There are those among us who still think trans and non-binary people have been sent by the Devil (or some variation thereupon) to test our virtue. There are those among us who will go so far as socially exclude individuals who don’t fit society’s ‘M’ and ‘F’ check boxes. We roll up our car windows when we see a Hijra at a stoplight, and we tell ourselves they’ve chosen to be where they are, chosen to beg, chosen to do sex work just to make ends meet. Too many of us believe the stereotypes we are fed, and we act like the custodial abuse of trans people is just business as usual. But despite all of this, glimmers of hope have surfaced in the recent past – and no, we don’t mean people gushing over Eddie Redmayne in ‘The Danish Girl’, significant as it may be.
A petition started in 2012 culminated in a landmark judgement two years later that legally recognized trans people in India – by including the ‘third gender’ option in “birth certificates, passports and driving licenses.” Problematic, yes, but surely a solid start. And this really set the tone for things to come. Towards the end of 2015, the state of Kerala presented its transgender policy to trans activist Akkai Padmashali. The policy is aimed at integrating trans people with mainstream society, by providing them the right to self-identification, educational security, and social and economic opportunities, and will address immediate and urgent concerns if implemented properly. But even with the legal system becoming more inclusive, and better aligned with the principle of justice for all, a tough challenge still remains. That is, the social stigma against trans people that has been allowed to coagulate decade after decade. Scholarship, case studies and non-profit work on Hijra, Kinnar, Aravani or other local trans groups has certainly been useful in approaching gender and social inequalities from a theoretical standpoint, but the issue of trans visibility seems to be 2016’s big agenda.
Barely into the first week of January, India’s first transgender music group, the 6 Pack Band, made their debut on Y Films’ YouTube channel, singing about their experiences to the tune of Pharrell’s terminally delightful single, ‘Happy’. Certain limitations aside, the music video and the band went viral across social media, with well over a million views, and a surge of positive, even encouraging comments. It recasts the figure of the trans person in a refreshing light, which is great, because Indian audiences have become comfortable seeing them as comic relief, objects of ridicule or shame, or ne’er-do-wells on the fringes of respectable society.
Similarly, noted trans activist Rudrani Chettri has initiated a crowdfunding campaign for another first – an Indian transgender modelling agency, which will reject the ‘ugliness’ cast onto trans women by a society that actively undermines their welfare.
Yet another first – and at this point there is rising excitement – is the announcement of an LGBT radio taxi service, which will select, train and enable trans individuals to get their All India Driver’s License, and “be eventual entrepreneurs.” Initiated by Wing Travels, in partnership with Mumbai based LGBT+ rights NGO, Hamsafar Trust, it seems to be picking up on the need for economic opportunities, as per the aforementioned judgment.
“We want to ensure that the LGBT community in India enjoys the same rights and livelihood opportunities in India as their counterparts in the West,” said Wing Travels founder Arun Kharat.
It certainly seems like in the recent past our great democracy will at long last serve one of its most marginalized sections – many of whom, we must remember are not members of an urban elite queer movement, but on whom the multiple binds of caste, economic inequality, and the ‘minority religion’ label have meant an unbelievably hard life.
One is tempted to think recent developments have put us safely and firmly on a road to recovery – from this toxic, transphobic social framework – but there is work yet to be done. The Rights of Transgender People bill, which was introduced during Parliament’s winter session had some gaping problems. Human Rights Watch has noted the bill lacked a provision for self-identification as “the sole criterion for legal gender recognition without psychological, medical, or other ‘expert’ intervention,” among other things. And even though the Bill was publicly available on the Ministry of Social Justice’s website for anyone to view and make recommendations, this option was poorly publicized, resulting in the demand for an extension in deadlines. As Padmashali said, the government has a responsibility to “carry out effective consultations with the masses of the community instead of a selected set of representatives.”
Still, it’s good to see the government and civil society working in tandem on this sensitive and long-ignored issue. If 2016 isn’t already the year for trans equality in India, we must create the conditions to make sure that it is.