“A transgender person is a divine soul. You cannot say if God is a man or woman; it’s the same with us. Though we are affined more to one gender than the other, we definitely have the characteristics of the other gender too. We are unique. We have the capacity to analyse both the physical and mental aspects of both men and women, which drives us to do things that both men and women are capable of.”
—Narthaki Nataraj, a classical dancer
In May 2016, the Asian edition of Time featured a survivor in war-torn South Sudan on the cover. “I was the only one God left alive,” read the dark headline. But readers in the US received a peppier (yet equally political) offering, with colourful strips of toilet paper dangling down a holder: Battle of the Bathroom, it said. The eight-page story detailed why the fight for transgender rights had moved, in the land of the free at least, into the most intimate of public spaces: the toilet.
Think about it, the washroom as a metaphor of change. And then, think about the number of times you have thought about how half-a-million people out of a billion-plus might be using it in schools, colleges, offices, hospitals, railway stations and cinema halls. In a nation where public toilets are a luxury even for men and especially for women, thinking about the needs of 0.04 per cent of the population might seem fuuristic, but as independent India turns platinum, now is a good time.
Reason #1: In 2014, the Supreme Court accorded the status of ‘third gender’ to transgender people, giving them the right to determine the gender they identify with.
Reason #2: Since 2015, at least three MPs of three regional parties—DMK, TMC and BJD—have moved private members’ bills in Parliament for their welfare.
Reason #3: Last month, the Union cabinet moved a legislation to protect the rights of transgenders, putting in motion legal provisions for stringent action for offences against them.
Simply put, these three steps mean one thing: that there are others amidst us, and we better recognize them and their rights. And the world’s largest democracy is urging you to make that mental leap and think of a tiny minority—otherwise the butt of jokes in films, catcalls in trains and hushed whispers on streets—as normal citizens. We can no longer pretend that the numerous freedoms we enjoy are exclusive to certain gender identities. As Edward Said wrote in a different context in Identity, Authority, And Freedom: “Do we use the freedom we have fought for merely to replicate the mind-forged manacles that once enslaved us, and having put them on do we proceed to apply them to others less fortunate…?”
How many times do we think how half-a-million trans people would use the public toilet?
Imagine waking up one morning and finding yourself with the genitalia of the opposite sex. No, this is not a plot from Gogol or Kafka. It’s the waking nightmare that torments transgender people. And it’s akin to a tumour that insidiously gnaws at their very existence. “That’s how I felt,” says Living Smile Vidya, theatre artist and writer from Chennai. Vidya, who penned an autobiography, I am Vidya, says she was trapped in a male body. “It was horrible and disgusting. I just wanted to remove my genitalia every morning. I wanted to chop it off. In 2005, when sex reassignment surgery was at a nascent stage in India, I got myself operated on by a doctor in Kadapa, Andhra Pradesh. It was not a skilful operation, but it felt good to change to a woman.”
The great leap across genders or transitioning from one sex to another is often described as punarjanma or ‘rebirth’ by transgenders. Even today, with the best of sex reassignment surgeries (SRS) available (which most Indian trans people cannot afford), the metamorphosis of sex change is violently traumatic: for some, the experience is death-like, often accompanied by post-surgery depression. But it’s the price transgenders are willing to pay to be free from a gender identity assigned to them at birth, based on their external genital organs. For a transgender, the assigned gender identity is at variance with their mental and emotional state. Despite the trauma, there seems to be a high degree of yearning to break free from the shackles of a body that imprisons them. Even those who self-identify as transgender without undergoing surgery express unalloyed joy the moment they are able to do so freely and without social repression.
In 1930, Andreas Sparre, a painter, transitioned to Lili Elbe in Europe. Though it was among the first celebrated transitions, Lili died a year later of complications from a uterus transplant. Niels Hoyer’s book, Man into Woman, based on Andreas’s notes, describes the post-surgery trauma: “When Andreas woke up again, in violent pain, it was almost noon. He opened his eyes with a shriek…. It seemed to him he was crying out for a long time….” The Oscar-winning film The Danish Girl (2015) is based on Man into Woman.
