Mission Authority's Class XII equivalency examination is now all set to be the first transman to study at the iconic University College, Thiruvananthapuram. "It has always been my dream to study in that college. I remember playing cricket on the college ground, as a school student. Now, it is almost unbelievable that my dream is set to come true in just a few months," says Karthik, who just enrolled in the college for BA History.
Karthik with his Amma and Vallyamma
There are more reasons for his happiness and excitement. Along with him, the two other residents of his house, his adoptive mother Sreekutty Namitha and Ranjini Pillai, whom he fondly calls Vallyamma (Mother's older sister), are also among the 18 transgender students in the state to pass the exam. "It was really exciting for the three of us to study together. When you think about three people from the same house preparing for the same exam, you would probably picture siblings. But here, it was me, my mother and Vallyamma. We sat down to study together all the time and helped each other clear our doubts," says Karthik, who is an autorickshaw driver. He is also the youngest of the lot to pass this exam this year.
Karthik remembers how he had to drop out of school in Class XII. "That was when my birth mother passed away. My family had a lot of financial issues at that time. Also, I came out as a transman then," he says. Soon after, Karthik moved out of his house. "But I was always on good terms with my family. Making my father understand my reality was a piece of cake. He and my brother visit me quite regularly. In fact, he was really happy when he heard that I passed Class XII," he says.
Karthik drives an autorickshaw for a living
Right after he moved out of his house, Sreekutty adopted Karthik as her son. "It was Amma (Sreekutty) who got me registered to write this exam. She was the sole reason that I passed the exam. She explains these concepts in a very interesting way," he says. Sreekutty, on the other hand, says that her son was quite lazy and did not pick up his book and study often. "I always wanted to continue my education. Apart from that, I wanted to motivate Karthik. He's quite young and should not waste much time," she says.
Sreekutty had always dreamt of going to college. But she doesn't think that it is a practical option right now. "I am 38. I may continue studying through a distance learning programme now," she says. Her first stint as a college student was not a happy one. "In 2002, I joined a college to pursue my pre-degree. I hadn't come out at that time. However, I was bullied quite mercilessly. Traumatised, I never went back to college," she says.
Sreekutty always wanted to go back to college
So when the KSLMA Director Dr P S Sreekala spoke to her about the literacy programme for transgender students, she did not think twice. "This was a great opportunity. I always wanted to continue my education and this was my chance. Apart from studying, I also got to coordinate this programme with students from other districts," she says. She tells us how the authorities had even organised special classes exclusively for transgender students. "They took care to make sure that we do not face any sort of stigma. I'm quite thankful to the government for this," she says.
Now Karthik is the only one from their house who is going to go to a regular college. And Sreekutty is no different from any Indian parent. Wonder how? She tells us, "I always wanted to study History. But since I couldn't do that, I have convinced Karthik to study the subject," she laughs. Karthik has no qualms, for he believes that his mother knows what's best for him. "I am excited to study history too. The plan is to write the civil service examination someday and become an IAS officer," he says.