The Struggle for Normality: Transgender of India
by Aakriti Dhawan
Transgender activist Grace Banu from Tamil Nadu, India. Photo by P.Abhijith
"Despite my marriage and a decent job, I will not quit taking Bhikshas from people, it's my tradition. It's a way people seek blessings from us, and we get our survival. My salary is for me and the rest of the money is for my community." Ritika (25) talks about her transgender life, opportunities and togetherness of the transgender community. She explains that most of the transgender prefer to stay in groups and adhere to their traditional practices.
In India, transgender people include Hijra/ kinnars (eunuchs), shiv-shaktis, jogappas, Sakhi, jogtas, Aradhis, etc. In fact, there are many who do not belong to any of the groups but are transgender persons individually. From ancient times, Hijras have significant presences in the holy books of the Hindu religion. Even during the medieval ages, the transgender were seen as trusted and loyal employees of the rulers of Indian kingdoms.

Then came a phase which destroyed this community completely. During the British rule, transgender was criminalized, violence against this community became a daily affair, and they lost their identity. Despite assistance from activists, the Supreme Court and NGO's for a long time now, why is the Transgender community still seen to be struggling?

According to the mainstream media, the factors which effect this struggle are social acceptance, employment and The Transgender Protection Bill of 2016, but one of the factors that is not mentioned anywhere, is the self-segregation of the community. All these factors then become a medium of vengeance and fear that leads to refinement of the society and confinement of the community.

The (not so) Protection Bill of 2016

In 2014, the Supreme Court of India created history by passing the "nalsa judgment". This recognized the Hijra community as the third gender and provided them certain rights and reservation under section 37 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) in order to uplift their livelihood. The Supreme Court's decision laid out a charter of possibilities for transgender rights in the country. Drafted by the office of MP Tiruchi Siva, the new bill began to concertize the rights framework.

This continued in December 2015 when the social justice and empowerment ministry made available its own draft Bill. They took the original Bill as a template and made some variations, such as including a right to self-identification and a provision of reservation for transgender persons under the Other Backward Classes category. Most importantly, the ministry also actively included comments from civil society on the draft.

But What the subsequent conversations were and what transpired within the halls of the ministry is unclear. What we know for sure is that the result, The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill 2016, which was recently approved by the Cabinet, is an utter travesty that threatens to strip away the core of the NALSA judgment. The section 377 of the IPC also criminalizes non-heterosexual sex, draws many transgender into its net. Recently, the Supreme Court agreed to reconsider its 2013 decision and referred to constitution bench the petition seeking to decriminalize consensual sex between LGBT adults on 8 January 2018 but no order has been passed yet.

There are a number of other omissions — the provision of reservations for transgender persons — which were promised by NALSA and appeared in the former draft of the Bill, but have now disappeared. This created a sense of fear transforming this Bill into an act which could annihilate the community. A trans-activist Dr. Karthik Bittu mentions in the interview: "This bill is not a baby step but two steps backwards from the Nalsa judgment and implementing this will just make it worse for all of us out there.' It can therefore be said that the Bill is moving in the opposite direction of its requirement.

Social Acceptance and Unemployment

Social acceptance is one of the important factors for the survival of any minority group. But in India, social exclusion is based on gender, region, religion and many other aspects. The 4.9 million transgender population of this country is a victim of this exclusion. The society prefers to follow the social 'norms', anything different from that is rejected.

Konduru Delliswararao and Chongneikim Hangsing, in their work say: 'Despite Indian society's general climate of acceptance and tolerance, there appears to be limited public knowledge and understanding of same sex sexual orientation and people whose gender identity and expression are in congruent with their biological sex.' To comprehend this idea of exclusion, a focus group was conducted on 26 April 2018 at New Delhi to understand the mindset of people behind the exclusion. This consisted of 4 women and 3 men (26-54 age) from different socio-cultural backgrounds.

"Surprisingly, we discovered that there wasn't just negative but positive exclusion too". Sonu Chopra (43) says: "Transgender are dirt, I don't allow them to enter my house. I am compelled to give them money on celebrations because of family traditions". Varsha Chabbra (46), a businesswoman, considers them a step closer to God, she identifies their (Hijra) 'blessings as good luck'. Rudrani Chettri, a Transgender activist explains: "When people ask me what can we do to help this community, I say do nothing. Don't treat us like garbage or like God, treat us just like you and that is the best help you can offer". Social exclusion is the cause for not getting admitted in schools or colleges due to physical and verbal abuse, leading to employment opportunities are extremely limited for most members of the Hijra community.

