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Twilight zone

Nivedita R |

How much do we know about people belonging to the transgender community? Well, very less, so to say. They come from all walks of life and are a diverse community, representing all ethnic and racial backgrounds. Yet, one talks about them in hushed tones and are often misunderstood.

Transgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or expression is different from the gender assigned to them at birth, and specifically in India the term may be used to describe a variety of identities, such as kothi, panthi, transman, transwoman, hijra(eunuch), genderqueer, so on and so forth.

Who are Transgenders (TGs)?

The ambiguity surrounding the definition of the varied identities under this umbrella term "transgender" calls for a clarity in description. "Transgender(ed) person is a term used to describe those who transgress social gender norms; often used as an umbrella term to mean those who defy rigid, binary gender constructions, and who express or present a breaking and/or blurring of culturally prevalent/stereotypical gender roles. Transgendered persons usually live full or part time in the gender role opposite to the one in which they were born. In contemporary usage, 'transgender' has become an umbrella term that is used to describe a wide range of identities and experiences, including but not limited to: pre-operative, postoperative and non-operative transsexual people; male and female cross-dressers (sometimes referred to as 'transvestites', 'drag queens', or 'drag kings'); intersexed individuals; and men and women, regardless of sexual orientation, whose appearance or characteristics are perceived to be gender atypical," explained Dr V Sam Prasad, Country Programme Manager, AIDS Healthcare Foundation India (AHFI).

AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) is a Los Angeles-based global non-profit provider of HIV prevention services, testing and healthcare for HIV patients. AHF currently claims to provide medical care and services to more than 600,000 individuals in 15 US states and 38 countries worldwide, including India.

The lingua franca of this entire LGBT community is very strange and huge, says Dr Sam.

"Some of the Transgenders also get married due to societal/family pressure.Their dual personalities also help them get the best of both worlds. This though leads to mental trauma. They get married only for social security, family support, entitlements and so on. The marriage is actually a safety net," said Dr Sam.

What do they do?

Ironically, in spite of facing discrimination from certain sections of our society, eunuchs (hijras) are often commissioned to perform traditional songs and dance at celebrations for newly born children, and at wedding functions. This act of theirs is called "Toli-Badhai", which earns them a living. Many Indians believe that a blessing from a hijrabestows good luck. Their blessings are valued highly in India.

Contrary to that, sadly, most of them also earn their livelihood by flesh trade or Khanza. Some of them are forced into that profession and most of them do not have any other option. "Each one of them has different yearnings. Some get into sex work for money and some solely for pleasure," said Dr Sam.

Vidhya, a transgender hailing from Jamshedpur and a sex worker, said, "I'm married and have chosen this dual life due to family and societal pressure. My family doesn't know about my reality. I get out of the home in the morning dressed as man, as if going to work. Subsequently, I change my attire in a room rented solely for this purpose. Then I go for 'Toli-Badhai'. At night, I indulge in sex work." Vidhya has HIV and is getting treated by AHFI. She unabashedly added, "Many a time I have also lured men for sex, gotten into their car and looted them."

Rights and Protection

Historic achievement in the struggle for transgender rights was a 2014 Supreme Court judgement, also called NALSA, or the National Legal Services Authority, vs Union of India judgement that recognised them as the third gender. The judgement also credited to them economically and socially backward status, thus entitling them to reservations under the other backward classes (OBC) quota. However, in July 2016, the court reprimanded the Centre for failing to implement its order two years after it was passed, especially with reference to reservations in jobs and education.

Government has introduced The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill 2016. Meanwhile, MP Tiruchi Siva introduced a Private Member's Bill ~ the Rights of Transgender Persons Bill ~ in the Rajya Sabha, which was unanimously passed in April 2015. The latter draws heavily from the NALSA judgement, which is favored by the TG community.

Soumya said, "The Private Member's Bill is yet to be passed in the Lok Sabha. There are loopholes in both the Bills. However, the Private Member's Bill is better as it adheres to SC judgement. In the Bill passed by the government the screening committees will decide whether the person is trans or not. Whereas no one clearly knows what a transgender is, how can they decide for us?"

She added, "There is no change in these three years after NALSA judgement. Government hasn't taken any necessary steps yet. I am not trying to blame anyone but this is the reality."

Echoing similar sentiments, Simran said, "We would really like the Tiruchi Siva Bill to be implemented or request the Social Welfare Justice Ministry to rely on the SC judgement."

Steps to be taken

"I feel strongly about having programmes for adolescents to sensitise them about general sex and sexuality. The government and private education system should condone all genders and instead make environment conducive to any kind of gender, having support groups, and also quotas for them," Dr Angela said. "How one chooses to wear their gender is an individual's choice. It's a long road but now more and more people are coming out of the closet," she added.

Besides, Soumya said, government doesn't have any official data as to how many TGs are there in this country. "Even in their 2011 census, where they added TGs in their list, they didn't sensitise people about the addition," she noted. "I participated in the survey but the volunteer didn't even ask me any information. No one knows how many TGs are there in this country."

Angela explained that the positive images of TG people in media continues to make a criticial difference for them as on the ground level the struggles are still persistent and it's a long road ahead for the change to happen.