Much like Andreas, many transgenders describe the pain of emasculation as unbearable. Moreover, they are confined to bed for many months to recuperate. Says Akkai Padmashali, 33, Bangalore-based trans activist, who comes from a middle-class family, “The entire central part of my body was hurting for three months after my SRS. That is the trouble I have taken to transition.”
For thousands like Vidya and Akkai, who dare a body leap for a sex change, life is tougher after transition. The transgender community often advises youngsters keen on a sex change to desist from emasculation/SRS because survival as a transgender is tough in India. For every trans person who has excelled in their field, there are thousands out begging or walking the streets, doing sex work. The Indian state has done little to bring them into the mainstream, or to ensure them a dignified life. Once they transition, they find there is no family support, no proper healthcare, no employment, no citizenship rights. Several legislations can criminalise them, but there’s none to protect them. They constantly have to encounter police atrocities.
The abuse begins at home. The family, unable to accept the effeminate male child or the masculine female one, tends to suppress them or abuse them for their ‘behaviour’, scarcely trying to understand them. Transgender children rarely complete their studies because of sexual abuse and harassment in schools and colleges. From there, in public spaces, they have to endure police atrocities on a daily basis. Unable to bear this, transgenders usually run away and join the hijra community, where they are confined to begging and sex work.
In states like Kerala, discrimination against transgenders has been so high that most prefer to migrate to neighbouring states. Sheethal Shyam, 33, Kerala state-level secretary, Sexual Minority Forum, says, “The awareness is very low here, so is visibility and there has been little gender or sexuality discussion in the public arena. Transgenders have been looked down upon and little has been done to treat us with dignity and equality.” In November 2015, Kerala passed the State Policy for Transgenders in Kerala. Though it has emboldened more to come out as transgenders, police and people need to be sensitised. In July, six transgenders who had gone to lodge a complaint at the police station and five trans people who accompanied them were all locked up. Later that same evening, when two trans women, Poorna and Ayesha, went out for dinner, they were accosted by the police. They were asked why they were dressed as females if they had a penis. “They explained that they had had their SRS, but the policemen beat, poked and prodded them. Then, the 10 policemen stripped them and checked their gender. What right do the police have to check the gender of a person?” asks Shyam. In contrast, Tamil Nadu, which set up a Transgender Welfare Board in 2008, has been working toward their upliftment. Their government hospitals offer free SRS surgeries and many welfare schemes have been initiated for the community.
Even with good SRS, the metamorphosis of sex change is very traumatic.
References to trans people in the Mahabharata and Ramayana is testimony to a traditional space for the community in Indian society. Legend has it that when Lord Rama was exiled, the people of Ayodhya followed him into the forest. Telling the ‘men and women’ of Ayodhya to turn back, Rama continues on his way. When he returned after his exile, Rama finds the hijras, not ‘men or women’, still rooted to the spot. Impressed with their devotion, Rama granted them the power to bless people during auspicious ceremonies. This is the so-called origin of the ‘badhai’ tradition—dancing, singing and blessing at weddings and child-birth—of hijras in the north. The Aravanis of Tamil Nadu draw their raison d’etre from the legend of Aravan, the son of Arjun. Ironically, trans people are themselves cursed—they live life on the margins and eke out a living by begging or sex work. Says Sumathi N., a Bangalore-based human rights activist with the Alternative Law Forum, “This cultural space they occupy is a rejection space and not part of the society. Based on blind beliefs, hijras come and bless people and leave. Likewise, Shiv Shakthis and Jogappas are some other communities who are given the cultural/ religious sanction to live in a particular manner. This traditional space is occupied by trans women—or men who identify as women. There is no tradition with cultural sanction for trans men, so there is no visibility for trans men.”
