Grace Banu on Visibility, Identity, and Giving Back

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A still from “Grace: The Documentary,” official selection for the 2020 Mosaic International South Asian Film Festival

When I ask Grace Banu what her age is there’s an impish pause. “Hmm, shall we say ‘thirty plus’?” She laughs. I can’t help but join her. “I’m sure we can,” I reply, hoping my editors will find this humorous, too.

Despite her jovial demeanor, Banu’s story is anything but. Growing up in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, Banu knew something was different about her – and, whatever it was, people didn’t like it. 

Banu, who was assigned male at birth, was also born a Dalit; a member of the most oppressed caste in the Indian caste system. “I told my principal my [caste] identity – and they didn’t accept me. They said [to my mother], ‘No, we can’t accept your children!’” 

After a week of pleading with the principal, Banu’s mother was given a conditional offer. “Your children should follow [these] guidelines,” the principal told her: the children were to come to school half an hour after classes started and leave half an hour before they finished; they weren’t to talk to anyone at school; and they weren’t to sit in their classrooms. Instead, they were to sit under a nearby tree. 

Caste discrimination is still rampant in India – and globally, owing to the size of the Indian diaspora. However, in Banu’s case, discrimination was soon to be two-fold on account of her gender identity.

“I was a child, [but] I knew this wasn’t my body,” says Banu, “I knew I was a female – like my sister or my mother – I [knew] it was a fake body.”

“I had a partner,” she confesses, “a boy – once upon a time; in school […] That’s how [classmates] came to know about my identity.” Her voice is grave. I don’t press for details.

By 16, Banu had had enough. Isolated from the world she knew, she attempted suicide.

Those were the days when, after all, there were no words to explain what she was going through. No easily accessible internet to say: “This is gender dysphoria – where you wrestle with your gender identity and the sex-related gender characteristics society has forced on you… you will get through this.”

Banu dropped out of school and told her parents the truth: she was a woman and her male body betrayed her identity.

“My parents weren’t [educated] – they didn’t know anything about trans persons,” says Banu. “They thought they’d lost all their dreams, like [their] children have this kind of ‘problem’ – and they put me into an asylum.”

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Another still from “Grace: The Documentary”

She spent three months there undergoing conversion therapy. It was there, however, that she happened upon Ambedkar and Marx and Periyar. “I read all the political leaders,” she says, adding, “after I read all the books, I realized why people were treating me and my people this way.” The anger in her voice is palpable: “Why was my community begging and being pushed into sex work? Why did society give this [life] to my community?” 

The anger fueled her motivation, and she knew what she had to do: make a difference. “I knew my community needed safe employment, so I said to the doctor, ‘Okay, doctor, I feel male.’” She was discharged immediately but didn’t return home. 

Her birth family and her friends – people whom she’d known her entire existence – had cut her off. Instead, she went to what would become her trans family. They welcomed her without question, and she was adopted by a trans mother, Munna, who called her “Grace.”

At this point, the journalist in me wants to ask Banu what her birth name was. I don’t. Her deadname is dead for a reason. I’ve already prodded her pain further than I would if this weren’t an interview. I know her, as many others in India do, as “Grace Banu.” 

When Banu told Munna she didn’t want to go into sex work or begging, unwavering, Munna replied: “Whatever you [want to] do, do – I will support you.” 

Banu went on to do remarkable things. Not just for a child who attended school under a tree, either. She completed a diploma in computer science with honors (and never owned a computer throughout the degree), and credits a Muslim friend’s grandfather, who paid her final year’s college fees, with her last name: “Banu.”

Banu would go on to work as a programmer at a software firm, where her identity once again proved to be a source of discrimination amongst her peers. After her gender reaffirming surgery, for which she took out a loan, and becoming the first transgender person to be admitted to an engineering college in Tamil Nadu, Grace discontinued her studies to dedicate her time to her giving back to the community that shaped her. 

“Changes are happening,” she stresses, “fifteen years  ago, the situation of the trans community was completely different. Now, there’s a little bit of change – I’m seeing that transition.”

Today, Banu has twelve adopted trans daughters. She beams as a proud mother does, listing off each of their achievements with the utmost care. Her phone has been buzzing impatiently through the course of our conversation. Banu has been busy organizing aid for trans people in Thoothukudi independently while filing a plea seeking extension of COVID relief for transgender persons in Tamil Nadu. When I ask her how she wants to be remembered, she questions whether she really will be: “Our histories, as Dalit people, as trans people, have always been erased. Maybe, in the future, my history will also be erased.”

This story appears in the June issue of SEEMA Magazine, check it out here