Is society changing for transgenders?
New Delhi: As he transitioned from childhood to adulthood, Somnath Bandopadhyay lived a dual life—A ‘he’ outside and a ‘she’ at home. In the privacy of his home in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district, Bandopadhyay would try out clothes that belonged to his sisters and admire his looks in the mirror. He loved what strangers, unaware of his gender, had to say about his kohl-smeared eyes.
That dual life ended in 2003, when at the age of 39, Somnath became Manabi —which means woman in Bengali—after a sex change operation. Manabi Bandopadhyay, now 53, made news two years ago when she became the principal of Krishnagar Women’s College in Nadia district, the first transgender principal of any Indian college. That might be her only achievement that got highlighted, but Bandopadhyay thinks she has much more to her that people totally miss, because the outcomes always overshadow the struggles.
Transgenders always had it tough. From being constantly asked to tame herself, asked by psychiatrists to forget her female identity, called names in school and college, to being raped and sexually abused—Bandopadhyay has lived through it all. Her story is no different from the 4.88 lakh other transgenders in the country (as per the 2011 census). And society’s refusal to accept anyone who deviates from the ‘normal’ limits their life choices, and many of them end up as beggars or in sex work.
But Bandopadhyay worked hard to educate herself: A PhD in Bengali, she penned the best-seller novel Endless Bondage (English translation) which was published in 2002. She is also the editor and publisher of Sub-human, India’s only magazine on issues of transgenders, that is, people with a gender identity or gender expression that doesn’t conform to their assigned birth sex.
Despite odds, transgenders are carving out their own space in the society. Consider a few examples. In Maharashtra, Dnyandev Shankar Kamble defeated six candidates to become the sarpanch of the Tarangfal gram panchayat in Solapur district. K. Prithika Yashini, India’s first transgender police officer, took charge as a sub-inspector of police at Choolaimedu police station in Chennai on 9 October. In July, The Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) exempted the community from paying fees for all its courses. In the same month, 29-year old Joyita Mahi Mondal was appointed India’s first transgender Lok Adalat judge in Islampur of North Dinajpur district in north Bengal.
A lot of this flowed from a Supreme Court judgment in April 2014 identifying transgenders as a third gender, stating one’s sexual orientation was the integral part of personality, dignity and freedom.
“Because of the recent Supreme Court judgment, the transgender community of this country, now has some standing, some respect. Of course, we had a mayor a while ago, we had a transgender MLA....these changes have been happening. But I think the SC judgment hurried the pace of change and gave all of this a visibility,” says Anjali Gopalan, founder and executive director of Naz Foundation, a Delhi based NGO working on the issue of HIV and AIDS since 1994.
After the SC judgment, many states started taking steps towards the mainstreaming the community. Kerala, which became the first state to declare a transgender policy in 2015, has opened exclusive clinics for transgenders. Last month, Karnataka too passed its own policy for transgenders. In June, Tamil Nadu announced free education for transgenders in all colleges affiliated to the Manonmaniam Sundaranar University.
“People might say it is too little and too late, but I think these are very courageous steps. This doesn’t mean that discrimination faced by the community isn’t faced by the community anymore because the vast majority is still uneducated, poor, with no access to resources, but what we are seeing now, wouldn’t have been possible just a few years back,” says Gopalan.
According to M. Sopna’s A Voiced Cry of Transgenders, the community of transgenders is almost 4,000 years old, and has greater acceptance than other sexual minorities. This is because, as Gopalan says, “transgenders are so often seen only as women, and they have been very visible in our culture, being part of our growing up.”
After India granted voting rights to transgenders in 1994, Shabnam Mausi Bano was elected India’s first hijra Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) in 1999 from Madhya Pradesh’s Sohagpur constituency. Kamla Jaan became mayor of Katni in Madhya Pradesh as an independent in December 1999. In 2000, a hijra (Hijras are a type of transgenders, but the vast majority of transgender people are not hijras), Asha Devi became the first elected mayor of Gorakhpur in a post that was reserved for women.
Usually discarded by their families, transgender Indians join the hijra community – an organised, hierarchical system in which new members become a chela (disciple) to an elder hijra guru to learn the ways of navigating the society. These customs include begging for alms and singing and dancing at weddings and at homes of newborns for luck.
Bano was also shunned by the family and lived with hijras till she was 14. After spending initial years as a performer with a cultural troupe and a dance group, she decide to join politics. “My body might be a kinnar, (term for hijras in north India) but my brain is not. Why should I beg? I want to live a normal life. People called me chakka, chavanni kam, and didn’t accept me initially, but then they were the ones who elected me,” says Bano, 60.
While politics is a profession where several attempts, failed ones included, have been made by transgenders, other professions have only recently started opening their doors for them.
But as transgender rights activist Kalki Subramaniam says, “The police officer, the principal, the judge – their success should be attributed to them alone. What they achieved is because of their individual struggles. Even if the government, the corporates and institutes say that their doors are open for the transgenders, the discrimination inside does not let them survive. So, unless and until that is taken care of, it will still be an uphill task for the community.”