‘Born in the wrong body’: the long road to justice for India’s transgender community

Although they have held an important place in Indian society and culture for centuries, transgender people have long faced discrimination and abuse. But after tireless campaigning, the rights of the third gender are starting to be recognised.

India's transgender community
India's transgender community has long been isolated and stigmatised. Less than 2 per cent of transgender people live with their families. According to the 2011 census, there are approximately five million transgender citizens in the country. Image: Akilan Thyagarajan/Flickr

Payal was born near Sonepat in Haryana to a family of autorickshaw drivers and seamstresses. At birth, she was named Sunil amid elaborate family celebrations from having a son. But as she grew up, she felt discontented with her life.

Twelve years later, she ran away from home, lived on the streets and by railway stations and now calls an inter-sex cluster near Mehrauli village in Delhi her home. She changed her name and transformed her attire from shirts and trousers to bright, colorful saris and salwar kameez, with matching bangles, bindi, hair accessories and a fully made-up face.

“Since I was two years old, I always felt like a girl. I wanted to wear dresses like other girls in my locality but my family wouldn’t hear of it. After years of failing to convince my family that I was actually a girl born in a male body, I had no choice to run,’” she said. 

Payal’s story is just one among millions of transgender people in India, all whom have risen from stigma, social ostracisation, and mockery to demand a life of respect, dignity, and most importantly, social recognition in the country of their birth.

Many transgender folk, who have been fortunate enough to have supportive families or financially stable backgrounds, hold key posts in government offices and civic society groups and are proactive in challenging the government for the welfare of their community. But for the transgender people born into poverty, their means of livelihood depends on meagre earnings from the street, government handouts or compassionate citizens for their survival. 

For many people it takes years just to understand that transgender people are the same as anyone else but born in the wrong body.

Abheena Aher, transgender activist

For years, India’s transgender community has been isolated and stigmatised. Less than 2 per cent of transgender people live with their families. According to the 2011 census, there are approximately five million transgender citizens in the country, but that figure could easily now be 10 million. In India, transgender people or hijras – their identity remains complex and some consider themselves neither male nor female, but a third gender or non-binary – constitute a marginal section of society who have often have faced legal, social and economic obstacles.  

Culturally, hijras have a strong social standing in India. Hijras can be commonly found at red lights asking for alms or they show up at auspicious occasions like weddings and births to perform dances and demand money from families, a common cultural phenomenon in India where hijras are both feared and respected. In many Hindu families, the blessings of a hijra are considered sacred and their curses (if denied money or turned away) are considered to have dire consequences with many religious families going out of their way to appease the hijra community. 

Transgender people have played an important cultural role in Indian society for centuries. They have held significant positions as political advisors and trusted aides to Muslim rulers through the ages. However, their position in society over the past 50 years has been downgraded to ridicule, harassment, ostracism and discrimination. Even so, some progress is being made to uplift the third gender, and a number of measures have been taken to help them find respectable ways to earn a living.  

the Hijras

The identity of the Hijras is complex and some consider themselves neither male nor female, but a third gender or non-binary. Image: रवीना हिजरा रारे/Flickr

A Metro station in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, for instance, has been designated ‘Pride station’ where employees are members of the transgender community. “Right now, we have six employees from the transgender community, two work at the ticket counters and four in housekeeping. This is the first of its kind Metro station in northern India. This initiative was inspired by the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act (TPA), 2019 which aspires to protect the interests of the community and work towards their welfare,” said Praveen Mishra, executive director, Noida Rail Metro Authority.  

In another Indian city, Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, the municipal corporation has introduced toilets specifically for the third gender. Bhopal is only the second city in India after Mysore to have a dedicated toilet exclusively for transgender folk. In addition, there are 12 shelters for transgender people that have been created nationwide, with many more in the planning stages. The first transgender mayor was elected in Raigarh, Chhattisgarh, in 2015 as an independent candidate and in 2017 the Kerala government engaged some members of the transgender community to work in the Metro, in jobs ranging from housekeeping to ticketing. 

But for transgender activists who have been working on the ground for years, the shift to recognise and empower the community is long overdue. Abheena Aher, a prominent transgender activist, has been working for the community for the last 25 years. A software engineer by profession, she began transitioning and underwent surgical intervention in her 20s, and is now the advisor for the National Network of Transgender Persons, a statutory body for transgender matters, and represents the interests of the transgender community across the globe.

We have been working closely with the Ministry of Social Justice for the empowerment of transgenders. At many levels in the bureaucracy, we have had to justify our demands and fight for our rights. For the transgender community, acceptance in society is critical. For many people it takes years just to understand that transgender people are the same as anyone else but born in the wrong body. No one understands the mental, emotional as well as physical trauma we go through,’’ she said. 