Reservations have always been a major part of the Indian Education System, to uplift the backward class. Despite the Nalsa Judgment, no reservations were made in schools or colleges for the transgender community. The problem doesn't end here, many Hijras that struggle their way through education also face rejection and discrimination. Private sectors prefer not to hire transgender, as it may lead to dip in their reputation.

Meenakshi Singh, a Hijra who worked at a factory as a production head, had to quit her job because of unpleasant atmosphere at work. According to the survey conducted in 2015, 8 out of 23 transgender people have to quit their jobs to avoid abuse at workplace. Reena Rai, the Co-founder of the TransQueen beauty pageant talks about their struggles of survival. She tells us how girls ask her for jobs to get away from sex work, but they soon leave the jobs to go back to their old life. "80 percent of them (transgender) I help, leave, either the money isn't enough, the Guru's of their communities do not allow them, or they are not comfortable in an atmosphere with other genders".

We can observe from the sources and the media research that the continuation of such practices in the employment and education sectors leaves the trans-community no choice but to fall back on prostitution and begging.

Self Segregation and Other Factors

The struggling life of a transgender person doesn't end here. One of the major factor is self-segregation of this community. Despite opportunities, many Hijras, like Ritika, are not very open for others to intervention and prefer to stay close to their community. They feel they are different from others in all ways, as if they were created distinctly from the rest.

After talking with several Trans Chelas and Gurus, it was very clear that they prefer staying isolated for many reasons, such as financial hitch, physical appearance and traditions. Since they often don't get jobs and/or are thrown out by their families, this community provides a platform to feed each other. Their physical appearance also grabs a second look, or many dirty signs and therefore they prefer staying in their areas or walking in groups to avoid being ashamed in public. Naavya, a trans-model in Mumbai, talks about her discrimination. She has been denied jobs and discriminated just because her body is more masculine than other girls. She later chose to model for Miss TransQueen (India's first Trans beauty pageant) where she felt comfortable and then, went back to working for her Guru.

Many of them feel it's their duty to ask for Bhikshas and that's what God had in mind while creating them. They also feel the need to follow the footsteps of their elders and earn as much as they can to keep everyone (the youngest to oldest) survive in their community.

For many of the communities, the Gurus do not permit anyone to work outside the group. Naavya also talked about many of her trans friends who were not allowed to model or apply for jobs because the Gurus feared they would leave the community and would lose the income provided by these trans-women.

These ideas confine the transgender to live in the community, follow the norms and not grow or develop. A similar case has been seen with the Transgender community of Pakistan. The population of this community is around 5 million and sources/surveys suggest that they prefer staying in their own locality, away from others and come out during the collection of 'Bhikshas' that to in groups.

Solutions and Developments

Changing cultural attitudes however is a facet of activism that cannot be put into action without taking more material steps towards change. The fact that paradigms, such as gender, religion, caste and, most prominently, self-segregation of the Hijra community, explain why issues of discrimination need to be approached in an intersectional matter.

An example of such an intersectional solution is the Miss TransQueen Beauty pageant and the #WhyNot campaign. Started by Reena Rai, a campaign that demands the entry of trans men and women in Bollywood (Indian Film Industry). Prominent Transgender researchers often state the cyclical nature of the exclusion that the community faces.

Considering this, something like the Beauty Pageant is a perfect example of a solution as it not only improves the visibility of community, but also gives them the social opportunities that could give them the agency to break the cycle of social norms.

Fighting against the Protections Bill of 2016 can be seen as one of the solutions to uplift transgender lives, but we also need to work on opportunities to eradicate social exclusion and understand the problem from within the community. In 2008, Tamil Nadu became the first state to form a board termed as the 'The Transgender Board". It was created to provide all types of aid to the community such as education, housing facilities, food, etc.

Providing a chance to include everyone in the society, despite their race, religion or gender, is the only way to prevent the transgender community from self-segregating and help them to become a sterling part of the country.

*Bhiksha: Money given to transgender during celebrations such as weddings and births
*Chela: Those transgender of the community that go out to dance and collect Bhikshas
*Guru: The leader/head of the transgender community
About the author: Aakriti has completed her Bachelor's of Arts from Kamala Nehru College, Delhi University in History in 2016. She has a major interest in the historical events of world and loves to mix journalism with history at any given point of time. She later joined NDTV MI (New Delhi Television), where is persuaded her passion for journalism.

Aakriti Dhawan
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