Over 3,000 transsexuals in Tamil Nadu who donated their eyes last month are hoping that society will now "see" them differently.
"I am Nayantara," said a transvestite who is an AIDS awareness campaigner from Vellore and pledged a pair of eyes along with 3,000 others under the aegis of the Tamil Nadu AIDS Initiative (TAI), a body affiliated to the state's Voluntary Health Services.
The mass eye donation by the 'aravanis' (those with half a voice) - as transvestites are called in the state - on January 24 also marked the first 'Aravani Day', a special day for Tamil Nadu's 200,000 transsexuals.
"Society has so long looked at us with suspicion. I have donated my eyes. Will society now look at us with new eyes?" Shekhar, who hails from Perambur, told IANS.
At least 1,500 aravanis gathered in Chennai in the last week of January to talk about their community work, the professional changes they had to make, their health-care initiatives and self-help groups. They also displayed their artistic talents by reciting poetry and playing drums.
Slowly but steadily, the transgender society, including transvestites, in the state are emerging from the shadows to claim their rightful place in society.
"In the tsunami-hit coastal village of Nallur, where people are still coming to terms with life, we were welcomed with open arms and even found 1,500 new homes," said Rajkumari.
Karthick, a film-maker from Chennai, is a diploma-holder. Priya from Erode, and Sudha, Raju and Sona Sampath from Coimbatore are trained video-graphers and have together made a 15-minute film - Nalladoru Samudayatrikku Nangalum - on inclusiveness.
Priya, 20, from South Arcot is a trained caterer and currently provides work to aravani community members. Amba, 40, from Washermanpet has stopped peddling sex to become a tailor and Ramya is working at a call centre after completing a computer course.
Saranya is a beautician who does not hesitate to say: "I was not comfortable being a boy. I am an aravani. She continues: "During adolescence itself I realised I am different. I stopped going to school and went to work in a hospital, which fired me for dressing like a woman. I began working as a commercial sex worker near the Salem railway station, earning about Rs 300 a day, half of which I had to give to the beat police.
"It was during this time that I was introduced by the NGO, People's Development Initiative, to the TAI project's anti-AIDS clinic. They sent me for a beautician's training course. I saw beautiful women and wanted to be beautiful myself, wanted to dress myself, wanted to make up others," Saranya said.
Well-known beautician Vasantha taught Saranya the art of threading eyebrows, bleaching faces and doing facials. Among the first graduates from this beautician's course in 2005 were Vidhya, Saranya, Ashwariya and Dyana. Today there are at least 36 trained beauticians among them, many with their own parlours.
TAI's Kavya is a folk art group that uses theatre as a medium for anti-AIDS messages and employs aravani dancers and musicians.
"It is an emotionally satisfying moment for all the aravanis who participate in our campaigns that they are able to contribute to other people's lives," said TAI project director Lakshmi Bai.
Though TAI's main objective is AIDS control, a major fallout of their social initiatives has been a dramatic perception change within India's transgender community.
Former chief election commissioner T N Seshan had initiated electoral enrolment for aravanis. There are currently many elected aravanis in legislative assemblies in Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and several municipality offices in Tamil Nadu.
India has an estimated 500,000 transsexuals, including transvestites and eunuchs, demanding equal social space.