Breaking the Binary

Dignity at last Simran Shaikh and Abhina Aher in their office
Dignity at last Simran Shaikh and Abhina Aher in their office. Photo: Arun Sehrawat

On 15 April, the Supreme Court of India recognised the rights of a two million-strong community that has long been relegated to a life of scorn and humiliation: the transgenders. “It is the right of every human being to choose their gender,” said the two-judge bench of Justices AK Sikri and KS Radhakrishnan.

The landmark judgment granted those who don’t identify with their biological sex the right to choose their gender. The court also directed the Central and state governments to take necessary steps to make provisions for equal status for them by ensuring access to healthcare, education, employment, besides including several other safeguards against discrimination.

Popularly referred to as hijras, transgenders have been a part of Indian history for more than 4,000 years. Yet, they have remained largely ghettoised, forced to eke out a living by begging and as sex workers. Stripped off their dignity, they have been called names and have put up with every humiliating moniker from chakkas to mamus to double pavs to nankhatais. The apex court’s order comes as a much-needed first-step to reforming the social mindset that has so far been tuned to discriminate against them or, at best, to poke fun at them.

“Rights and status are not magic words,” says social scientist Shiv Visvanathan. “The law has made provisions but unless there is internalisation, there is no way forward. Are we prepared to introduce the concept at the school level? Are we willing to re-imagine public spaces?”

Traditionally, hijras have been known to sing and dance at auspicious occasions like weddings and the birth of a child. Their presence is still largely synonymous with select public spaces like traffic signals, in trains and on the margins of our cities.

“Sex is assigned biologically but gender is a social construct,” says gender rights activist Kamla Bhasin. The community is up against years of misconception and superstition. They are “possessed”, have the power to “cast spells” and are “not normal”, are only some of these. The medical explanation seems to have been drowned out by this noise. “The inability to identify with your biological gender is a condition that could be a result of a combination of environmental, biological and psychological factors,” says Mumbai-based psychiatrist Amit Kulkarni. “It is how one identifies with oneself.” To break away from the gender binary, we need to understand that gender is a matter of choice and has nothing to do with one’s ability, he adds.

At 6 feet, 38-year-old Simran Shaikh is poised in a lemon green salwar-kameez with her long, wavy hair tied up neatly in a bun. She works on policy development for transgender issues on national and international fora. Based out of New Delhi, she works closely with community- level organisations across six states and was recently a part of a World Health Organisation Consultation on the issue. However, as a child, Simran dreamt of joining the merchant navy. An incident at the age of 14 put paid to those dreams.

At a dinner with friends, when her father called her effeminate in a derogatory way, Simran knew she had become an outcast in her own home. That night, she left her house with Rs 16 in her pocket and for the next three days, roamed around and starved.

Simran was lucky to find her guru, a traditional hijra, who not only gave her shelter, but trained her in dancing and helped her find work. She sponsored her education working as a bar dancer. The problem started when she went out looking for a job. “I knew I was capable,” says Simran, “but I wondered why I was being rejected.” Simran feels the apex court ruling will give her identification documents that finally recognise her gender. But recognition alone is not enough.

“What will wipe out that unnerving gaze that follows me wherever I go?” she asks. In the past few years, Simran has been earning a decent salary, but dignity continues to elude her. Four years ago, when she arrived in the capital, she recounts how she could never travel by public transport.

“Auto drivers wouldn’t agree to take me. The ones who did would overcharge. Taking a bus or a metro was out of question. If I sat next to a woman, she would walk away. In the common compartment, men make me feel uncomfortable,” she says. Simran was denied a loan by a private bank without an explanation, a shopkeeper refused to sell her a bike. On most occasions, transgenders have been denied services due to lack of documentation. “Since most transgenders run away from home, they have no address proof,” she says.

Today, Simran is a prominent representative of the transgender community in India. Although she is satisfied with her current job, she laments the lack of opportunities. Barring health and development, she says there are hardly any other sectors willing to employ transgenders. Although the Supreme Court judgment gives them educational and employment reservation under the OBC category, many from the community feel that they need to be given vocational training as well as loans to start small enterprises. “What about the transgenders who are above the age of 40?” asks 64-year-old Noori Saleem, a member of the Transgender Welfare Board in Tamil Nadu(TWBTN).

