In the last few months, one of the most publicised developments in trans rights in India was the employment of 23 transgender women by the Kochi Metro. On May 17, 2017, a newspaper carried a piece titled: ‘In a first, transgenders get jobs at Kochi Metro’. Elias George, KMRL’s MD, said: “We would like to give members of the community their rightful share in different jobs at stations. There will be no discrimination between them and women workers.”
Having made these progressive claims, George is reported to have said: “Moreover, [they] cannot be blamed since they are born with such a biological situation.” Clearly, he had no understanding of “transgender” and conflated it with “intersex”. Nor did the newspaper see how it was robbing the community of human dignity by its language. “In a first, transgender persons get jobs at Kochi Metro”, would have been right by us.
On July 6, a police case was registered against six transgender persons,including some of the trans women employed by KMRL, for dacoity and uttering obscenities. No statement has been forthcoming since from KMRL.
From pity to impunity
In the year 1994, a Mumbai-based NGO was established to work in the area of HIV-AIDs. With funding in the area having declined, the NGO has now moved into the domain of transgender rights. In May, it announced an event to mark IDAHOT, the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, and the event was held at the American Centre, New Delhi. The invitation asked people to carry “valid photo IDs”. Some of the trans people were asked to register using their “real name”, i.e. their “legal name”. Many in the community were enraged. Here was an organisation taking funds to defend trans rights and grossly violating the very idea of “self-identification of gender”. The anger was soon followed by self-censorship and silencing of others in the community.
Despite such pressures, one trans man decided to call them out via an open letter, detailing his experience and teaching the organisation the often understated, but critical reality that, “gender dysphoria is real”. (Gender dysphoria is the distress that arises as a result of a culture that stigmatizes people who do not conform to conventional gender norms.) Not a word of apology from the organisation has been issued till date. Not a single attempt at engagement with the person who wrote the letter.
Within a month, the organisation announced another event, again, at the American Centre, New Delhi. Again, a valid photo identification in original was needed for entry. It also informed that visitors maybe featured in photos and videos to be used for promotional purposes or on social media by the American Centre or the US Embassy.
It has been three years since the 2014 Supreme Court’s judgement and, a little less, since Tiruchi Shiva’s robust first version of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill. The judgement was to be implemented within six months, but that period is long past. The current distorted and diluted version of the TG Bill has been pushed from one session of Parliament to another, an orphan bill for which there has been no political will so far.
On July 21, the “recommendations of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the TG Bill” were tabled in Parliament. Its preface ended with these unbelievable words of affirmation: “The Committee would like to assure and remind all the members of transgender community that, ‘A historic shift is underway, you are not alone in your struggle for the end of violence and discrimination. It is a shared struggle. Transgender is not an anomaly. It is a part of the spectrum of people’s realities. While there is no shame in being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex or even straight — there is most certainly shame and dishonor in being a homophobe, a transphobe and a bigot”.
And yet, days later, Ramdas Athawale, founder of the Ambedkarite organisation, Republican Party of India, said, “They are not men, they are not women, but they are human…why should they wear a sari when they are not women? They can wear pant and shirt. They should be wearing men’s dress.” Athawale is also a minister of state at the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, the very ministry tasked with the work on the transgender bill. It remains to be seen what the PMO does with the recommendations.
Third gender? Not us
The biggest tragedy in the entire hullaballoo about trans rights is that it has come to be seen as the rights of the “third gender”, rather than the legitimisation by the highest court of the land, of two ideas: self-identification of gender and the delinking of sex and gender. The former is the idea that, as human beings, we have a deep sense of our gender and that may not be binary in the sense that is conventionally understood by society: just the two categories of man and woman. As a result, all of us have the right to a social gender of our choice, and the right to self-define our legal gender. This also means that sex and gender are, therefore, two different conceptual categories. Just like gender is more than a binary idea, sex, too, is more than just “male and female” — thereby acknowledging and affirming intersex individuals. (While self-identification of gender is ascribed as a demand by trans people, it has been a right much in place since time immemorial for cis people. The fact that cis people identify with the gender assigned to them, socially and legally, is, in itself, evidence of this.)
The “third gender” demand has been mostly driven by the hijra communities. A large part of the trans masculine, the non-traditional trans feminine and the intersex communities — the minorities within the minorities — do not identify with third gender. What we stand to lose is a political moment of freeing up both gender and sex from their conventional burdens. While hijras and other traditional trans feminine persons and their communities are entitled to the rights that the SC has affirmed, it will be a loss of incalculable proportions if they, and the government of the day, do not acknowledge the different genealogies and ontologies of trans masculine, non-traditional trans feminine and intersex lives.
Boundaries for our utopias
In the meantime, a clear shift has taken place in the international funding for trans rights. While some globetrotting Indian trans celebrities raise their voice at the UN, back home they cover their head in a sari’s pallu, selling out our communities to a nativist agenda. Additionally, some erstwhile HIV-AIDs NGOs are busy shifting their targeted constituencies and organisational alignments, in order to compete for the newly emerging trans funds. In all of this, trans persons continue their daily struggle of survival, at the mercy of the government’s pity, on the one hand, and NGO impunity, on the other.
Most of the current trans and intersex voices do not access their elected representatives directly, but are mostly controlled and mediated via these erstwhile HIV-AIDs NGOs. This is a very telling sign of our times. Various strands of the Indian trans movement, if one can call it that, are seemingly headed towards the NGO model themselves. There is enough scholarship to show how the tensions between political motivation, a primary source for activism, and the inevitability in a funder-driven framework of becoming a professional activist, tends to be resolved — who provides the labour and who becomes the ultimate beneficiary. It remains to be seen, if the trans movements will carve out and retain an independent politics at the core, or, like the women’s and sexualities movements before, become mostly reduced to the “service provision” model.
Trans rights may have come to be globally seen as the new “civil rights” and India may be quoted as a shining model. But the authorship, labour and gains of the movements are in a severe hierarchy. A hierarchy that will continue to keep the communities at the bottom of the resource base, the NGOs playing middle-men and gatekeepers to elected representatives and international funders, and the governments at the top, refusing to reimagine foundational ideas of gender and sex. Perhaps, these are the outer limits of a trans utopia that will firmly be kept in place by our neoliberal, capitalist times.
Satya Rai Nagpaul is the founder of Sampoorna, A Network of Trans* & Intersex Indians.
Views expressed in the piece are personal.