No longer the other?
The Supreme Court judgment giving transgenders the status of Third Gender is likely to benefit nearly three to six million persons in India, who have been fighting for recognition of their identity
Seema Sachdeva

Freedom from gender bias: Transgenders celebrate after the Supreme Court ruling accepted their identity. Photos: PTI, AFP 

Dressed up in glittering saris, loud makeup and flashy jewellery, one can see them on various auspicious occasions — blessing newly weds or a new-born child with a badhai. Hijras, eunuchs, kinnars, khusras, aravanis, Shiv Shakthis, kothis, or jogtas, there are many names people use to address them. Often thrown out of their homes at birth or during adolescence for they are neither male nor female, the two binary parameters on which our society rests, they have to face ostracism from family as well as society.

While at one level, these transgenders (TGs), read hijras, are revered and feared for the commonly held belief in their ability to bless or curse you, at yet another level, this community has been the subject of much discrimination and social ostracism.

From the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to the Koran and the Bible, there are references to transgenders in every religious text. However, despite being an inherent part of our culture, the transgender community in India continues to live on the fringes of society with no access to education, job opportunities and healthcare. Due to this social exclusion, they have no say in policy making. There are no job opportunities available to them and they have restricted access to healthcare. This leaves them with no options except for singing badhai or begging for alms at traffic signals, or engaging in sex work.

The recent Supreme Court ruling, however, has brought a glimmer of hope in their lives. The decision of the apex court giving them the status of Third Gender is likely to benefit an estimated three to six million transgender community in India, that has been fighting for the recognition of its identity. The decision has come after more than two centuries since the implementation of the draconian British Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 that had completely stripped transgenders of their rights.

Anand Grover, a designated Senior Advocate who had filed this petition, says, “This is the first step forward. But much more needs to be done so that the benefits percolate down to the entire community. Gender identity has to be accepted by all as a Constitutional Right.”

The total number of transgenders is estimated to be almost three per cent of the country’s population. However, only 32,518 transgenders have been registerd in the electoral list so far. The community faces several social and health issues, besides the risk of sexually transmitted diseases like HIV and AIDS. The United Nations Development Project estimates the number of men having sex with men (MSM) in India at 23,52,133. It puts the number of male sex worker population (including hijras/TG communities) at 2,35,213. Recent studies among hijras/TGs have indicated a very high HIV prevalence (17.5 per cent to 41 per cent).

According to Kamal, a transgender activist working with Astitva, an organisation working for the support and development of sexual minorities, “HIV comes due to the socio-economic exclusion of the community. Once they are thrown out of their homes, transgenders don’t have much choice. They either beg or do sex work. Due to no job opportunities, even the most educated transgenders have to do sex work.”

Most transgenders are poor, illiterate and not willing to come out in the open for the fear of being exploited, physically as well as sexually.

Besides this, they suffer from a serious crisis of identity, which is also the reason for the high rate of suicide among them. While the suicide rate in India is three per 1 lakh persons, in case of transgenders, the suicide rate is reportedly 31 per cent. More than 50 per cent of transgenders in the country have reportedly attempted suicide at least once before their 20th birthday while many others resort to self-harm by cutting and mutilation.

The Supreme Court ruling has kindled hope for a just and fair place for the transgenders in our society. How far this judgment is implemented in letter and spirit, the onus lies upon the government and the implementing authorities. It needs to be seen if the verdict will actually help in removing the stigma attached to being a hijra or transgender and they are able to get public acceptability. For a society which is still struggling to give rights to its women, giving equality to the Third Gender appears to be a long way off.









“There’s not even a place where I can be buried”

Laxmi Narayan Tripathi is no ordinary name. An intervener in the landmark judgment that changed the fate of transgenders all over the country, Laxmi has many credits to fame. A social activist, postgraduate in Bharatnatyam, teacher, choreographer, event manager, model coordinator, she was the first transgender to represent the Asia Pacific region in the United Nations. In an exclusive interview with Seema Sachdeva, Laxmi shares what it is to be a transgender. Excerpts:

What is your reaction to the judgment?

