Long walk to justice: Transgender voices from across India

I had been there at the 1st National Hijra Habba in 2012. Witnessing the Third National Transgender Hijra Habba in 2015 was indeed a humbling experience as lot of water has flown during these 3 years. From 30 community participants in 2012, the number this year had swelled to a whopping 350+. The landmark Supreme Court (SC) judgement of 2014, recognizing transgenders as the third gender and granting them constitutional rights, seemed to have filled them with a new found confidence that was writ all over their beautiful and smiling faces. And they were just too eager to talk about their experiences and expectations.

Here are some of the sharings I tried to capture (in alphabetical order of their names)—

Dolly Jaan of Mathura finds the police the greatest enemy of transgenders – much worse than the common public – who harass and abuse them no end. Dolly comes from a very conservative Brahmin family and was thrown out of the house at the tender age of 7 years when her father came to know about her Hijra status. The footpath was her home for many years. Later when she grew up she made a name for herself in the hijra community of Mathura. She has adopted two kids of her brother after his death. But she is still ostracised by her family.

Fiza from Lucknow was hesitant to discuss the myriad problems she has faced in life. She has reconciled herself to her fate and is happy making a living out of singing toli badhais (singing and dancing for alms). She came in contact with Pehchan project while working in the field of HIV/AIDS in Hyderabad—her earlier home. Now she wants to do something for the poor, destitute, handicapped, old people, and children.

Laila from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana rued that though the SC has given a very progressive judgement, states have yet to implement it fully. “We are still looked down upon as beggars and sex workers and not respected in society. But once the SC verdict is implemented, and we get reservation in education and employment, it will definitely bring the much needed change in our lives”.

“The national government should strictly instruct state governments to form Transgender Welfare Boards. Even though Hyderabad has an old hijra culture, society’s rejection is very much there. The police harass us a lot; education and employment opportunities are very few; and family acceptance is a big issue. Discrimination should first end within the family. Only then we can demand respect from society. If our families do not accept and support us how and why will society accept us. Also, perhaps with government acceptance, families will be emboldened to shed their inhibitions and start accepting us.”

Mary from Telangana works for the rights of the hijras and also for the underprivileged children. She wants all states to have clear policy directions in accordance with the SC judgement to help hijras join mainstream society. She is seeing “a gradual improvement in our status in society and we are slowly but surely getting respect like any other common citizen”. She was confident that reservations in education and employment will help transgenders come out of begging and move ahead in life. Mary is not educated, but is determined to make her mark in politics and is confident of winning the next Corporators’ election in her city.

Pavithra of Maharashtra comes from a well-known family of Amravati. The youngest of 9 siblings, her family disowned her when they came to know of her gender in 1992. She fled to Nagpur where she worked in a hospital to make ends meet. There, in 2004, she founded the Sarthi Trust with the help of other like-minded people. Pavithra now runs Samarpan CBO (community building organization), which is part of the Pehchan project and is also part of State AIDS Control Society (SACS) targetted intervention group. She has since declared herself as a transgender and all her identity proofs show her to be one.

Pavithra is proud to be earning INR 35000 per month out of which she gives INR 10000 to her family and “this has changed their attitude towards me completely. There was a time when none of the family members stood by me, but now they have accepted me as they are getting money from me. Money indeed wields great power”.

Pavithra finds a distinct change in the attitude of people after the SC judgement. “Till now people had largely ignored our existence. SC has made them see us for the first time as fellow human beings.They have started talking to us with respect. Many city organizations even felicitated us publicly after the verdict. But we have to see how proactively the government supports us in the long run. Just granting reservation on paper is not enough, although it is a very important first step. There is acute shortage of funds too.”

But she agrees that a lot more awareness has to be created in the hijra community. Many of them are living without openly declaring their identity-they wear sarees when going out to beg, but again wear men’s clothing at home as they are scared to reveal their status to the family. They are also into a lot of drinking, and are unmindful of their health too.

Pavithra wants her community members to accept their identity and to work and not beg. “The new generation of transgenders should not make the same mistakes we did – they should not neglect their education and not feel scared to reveal their status as times are more conducive now.”

Pavithra said that hijras are still a hidden population as far as health services are concerned. They indulge in unprotected sex and invite HIV/AIDS. Despite so much of work being done on this front for so many years, there is still lack of awareness. Also “the hospital staff is still generally insensitive to our needs. Despite a lot of advocacy being done with healthcare workers, they seem to derive some sadistic pleasure by asking uncomfortable questions and degrading and abusing us. All this scares the transgender patient away.”

Preeti is currently working in Kushinagar. One of the 4 siblings, he comes from a political family of Lakhimpur Kheri in UP with deep rooted patriarchal values wherein men are expected to be violent and abusive.

