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With very little support coming their way, transgenders have decided to speak up for their rights.

Neha Babar works with the Humsafar Trust, a support group for transgenders, in Mumbai.
Neha Babar works with the Humsafar Trust, a support group for transgenders, in Mumbai.

"We have a lot of talent and entrepreneurship which is unrecognised. When some of our people apply for jobs, they get rejected without being given any reason."

Divya Trivedi

At the age of nine, I liked wearing

bindis and saris

but my classmates teased me and made fun of me. At home, they scolded me and told me to change my ways. I did not understand what the fuss was about.

“When I became 10 years old, people in my area, Kurla, taunted me and called me a hijra. Because of this, my parents faced a lot of abuse from society. To save them from further shame, I left home and went to nani (a person heading a group of transgenders) in Kalyan. I grew my hair, stayed with her for two years during which she sent me to shops for collecting money.

“At the age of 13, on June 27, I got a Sex Reassignment Surgery done and today I pass off as a girl. For this reason, my family has accepted me and I live with them, just as before.”

Neha Babar was lucky in ways most transgenders are not.

Priya Babu left home at the age of 17 under similar circumstances and stayed with a nayak (group leader). But she found him to be overbearing and soon fled to Chennai, where she stayed independently. Today, she works with non-governmental organisations and women’s groups to create awareness in society and amongst fellow transgenders on health, employment and other issues. She is married to Ramesh Babu, a salesman.

Commonly known as Alis in Tamil, transgenders are arguably the most displaced group in Indian society, discriminated against in terms of both class and gender. Like outcasts, they are excluded from all discussions on social welfare. Society is steadfast in denying acceptance to the group whose sexual behaviour is different from the certified norm, and being a minority has made them susceptible to harassment in all spheres of life. From education to employment to even something as basic as walking on the roads without attracting disgusted or fearful stares is denied to them.

Speaking up

On the rare occasion when their plight has been publicly discussed, it has been limited to their sexual problems. By and large, even activists have ignored the livelihood issues of transgenders. With the complete lack of government empathy and with few private groups participating in such discussions, some transgenders are beginning to speak up for themselves.

Shabnam Mausi from Madhya Pradesh became the first eunuch to enter a State Assembly; she was followed by several other transgenders who entered the political arena, including Asha Devi, Mayor of Gorakhpur, Heera Bai, city council member in Jabalpur and Kamala Jaan, mayor of Katni. In February 2003, the MP High Court upheld a lower court’s ruling that eunuchs are male and cannot seek election to offices reserved for women. Kamala Jaan, against whom this ruling cropped up, has appealed to the Supreme Court.

Even for a ration card, authorities are undecided about the gender status for transgenders. Priya Babu has ‘eunuch’ on her passport, ‘female’ on her ration card and ‘TG’ or transgender on her patta (land) document. In 2004, she filed a writ petition in her battle seeking the third gender status for transgenders. Elsewhere in Mumbai, Neha has been doing the rounds of the local municipality office for more than a year to get her name changed from Dinesh to Neha in her ration card.

“Without a Government Order, we cannot move forward in our attempt to procure ration cards for every transgender. Our existence is as good as denied without the GO,” Priya complains.

Livelihood issues

Some NGOs and community-based organisations are helping transgenders find suitable jobs. Nartaki Nataraj is one such transgender who has fought society’s norms and earned a name in Bharatanatyam. Olga works for KMC as a coordinator while Kalki works as a computer operator at Auroville Ashram in Pondicherry. But these are exceptions and most transgenders have to depend on sex work for money.

The main reason for their exclusion, according to Padma Venkatraman (Mangai), professor of Literature, Stella Maris College Chennai, is their lack of educational qualifications. “This again stems from the fact that due to various social stigmas, educating them is a highly alien concept to most educational providers,” she says. Mangai, who is also actively involved in theatre, has been instrumental in organising plays for and by transgenders.

Priya Babu heads the TN-based Sudar Foundation, which provides vocational training to transgenders in reiki, yoga, beautician courses, tailoring, embroidery, aromatherapy and ayurveda among others. “We are shunned by society, but have a lot of talent and entrepreneurship which is unrecognised. When some of our people apply for jobs, they get rejected without being given any reason. This is downright violation of basic human rights,” she says. She has worked as a journalist with Youth India magazine and obtained a SARAI fellowship. Over the past four years, she has been working on a book called Transgender Sociography, which traces the history of the community with descriptions of the varied customs followed in different parts of India. Written by a transgender from within the community, it is a first-of-its-kind attempt in India. Apart from religion, myth and folklore, the narrative would cover facets such as community structures, panchayat, livelihood problems, medical and legal problems, marriage and so on. In addition, it would provide detailed information on Sex Reassignment Surgery and detail the experiences of those who have undergone it. “I am thankful to MS Swaminathan, his wife Meena and Mangai for guiding and helping me with the book,” says Priya, who is currently seeking funding for its publication.

“My ultimate dream is to get a documentary made by Nat Geo or BBC about our community so we can reach out to the maximum number of people,” she says. She has gained some experience in film direction and editing while working with film students. She has now applied to NFDC for funding and is open to help from individuals willing to produce such a venture.

Medical isolation

The Humsafar Trust in Mumbai works with gays and transgenders by distributing condoms, medicines and organising workshops and meetings. Every Friday, a programme is held at its office for transgenders. It organises sensitisation programmes for doctors on issues related to treatment of STD and other medical problems faced by transgenders. “These are baby steps compared to foreign countries, where a certificate indicating change in gender is provided within 24 hours of SRS, along with psychiatric and legal help,” says Anil Kadam of Humsafar Trust. “Being a complicated procedure, there are high chances of side effects and infections in SRS. But government hospitals refuse to admit transgenders for treatment, due to the stigma attached to them,” says Priya.

The doctor sensitisation programmes have received a positive response from centres such as the Jamshedji Jeejibhoy Hospital, BYL Nair Hospital, STI Clinic, Siddharth Nagar Hospital and Lokmanya Tilak Municipal General Hospital in Mumbai. Dr Jayarajani organises VCCTCs – Voluntary Confidence Counselling Testing Centre. However, there are also numerous instances of transgenders being turned away from hospitals. “In Pondicherry, an HIV(+) transgender was denied medical aid. A memorandum was sent to the Chief Minister, who ordered an enquiry into the matter,” says Priya.

Struggling at every step of her life for things big and small, Priya has experienced a wide gamut of exhilarations and losses. At a moment of deep thought, she says, “Our life, feelings, love, affection, faith are all similar to those of other people… I want people to understand this…”

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated November 16, 2007)
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