By Avilasha Ghosh:
It was only as recent as 2014 that the Supreme Court of India legally recognized the transgender community as the “Third Gender”. Prior to the verdict, transgender people were treated as objects of ridicule, prejudice and humiliation who were not only denied their basic human rights but also not recognized as citizens of India. They are also a community negatively stereotyped as eking out a living from begging and commercial sex work.
However, with the increasing strength of queer politics, awareness about sexuality, and the recognition of the LGBTQIA community by law, it would seem that people have become more tolerant to the queer community as a whole.
Recently, the appointment of a transgender principal, Manabi Bandyopadhyay to a government college in West Bengal and a transgender representative, Amruta Alpesh Soni as the advocacy officer for the states of Punjab, Haryana and Chhattisgarh for the National AIDS Control Project took the entire country by storm and was regarded to be the first step towards busting stereotypes and including the transgender community into the mainstream.
In India, Tamil Nadu has been the only state which has successfully pioneered transgender inclusion by introducing the transgender (aravani, as they are locally called) welfare policy. According to the policy, transgenders can access free Male-to-Female Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS) in the Government Hospital, a free housing program, various citizenship documents, admission in government colleges with full scholarship for higher studies, and alternative sources of livelihood through formation of self-help groups and initiating income-generation programmes (IGP). It was also the first state to form a Transgender Welfare Board in 2008 with representatives from the transgender community. In March 2009, Tamil Nadu government set up a telephone helpline called “Manasu“ for transgenders, an initiative which was responsible for the formation of India’s first helpline for the LGBTQIA community in 2011 at Madurai.
In April this year, Tiruchi Siva, a member of parliament moved the popular bill to ensure that the transgender commuity gets benefits similar to reserved communities like SC/STs. The bill was supported by all political parties in Rajya Sabha (Upper House of the Indian Parliament), and will address enrolment in schools and jobs in the government, besides protection from sexual harassment.
The Chhattisgarh government is also making efforts to empower the transgender community by drafting an action plan for the welfare of around 3000 eunuchs in the state. The welfare plan aims to include Sex Reassignment Surgery as per the choice of the person concerned, along with development schemes to make them financially independent.
Joining these efforts, is the Tripura government which announced in July an allowance of Rs 500 per month to the transgender people in the state to ensure their financial independence.
The West Bengal government is not far behind. On October 1st, 2015 the government has requested the Kolkata Police to recruit transgenders in the Civic Police Volunteer Force (CPVF) to end the stigma and discrimination against the community.
While these development initiatives have made it possible for the disempowered and previously ‘ghettoised’ community to make their voices heard and to put forward their demands, the overall development of the community has been marginal and appears to be only on the surface.
But have these events and the removal of legal stigma countered the social stigma that has plagued this community for decades?
There are numerous flaws with the inclusion principle applied to the transgender community in India. Firstly, by providing recognition to a “third gender” in India which is supposed to include all communities which do not fall into the cisnormative structure, the Supreme Court has subsumed all sexualities under the rubric of a single term. It is important to distinguish transgender from transvestites, transsexuals from kotis and cross-dressers from hijras. Unless this demarcation is firmly established, the blurring of lines will create a gender binary of those who are gender conformists and those who are not.
Further, the nomenclature “third gender” is a problem in itself: it treats sexuality as a ladder-like structure in which the lowest rung is occupied by the queer community. Although it provides them with legal recognition, it does not alleviate them of their abject conditions as they continue to be a part of the marginalized section of society and are not considered equal to the rest of the Indian population.
While we may think that given the recent changes in the representation of trans people in media, politics and education, India has finally been able to successfully adopt the inclusion principle which was for a long time hoped for but not acted upon, it is also important to bring to attention the various ways in which it has been a failure. The appointment of a transgender principal to a government college or a transgender representative to politics in India can only be called a ‘part-time’ inclusion.
Being from a community that many are prejudiced against, these women (as they identify themselves) have proved to be exceptionally efficient in their respective fields which made it possible for them to climb the professional ladder. But does this mean that the whole transgender community has been adequately represented? Do the changes in the professional level permeate their social and private space as well? Does this newly acquired status emancipate them and their whole community from previously experienced ostracism? Do the development policies help mitigate the violence and the stigma that the community faces in their everyday lives?
To answer these questions one will need to critically engage with the problems which will only be successful if an in-depth study is conducted. Gender and sexuality are fluid concepts with multilayered aspects that need sensitive handling. This nuanced approach must go beyond the Indian bureaucratic system and enter the social and cultural domains to ensure that the inclusion is not partial but successful. Unless the basic demands of the transgender community as a whole are met, unless the stigmatizing and alienating forces are checked and unless the welfare policies reach out to all the people belonging to the community in question, inclusion cannot be achieved.