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Understanding the history of India’s transgender community

India’s LGBTQIA+ community has been protesting for trans rights for years. Conditioned to the bottom of the socio-economic hierarchy, will the transgender community ever attain equality?

Did you know that as per Hindu mythology, transgender people are actually considered to be an incarnation of God?

If you’re surprised, it’s probably because in many countries they’re not treated equally as human beings, let alone any kind of spiritual deity. Such is the story of transgender people in India.

After coming out to their family, they’re often ostracized; many find it difficult to gain formal employment due to a lack of education and discrimination from employers. As a result, they end up becoming destitute or sex workers in metropolitan cities.

Over time, their cause for protest has snowballed into a larger agenda involving some laws and pandemic relief measures. So, what is the outrage all about? What is being done about it and where is this movement headed?

What is the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019?

This law has been at the centre of widespread protests due to its controversial and seemingly ignorant provisions.

It basically lays down the steps involved in the legal identification of transgender persons, and punishment for crimes committed against such persons, among others.

Under this law, a transgender individual is required to go to a District Magistrate for a certificate clarifying their gender identity. Then, they can apply for a ‘change in gender certificate’, which directs the authorities to switch their legal gender to either male or female.

Now, there are a lot – and I mean a lot – of things in this act that people find problematic. To start off with, the second step involves proof of sex reassignment surgery, which is something not all transgender people want.

Megh, an HR Consultant from Bengaluru, says, ‘How can they force us to opt for surgery and then validate us as transgender? We should all have the freedom to express ourselves the way we want to. The fact that we have to prove our identities with surgery makes no sense to me.’

Even those that desire surgery may not have the financial resources for it. So, it clearly bars a certain segment of the community from such identification on the basis of privilege.

Not to mention, the law is a contradiction to a landmark Supreme Court judgement called the 2014 NALSA judgement, which essentially reaffirmed the right to self-identify. Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan, writing for the bench, said, ‘any insistence for [sex reassignment surgery] for declaring one’s gender is immoral and illegal.’

Secondly, The Transgender Persons Act combines both transgender and intersex people. Now, an intersex person is defined as someone born with sexual anatomy not fitting into typical male or female characteristics. Hence, not all intersex people are transgender and not all transgender people are intersex.

In relation to this, Ali, a student from Bengaluru, says, ‘Putting intersex and trans identities in one box is not only barbaric but also erases both identities synchronously. It allows for more abuse and imposition of what a cisgender person believes on intersex/trans bodies.’

Thirdly, the act prescribes a punishment of six months to two years for sexual abuse of a trans individual as compared to a minimum of seven years for the rape of a cisgender woman.

Treating sexual abuse of a trans individual as some sort of petty offence clearly shows how discriminatory this law is. Sexual abuse of anyone is grave, and should be perceived that way by the authorities.

So much for ‘protection of rights’.

How has the pandemic affected trans people?

COVID-19 has been especially tough on the trans community. Since many of them earn a living through begging on the streets or sex work, they haven’t been able to sustain themselves adequately.

In Lucknow, LGBT rights activist Arif Jafar said in an interview to the Wire that after the second wave of COVID, many of them became homeless and were starved because all their sources of income had evaporated.

Actually, India has the world’s third largest population living with HIV; as per UNAIDS, it is prevalent in the trans community with 3.1% as compared to 0.26% among all adults. Given their immune-compromised condition, they are even more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Some are able to access medicines for HIV/AIDs or hormone replacement therapy. But since they haven’t been able to supplement this with nutritious food, the effectiveness of these medicines has not been the same.

Jafar added, ‘a few NGOs came to their rescue by distributing rations, but it was not sufficient for the larger, dispersed transgender population living on the margins of society’.

In March 2021, the Union ministry of social justice and empowerment issued an advisory, which said that a one-time allowance of INR 1,500 (£15) per person would be sent into the bank accounts of 5,711 transgender persons.

Bear in mind that there are about 2 million transgender people in India. Therefore, LGBTQIA+ activists have deemed these government-led relief efforts as inadequate.

Most importantly, a majority of them lack basic documentation, and don’t even have bank accounts in their self-identified names. This often causes them to be excluded from social security schemes.

Shockingly, during India’s first COVID-19 wave, a housing society in Hyderabad stuck a poster near its gate warning people to particularly not interact with transgender people.

It read: ‘Do not allow Kojja and Hijras (Sub-groups of the trans community) near the shops. If you talk to them or have intercourse with them, you will be infected with coronavirus. Beat and drive them away or call 100 immediately…’

The very population that was meant to respect the trans community, today shuns them. The very laws that were put in place to protect their rights, today infringe them.

Unfortunately, such transphobia is not something out of the ordinary for Indian people.

What does the future look like for the trans community?

In spite of the rampant discrimination, there has been growing acknowledgement of the community at a pace that we have never witnessed before.

On 14th May, the government of Assam became the first to announce exclusive vaccination centres for trans people. Not long after that, West Bengal said that it would vaccinate trans people, sex workers, and hawkers, among a few others on a first priority basis.

The Ministry of social justice and empowerment has also announced a free helpline for distressed members of the community. They may contact professional psychologists on the number 8882133897 between 11 am- 1 pm and 3-5pm from Monday to Saturday.

Beyond the pandemic, Karnataka became the first state in India to reserve jobs in public employment for transgender persons.

Adar Poonawalla – a businessman that led the vaccination efforts in India – had given hope to the trans community when he said, ‘I look forward to collaborating with Laxmi Narayan Tripathi (trans rights activist) in providing equal opportunities to the transgender community in India’.

It is true that they have been excluded from social security schemes at first, and that society has treated them harshly at times. But this acknowledgment from the government and corporates only goes to show that such mentality is temporary.

Perhaps with a little bit of luck and support, it won’t be long before society too accepts the human incarnation of the Gods that they worship.


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