India Through Transgender Lenses
Although non-binary gender identity is a seemingly new phenomenon in society, having a third gender has been a part of Indian societal views for thousands of years. Terms for people who identify as neither man nor woman exist in Buddhist and Sanskrit text. In North India, transgender and intersex people are called hijras and had elevated positions in Hindu society before the colonization of the British. The Hindu myth on how hijras were elated this position stems back to around the 5th century B.C. when Lord Rama was exiled from his land. Those who didn’t identify as a man nor woman stayed back and were rewarded for their loyalty. It is said that they have the power to give blessings and curses related to fertility. Although in the Mughal era they had important positions in court, this changed after the colonization of the British in the 18th century. Colonization corrupted the mindset of the Indian society, spreading ignorance about their community. The British imposed Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalized “unnatural” sex acts which included sex between the same gender and non-vaginal sex. This law changed how the transgender community is treated until this day. India’s expansive continent has over one thousand languages and cultural differences from North to South, including the history of the transgender community. In the South of India they are not called hijra and recently adapted the term transgender to describe themselves.
Section 377 was banned in 2018, but there is still a long way to go in the fight for equality. Kerala, in the South of India, is a progressive and highly literate state that was one of the first states to recognize a third gender. It is important to realize the difference between being a transgender person and being recognized as another gender all together. Gender roles that we are taught in society are binary and closed-minded, with the inability of people to think outside male and female boxes. Some people don’t fit into either of those boxes and shouldn’t have to. By creating a legal third gender, India has opened up to the idea that a cisgender binary society will never exist.
Although India is one of the few countries internationally that recognizes a third gender, they still face discrimination in education, healthcare and job opportunities. Tahirah Ayeez and Theertha Sarvika, two empowered transgender women in Kerala, enlightened us on the difficulties they have faced, how they overcame the discrimination and created the first fully occupied IT entrepreneurship owned by transgender people in India. Both Tahirah and Theertha felt that their body did not fit their soul and searched for the answers to why they felt more conventionally feminine. Theertha even thought she was a gay man for a while, but then came to realize the truth of her identity as a woman. The lack of education about gender and sex is overwhelming with the curriculum being taught lacking any support for the queer community.
In textbooks, people are indocturined with the fact that if you have a tattoo near your genital or neck, it signifies that you are gay. People of the LGBTQ+ community are ostracized and transgender people are seen as “alien”, according to Tahirah. With heavy bullying from classmates, many transgender teenagers drop out of school, giving them even less of a chance of being successful in life. Theertha, who has a computer science and engineering degree shows that this is not always the case. She has paved the way for the younger generations by extending the amount of transgender people accepted into university classes and increasing scholarship amounts for her community. After being denied a necessary course for one of her degrees, she fought with the administration until they agreed to always have two open spots for members of the transgender community. With the help of a couple others, she also
increased the scholarship 50,000 rupees (~717USD), highlighting that without the ability to get jobs, the transgender community cannot afford a good education.
Failure In the System
Because of the lack of education, doctors have little to no knowledge on how to treat transgender people and many turn them away because of the stigma. For those who are kind enough to treat transgender people, it may have a price of isolation from the medical field. There have been many reports of sexual harassment, inappropriate unrelated questions about their sex organs, and even deaths from taking too long to figure out what gender facility they should be admitted to (Soumya). The healthcare issues faced do not go completely unnoticed, but the solution given by the 2018 Transgender Persons Bill only further marginalized the community. They opened separate healthcare centres for HIV checks, which only made a statement that the transgender community is more likely to contract this disease. The bill also states that a person only qualifies as a transgender person after undergoing the sex-reassignment surgery, which a mandatory screening checks. The process of becoming a transsexual, meaning physically changing into the gender you identify as, is a long, tough and expensive road that not all transgender people will go down.
When asking Tahirah and Theertha what motivated them to start their own IT company, they passionately told us that they wanted to prove their worth to society. As transgender women, they dealt with isolation from coworkers and even sabotage.
Theertha recalled a time where her subordinate colleagues refused to do the work she requested in order to get her fired. Not only is the transphobia apparent in the workplace, but also in hiring new employees. They must work twice as hard to prove their worth in jobs where they don’t feel welcome in the first place. Theertha and Tahirah had the dream of an inclusive work environment, so they created it. Instead of being exclusive of cisgender people, Tahirah and Theertha include all qualified candidates. Their company Transysco Solutions, is planning on hiring 50 people across three sectors. It is a “global software development and complete solution company providing IT solutions, career guidance, professional courses and innovation support to enterprises worldwide. (Transysco Solutions)”.
There are local advocacy programs such as Queerala and Queerhythm that fight for the equality of the queer community, giving housing to those displaced by their families, proving counseling services and a media platform to create awareness. For those struggling with gender identity and decide to live their lives in the way that reflects who they truly are, we fully support them and the projects that are making a difference in the daily movement of the society. To ensure a brighter future to the queer youth, we need to provide:
-Protection and counselling
-Better access to scholarships
-Enforcement of laws against discrimination
-Equal voting rights and participation
-Funds for surgery