By Arati Nair:
“Sex is what you are born with, gender is what you recognize and sexuality is what you discover.” (sic)
Earlier this year, Madhu Bai Kinnar was elected mayor of Raigarh in Chhattisgarh, after defeating her opponent from the ruling BJP by 4,500 votes. She is a transgender from the Dalit community.
Amruta Alpesh Soni, an advocacy officer from Chhattisgarh, posted an unusual matrimonial ad on simplymarry.com. She identifies herself as a transgender who is HIV positive. Numerous suitors have responded to her ad.
With Manabi Bandyopadhyay taking over as Principal of Krishnanagar Women’s College in Nadia district of West Bengal, she has created history. Professor Bandopadhyay is the first ever transgender to be appointed as the head of an educational institute.
Bold departures from the predefined binary gender norms of our ultra-conservative society are more than a morale-booster for people who identify as transgenders, hijras, kinnars etc. They steadily awaken us to the precedence of merit, irrespective of sex, caste, race or religion.
The Festering Malaise Of Social Diktats In Real Life
But do these red-herrings belie the real strife-ridden tale of transgenders in India?
Living on the fringes of ‘normal’ society, transgenders are deigned to serve as good omens during childbirth and marriages, while social stigma dogs them at every step elsewhere.
Discrimination begins at home when parents relegate the self-identity of their child to a ‘medical condition’. A predilection for cross-dressing and ‘outlandish’ sexual choices are all perceived with disgust. When bouts of physical and mental torture fail to ‘cure’ the ‘ailment’, these ‘outcasts’ are disowned and left to fend for themselves.
As transgenders often refuse to conform to gender stereotypes, they fall prey to physical, sexual and emotional violence. For instance, the Koovagam festival, a pious occasion for transgenders in Tamil Nadu, has been vitiated by rising incidents of sexual assault.
Sketchy Legalities Of Transgender Rights In India
In India, social schemes for the welfare of the trans community are few and far between. Tamil Nadu was the first state to institute a welfare policy that provides among other things, free sex reassignment surgery in government hospitals, admission in government colleges with full scholarship and free housing programme. This example was emulated by Maharashtra and West Bengal.
In the rest of the country, the law has been selectively blind in empowering transpeople or protecting their rights as citizens. Police authorities, as denizens of this socio-cultural framework, have not been forthcoming in addressing their needs.
The issuing of gender specific voter ID cards in 1994 came after delays by the red-tape.
Doing away with the necessity to confine oneself to gender binaries to avail one’s fundamental rights, the recent Supreme Court ruling identifying transpeople as the ‘third gender’, has been a step towards recognising their rights as citizens. As with most oppressed communities, here too piecemeal assurances have been offered on paper. The Court’s directive to the legislature includes reservation for the third gender in government jobs and education. It stressed the importance of gender recognition based on an individual’s psyche and prohibited the insistence on Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS) for changing one’s gender.
Following the apex court’s rap on its knuckles, the Rajya Sabha in April, for the first time in 45 years, unanimously passed a private member Bill which focuses on welfare and social recognition of transgenders in India.
But will these belated appeasement tactics suffice?
The contradictory stance of the Supreme Court in the past proves otherwise. In December 2013, the very same court followed a regressive approach when it upheld the validity of Section 377, which criminalises homosexual acts or sex ‘against the order of nature’. Consequently, the wilful persecution and police abuse of transgenders, under the umbrella of persons engaging in same-sex acts, will likely continue unabated.
Washing its hands off the responsibility, the judiciary put the onus on the parliament to amend or repeal section 377. The miniscule minority of transgenders do not feature as a prominent vote-bank, and hence any political manoeuvring for their welfare seems far-fetched.
Selective Equality For ‘Inclusive’ Development
Gender-different persons have a narrow window of opportunities for livelihood. Most transgenders are school dropouts, owing to the inequity in our educational system. With limited career prospects, they resort to begging, prostitution or participation in social projects to make ends meet. The average monthly income of a third gender individual in Mumbai is 7200 rupees, earned mostly through sex work and bar-dancing.
Shockingly, the health sector is also rife with discrimination against gender-variant patients. The lack of sensitive and trained health-care providers, the deliberate use of male pronouns in addressing hijras, registering them as ‘males’ and admitting them in male wards, the humiliation of having to stand in the male queue and verbal harassment by the hospital staff and co-patients are issues faced by them on a daily basis. Those who are victims of HIV are not provided the necessary treatment or medicine. They are not apprised of safe sex practices either.
The Long And Winding Road Ahead
Unless Section 377 is repealed, victory remains incomplete. Comprehensive legal and social reforms, coupled with the participation of civil society, can help integrate the gender-different populace into our society.
The Mahabharata regards Shikhandi, a transgender warrior, as instrumental in altering the course of the war by incapacitating the mighty Bhishma. Vedic references indicate the prevalence of the third-gender in ancient India; the Kamasutra even acknowledges third-gender marriages. For a culture that reveres fluid gender identities, the borrowed colonial edifice of discrimination needs to be urgently dismantled.