Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Third Gender

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something… transgendered? If you are an Indian in need of some luck on your wedding day you could do no better than seek the blessing of one of the country’s estimated 400,000 male to female transsexuals or "transgenders". Yes, the same section of the society, which was abused and ill treated in public places, discriminated in the society at large, expelled from home for being one, would bring an average Indian luck, provided he buys their blessings for ten or twenty rupees. And of course the same average Indian would later scold them and complain about how they stole his money by begging and spoiling the business by roaming in front of his tea stall..! After all, we are all hypocrites by nature..!!

A vulnerable lot
Transgenders have a recorded history of more than 4,000 years. Ancient myths bestow them with special powers to bring luck and fertility. Despite this supposedly sanctioned place in Indian culture, transgenders face severe harassment and discrimination from every direction. They have been facing years of crushing social stigmatisation, abuse and general derision from the wider community.

The uphill struggle for the transgenders first begins with finding acceptance within the family. Once the truth is out, transgenders are usually forced to leave the family home. Yet the society they must take refuge in is equally as unwelcoming. Transgenders have few rights and are not recognised by Indian law. This denies them the right to own property, the right to marry and the right to claim formal identity through any official documents such as a passport or driving licence. Accessing healthcare, employment or education becomes almost impossible. In the face of such odds they are forced to earn money any way they can, for many transgenders the method of making ends meet is prostitution, ultimately becoming vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases.

A law misused
As is the case for all gay, lesbian and bisexual people living in India, simply by being sexually active transgenders are breaking the law. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) outlaws any “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” − in other words, any sex that is not between a man and a woman with the aim of reproduction. Brought in by the British in 1860 to try and curb the “heathen customs” of the local population, it carries with it a potential life sentence. Whilst attitudes in the UK have matured considerably and such legislation has long since been removed from the British statute books, it still remains very much part of the Indian system. Even the Supreme Court of India, recently upheld its constitutionality. Although convictions are rare, it is in the name of such a law that the police are able to carry out their worst abuses against the transgender community. As well as the police aggression, gangs of local thugs known as “goondas” frequently rob and sexually assault transgenders on the street.

Apathy and bias
These attacks are rarely prevented or reported by the locals. They don't really care about what happens to this section of the society. Until very recently these attitudes were mirrored and strengthened by the Indian media which itself seemed to suffer from a certain amount of gender vertigo. Transgenders were routinely portrayed as wily tricksters who led unsuspecting men astray or half-man half-woman freak shows, almost devilish in their customs and practices. In 2003, an HIV/AIDS and human rights research centre in Lucknow was raided and the coordinator jailed under IPC 377 for "conspiracy to promote homosexual activities". An English language newspaper ran the headline: Gay Racket Busted- 2 NGOs Caught in the Act.

Towards an attitude change
Something, however, is beginning to alter in the traditional Indian mindset as right now there seems to be both subtle and appreciable changes taking place in terms of how this group are being treated and recognised by mainstream society. Over the last few years India has seen its first transgender fashion model, a transgender television presenter and in the recent Bollywood epic Jodhaa Akbar a transgender, instead of hamming up the usual comic role, was portrayed as a trusted lieutenant of the female lead. Thanks to a large number of internationally funded support groups that are gaining considerable momentum in many big Indian cities, transgenders, as well as other sexuality minority groups, are slowly starting to get a better deal.

Even the government seems to be finally recognising that transgenders exist. In March 2000 Shabnam Mausi, or “Aunt Shabnam” as she is affectionately known, became the first transgender to be elected into Indian parliament and since then many others have taken her lead by successfully entering the political arena. Since 2006, transgenders in the state of Bihar have been employed by the government as tax collectors, singing loudly about the debt outside the defaulter's premises until they are shamed into paying up − one of the most effective tax recovery methods ever used in India. In 2008, the state of Tamil Nadu allowed transgenders, if they wish, to be recognised as “T” rather than just “M” or “F” on ration cards with the same being planned soon for passports and driving licences.

Justice for the Other
Ultimately, the apex court has stepped forward on their account in the recent NALSA case. It recognised the transgender community as a third gender entitled to the same rights and constitutional protection as all other citizens. Further, the direction that they should be treated as ‘socially and educationally backward’ and given reservation in education and employment, is a far-reaching contribution to their all-round development. The Court has also noted that Indian law treats gender as a binary concept, with sections of the Indian Penal Code and Acts related to marriage, adoption, divorce, succession, and even welfare legislation, being examples. Through this astounding verdict, the Supreme Court has put in place a sound basis to end discrimination based on gender, especially gender as presumed to be assigned to individuals at birth, and also extend the global principles of dignity, freedom and autonomy to this vulnerable population. The jurisprudential basis for the judgment is that sex identity cannot be based on a mere biological test but must take into account the individual’s psyche.

With this landmark verdict, Now is the right time to end our hypocritical attitude to exclude the transgenders from the mainstream while sanctifying them as the luck-bearers of the society. For those complaining about the transgenders begging in trains and hampering businesses in kiranas and tea stalls, I would like to remind that it was us who led them to such misery, it was us who deprived them from the chance of leading a normal life. It is our responsibility to  treat them with care and love they are entitled to as a fellow human being.