Trans activists slam TN govt for dropping 'thirunangai' and using 'third gender'

In a shocking move, a press release issued by the Tamil Nadu government has replaced the Tamil word for transgender— thirunangai— with ‘third gender’— or moondram paalinathavar (belonging to the third gender). The move is shocking since the Tamil Nadu government, under late Chief Minister M Karunanidhi, had adopted the respectful term ‘thirunangai’ in 2006 as suggested by the community in the state. The term 'third gender' is outdated and largely rejected by the transgender community as it numerically orders gender, insinuating that the members of the community fall outside what is deemed 'normal'. It is inconsistent with the non-binary spectrum of gender and sexuality. 

A press release was issued by the Social Welfare Department in Thanjavur district on Friday, announcing Transgender Day celebrations in Chennai on April 15, 2020. The press release, which originally printed the term 'thirunangai' was circulated by the Department after the word was struck out with a whitener and replaced with 'moondram paalinathavar'. Signed by Collector Govinda Rao, the press release accessed by TNM shows that the acceptable term for transgender persons appeared and was subsequently erased five times. The word for the Transgender Welfare Board, the first of its kind in the country, has also been changed to reflect Third Gender Welfare Board. 

(A copy of the press release)

According to The Hindu, which first broke the story, officials of the department told the newspaper that they had been asked to use the new term, as per official instructions. 

‘Robbing us of dignity’

Speaking to TNM, Grace Banu, trans activist and founder of the Trans Rights Now Collective, says that the move is wholly unnecessary and disrespectful towards an entire community that has struggled against systemic biases. 

“Over the past six months, we have seen that they have completely removed the word thirunangai. The word has given such a huge recognition to our community. Earlier, the word in usage was 'aravani' and it was used to taunt us. After Kalaignar introduced this word, it gave us respect as equals in society. Removing it is robbing us of our dignity,” says Grace.

The activist also calls it a violation of the historic NALSA verdict of the Supreme Court which held that self-determination of gender was a right of all persons.

Grace asserts, “I have the right to choose my gender. How are you defining me as third gender? Who is the first gender and who is the second then? We strongly condemn this. We are already feeling insecure over the passage of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill.”

‘Petty politics’

Tamil Nadu has a notorious history of naming and renaming buildings, places and schemes as per the wishes of the government/ leader of the day. Speaking to TNM, Lok Sabha MP and DMK leader Kanimozhi says that the way for the AIADMK government in the state to compete with her father and former Chief Minister Karunanidhi would be to ensure better education, jobs and a decent livelihood for transgender persons. 

“The name that a society wishes to call a particular community reflects on how we look at them. [Third gender] is a term which society has used in a derogatory manner to call the transgender community. Thirunangai was a term that made them feel included,” she says.

The MP adds, “I don't understand the logic behind removing a name just because it was introduced by a DMK Chief Minister. If you have to do something, make the state more inclusive, give them better job opportunities, help them with higher education. That would make sense. That is where you have to try to compete with him, not by doing petty politics.