Social exclusion of transgenders is bolstered by religion. The Book of Genesis in the Bible says how God made ‘man’ and ‘woman’, thus excluding every other diverse gender identity. And in the New Testament, there is mention of a high-ranking Ethiopian, a eunuch, who converts to Christianity. Ironically, Christian preachers use this biblical episode to try and include the transgender into the Christian fold. Though they mean well, the priests seem to be insensitive to the community’s feelings. For transgenders, by the way, the word ‘eunuch’ is derogatory. “Eunuch is a term for a person who is forced to castrate, while a transgender person changes his/her sex of his own volition,” says Sumathi.
‘Self-definition’, job reservations are two vital parts absent in the new bill.
Though there are references to hijra, eunuchs and diverse gender variations in world literature, language itself has played a role in excluding identities that don’t fit the binary. The pronouns are a clear indication: there is no pronoun for trans people. Noam Chomsky, linguistic scientist and philosopher, says, “The organic world is based on two sexes. Languages naturally follow suit.” So, what can be done to grammar to include transgender persons? “These are our decisions as to how to use language. The word ‘gay’ for homosexual is a recent innovation, fulfilling a felt need. There can be others, at will,” says Chomsky. Of course, there are localised coinages of pronouns and honorifics yet to gain universal acceptance. In 2015, for instance, the honorific ‘Mx’ gained currency for non-binary gender in official documents in the UK and will be used alongside Ms, Mrs and Miss. First introduced in the 1970s for gender-neutral persons, the honorific Mx is likely to be added to the Oxford English Dictionary in its next edition. Again, Ze/Hir are gender-neutral pronouns being used in some states in the US and there are laws in place for the mandatory use of these pronouns. Intentional omission by employers and landowners can attract fines.
Though transgender women or hijras were afforded a small cultural space on the margins, they did not enjoy equal rights with other citizens under the Indian legal system. For almost a century-and-a-half, they were looked at askance by law for not fitting into the gender binary. Under the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871, police could monitor transgenders’ movement; they could be arrested without a warrant and imprisoned for up to two years. This law was repealed only in 1949. Strangely, the Hyderabad Eunuch Act and section 36A of the 2012 Karnataka Police Act gives the police the power to regulate ‘eunuchs’. Says Gowthaman Ranganathan, a law student, “Section 36A is drawn totally from the now-repealed Criminal Tribes Act, 1871. And it was passed in the Karnataka Legislative Assembly without discussion. The Karnataka High Court has ordered the deletion of the word eunuch from the law, which is a cosmetic change. The section needs to be repealed. It violates constitutional provisions. Under this section, police maintain a registry of transgender persons and they can be picked up. In November 2014, 167 transgender persons, in gross violation of human rights, were arrested and kept in the beggars’ colony. The police was rounding up anyone who was a hijra.”
With a legislation that criminalised hijras in place for over a century, the modern history of transgenders in India is a history of discrimination. It was in the I990s, with awareness necessitated by the HIV-AIDS scare and more funding, that the transgender community finally became part of the discourse as a high-risk group. “In the US, the LGBT movement was a political movement against police excesses, whereas in India, what is celebrated as the urban LGBTQ movement is the product of the HIV-AIDS funding and the rise of the NGOs,” says Gee Imaan Semmalar, trans activist. Sunil Mohan, independent researcher for the Alternative Law Forum, says that words like MSM (men having sex with men), male-born female etc arise out of the funding language. “The outreach of the NGOs and the HIV-AIDS funding placed the transgender community in the high-risk category. Slowly, the transgender movement demanding for rights, employment, medical care began to grow.”
Though India is a signatory to the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 2006 adoption of Yogyakarta Principles that affirms the enjoyment of human rights irrespective of sexual orientations and gender identities, technicalities in the Indian legal system means courts can interpret the laws in their jurisdiction. The IPC, too, is third gender-blind and works exclusively on the gender binary. Often, it becomes a loophole for crimes against the transgender community. Again, the male-female duality is a basic assumption for laws relating to marriage, adoption, inheritance, succession, taxation and welfare legislations.