Aher was raised by a single, supportive mother who is also a prominent lesbian, gay, transgender, and bisexual (LGBT) activist and credits her for her relentless efforts to help the transgender community. Many activists who work on the ground spoke about the issues that have been highlighted in the recent TPA bill. “It’s a monumental step in the right direction and focuses on issues like protection from stigma and discrimination, certificate of identity, equal opportunity in the workforce, and safety concerns. The Act is not perfect, but it’s a beginning and now it’s up to us to take it forward,’’ said another activist working on the ground, who preferred not to reveal their name.

The TPA, which defines a transgender person as someone whose gender does not match the one assigned at birth, recognises their right to residence, prohibits discrimination against them, and legal action for offenders including six-month jail term in addition to a fine. The Bill specifically ensures there is no discrimination against a transgender person or denial of services such as education, employment, healthcare, the right to movement, and the right to rent or occupy a property. Most of the recommendations and guidelines used to draft the Act are from the work and dedication of transgender activists who have been working tirelessly to uplift their community. 

“Some of the schemes under consideration include one providing health services and financial support to transgender people who want to opt for gender reassignment surgery. This will be made available under certain government empanelled hospitals. In the education sector, scholarships till post-graduate level for transgender people is also in the works,’’ according to ministry sources. 

Suddenly people are talking about diversity and inclusiveness after analysing the cost of homophobia and transphobia to the Indian economy.

Simran Shaikh Bharucha, director, transgender health, Johns Hopkins University

Transgender activist Simran Shaikh Bharucha, who is director of transgender health at the Johns Hopkins University school of medicine, feels India is at least two centuries late in empowering the transgender community. “Third gender people have been revered throughout South Asian history. Whatever we see right now in terms of progression from the Indian Government or Supreme Court is a result of constant dialogue between the transgender community and bureaucracy. Suddenly people are talking about diversity and inclusiveness after analysing the cost of homophobia and transphobia to the Indian economy. There is some movement on the ground, things are finally happening, which is a much needed step in the right direction, she said. 

Bharucha was estranged from her family for years after coming out, but managed to reconnect with her family in 2017. “I realised that the estrangement from my family was due to me. It took me six years to come out as a transgender person, but I did not give my family even six hours to understand my decision and accept me for who I am. Thankfully, we have managed to overcome this and today my family supports me in every way possible,’’ she said. She currently works to develop transgender community clinics in Indian cities, setting up one-stop solutions for the community so far in Hyderabad, Pune, and Thane.  

Zainab Javed Patel, a transgender person and co-petitioner in the National Legal Services Authority vs Union of India case on transgender rights, which proposed that the right to express one’s identity in a non-binary gender is an essential part of freedom of expression, feels transgender people in India have reached the stage where they do not bow down to social stereotypes. “Whatever empowerment has happened in the transgender community is due to activists on the ground who have fought in various courts for our civil and political rights, for our right to self identify and not be labelled under any category. The community has been able to organise itself and fight for its rights in many ways,’’ said Patel. 

Activists said awareness of the transgender community increased gradually from 2014 onwards with press and media attention, but this did not necessarily lead to empathy for the community. “Social media started highlighting transgender persons who held key positions in the corporate sector, litigation, politics, healthcare, and entertainment, clearly showing their involvement in the community. This was not due to a government intervention but personal perseverance,’’ said Patel.

He added that “even 70 years after independence, we did not have affirmative measures like a proactive legislation for trans people. One needs to understand that if the government wants to uplift the transgender community, then they have to start by identifying the actual number of transgender persons by starting a campaign for self-immunisation to come forward and self-identify. Today under the Transgender Act, identity cards are issued to trans people, but only 7,000 have signed for it so far due to bureaucratic red-tape. Funds are supposedly earmarked for transgender persons which are locked in inter-ministerial coordination.’’ 

According to official figures, the literacy rate among transgender people remains abysmally low and many continue to be victims of discrimination and harassment in work places and government offices. “Every government institution should set up a grievance process for transgender persons. The government needs to establish an equal opportunity policy in its own departments,” said Patel.

“A comprehensive transgender policy and roadmap was to be developed within two years to focus on the overall development of the community by the Ministry of Social Justice and notified by the PMO, what happened to it? Transgender welfare boards across states have been dysfunctional and not in sync with the Transgender Protection Act,’’ said Patel. 

For third gender folk like Patel, the journey towards social, political and economic independence has only just begun, and a long road of struggle lies ahead.

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