“Call me Caitlyn,” said she and the world erupted. That was the line screaming out of a recent Vanity Fair cover that brought transgenders into the ‘mainstream’ media discourse.
If you thought growing up in a world that slutshamed women and scoffed at men who cried was difficult, it is time to think backwards to the moment we colour-coded our children blue and pink. Ask Naaz Joshi, 34, India’s first transgender ramp-walk trainer, and she recalls her first bout of resistance: “Ever since I came into this world, I found a difference between my soul and my body. At school, I felt at ease when teachers dressed me as a girl for stage. But, when they made me a boy, I was uncomfortable. For transgender persons, there is a non-synchronisation of sorts between the soul and the body. Gender is not about physical attributes alone.”
Titled ‘Human Reproduction’, chapter three of the cbse biology textbook for Class 12 describes the human species to be “viviparous (where the female carries the child in her womb) and sexually reproducing”. It further states how the male and the female body differ from each other in their genitalia and reproductive organs. This anatomical difference in mind, medical science, religious texts and the law have divided gender along two major forks of a road. Male/Female is equal to Man/Woman. You have a male body, your ID card is stamped with an ‘M’ and your gender is ‘man’. You have a female body, you are ‘F’ on your papers and your gender is ‘woman’. Henceforth, the man is a ‘he’ and the woman a ‘she’.
While each individual is assigned an involuntary biological sex at birth depending on the genitalia one is born with, this is not an indication of a person’s gender identity. Yet, it is this very premise of conflating biological sex with gender identity that relegates the transpeople of India to the margins.
On 15 April, the Supreme Court in an effort to think beyond the binary delivered a historic judgment. Close on the heels of the recommendations made by the Rights of Transgender Persons Bill (2014), introduced by Thiru Tiruchi Siva, Rajya Sabha MP from Tamil Nadu, the court directed the Centre and all state governments to grant legal recognition of gender identity to transpeople. While it was lauded as the first judicial attempt towards ‘allowing’ a neglected segment of Indian society the right to choose their gender identity (man, woman or “third gender”), the judgment also invited sharp criticism from transmen and transwomen across India.
Questioning the language of the judgment, trans-man and activist Gee Imaan Semmalar says, “The court identifies all hijras as ‘third gender’, declares that they are not ‘women’ because they ‘lack’ reproductive organs and do not menstruate, and claims that they are ‘emasculated men’. These are offensive generalisations. The judgment also includes crossdressers who might not have a gender identity different from the one they were born with or assigned by society. Such references to the transwoman as phantasmagoric beings who are neither man nor woman and gender being judged primarily on the basis of the presence or absence of reproductive capacity feeds into and reflects all the dominant transphobic stereotypes and beliefs.”
Many of the policies and recommendations proposed for the ‘uplift’ of transpeople preceding the Supreme Court judgment, too, have been double-edged swords. “In 2010, the Karnataka government issued an order securing benefits for the transgender community, which is now included in Category 2A of OBCs,” says Gee. “While we await its implementation, rumour has it that NGOs are being outsourced the work of handing out the benefits. In April 2011, the Karnataka government under the order of KR Chammayya, former law secretary and former vice-chairman of the Karnataka Administrative Tribunal, amended the State Police Act by introducing Section 36A. The section is aimed at controlling ‘the objectionable activities’ of ‘eunuchs’. Under it, the police must record the names of ‘eunuchs’ in their jurisdiction who are suspected of kidnapping boys or committing ‘unnatural offences’, etc, in a register. This is part of the Criminal Tribes Act, one of the few sections that are still in force even as we celebrate the recognition granted by the Supreme Court to transpeople.”
Undocumented, ostracised and witch-hunted for decades, transpeople across India were at first referred to as eunuchs (a derogatory word meaning castrated men) in the Hyderabad Eunuchs Act, based on the draconian Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. Included among a list of castes and tribes notified as criminal at birth, the Act called for the registration of “names and residence of all eunuchs who are reasonably suspected of kidnapping, of castrating children or of committing the offences under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code”. Accordingly, transpeople across India were branded criminals and denied their fundamental rights as citizens. With no passports or any other legal identification documents, public health care, education and job opportunities, transpeople in India are more or less exiled from the ‘mainstream’. It was at this juncture that the agonisingly delayed legal status has come knocking at the door of transpersons.
Running a small business in a secluded part of south Delhi, S charmingly handles his dedicated lot of customers. But that doesn’t change how most men coming to the shop for a casual chat often break into taunts and ridicule S for his feminine ways. “I have always connected more with women since my childhood,” he says. “All my friends were girls and I used to love dressing like them. It’s not possible anymore. People talk. They ask me if I am a chhakka.” S, though, identifies himself as a man and is married to a woman.
Words such as chhakka (derogatory slang in Kannada and Bambaiya Hindi referring to the hijra community), pottai (slang in Tamil meaning neither man nor woman), ali (in Tamil, the word literally means nine but it is used as an insult that refers to transpersons as neither man nor woman) and eunuch have also added to the discrimination against transpersons. Not just laypersons, activists and the mainstream media but also the Supreme Court has failed to be sensitive to the use of such offensive language. In fact, the “landmark” judgment uses hijra and eunuch interchangeably.