I am very happy about the fact that the judgment came out so beautifully. The biggest battle for our identity and recognition has been won. I feel I am no longer a second-class citizen. Now, I can live life on my own terms and I don’t have to be a man or woman anymore to prove my identity.

What are the consequences of being a transgender?

The transgender community, particularly the hijras, have suffered a lot of social stigma over the centuries. As a transgender, till now I didn’t know what I was. I am treated like a glass wall. People look at me but don’t see me. My human existence is zero. There’s not even a place where I can be buried. Even after my death, questions are raised as to how and what to do. For the documents, where others pay Rs 100, the hijras have to shell out Rs 10,000. Getting the most basic facilities like a ration card, opening a bank account or getting a passport made are major tasks.

What are the kinds of pressures faced by transgenders?

Society has taken everything away from us. People smile at us only out of compulsion, and not compassion. The most terrible poverty of life is the poverty of feelings. The feeling that you are not loved. The number of transgenders living with their biological families is zero per cent. Most of them do badhai on auspicious occasions. Others have to beg or do sex work. Often the sex workers are at a high risk of sexually transmitted diseases. They don’t even have the awareness of the risks and even doctors are not willing to touch them. Even if you are a heart patient, the doctor is not ready to examine your blood pressure. I have seen hijras die in my arms at the gates of top government hospitals after they were denied treatment. I had to once drag the dean of a hospital to get treatment for a TG patient.

Do you think the ruling will bring about a change in the fate of transgenders?

The day April 15, 2014, was a golden moment for us. The landmark judgment is an acceptance of our sexuality in the eyes of law. Transgenders can live their lives with dignity, something that each and every human being is entitled to. Interestingly, after the verdict, a transgender law student who had dropped out in the second year called to inform me that she’s getting enrolled again to complete her studies.

You are among the very few transgenders who has lived with the biological family. How did you gain social acceptance?

I have been lucky to have had parents who never disowned me. Despite belonging to an orthodox Brahmin family, my parents accepted me for what I am. They faced much opposition but didn’t give in. I have learnt from my experience that the world cannot say anything if your parents accept you. My mother said my child will not go out to beg. My father said my child is not a disabled or special child. When people don’t give away even their special child, why should I? Just because my child’s gender is different, no civilised and uncivilised society can force me to give away my child, he said. My parents’ stance led to my social acceptance. They gave me the best of education. In school, children teased me but my teachers loved me. Today, it gives me immense happiness when I see that they are proud of the fact that I have achieved so much in life.

You have been actively involved in working for the uplift of the transgender community? What was the motivating factor?

In 2000, I had been working in the social sector for some time. I was closely associated with the hijra community whom I had joined when I was 18 or 19 out of my own will. On a visit to a brothel to meet some hijras I knew, I was shocked at their pathetic living condition. When I asked them what they were getting paid by their customers, they said it was Rs 20-50 per night. It shook my soul and I decided that I had to do something for my community.

How do you perceive the implementation of the law in reality?

Nobody is interested in giving you your rights. It is up to you to take it. How to use law depends on the individual. We have waited for more than two centuries for justice. We’ll see to it that the ruling gets implemented properly. Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra have already consituted the Transgender Welfare Board. Other states too are taking requisite measures. A number of welfare programmes have already been started to sensitise those implementing the law. All the IAS, IPS officers at the Centre have been supportive about it.

Usually TGs are not forthcoming in the media but you have been quite vocal about your status

I love the media because it has made me famous. In fact, it has 50 per cent role in my success. The media too found an English-speaking hijra who they could speak to for the first time. Being media savvy helped me bag a role in Bigg Boss. The show helped to break many stereotypes about transgenders, who are often presented as caricatures. My stay in the house taught me patience. There were times when I felt like abusing but I realised that the whole country was watching a hijra for the first time on national television. I had to conduct myself with dignity and grace.