Grace Banu — A Role Model for All
This piece was first published in 2017 on DHM’s Social Media handles and is now being republished on Medium.com
“Today, in #DalitHistory, we uplift the voice of Grace Banu. Grace was born in Southern Tamil Nadu. Very early on, in school, she was not allowed to attend the regular hours of 9.30 am to 4 pm. She was told that to attend school she had to agree to come in to school at 10 am, after all the other students were in and settled, and leave at 3.30 pm before others finish. Other students were told that they would be punished if they interacted with Grace. This kind of untouchability based on both her caste and gender identity caused her to finally give up on the idea of finishing school.
Like many kids in their teens, she began to understand more deeply the ideas of gender. On embracing her gender identity, her biological family rejected her. She then started the long hard work of building her own family support in the trans community. Her trans mothers supported her decision to complete school. She then went on to complete a Diploma in Computer Engineering, becoming the first openly transgender Engineer in Tamil Nadu.
After completing her Diploma with honours (95%), she was selected to work for a software firm when she had excelled at a campus interview. It is indeed commendable that Grace scored a 95% grade in a computer science degree without ever owning her own computer. She would do all her work in the computer labs and with computers she borrowed from friends. While she worked as a programmer in this firm, many of her coworkers were transphobic and abusive to her. Unable to bear the daily discrimination, she quit the job.
Determined to educate herself further, she began to do a lot of research into institutions of higher education. She filed a Right to Information (RTI) to find out if Anna University accepted transgender students. On finding out that they didn’t, she applied against their rules anyway and was given admission to a private affiliated college, Sri Krishna College of Engineering.
Grace believes that ultimately reservation is key to the upliftment of the trans people. “No amount of temporary governmental and non-governmental schemes can have the transgenerational impact that reservations can have. Reservations are the only way.” she says. Grace has been fighting along with other trans folks for reservation based on gender identity as well as caste.
Grace is insistent that the intersectionality of these oppressions matter. Dalits can be transphobic and the trans community replicates structures of caste privilege. She says that oppressor-caste trans folks bring Brahminism into trans cultural, community and organizing spaces. Despite their oppressions, oppressor-caste trans women dominate all the positions of leadership, call the shots and define the needs for the whole community. “ Denying caste in the trans community is like “hiding a whole pumpkin in a plate of rice”, she says.
In the Dalit Camera interview, she sits next to pictures of some of her dearly held role models, Babasaheb Ambedkar and a painting of Jyotirao and Savitribhai Phule.
For many of us, Grace is our role model. Today, we celebrate her incredible intelligence, strength, and perseverance.