To a community that has been discriminated against for centuries, looked upon with suspicion by those who fall under clear gender lines, abused and often forced into begging and prostitution, the Supreme Court’s landmark decision to create a third gender category brought surprise and joy.
Transgender charities said a milestone had been reached in their fight against marginalisation in society. “But this is just the foundation stone that has been laid. We now need to construct the entire building,” said Simran Shaikh, a male-to-female transgender who works as a programme officer at India HIV/AIDS Alliance, an NGO that works with marginalised groups such as transgenders and sex workers.
Transgender rights activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, who was among the petitioners in the case filed in 2012, said on Tuesday, “The bench has legally recognised us as part of society. Today, for the first time, I feel very proud to be an Indian.”
The win, which comes four months after the Supreme Court struck down a 2009 Delhi High Court judgment to decriminalise Section 377, will affect more than two million members of the transgender/hijra community.
“December 11 (2013) was a black day for us. We now consider the 11th of every month a black day,” Shaikh told a celebratory gathering in the basement of Alliance India’s office in Zamrudpur in south Delhi.
“But from today, discrimination will no longer be my favourite word. We should now focus solely on policy. Finally, we have a foot in the door.”
Abhina Aher, one of three transgenders employed at Alliance India, said the judgment meant that “young hijras will now be less fearful of telling their families who they think are”.
“We have found our backbone today,” she said.
Aher spoke about a recent case involving a 17-year-old boy whom his parents sent to a psychiatrist, but who had referred him to her. “The parents got angry with the psychiatrist and now take him to babas for a ‘cure’. Today’s judgment will not immediately change mindsets, but I hope we will begin to see an impact in the next few years. Trans people too are born free, and are equal in dignity and rights,” she said.
For Aher, Shaikh and their colleagues, the next challenge is to help the community mainstream and get jobs. The court has granted them equal education, healthcare and employment rights. Most transgender people in India make a living by singing and dancing or by begging and prostitution.
For many, the judgment means getting identification that correctly states their gender. A significant empowering step was taken when members of the community got voter IDs for the general elections. Shaikh, who recently travelled to the US for a World Bank conference, has a passport that says she is female; Aher’s says she is male.
Shaikh has not been given a credit card. In Kerala recently, she was turned away at the first 17 hotels she went to. According to Aher, transgenders receive the worst treatment in the metros. Many of her friends have been sent to mental asylums, she said.
Shaikh has not spoken to her family since she was a 14-year-old Parsi boy in Mumbai. They would beat her for wearing women’s clothes, and Shaikh was finally driven to leave home. She had no money, and spent three days on a platform at Bombay Central, before a hijra took her under her wing.
“I worked as a sex worker before I began to work for the rights of our community,” Shaikh said. She has changed the name her family gave her, and refuses to disclose what it was. “We burn our past,” she said.
Aher said she hoped the judgment would ultimately bring to an end the daily horrors the community faces — from being accused of soliciting to not being allowed to use washrooms for women.
James Robertson, executive director of Alliance India, described the judgment as “thoughtful and progressive”, and “everything that the December judgment (re-criminalising gay sex) wasn’t”.
“I was surprised by the extent of support the movement got in the Indian press, because it had seemed earlier as though it was taboo to talk of hijras,” he said.
Robertson said that a World Bank study that shows how excluding minorities is costing India $ 31 billion a year, presents a powerful argument for integrating these communities into the mainstream.
There are no medical guidelines currently for sex reassignment surgeries in India. Many transgenders undergo painful and, at times, fatal operations. Trans people who feel trapped in a body that seems not to be their own hope Tuesday’s decision will pave the way for framing of medical guidelines.
Shaleen Rakesh, director of technical support at Alliance, who handles the campaign ‘207 against 377’ against the re-criminalisation of gay sex, said: “This is a huge victory not just for the transgender community, but the LGBT community as a whole. The judgment acknowledges sexual orientation for the first time, something that will help us take our fight to decriminalise Section 377 further.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR TRANSGENDERS
*Legal recognition as third gender.
*Right to have family by marrying each other, adopt children.
*Right to inherit property without ostracisation.
*Denominated a socially and educationally backward class, and will get quotas in educational institutions and government jobs.
*Right to free and compulsory education and medical care.
*Right to claim a formal identity through passport, ration card , driver’s licence.