“I recognized my different sexuality for the first time when I was 14 years old. The realization made me very nervous then. As it is, I was softhearted and it distressed me immensely on being constantly scolded by the elders for not showing any ‘manly’ behaviour and qualities. I had an inborn talent for dancing and would win many prizes in dance competitions. But in my family’s eyes this was a ‘girlish’ talent. They wanted me to be adept at using firearms and not dance. I wanted to get away from this hostile environment. But where would I go? Only my sister understood me. When she got a job in Lucknow, she took me along with her. Lucknow opened up an entirely new world for me. There I went to Bharosa Trust where I met many people with similar leanings and my misgivings about myself vanished. I knew now that I am not alone and that there are many others like me. Bharosa counsellors taught me to accept my gender and sexuality. I felt at peace with myself for the first time. I now wanted to work for the community. I worked in Bharosa and learnt a lot from there. Then I left Bharosa as my boyfriend insisted me to go with him to his home town Maharajganj in Kushinagar and start a new life together. I adjusted with his family there. Then came the Pehchan project and I was selected to lead the project in Kushinagar. Meanwhile, people had started questioning my partner about our relationship. My friend did not want to tarnish his name because of this and advised me to get married. I was under a lot of psychological pressure from my parents too. I became tense, frustrated and confused once again. Eventually I got married, which made my family very happy. But I was not happy and found it difficult to maintain this relationship. I had succumbed to family pressure and in the process spoiled not only my life but that of an innocent girl too. If I had not agreed nobody could have forced me to get married. Only I am to blame for not being able to manage my life properly. Now I find solace in my work only and have fully involved myself with the Pehchan project work. I have lost all zest for life. Nothing makes me happy now. It seems that everyone uses us. People need to understand that nonacceptance by family and by society is the root cause of so many of our problems.”

Sheetal from Kanpur is a graduate and runs the Pehchan project in Unnao. She is a transgender but has not undergone sex reassignment surgery (SRS). Family pressure forced her to get married in 1994, as she had not revealed her status to them till then. But she was not comfortable living a life of deceit and so bared her heart to her teacher wife. Luckily for Sheetal, her partner came to terms with her. She continued living with Sheetal (still does) and they even have a son from the marriage who is currently studying in B.Com and is very well-informed and sensitized towards transgender issues.

Meanwhile, Sheetal had been working on and off projects involving transgenders and also dis-interestingly managing the family business of soap manufacturing. The Pehchan project gave Sheetal a chance to quit the family business and become part of a more meaningful programme, with the wholehearted support of her wife. Sheetal told me proudly: “My wife is a huge moral support in my life. She is very open minded about the whole issue. She takes up cudgels on my behalf with my family too. She gave me her sarees and jewellery to wear when I was coming here. She also helps me financially also when payment is delayed in my project. I think family support is very necessary. It is far more difficult to fight the family than the outside world.”

Sheetal helps trans-kids to get educated. She does not want them to do toli badhai, but wants them to become economically independent. With financial support from the wife and few friends she has restarted the defunct family soap factory and employs only hijras. Currently they manufacture Neat Washing Powder, but hope to diversify to making incense sticks too – all with the sole purpose of generating employment for transgenders. She is also approaching other factories in Kanpur to absorb the 20-25 odd community members working for the Pehchan project, once the project comes to an end, so that they do not have to go back to begging.

She requests the families to accept their trans-kids and also requests the community to refrain from abusing and fighting and behave more responsibly in whatever field they work.

“In other countries transgenders have a respectable position in society. I want the same to happen in India.”

Tamanna of Hyderabad was not much aware of the Supreme Court judgement, even though she got her voter identity card made in August 2014 under the category of third gender. She said that their immediate needs are housing and employment, but wondered who will solve their problems.

Urmila of Hyderabad is not educated but strongly believes that education is very necessary for everyone. Given a chance she would like to study once again if someone supports her. Even though she enjoys her life and has no regrets about it, she wants to be respected in society like anyone else. She was optimistic that the SC judgement would bring a perceptible difference in their lives, even though it might take some more time.

It was clear from each one of those I spoke with that the Pehchan project has given them a big pehchan (identity). It has sensitized the community at the grassroots level and even made those from the villages to stand up with dignity and demand what is rightfully theirs. They are increasingly wanting to leave their traditional occupations of begging and doing sex work and lead instead a life of dignity and respect. I am sure we can all help in our own small ways to let this become a reality.

Shobha Shukla, Citizen News Service (CNS)
(Shobha Shukla is the Managing Editor at Citizen News Service (CNS). Follow her on Twitter: @shobha1shukla)

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