By Prabhu Mallikarjunan:
Less than a year after the Karnataka government honoured a trans woman with the state’s second highest civilian award, she had to face humiliation at the legislative assembly premises merely because she needed to use the toilet.
Akkai Padmashali, 33, a well-known trans-rights activist, was presented with Rajyotsava award on November 1, 2015, for her endeavours. The state government handpicks the recipients and honours them on the anniversary of Karnataka’s formation. She is the only trans person to be accorded the distinction.
On August 25, she visited Vidhana Soudha, the state’s legislative assembly, to meet the law minister. While waiting, she needed to answer nature’s call.
“As I entered the ladies’ toilet, a woman screamed in horror and told me, ‘You are not supposed to enter here! This is not a place for you,’ referring to my gender. And she shut the toilet door in anger. I was embarrassed and disturbed. Though I did not confront her, I told the lady that as a transwoman, I had every right to use the toilet,” Padmashali told YKA.
Padmashali is one of the founder-members of Ondede, an organisation that aims to create awareness about sexuality, sexual diversity and the third gender. She was recently bestowed with a doctorate by the Indian Virtual University for Peace and Education at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in Bangalore.
“The incident reflected the poor mentality of people. This is a violation of the rights of the transgender people as accorded by the Supreme Court. Social stigma is beyond limits. It is because of such discrimination that we demand separate toilets for us in public places,” she added, ruing that the government had done nothing to sensitise people about the needs of the transgender community despite honouring her endeavour for the very cause.
The episode of her harassment at the Vidhana Soudha was brought to the notice of the top government officials in the state and she requested action against the transphobic staffer so that such incidents do not repeat.
Deepa Cholan, Director, Department of Women and Child Welfare, Karnataka, told YKA that she had learnt of another incident of this kind from a week ago. She said the department would take cognizance of both the incidents and contemplate action. Going forward, Cholan said the government has prepared a draft policy to allay the struggles of the transgender community. She said the policy would be released soon and the administration would take measures to sensitise the police and the public about the third gender.
While the government assures it is taking steps to make life easier for the transgender people, fact of the matter is that a lot remains to be done. According to the 2011 census, there are 4.88 lakh transgender people across the country. A lack of separate toilet for them in public places means they have to use the toilet meant for the gender they identify with. This often means having to deal with stares, taunts, threats of violence and sniggering.
For transgender people who have undergone sex-change operation, it is difficult to hold back the urge to urinate for a long time. Like Padmashali, many of the transgender women do not drink water for the fear of having to use public toilets and be subjected to abuse and harassment. The practice often leads to health complications like dehydration, urinary tract infection and kidney infections. The situation is even more complex for female-to-male transgender people.
“For the fear of having to use public toilet and getting stares from people, I have avoided drinking water three-four hours before I travel or when I am about to attend public meetings many a time,” Padmashali said.
According to the US Transgender Survey 2015, nearly one-third of all the transgender people in the US avoid drinking water or eating when heading out so that they do not need to use the restrooms. About 59% of the respondents said they avoided bathrooms in the last year because they feared confrontations in public restrooms, at work, schools and in other places. No such study has been done in India.
Earlier this year in the US, President Barack Obama’s administration enforced a directive that requires public schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms according to their gender identity. But about 12 states in the US have now challenged the order in the court, illustrating that transphobia is a problem the world over.
Discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation or gender identity impairs the right to equality and violates Article 14 of the Constitution of India. In a landmark judgement in 2014, Justice KS Radhakrishnan—while according ‘third gender‘ status to transgender people and recognising their rights—directed the central and state governments to provide them with separate public toilets, among other measures. But not much has changed since then. Till date, Mysore is the only city to have provided a separate toilet to transgender people in a public place (bus stand).
Sumathi Murthy, a member of Alternative Law Forum, a Bangalore-based lawyers’ collective that provides legal services to marginalised groups, told YKA that government programmes in this regard have not yet taken off. She said government people are not even equipped to undertake such programmes as they first need to understand the subject deeply. Murthy said a common toilet for all (gender-neutral toilet) in public places could be a practical solution.
Veena S, the first transgender person to contest the election to Bangalore’s municipality corporation, told YKA where a transgender faced humiliation this time was immaterial, as it happened all the time, everywhere. She stressed on the need to sensitise people so that the third gender is not looked down upon. She said the government could include a chapter on sexual minorities in school syllabus so that the younger generation nurtures acceptance and respects them.
Transgender people have long been denied basic rights – the right to own property, the right to marry, the right to claim a formal identity through a passport or any other government identification. While efforts must be made to extend the benefits of food subsidies, education and employment reservation, and increased healthcare facilities for the transgender community, we must not forget the most basic need for humans, the right of access to sanitation. Ensuring this is as important a part of the Swachh Bharat narrative as any other.
Prabhu Mallikarjunan is a Bangalore based independent reporter and a member of 101Reporters.com. He has worked with Mint, The New Indian Express and The Financial express.