Dear Mr. Kejriwal,
I have been living as a woman in Delhi for the past 5 years. Cisgender people often fail to understand what this might mean. To a transgender person who is looking (and quite often, almost dying) to transition, however, it means their lives.
Things have been difficult, to say the least. I might add that I hold a degree from a prestigious institute. A qualification that too many people in our country aspire for (they should have other options), and that too many employers seek. And yet I’ve been discriminated against by employers only because of my gender.
About six years ago, when I first came out to myself as a woman (I wish I could have come out sooner, but things weren’t exactly easy before either), I was confident that the people who were close to me would understand. That included family and friends. But, as it happened, I faced stiff resistance.
For my parents, it was difficult to even imagine that who they had thought so far as their son to be turning into someone who they thought to be as so much less. That they thought women were lesser than men was a concern in itself, but to them, then, the idea of me transitioning to be able to finally be comfortable with my body was completely incomprehensible.
My closest friends (friendships that spanned two decades), men, also left me after harassing me over my gender in ways that could and should be illegal. I was at a stage when I needed some support. Women friends – very old and very new, accepted me, often with much lesser resistance or cross-questioning (read harassment), and with their support, I carried on.
At that point, in 2011, I was working with a client as a design / tech consultant, I had only just started consulting and had started coming out and being comfortable with myself outside the confines of my small rented flat (which was an illegal construction in the parking space of the building and so had a very low ceiling). The clients were happy with my work and offered me a job. It seemed like everything I needed at that juncture – financial stability and a lot of things would fall into place in due course of time.
I went to their office in the metro that day, on the way thinking about how I could help them sensitize their team and how we could have good and engaging conversations around gender and ultimately an inclusive workplace. I was excited because things seemed within reach. We talked about roles and responsibilities, and then negotiated the salary, and everything seemed fine. They were a young, funded startup with co-founders from well-educated (read highly sought after) backgrounds, my salary was within their budget I was told then.
Then I came out to them. I actually came out to the person I was negotiating my salary with (who was a CXO there). He told me that he needed to talk about “this” to senior management and will inform me later. In about half an hour I was told that they would not be able to “afford it”. I was shattered because the costs they implied were what I would have called basic decency towards someone who is different from you, which should be a given anyway. Maybe I was a bit too doe-eyed then.
These people, you and I belong to the same network of prestigious institutes. I find it important to underline this because we often tend to conflate greater gender sensitivity and inclusion with education. They discriminated against me on the basis of my gender. They violated my right to equality. That, when they had offered me the job themselves!
And everyone who heard the story blamed the victim as if my presentation somehow reduced my skills and abilities and knowledge.
I, who was on the brink of deep depression and bankruptcy then could not have afforded to risk more such situations. It was decided that being an independent consultant is the safest bet in terms of job security. So I carried on with whatever support was available, with whatever money I was able to make in between phases of clinical depression.
It is difficult for a woman to live all by herself in Delhi for a variety of reasons. I have been living almost as an undocumented alien woman for the past 5 years. I say almost, because I do have legal documents but being able to prove to people that I am the same person as on the documents is an incredible challenge that almost always leads to some form of harassment or the other (and thus resorting to that identity is best avoided).
I don’t get to travel, I don’t get to use basic public services, banks are impossible, getting a phone connection (or any connection) is difficult, all because I am not who my documents say I am. Police is very difficult and only reserved for super emergencies, which do occur sometimes.
In 2014, in a landmark judgment, The Supreme Court of our country recognised our fundamental rights and in how many ways they are violated. It recognised that gender is a matter of self-identification.
It recognized our rights to life and equality. I saw a ray of hope.
When you are not documented, you lose a lot of opportunities and consequently, a LOT of time. All this while I could only work in Delhi. That I was even able to find work should speak to you both of my skills and talents as well as my privileges. When the judgment came out, I felt I would be able to travel once again, thanks to our Supreme Court.
Getting that “F” marker on my documents, even on one identity document, would have given me at least an equal-on-paper standing with cisgender women. I approached the same people who had fought the case for our rights, (they are an NGO and did not charge any legal fee) got an affidavit made. An ad notifying people of this change now and I was good.
As I found out, though, much to my agony and despair, there was an additional requirement – namely a proof of “surgery”.
This additional requirement is completely against the judgment mentioned before. What is worse is that it has been made a requirement by the gazette office which probably does not (and for good reasons, should not) even have a jurisdiction in such matters. This is a case of overreach in the absence of a proper legal framework.
Two years have passed since the judgment, and all this while I have been living vulnerable to all forms of harassment and abuse and I am not protected by the laws of the land. I am not even considered a citizen. Try to imagine how voting would work out.
I don’t have any protections in the workplace either. I am routinely discriminated against when I am looking for housing. Even when I am willing and capable (and honestly a little forced) to pay a premium for a safe-on-paper accommodation (which, in Delhi, means gated societies).
I have had to face routine sexual, physical and psychological abuse as a kid, routine abuse and harassment in college, and then when I finally came to be, routine harassment from the lack of laws around gender and absence of due legal protections began. With the lack of protection, I was abused in a relationship, little knowing who to talk to and spiralled into debilitating depression that caused me to go bankrupt.
Thankfully, my family and friends were there that time around to help me get back on my feet.
My state of being extremely vulnerable to all this continues to this day. It will end once I manage to have enough money to afford said surgery and then finally get the documents changed.
I don’t know when that might be, though. 2 years in the future? 3? More? That would make my years of living as an undocumented alien woman a bigger fraction of a decade. And that is me being optimistic. Because I would still have a difficult time without being documented. And I would still be as vulnerable as I have been all this while, if not more.
The only way I have managed to find some strength and a sense of safety, and that has been a constant learning throughout my transition, is by being as visible as I can be, regardless of my appearance, voice or presentation. I came out to almost everyone in my network so that they could be my witnesses. Online, if only, still.
My story could have been cut short by any random mishap, or by my own hands when I was contemplating suicide often enough for it to be a serious red flag.
I want you to know my story (at least some parts of it). And I want you to know something that I realised while trying to overcome all the shit that was flung my way – I am not alone.
I want to ask you, why has the Delhi government not taken any steps in this regard – two years after the judgement? Are we too invisible to matter?
There is an urgent need for a dialog. There is tremendous lack of awareness about and sensitivity towards transgender people. There is hatred and distrust and dislike and disgust. As a result, so many lives are not allowed to live up to their true potential. So many lives are lived as ghosts, on the margins of the society. We need to talk. We need you to understand and then act.
You could start with organizing open houses/public meetings with representatives of people directly affected in order to figure out how to make things better for everyone. And then, based on that, draft laws that are in accordance with the Supreme Court’s judgment regarding transgender people (NALSA vs Union of India, 2014 available here).
States like Kerala and West Bengal are taking progressive steps for the betterment of the lives of transgender people, there is an opportunity to learn from them as well.
I cannot emphasise more the need for these changes to happen in our laws and for them to be reflected in our society. Delhi, if it is to be a model for the rest of the country to follow, needs to be safe for and inclusive of people from all diverse backgrounds. This is a large scale problem and requires a proper understanding of the social dynamics at play. It cannot be solved in one swoop. It will require a concerted effort. We can start whenever you are ready and willing.
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