In a landmark judgement, on April 15, 2014, in National Legal Services Authority v. Union of India, the Supreme Court recognised transgender people and granted them the right to self-identify their gender. The court ruled that they be entitled to proportional access and representation in education and jobs. Interestingly, legal counsels for NALSA, while arguing the case, cleverly pointed out that in Articles 14, 15, 16, 19 and 21 of the Constitution, the gender-neutral words ‘citizens’ or ‘persons’ were used so that it doesn’t exclude hijras/transgenders from their ambit. And it was under the freedom of expression that the court legitimised the expression of gender identities without having to do a surgery. The court ruled that ‘gender identity’ is integral to the dignity of an individual and is at the core of ‘personal autonomy’ and ‘self-determination’—saying, therefore, that hijras/eunuchs have to be considered the Third Gender, over and above binary genders under our Constitution and laws.
However, the Transgender Person (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016, which was introduced in the Lok Sabha recently, makes no mention of self-defining of gender identity—a huge setback for the transgender community. “Our struggle must go on,” says Uma, director of Jeeva, Bangalore. “These bills, like the recent bill and the Transgender Persons (Welfare) Bill, 2015, will only dilute the NALSA judgement,” says Ranganathan.
On the one hand, a bill is introduced in Parliament to protect the transgender, yet funding for combating HIV-AIDS has been cut by 20 per cent. Says Rudrani Chettri, director of Mitr Trust, an NGO in New Delhi, “Our organisation is government-funded and in 2015-16 we have been severely affected by the drastic cut in the flow of funds. We have been unable to pay salaries. Because of discrimination faced in the hospitals, usually transgenders come to us but now they are expected to access public health services. The government should first sensitise the doctors and staff before directing the transgender persons there. The medical fraternity does not know how to treat transgenders.”
The NALSA judgement was hailed as one of the most sensitive judgements by the transgender community. But by upholding Section 377A of the Indian Penal Code, and by striking down the Delhi High Court judgement that decriminalised the section relating to gays, the SC has taken a regressive position that has grievously affected transgenders too. In a country where SRS is often botched up, many transgenders do not have properly reconstructed genitalia in place. So they are targeted as a group that resorts to ‘unnatural sex’, which includes oral and anal sex. Says Padmashali, “We have a beautiful judgement in the NALSA case but here it has been regressive. It curtails my right to privacy, right to dignity and the court is allowing the state to step into my bedroom. We still have hope that it will consider the curative petitions and I have trust in the Supreme Court that it will correct the error.”
Paramount for trans persons is the right to express their gender and disown one that is imposed on them, as so rightly pointed out in the NALSA judgement. Jaya, 37, general manager of the NGO Sahodaran, sits on the ground while talking to Outlook. “I am a self-identified kothi (a word denoting an effeminate male),” she says. “I cross-dress but have not had a surgery to transition. I may or may not transition. The NALSA judgement has given me the freedom to self-express my gender identity.”
That freedom to self-express took a long time coming; it is now up to the nation to give transgenders—so abused and long manacled to society’s intransigence—the space and freedom to express themselves. The bill in Parliament is certainly a step towards that. But real change in society can take place only when ‘normal’ people stop looking at transgender persons as freaks, and so relegate them to the fringes, shunned and abused. It’s only when others crack the carapace of prejudice and accept transgenders as fellow human beings that true liberation can come.
Transgender It is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity, expression, and behaviour are different from those associated with their “assigned” sex at birth
Transsexual People who have gone through permanent “transition”, using hormones or surgery.
Transgender Man A trans individual, assigned female at birth, but lives as a man
Transgender Woman A trans person, assigned male at birth, but transitions to female
Cross-dresser Seen as a form of gender expression, cross-dresser is a term for those who dress in clothes associated with the opposite sex
Transvestite term for cross-dressers, who may or may not take up cross-dressing permanently
Eunuch Referred to as the ‘third gender’, eunuchs are castrated men who challenge sexual orientation. They have physiologically feminine gender identity and often dress in women’s clothing.