In 2008, Tamil Nadu became the pioneering state to address the concerns of the transgender community. Transgenders in the state are given a pension of Rs 1,000 a month. Although the amount is a pittance, for people like Noori some support is better than nothing at all. “The Central and state governments should take cognisance of the steps taken by Tamil Nadu and also learn from its pitfalls. A hiked pension for those above 40 is a must,” says Noori.

The state government issued separate ration cards and created a third gender for admission to government colleges. The TWBTN also facilitates access to existing government institution-delivered programmes such as health insurance, education and employment, including a self-employment grant of up to Rs 20,000. “Organisations also need to work on gender-sensitisation programmes, lend support and be open to addressing concerns and questions from members of the community,” says Amitava Sarkar, who has worked on capacity-building programmes for the community for the past 10 years.

Human resource professionals feel that the approach to integrating transgenders into workspaces should be based not on welfare, but on capacity and competency. They also feel that transgenders should in turn help organisations understand what they could do to become more sensitive to their needs.

The real challenge though begins at a much earlier stage and at a more primal level. “We can ask the whole world to look at us differently, but charity begins at home,” says Abhina Aher, 37, who did not speak to her mother for nine years after she embraced her gender identity. Aher has converted her apartment in Mumbai into a home for transgenders who have undergone sex reassignment surgery.

Fighting for identity Amitava Sarkar has been at the forefront of building trust for transgenders
Fighting for identity Amitava Sarkar has been at the forefront of building trust for transgenders. Photo: Arun Sehrawat

Undergoing gender transition and embracing your gender identity is not an easy process. It can be painful, as 28-year-old Shreya recalls. “It involves counseling, evaluation of gender identity, hormone therapy and is followed by a surgery,” says Shreya, a member of the community who works as a counsellor in Mumbai. “Hormone therapy can cause depression and anxiety, and emotional support at this time is of paramount importance.”

Due to lack of family support and access to healthcare, many individuals wanting to undergo gender transition consume contraceptive pills to alter hormone balance in their bodies and that can wreak havoc. “This can have fatal side-effects on the liver,” warns Kulkarni.

The Supreme Court judgment directs respective departments to look into the special needs of transgenders. “Every state should have a welfare board that facilitates provision of free sex reassignment surgery through government hospitals like the way it is being done in Tamil Nadu,” says Noori.

Plastic surgeon Dr Parag Telang, who facilitates sex reassignment surgeries, seconds the suggestion. “A lot of young people come to me very disturbed. If they are not given the right kind of care and support, it leaves them vulnerable,” he says. Dr Telang renders services to transgenders at a special OPD on select days of the week at a private hospital in Mumbai, and in the year-and-a-half that he has been running the clinic, he has seen the number increasing. He recounts how at first the initiative was met with resistance from the residents. “They questioned us on the ‘kind of services’ we were providing,” he says. “We have had to sensitise the residents as well as members of our own team.”

The recent judgment is a relief to the community, but in December last year, the same apex court had upheld section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalises gay sex. This inherent contradiction in the law leaves not only the transgender community but also the lesbian, gay and bisexual communities in a state of unrest. An open hearing in the case is scheduled to take place on 2 May. Activist Shaleen Rakesh feels the government needs to come up with a policy statement. “There needs to be clear guidelines to help employers across sectors understand and interpret the new law,” he says. While all stakeholders are equally important, he feels the police needs to be at the helm of affairs.

Aher also talks about other perceptions the community is up against. “There is a belief that we turn children into transgenders. I have not legally adopted a son but have supported a boy who now works in a prominent airline company after his mother passed away at the age of 12. Why can’t we be parents?” asks Aher.

Combined with the social stigma attached to the community, it is perceptions such as these that stand in the way of allowing transgenders to adapt. But perhaps the biggest challenge of all is to overcome the social mindset and gain acceptance. The law will only protect; it is the society that will accept.


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