THOOTHUKUDI: The 32-year-old Grace Banu, a transperson rights activist and a software engineer from Thoothukudi, doesn’t believe in the old adage: blood is thicker than water. For someone who traversed through a treacherous valley since her gender affirmation surgery, the rejection from her family was a crippling blow. How she found solace in the cocoon of transpersons in Nellai is part of the tale, told far and wide, now.
Banu is now an activist under the banner ‘Trans Rights Now Collective’, and the central member of the Mobilisation and Advocacy Around the Amendment of the Transgender Protection of Rights Bill. She has now become the first transperson from India to be shortlisted for a global summit in Australia on behalf of the Australia India Youth Dialogue (AIYD), a delegation of 15 intellectuals.
But Banu has trekked a long way to get here. According to the activist, she had to quit Class 11 due to discrimination and her parents’ refusal to accept her identity. She left home and landed with a group of transpersons in Tirunelveli, the backbone of the city’s claim to fame: the halwa business. Banu was adopted by her trans mother Munna Nayak.
“I used to make halwa, pack it and sell it to earn a living,” Banu said, adding that she yearned to study somehow. With Nayak’s support, Banu managed to get admission to a private polytechnic institution in Kovilpatti and pursued a diploma in computer engineering in 2008. But, her education came at a cost. “I studied for three years by hiding my gender affirmation surgery, or otherwise studies would have been a distant dream,” she said.
Every weekend, she would return to the smell of ghee and sugar as making halwa remained her source of income. “I still scored 95% marks in the diploma which landed me in a software company in Chennai,” she declared with pride.
However, the world shot its prejudice-laced bullets. “Even in the software company, I faced discrimination and abuses, which made me quit the job. When I applied for the State employment registry to get a government job, my application was denied because it did not have provisions for transpeople,” she said. In 2013, Banu filed a case among other petitioners praying for the inclusion of the trans category and to provide reservation in the Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission.
Banu is not one to sit silent about the mistreatment she faced. “With the aspiration to become a government employee hitting a roadblock, I applied to study engineering based on the 2014-landmark judgement of National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) v/s Union Government which entitled transpersons for fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution. Despite rejections, I got admission to a private engineering college at Arakkonam.”
After completing her engineering course in 2016, she was placed in a software company in Delhi where she worked until 2020. “I strongly believe education, employment and political participation can change the life and lifestyle of a transperson, so the State and Centre must provide reservations in these three categories,” she explained.
The year of 2016 was full of battles, helping her community fight to access education. The activist staged another rights-based protest for her daughter Tharika Banu after the latter was denied entry to Class 12 by a private school in Ambattur. “Following agitations, Tharika became the first trans student to study there,” she said.
Having outsmarted all her challenges, the Banu was chosen for the Best Transperson Award in 2021. Bollywood recently awarded her the Grazia Millennial Award in 2022. She earlier received awards including the Behindwoods’ ‘Icon of Inspiration Award’ in 2019.