By Dr V Sam Prasad:
According to the World Health Organization, transgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and expression do not conform with the sex assigned to them at birth – it includes binary trans men and women, non-binary trans people and those who may be gender non-conforming.
Trans people are also addressed by a variety of indigenous terms used in specific cultures, such as ‘hijra’, ‘thirunangai’, ‘kinnar’, ‘shiv-shakti’, ‘jogappa’, ‘sakhi’, ‘jogta’, ‘aradhi’. They may express their gender in a variety of masculine, feminine or other ways. The transgender population has a recorded history of more than 5,000 years, as is evident from different cultures and histories of civilisations across the globe.
In April 2014, the NALSA judgement was a landmark decision by the Supreme Court, which affirmed that the fundamental rights granted under the Constitution of India will be equally applicable to trans people and gave them the right to self-determine their gender.
It is estimated that the population of trans people in India is 4.9 lakh according to census data from 2011. The highest proportion, about 28%, was in Uttar Pradesh, 9% was in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Bihar had 8% each, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal had over 6% and in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Odisha, it was over 4%.
Trans people often have to isolate themselves from mainstream life because of societal norms and because of the binary classification of gender. It is expected that everyone conforms to the roles and the gender identity assigned to them at birth. If one does otherwise, they are labelled a deviant and become targets for discrimination. This leads to trans people having to hide their true identities and experience psychological stress, mental trauma and depression.
In India, nothing about being a trans person is easy. As conversations on gender, sex and sexuality tend to be a taboo in Indian society, many trans people grow up confused about their gender identity, left to figure it out all by themselves. As a result, they often feel ‘different’ from an early age.
Bullied in schools, many drop out. Seen as an embarrassment to their families, they are forced to leave home. They may be forced into taking up sex work. Because of poverty and lack of employment opportunities, trans people may be pushed into selling drugs or even human trafficking — in order to survive.
One should admit, as a nation, that the current population has very little understanding of what it means to be transgender and how the trans community has to make a living, despite having a long history of their presence in our culture. As a result, the entire job search and hiring process are full of challenges, particularly if the gender on an identity document, for example, an Aadhar card, does not match the outward appearance of the applicant.
Once a transgender employee is hired, he or she may face many forms of harassment and discrimination, including denial of promotions or unfair firing – that too well within the probationary period despite having skills and talents. The wage disparities in addition to job discrimination, make it harder for them to provide for themselves and their families. Many people report changing jobs to avoid discrimination or the risk of discrimination. Many companies who do not want to invite legal tangles play it safe due to IPC Section 377 which criminalises same-sex intercourse.
Rights and entitlements like property rights, inheritance of family wealth, health insurance, etc. are beyond the reach of trans communities as official requirements make it difficult or impossible for many trans people to obtain accurate and consistent identification documents to claim their rights. Times are changing and we see a lot of attempts to bring the community into the mainstream, especially through awareness programs and campaigns.
India has to implement laws based on the transgender bill, focusing on making the community mainstream and thereby reduce their vulnerabilities, end stigma and discrimination, provide social protection, right to entitlements, subsidies, education, employment, even marriage and health/general insurance. Failing to guarantee these would mean trans people having to continue being forced into sex work where they are at a high risk of contracting STDs.
It is comforting to see that the trans community is being given the opportunity to join the Kochi metro corporation workforce, enabling them to take on life’s challenges with a smile. We do hope that other organisations would prepare themselves to brace the changes of our times and practice the true definition of inclusive development. As employment opportunities improve for trans people, there would be fewer chances of them being forced into sex work or begging and also fewer chances of them contracting STDs.
It will require consistent commitment from individuals, citizens, organisations, industries and the government to sustain these efforts and make things accessible for the trans community. Mass sensitization of citizens on LGBTQIA issues will be an additional task of government and civil societies to further the cause of protecting the human rights of these communities.
Dr V Sam Prasad is the Country Programme Director, AIDS Healthcare Foundation