Transgender people have a gender identity or expression that differs from their assigned sex at birth. They are sometimes also referred to as transsexuals if they desire medical assistance in order to make the transition from one biological sex to another.
Numbering approximately 4,90,000 as per the last count (2011), transgender people in India are perhaps one of the most visibly invisible population in the country. Historically, Indian society has been tolerant of diverse sexual identities and sexual behaviours. The “hijra” community evolved to form a unique subculture within the Indian society, existing alongside the ubiquitous heterosexual unit of the family. They had cultural and social significance across the country in various avatars. The same is evident in Indian mythology and ancient literature such as the Kamasutra, or the epics such as the Mahabharata, in which the transgender community has been portrayed with dignity and respect.
However, transgender people have been increasingly recognised as one of the most socio-economically marginalised communities in the country. Since the late 19th century, they have been pushed to the margins of society, and have lost the social-cultural position they once enjoyed. Often shunned as a menace to society, they are now only visible on the streets and localities where they are found begging, never as a part of the mainstream.
They are subject to extreme forms of social ostracisation and exclusion from basic dignity and human rights. They remain highly vulnerable to gender-based violence. As a direct result of their acute mistreatment, vilification, ostracisation and dehumanisation, they also remain highly vulnerable to fatal communicable diseases like HIV-AIDS.
The typical lifecycle of a transgender person in India can, perhaps, be construed as one of the most painful. Most often, boys who do not conform to the gender construct binary in our society leave, or are forced to leave their families, and live in vulnerable conditions. More often than not, these children or young individuals begin their journey alone and in search of individuals of their kind, a journey that is marred by unspeakable hardships and abuse.
Despite laws, policies and their implementation, the community continues to remain quite marginalised and highly vulnerable. We have numerous examples of higher education institutions providing quota and giving special consideration to transgender people, but the takers remain few and far between. This is mostly because the school education of most transgender people either remains incomplete or non-existent. The lack of basic schooling is a direct result of bullying and, hence, transgender persons are forced to leave schools, which remain unequipped to handle children with alternate sexual identities.
However, an increasing number of activists have continued to work at the grassroots for the welfare of the community and managed to bring society’s attention to its socio-economic deprivation.
In 2009, it was brought to the notice of the Election Commission that some voters weren’t getting registered as they refused to declare themselves as male or female — the traditional gender binary, earlier found on voter registration forms to be filled in order to get registered as a voter. This is especially significant for the local body elections in constituencies which are reserved for women. As a result, in November 2009, appropriate directions were issued by the EC to all provinces to amend the format of the registration forms to include an option of “others”. This enabled transsexual people to tick the column if they didn’t want to be identified as either male or female.
This decision of the EC also went a long way towards opening the nation’s eyes to the realities of a deprived community that still continues to be at the margins. One member of the community, in conversation with the BBC before the 2014 General Elections, added, “the Election Commission has given us the most important aspect of our life — freedom”.
The Supreme Court in National Legal Services Authority Vs. Union of India (2014) recognised them as the “Third Gender”. In the landmark ruling, Justice K S Radhakrishnan, who headed the two-judge bench, observed that “recognition of transgenders as a third gender is not a social or medical issue, but a human rights issue”.
Only a year after the verdict, it was encouraging to see India’s first transgender mayor of Raigarh, Chhattisgarh, Madhu Kinnar, elected to office, in 2015. The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016, has been passed in the Rajya Sabha. It is now pending in the Lok Sabha.
According to a report in April 2018, the number of registered transgender voters nearly doubled in the Karnataka polls. Over 5,000 transgender people cast their ballots in the Karnataka assembly polls, which is historic. The number has doubled from the 2013 figures.
Transgender people are forced to beg, dance at events and religious functions, or, even sell sex. Their vulnerability to fatal diseases can be extreme in the conditions they work in and thus they have a higher prevalence of HIV, tuberculosis as well as a whole host of other sexually transmitted infections.
According to a recent UNAIDS report, the HIV prevalence among transgenders is 3.1 per cent (2017), which is the second highest amongst all communities in the country. But, only about 68 per cent of the people are even aware that they are infected, which is worrying. High instances of substance abuse and low levels of literacy only complicate matters.
World AIDS Day, celebrated on the December 1 every year, serves as a stark reminder to us as a nation that, communities such as that of transgenders warrant special attention from not only the state machinery, but from the society at large.
There are encouraging trends. HIV services for the community are rapidly improving in a targeted manner after the SC verdict. For example, the National Aids Control Organisation (NACO) reported that 2,40,000 hijras were provided with HIV prevention and treatment services in 2015, compared to 1,80,000 the previous year.
A multi-pronged approach is needed on a war footing in the form of mass awareness campaigns, generating avenues for dignified employment, gender sensitisation and affirmative action. Only then can the trailblazing efforts of the Election Commission and the judiciary for ensuring inclusive elections in the world’s largest democracy also result in a meaningful and inclusive democracy.