Changing gender for better life

Transsexuals in one Indian state enjoy some of the world's most progressive laws. They have been provided with free sex-change operations by the government. However many find it still comes at a price.

Ever since she was a little boy, Vasuki knew there was something different about her.

“I started liking men. I had sexual feelings for men, I wanted to befriend them and spend time with them. I was not attracted to girls,” she says.

Adding to her confusion, Vasuki also realized that she felt more like a woman than a man.

In south Asia, people like her are commonly called “Hijra” – a derogatory word for transsexuals.

“My brothers beat me up and kicked me out of the house because they did not like the way I behaved, dressed and was attracted to men,” Vasuki says. “So instead of committing suicide, I decided, it would give me happiness to live with other hijras like me.”

Vasuki moved in with other transsexuals and decided to complete her transgender journey.

Before the operation she was screened by doctors to ensure that she was psychologically ready for the consequences of sex reassignment surgery or SRS.

Vasuki’s operation was paid for entirely by the government, as is done for all transsexuals in this part of India.

Dr. V. Jayaraman, a government doctor, says that when doctors run tests before the SRS, many of the patients “already had the treatment with hormones. Then many of them had their breasts removed. Only the external genitalia had to be changed.”

India decriminalized homosexuality only two years ago, but the southern state of Tamil Nadu has some of the world’s most progressive laws for transsexuals. Three years ago the state government decided that all transsexuals are entitled to free sex changes. The argument being that these people had suffered discrimination for so long – that it is the government’s job to help them have a better life.

Unfortunately, having a better life is tough without a job, when so very few firms want to employ transsexuals.

Some trans-women share a house and work as sex workers in Chennai.

“We were beggars before. Now, with the help of cosmetics, we look more feminine and so we became sex workers,” says Suddha Reddy, a transgender sex worker.

Prostitution is illegal in India and some who work with the community believe the government is inadvertently helping to fuel an illegal business, since transsexuals can start earning more after gender reassignment.

Ajay Sathyan, a human rights activist, believes that SRS helps transsexuals mainly in resorting to sex work.

“There are very few who have asked for training on skill development or income generation or something like that,” he said.

Only able to rely on themselves and each other, these women know and accept their fate.

“We are outcast from our homes and society. I like this life a lot. I live for my happiness. We came out of our homes because we were forced to get married. My happiness is my priority. And I have no regrets,” says Suddha Reddy.

More rights, fewer opportunities – but these transsexuals would not have it any other way.