In India, the transgender community faces significant discrimination. Census data from 2011 suggests that there are 4,90,000 transgender persons in the country but trans activists consider the number to be much higher. However, trans people were classified as ‘males’ in the data released by the Census Department. The first major breakthrough in trans rights came when in 2014, the Supreme Court passed the National Legal Services Authority v. Union of India (NALSA) judgment which recognised trans people and gave directions to the Centre and state governments to initiate affirmative action policies directed towards social upliftment of trans individuals.
Modern Indian society’s attitude towards trans people is hypocritical. While the ‘Ardhanareswar’ form of lord Shiva is worshipped, trans people, on the contrary, are shunned by society. However, in ancient India, trans people were treated with comparatively greater respect. Gender variance is prominent in Hindu mythology, as seen in the characters of Shikhandi, Brihannala, and Mohini. Koovakam, a festival in Tamil Nadu, is celebrated exclusively for the trans community.
In modern times, people like to seek out the blessings of trans people when a baby is born or when getting married. At the same time, there is a significant stigma around coming out as trans within one’s own family. We still have a long way to go as far as mainstream acceptance of trans people is concerned. However, in recent years, we have seen progress. Aishwarya Rutuparna Pradhan is the first Indian trans woman to become a Civil Servant. Rose Venkatesan is India’s first trans woman to become a TV show host. Shabnam Mausi contested in the Indian elections. And Manabi Bandyopadhyay is the first trans woman to become a college principal. These trans women conquered their struggles and the stigma that surrounded them to become beacons of inspiration for the entire trans community.
Tamil Nadu was the first state to form a Transgender Welfare Board. Today such boards have been set up across the country in other states as well. These boards are headed by a chairperson appointed by the state cabinet and have several representatives from the trans community. The boards help members from the trans community in handling identity cards, look after their health and education and ensure the realisation of their basic rights and overall development. They are also responsible for ensuring that the government policies and schemes are properly implemented. It is really important to ensure the proper functioning of these boards. At the same time, there is a dire need to create more support systems for the trans community.
A trans person in India faces several challenges. Abandonment by family, social marginalisation, exclusion from social occasions, lack of access to education, harassment in public places and little opportunity for employment are some of the challenges. These challenges lead them to professions like ‘toli-badhai’, which involve dancing and singing on auspicious occasions like the birth of a baby or marriages – or begging and sex work.
Lack of employment opportunities, social exclusion, and economic vulnerability means that sex work is often the most viable form of income available to transgender people. Apart from sex work, some trans people may want to get their hands on hormones and try injecting them by themselves. Without the practice of safe injecting, this process may be very vulnerable to HIV transmission because of the risk of the needle being shared. As per the NACO, it estimates HIV prevalence among this group to be 7.5%, as of 2015. However, only 21% HIV-positive trans individuals have access to treatment.
For the care and support of members of the trans community who are HIV positive, there are organisations like AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), India. AHF is a leading NGO in New Delhi and also has a branch in Mumbai which provides amazing services like free HIV testing, counselling on HIV and free HIV medication. The community friendly clinic in New Delhi is committed to the trans community for providing a better care and support system.
There are many community-based organisations across the country who are working for the trans community and are supported by AHF, India. Through AHF’s community-based rapid testing program, those who are identified as HIV positive are sent to the AHF Clinic for their medication or to government hospitals for further care.
Impulse New Delhi is a forum for trans individuals and helps raise awareness on HIV/AIDS within the community through events, activities and social media campaigns. Not only does it function as a safe space where trans people can discuss social, psychological and health related issues, it has also done some fantastic work in bringing individuals from within the trans community into the mainstream. During the events, they also take up important topics like the transgender bill and section 377.
The 2016 transgender bill had several problems of its own. It had a poorly conceived definition of transgender and completely removed the option for trans people to identify as the gender of their preferred choice. Transgender is an umbrella term and it encompasses binary trans women (assigned male at birth), binary trans men (assigned female at birth), non-binary individuals, who may identify as neither or both, intersex individuals or genderqueer and gender non-conforming persons. However, the bill does stipulate that offences like compelling a trans person to beg, denial of access to a public place, physical and sexual abuse, etc. would attract up to two years’ imprisonment and a fine.
Trans people are also human beings. They should be welcomed into the mainstream of our society. Let’s take a pledge to educate people on gender identity so that we learn to accept and love people for who they are.