When I spoke to Rose Venkatesan seven years ago, she was a graceful woman but traces of Ramesh still lingered. She had then just become famous hosting a Tamil TV show. Today, after surgery, she is all woman, as I see from a dance video online. And she works as a part-time soft-skills trainer at IT company Wipro. Rose’s story is unique in India, not because she is transgender but because she is not a sex worker or a beggar, which is what most of the community is identified with.
It was to change this reality that a year ago the >Supreme Court recognised transsexuals and transgenders as the ‘third gender’ in what was hailed as a historic judgment. Nothing historic, however, has happened since; even though we are well past the six-month deadline the court gave the government to implement the recommendations of its Nalsa judgment.
On April 24, the Rajya Sabha passed a private member’s >Rights of Transgender Persons Bill 2014 , which will head to the Lok Sabha for the final debate and vote.
How have States fared? What it will mean on ground for the community is less certain. After the Nalsa ruling, the Centre sent out notices to the States to implement five steps: a Central grant of Rs.1,000 a month to parents of transgender children; a Class VII-X scholarship; a scholarship for higher studies; skills training schemes, and finally, a monthly pension scheme. With the Centre-State contribution set at 75:25, none of these seem particularly challenging, but most States have not implemented even one.
Tamil Nadu has possibly done the most: a monthly pension of Rs. 1,000 and subsidised bank loans. It was also the first State to set up a Transgender Welfare Board, followed by Maharashtra and West Bengal. Karnataka recently announced a monthly pension of Rs. 500, and Bihar and West Bengal reservations in government jobs. A few universities have opened up seats for transgenders.
But this is too little and too vague to have any real impact. For instance, the Supreme Court, apart from making ‘third gender’ a legal option, also made it clear that ‘transgender’ included people who had no surgery. But the Ministry of External Affairs still asks for proof of sex reassignment surgery before it allows a gender change on the passport. Only one transgender from Mumbai has managed a passport so far. Says transgender activist Abhina Aher: “I am still ‘male’ on my passport”.
In fact, one of the most significant breakthroughs of the Nalsa ruling was the right of ‘self-identification’, with verifications allowed only through psychological assessment and not physical tests. “It’s a huge win,” says Dr. L. Ramakrishnan of non-profit Saathii, “because horror stories abound of how they are groped as part of ‘medical’ exams.”
And what happens once identity is finally established? Says Dr. Ramakrishnan: “People get name and gender officially changed and published. When they return, prospective employers still reject them.” Ms. Aher agrees, “They hear my voice on the phone and say, ‘but you sound like a man, we cannot rent you a flat.’”
And that is really where all the reform efforts falter. How do you change mindsets? One of the saddest realities is that most families throw their children out when any doubts about gender identity surface. Says Dr. Ramakrishnan, “That is why the Rs. 1,000 per month grant to parents is vital; it’s motivation to at least not kick the child out.”
It is also why just a scholarship or forms saying ‘third gender’ is not enough. Says Kalki Subramaniam, founder of Sahodari Foundation: “How do you protect these children? They are mocked, bullied, beaten up; most of them drop out.”
State governments must initiate sensitivity training for teachers so that they stop the bullying and, in turn, sensitise students. Second, counsellors must visit schools regularly so that gender-confused children have someone to talk to. It is at the age of 12 or 13 that gender dysphoria first surfaces — where a person experiences distress because there is a mismatch between the biological sex and the gender they identity with mentally. It’s now that the children are most vulnerable and need assurance that it is fine to be gender different.
When families and governments fail to provide these security nets, they drive their children into conventional hijra (aravani) communities that adopt them, but also perpetuate begging and sex work as a way of life. When the young Kalki would run away from school, she would hide in a park, which is where she met Apsara, her aravani ‘mother’.
It is estimated that there are about 4.9 lakh transgenders in India today, a number that is likely wildly off the mark, because Census workers are just not qualified to ask the right questions. For instance, there is practically no recognition of female-to-male transgenders — “they are dismissed as “modern girls with short hair,” says Dr. Ramakrishnan.
For about 80 per cent of the community, begging or sex work continues to be the main occupation. This must change. Ms. Kalki mentions Gunavathi, who now finally has a job as a health worker in a government hospital and earns roughly Rs. 5,000 a month. Many work in activist organisations. In a video posted by IndiaUnheard, transgender activist Gomathi says: “We are not asking for IAS jobs, just employ us as attendants or cleaners in hospitals and railways stations.” One project by Tamil Nadu AIDS Initiative saw transgenders working with anganwadis to deliver messages on TB and medical insurance. We need more such initiatives.
Ms. Aher says, “ We need jobs through schemes, reservations, business loans, whatever it takes.”
But are transgenders willing to take on ordinary jobs, given that they need to fund expensive hormone injections at Rs. 3,000 a month, and genital realignment surgery, vaginoplasty or breast augmentations at Rs. 2-3 lakh each? There are no facilities for these procedures in India; those who can, fly to Thailand, others resort to quacks and often die or are maimed during surgery.
In fact, the need for quick and big money is a big reason why sex work is so tempting. “It’s not that simple,” refutes Ms. Aher, “Our vulnerability is high, our client list is limited; we face more risks of violence or HIV than female sex workers.” So, given a shot at a good job, most transgenders will take it up, she says. Which brings us right back to the start — education. “Give them the choice. Let them get skilled, then let them decide whether they want regular jobs or sex work,” says Ms. Aher.
It’s a vicious cycle, and no amount of ‘welfare’ will help without a sea change in attitude. The Bill just passed in the Rajya Sabha cannot do much unless fear, shame, and social stigma are removed and the community is mainstreamed. A transgender version of the ‘My Choice’ video on YouTube says, “If you want to help us, just stop treating us like outcastes.”
Have things changed at all, I ask Rose. “A little bit,” she says. “Families might accept us a little more quickly; the violence might be less frequent and less extreme than what I faced.”
Corrections and Clarifications:
This article has been edited for a factual error.