The decision of the Election Commission of India to allow eunuchs and transsexuals the choice of registering under a separate sexual identity is a significant step towards mainstreaming an ostracised people who have been treated heartlessly by society. By giving them the choice of registering as “Others,” thereby dropping the requirement that they declare themselves male or female, the ECI has freed sexual identity from the trappings of obscurantism and bigotry. This should open the doors to other kinds of official identification and speed up the process of social inclusion. As things stand, official recognition for the third sex is contained in a few government documents — in passport application forms and on ration cards issued in some States, notably Tamil Nadu. The ECI’s decision, which will enable the transgendered to contest elections as ‘Others,’ will give this marginalised community a stronger political voice. The Indian discourse on human rights has largely neglected the transgendered. The law in India does not recognise a third sex, or sex change operations. Nor does it allow transsexuals to choose their own gendered role.

This presents a contrast to liberal and progressive trends elsewhere, where the rights of the transgendered to choose their sexual identities are becoming more and more entrenched. In 2002, the European Court of Human Rights held in a landmark case ( Christine Goodwin v/s the United Kingdom) that disallowing transsexuals to change their birth certificates or from marrying in their self-assigned gender roles was a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. The campaign for transgender rights received a big boost when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. Commendably, his administration is committed to providing the transsexual community, along with gays, lesbians, and bi-sexuals, the full spectrum of equal rights in civil union and at the workplace. The International Bill of Gender Rights, which was drafted and adopted at a conference in 1993 and subsequently modified, lays down a constructive framework for the right to define and freely express one’s sexual identity. It has served as a working model for progressive reform in many countries. It is heartening that the ECI has taken the bold step in favour of the transgendered at a time when the central government’s commitment to LGTB rights is wobbly — reflected in its vacillations on the repeal or suitable amendment of Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a colonial-era provision that criminalises “unnatural sex” even if it is between consenting adults.

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