The flag bearer of trans activism in India, Grace Banu, has attributed her instincts to lead her community to the discrimination she faced when she was young. Grace hails from a small town called Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu and has experienced everything from being excluded from sitting in class with her peers to facing discrimination while attempting to enroll in engineering colleges. This humiliation of not being treated as an equal citizen has fuelled her desire to empower the Dalit transgender community.
Grace's indomitable spirit has pushed her to file multiple petitions with the Madras High Court on behalf of her community, and she ultimately became the first transgender woman to become an engineer in Tamil Nadu. She found guidance and motivation in books written by revolutionaries like Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and Periyar E.V Ramaswamy, who had fought to uplift the lower caste communities. For Grace, their writings were a testimony to the possibilities that revolutions held, and those were the footsteps she wanted to follow.
Forced to leave home after her parents did not accept her gender identity, Grace found a trans-community in Chennai and a trans-mother who supported her in her quest to finish her education. She joined a diploma course in engineering at a private college and defied expectations with a score of 95%. But that was still not enough for her to get admission into a government-run engineering college. After applying twice, she was finally admitted into Sri Krishna College of Engineering, Arakonnam, which involved a 2.5-hour commute daily. She began her professional career at a software firm in Chennai, where she worked for three and a half years and accumulated enough resources to complete her sex transition. When asked about discrimination at college, Grace laughingly told us,
I had amazing friends and support. They saw me as a woman, and that was it. The only discrimination I got was from the government.
The only chink in Grace's armor came when she recalled, "I was very nervous when I entered college for the first time." It was the first time she had gone into a closed space like that with her identity as an out and proud woman, and it was a success.
Her resolve to be a protector of her community has also translated into her adopting 12 transwomen, looking after their wellbeing, and giving them the support they need. She considers herself a proud doting mother inside their home and an activist fighting for their justice outside. Calling them her entire world, Grace proudly lists her daughters' accomplishments - some are preparing for the Indian Police Services, some for State Governments Services, and others already have successful mainstream jobs. Following Grace's footsteps, one of her daughters is the first trans student to appear for higher secondary examinations. At the same time, another is the first trans woman to be admitted into a medical college.
Grace also spearheaded the movement for Dalit and trans rights in India by founding the Trans Rights Now Collective. It is a Dalit Bahujan and Adivasi collective of trans people working and fighting for their place in mainstream society by demanding affirmative action from the government. Dalit trans people occupy the lowest rungs of the Brahmanical creation of a social hierarchy, and so they face some of the worst exploitation and neglect by the government. They have faced discrimination due to their gender identity and confront double marginalization due to their lower caste. Grace stressed how, even within the queer movement, caste discrimination is rampant. Once another Savarna trans leader referred to himself as Lord Ram and Grace as his Shabari, a lower caste devotee entrusted with serving Lord Ram according to the epic Ramayana. Her argument was also substantiated by the meager amounts of financial and material aid the Dalit trans-community in rural areas received during the lockdown compared to the higher castes and the more privileged. The Trans Rights Now collective has resisted marginalization by society and raised their voices to educate others to challenge the government when their rights are denied. Grace has also been vocal in rejecting the 2019 Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act and has called the day it was passed as "Gender Justice Murder Day." Grace, reflecting the thoughts of her community, has vehemently opposed the bills on the grounds of it being grossly inadequate when it comes to ensuring the needs of trans people and giving them securities and equal rights.
For Grace, winning the battle to reclaim their position in spaces only the privileged currently hold can only happen through reservations. Reservations for employment, education, and political positions are the only way to gain enough power to influence systemic change and bring their community out of the margins.
Averse to the idea of adding to the already vast collection of autobiographies of transgender people, Grace has recently penned a book - Trans Women: Grace Banu's Thoughts - which is a collection of her political commentary. As a person who enjoys writing about the current political scenario, Grace has highlighted the roots of the injustices meted out to her community and the potential roadmaps for their empowerment. Grace is fearlessly committed to social change, and she continues to encourage her community to be unapologetically resistant and vocal until their community gets social justice.