Transgender activist Priya Babu is helping the trans community find a purpose and livelihood
Priya Babu, 50, is a trans woman based in Madurai. Through her various initiatives like the Transgender Resource Centre, Trans Kitchen, and more, Priya is making a difference in the transgender community.
As a teenager struggling with her gender and sexuality in the early 90s, Priya Babu fled to Mumbai from Trichy, then a small town in Tamil Nadu.
In the streets of Mumbai, she found many like her, but also encountered many problems--from sexual abuse to societal stigma. To escape the trials and tribulations, Priya sought solace in books, and every time she got a chance, she escaped to the slums in Dharavi, found a corner, and lost herself in books.
“I grew up with lots of books at home, and always read a lot. I was 18 when I left for Mumbai, and there I earned my living through begging on the streets, sex work, and dancing in the bars,” says Priya in a chat with HerStory. In 1999, Priya stumbled across the Tamil book, Vaadaa Malli, written by the prolific late author Su. Samuthiram.
“There was a character of a transgender in that book who struggles a lot in life, but eventually becomes an activist. I was very inspired to read about her. I felt I should also become an activist. That book changed me and my life,” says Priya, who decided she had to meet Samuthiram after reading the book.
Samuthiram encouraged Priya to indulge in her love for reading, and even start writing, and soon Priya started contributing to a local Tamil magazine.
As the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Our chief want in life is somebody who will make us do what we can.” Priya had found that mentor in Samuthiram, and his mentorship sowed the seed for activism in Priya.
Most recently, as a Regional Programme Manager for Community Action Collab, an NGO, Priya successfully runs the Trans Kitchen in Madurai, where she employs nearly 10 other trans people, ensuring a steady income for them. What’s more, the kitchen is now involved in multiple relief activities in the neighbourhood. Priya says, “It’s a gesture to give back to the community that has given us so much.”
Activism may have started small for Priya, but it did make her take up the cudgels for the trans community in India. After returning to her home state Tamil Nadu in 2001, Priya travelled from district to district, volunteering at NGOs that worked for the trans community. In 2004, she met advocate Rajni, who along with Priya, filed a writ petition at the Chennai High Court for voting rights for the transgender community.
In the following years, Priya wrote several articles and books, and even formed a transgender theatre group to produce plays that showcased the issues faced by the community.
In 2017, Priya opened India’s first-ever Transgender Resource Centre (TRC) in Madurai. The centre mobilised funds and acted as a knowledge and support centre for the trans community. The centre was also home to a huge collection of books in English and Tamil, newspaper clippings with information on transgender rights more than 100 films and documentaries on the subject.
But, Priya says, it was COVID-19 that saw the centre really come alive. “When the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown happened, trans people across the country were left bereft with zero sources of income. A lot of trans people were into begging and sex work, and both of these came to a complete stop. They needed urgent help,” says Priya.
At a support centre, Priya made sure that help was offered to anyone who reached out, and these included migrant workers, daily wage labourers, street vendors, HIV-positive women, single mothers, and even women in sex work.
Food brings people together
In 2021, Priya, who was working for Swasthi, an organisation that works for the upliftment of marginalised people, worked towards launching a trans kitchen in Madurai. Swasthi funded the initiative, alongside other organisations like Arghyam, Virutti, and Sri Lakshmi Pengal Munnetra Sangam.
“Food is a way to connect with other human beings. We felt the hotel will not only employ trans people, but also help them connect with the public who are generally hesitant to communicate with us,” says Priya.
The hotel sells food at a nominal price, and now, has even taken up multiple relief activities in the neighbourhood. One such act is providing food to the patients who visit the transgender ward at the Madurai General Hospital (MDH). The hospital is one of just two general hospitals in the state (the other being Chennai General Hospital) which has a dedicated ward for transgenders, informs Priya.
In the course of this conversation, Priya dials Jaison, a trans man, who volunteers at the MDH, and gives this writer an introduction to the ward through a video call. Jaison attends the ward every Thursday and acts as a mediator between incoming patients and the staff in the ward—which includes doctors like endocrinologists, psychiatrists, gynaecologists, plastic surgeons, nurses, and more. He makes sure the patients are comfortable and get what they need, either from the hospital staff, the TRC or the trans kitchen.
Jaison, who had felt repressed for a long time, ran away from his family home and transitioned to a male at the age of 26. While his struggle lasted a long time, eventually Jaison found kinship at the TRC, which helped him set up a kirana and fancy store to enable a livelihood. Jaison is now content and has even found a partner in Sukanya. The couple live in Madurai, working at the store and volunteering at the MDH to help others in the trans community.
For Priya, who sees the impact of her activism directly in people like Jaison, every day is a new day. Most recently, she directed a short film based on a transwoman, titled ‘Arikandi’. The trailer of the movie was launched earlier this month, and it is slated to release in January 2023.
“Once we have come to this planet, we all have to leave it. What we do in between can make a huge difference. I want to leave behind a legacy of helping others like me, who perhaps have no hope,” says Priya, recalling back to the day a book changed her life, and through her, many others’ as well.
Edited by Megha Reddy