Shot in the arm for social inclusiveness

Recently, the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill 2016, was introduced in the Lok Sabha. The legislation is the beginning of the end of a long walk to justice for some 4.87 lakh trans people (as per Census 2011). A long-time LGBT activist recounts the journey so far
Shot in the arm for social inclusiveness
Members of the transgender community engage in a focus group discussion held at Sahodaran

Chennai

This Bill is a first of its kind at a global level. In 1992, as an anthropologist, when I started working with this community for a small WHO project, it was a different, difficult time altogether. The WHO project itself was due to the onset of HIV and AIDS, and the scientific community was beginning to realise the importance of studying sexual minorities and vulnerable sectors such as sex worker and transgender communities, to understand the spread of the HIV virus.
Up until HIV facilitated a study of these marginalised people, there was no awareness of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community. But slowly awareness began to come out in the late 90s and HIV has been a key player in highlighting the issue. From a clinical explanation that HIV is a virus infected by coming into contact with bodily fluids, studying sexual minorities and their behaviour became an anthropological, social, behavioural study, with a scientific approach. We had to deal with sexuality and sexual behaviour. 
This is where the ‘self-perceived gender identity’ in the Bill makes so much sense, because children at an young age do not understand what is happening. People and families were clueless in those days, and no one realised the transgender issue is about people. Of who they are, and it is amazing that we have come so far, from 1992 to 2016. 
Those days, working as an anthropologist, studying transgenders and LGBT was very tough. It was quite scary too, since we were not allowed into hotels. I was not able to take a member of the community to a coffee shop hold an interview because public spaces were denied to them. As for job openings, forget it. Many of them were sent out of homes, most were from lower and middle income groups and the only way they could have a meal or meet their living expenses was through begging or selling themselves. They had no one to talk to, and even cops used to abuse them. My own character was questioned, because I was seen in their company. There were plenty of road blocks. The change happened slowly when the media began to write about the sexual minorities while covering HIV.
In the late 90s, I pushed for transgenders to make themselves into a Community Based Organisation, so that the community takes care of itself. We would plan a focus group meeting, but a common meeting place was hard to come by. No landlord or restaurant manager wanted a part of this and we had to hunt for nondescript places. 
Progressively things improved in Tamil Nadu, after the 1990s. As a people, as a state, the environment was one of tolerance. A city like Chennai is always welcoming of any migrant. This has never been more evident than society’s acceptance of transgenders. Maybe it is because of the Hindu mythological stories which dedicate a role to the transgenders in high places. Plus, the state is one of the few to hold the Koothandavar festival for transgenders in Koovagam.
Slowly, the government too took note, but it was clueless on how to go about it, and successive governments in Tamil Nadu did a wise thing—they engaged with the community with the awareness that only the transgenders knew exactly what was required to change their vulnerable status, and it became a participatory, involved process of changing their lives.
Members of the steering committee while interacting with the Social Justice ministry highlighted Tamil Nadu’s pioneering work in the field of inclusiveness towards LGBT, particularly, transgenders. 
In fact, Tamil Nadu has played an important role in the bill, since the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment had worked closely with Sudha, a transgender from Chennai in the drafting of the bill and met the steering committee on January 21 and 22 this year, in New Delhi. Sudha highlighted Tamil Nadu’s advocacy moves such as the transgender Welfare Board, dedicating a full day to transgenders as Transgenders Day, Transgender Grievance Day in all Collectorates. 
Tamil Nadu also offers a loan upto Rs 15 lakh, 20 per cent of which is waived. Transgenders in the state also get Rs 1000 as pension, every month, once they cross the age of 40. Additionally, they also benefit from state schemes for the poor, such as free goat scheme. However, life of such a person is not an easy path. 
People often say they are lazy and do not equip themselves for a job. That’s simplistic. Confusion over gender identity occurs when one is still a child, at an early stage in life. Granted there is a high drop-out rate from schools, but there are a lot of issues here. We do not have an environment of sensitivity in school yards. It can be very daunting when everyone makes fun of you, do not want to sit next to you in class, or share their lunch with you. There is a great amount of self-loathing going on in the minds of such children. Forget the children, even the watchman and non- teaching staff do not know how to handle a child confused over its gender orientation. It is a problem with no solution at hand. What I really want from the Bill is positive response from educational institutions. It is good to have laws but they are of no use if the ground reality is different and not inclusive.
Parents too need to be more sensitive to a child and understand where the gender identity comes from. It is not a sickness. Who teaches a boy to be fascinated by his mother’s lipstick or sister’s dresses? No one. It comes from within and parents typically cling to their binary view—if you are born a boy, then you are a boy. 
The child is being honest about his gender leanings, when he or she dresses differently. But it is a big question as to how many parents are supportive or, are equipped to extend all help to the child. When a Special child is born, no one abandons it, but parents do everything to enrol in a special school. Let’s hope the bill makes schools come up with solutions that are inclusive. 
The other aspect to the bill is job reservation. Currently, the bill has left it to individual states to decide on the quota, which is a good thing. We are all hopeful that things would begin to improve for the transgenders. 
WHAT THE BILL SAYS
  • Seeks to define a transgender person and recognises an individual’s right to perceive one’s gender identity, and (“Self-perceived gender identity”). 
  • It prohibits discrimination against them in any form, including denying them the right to education, health care and employment. 
  • Provides for a grievance redressal mechanism to ensure transgender rights are protected and safe-guarded from any kind of harassment.
  • Families or communities expelling transgenders from home will face similar punishment.
  • Imprisonment ranging from six months to two years, plus a fine, for those who seek to exploit transgenders by forcing them into bonded labour or begging.
  • Transgender identity to be verified by a committee including the chief medical officer, psychologist  and members of the community, in order to help them get their identity card, based on which they can change their name in birth certificates.
  • A National Council for Transgender Persons, to track the impact of policy decisions.
  • The Bill was passed by the Upper House in April 2005. It was moved as private member bill by DMK’s Tiruchy Siva, the first such move in 45 years.
The author, a post-graduate in anthropology, is an activist and a celebrity fashion choreographer

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