Amidst some success and several disappointments in their struggle for social inclusion and dignity, several from the sexual minorities have risen above the din to carve their own identities
The home is sometimes the place where gender discrimination starts. For sexual minorities, like lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders, intersex, queer (LGBTIQ) and others with altered sexual orientation or supposedly ‘unnatural’ partner preferences, this is a harsh reality.
A. Revathi, a vivacious transsexual woman, whose prose and poetry has been translated into Kannada, English and Hindi, shares: “I was originally a boy named Doraisamy. Although my parents accepted my sexuality privately, they discouraged me from dressing as a woman in public. I could not find a job and depended on them, financially.”
It was when Revathi moved to Bangalore, the nearest city to her home town Namakkal in Tamil Nadu that she came into her own. “A woman I had known from Mumbai, who was like my mother, told me about the Hamam culture — a household where many ‘hijras’ reside together like a family — prevalent in the city and introduced me to one of them,” she adds.
Revathi, now 45, spent nearly two decades in the city before she went back to her home in 2011 to take care of her aging father. During her time in Karnataka, she was involved in various campaigns for the rights and entitlements of sexual minorities and other marginalised communities. Additionally, she had served as the director of Sangama, an NGO that has been championing the cause of sexual minorities and sex workers for more than 10 years. In July 2010, Penguin India published her autobiography The Truth About Me, which feminist historian V. Geetha translated into English from Tamil. Today, Revathi continues to write and be a voice for the rights of girls, women and sexual minorities.
LGBTIQ persons usually face a lot of emotional and psychological agony as their families, friends and neighbours reject their altered sexual identities. It forces them to undergo counselling from trained psychologists, get ‘treatment’ from traditional healers and exorcists, and sometimes even endure physical torture. In some cases, sexual minorities are compelled to marry people of the opposite sex or forced not to reveal their sexual preferences.
Dr. Padmini Prasad, a Bangalore-based physician, has spent many years working with sexual minorities. In 2010, she deposed before the Karnataka Backward Classes Commission and is one among the professionals whose expert opinion has resulted in the State granting the sexual minorities backward class status. She observes, “Sexual minorities begin to become aware of their sexual orientation from the age of four or thereabouts. Such differences in the body and mind are natural to some people and not anomalies.”
Existing socio-cultural beliefs and practices restrict sexual minorities from getting houses or obtaining basic entitlements like voter identity or family ration cards. LGBTIQ persons are also subject to harassment in public spaces -- services such as buses, public restrooms and hospitals that are separated on the basis of a binary interpretation of gender, that is female and male, prevent sexual minorities from using them. They find it difficult to get jobs because of poor levels of education and societal taboos. They, therefore, often lack a sustainable source of livelihood and have to resort to begging or sex work, which makes them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation at the hands of the police, local thugs, pimps and the public.
But there are always examples of those who are able to rise above the discrimination and stigma. Veena S., 33, is one of them. This Dalit transsexual woman was once Vittal, the son of a couple who were daily wage labourers. “I have studied up to Class X. We were poor and my parents did not know that education was important,” she says. Staying in Okalipuram, a busy neighbourhood in Bangalore, Veena ran for the position of a municipal councillor in the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palika (Bangalore City Municipality) in March-April 2010, as an independent candidate. Incidentally, she was the first transgender person in southern India to contest an election. Although she lost the race, many noticed her abilities. The residents of her ward appreciated her persistence in securing water for her locality.
Veena, however, was not carried away by the attention that she received from the news media, particularly after she decided to enter the political arena. She had once observed, “I derive strength from my mother, family members and the support of my peers.” As the former vice president of the Karnataka Sex Workers Union, she has inspired many by focusing on the challenges of the LGBTIQ community, sex workers and women, especially from traditionally excluded backgrounds.
For the LGBTIQ community and its supporters, it’s been a decade-long struggle for social inclusion and human rights. The Centre has introduced a third category under ‘sex’ in documents like passports. Moreover, the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka governments have provided special benefits for sexual minorities like a monthly pension for ‘hijras’ aged above 45 years, higher education scholarships and health insurance. Unfortunately, the provision for reserved seats in universities has not been utilised, since many sexual minorities do not complete their schooling. Incidentally, Tamil Nadu also created a Transgender Welfare Board under its Department of Social Welfare in April 2008, and Karnataka plans to follow suit.
Of course, the greatest success for sexual minorities was the historic reading down in July 2009 by the Delhi High Court of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that had criminalised homosexuality. In February 2012, Anu C. became the first transgender to be appointed as an employee (on probation) in the group D category in the Karnataka High Court. A cheerful, young transsexual woman, Anu, 28, who hails from Bengaluru, was born as a boy named Lokesh. Her family was opposed to her expressing her feminine instincts, so she left home after finishing Class Seven. She was very young when she went off to Mumbai but she managed to survive for a few years there. After returning to Bengaluru, she became actively involved in the mobilisation of sexual minorities for various initiatives through Samara, a non-profit that works with this group.
But amidst such welcome developments, there are also some that have undermined the status of this community. For instance, the Karnataka government sent shock waves through the community and civil liberties activists when it amended the Karnataka Police Act (Section 36A) in March-April 2011, allowing the police to track and arrest ‘hijras’ and other sexual minorities on suspicion of unlawful behaviour/activities. “Repeated protests and appeals to the government for over a year have not made it take any concrete steps to repeal this law that criminalises sexual minorities,” remarks Siddharth Narrain, a legal researcher.
Obviously and sadly, sexual minorities have to wait to be totally included in a heteronormative world. As Sowmya, a transgender, observed at a public meeting on the issue, "We figure in religious epics and popular culture. Our blessings are sought during weddings and childbirth. But we are unwanted otherwise."
(Women's Feature Service)