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The future of transgender rights

Although they have a rich history within Indian and South Asian culture, many “hijras” face marginalisation and discimination (Photo: Arunreginald CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
Although they have a rich history within Indian and South Asian culture, many “hijras” face marginalisation and discimination (Photo: Arunreginald CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Society's assumptions and prejudices can make being transgender hard wherever you live. In many parts of the world, transgender people face legal impediments as well as hostility. In this week's guest blog, Isabelle Anne Abraham charts the progress of changing laws, attitudes and inequalities in India.

I spent half a year in New Delhi, India. The country, though beautiful and known for its rich variety of cultures, is rife with inequality. These inequalities are brought about by a number of factors: uneven wealth distribution, the historical caste system, and gender discrimination.

Ridicule, violence and fear

Women of course are victims of the latter, but even more so is another marginalised community: transgender people, who make up an estimated 2-3 million of the nation’s population.

They are subjected to ridicule, violence, and even fear due to traditional beliefs. Many transgender people have to resort to begging on the streets, and others – for lack of employment opportunities due to discrimination – are forced into sex work for their own survival. This particularly applies to the group hijras; a name sometimes used in a derogatory sense, which includes eunuchs, intersex, or other transgender minorities.

The word ‘transgender’ is a problematic and ambiguous one, but is widely accepted as an umbrella term to cover many diverse groups. It generally refers to any person whose gender identity, expression, or behaviour varies from the societal norms of their sex as assigned at birth. Whatever term we use, the fact remains that people suffer unequal treatment in societies all over the world as a result of their gender identity.

An interational phenomenon

Four transgender people hold up their ID in India following legalisation of third gender
In April 2014, India's Supreme Court officially recognised the third gender
Transgender inequality is internationally prevalent. It recently came to light that the US military does not allow transgender Americans to enlist. Yet being transgender in a developing country, such as India, is coupled with other issues, such as a lack of access to education, healthcare, employment, and basic rights.

This is essentially a problem of social stigma, a primary hindrance to transgender welfare. When a person faces continual harassment and ostracism, it affects their sense of self and places a heavy strain on their quality of life. The reality is that there is a lack of awareness and understanding of transgenderism. One of the biggest challenges is that it is considered to be a disorder or lifestyle choice, both of which are untrue.

Additionally, those who aren’t transgender often overlook simple things that make life difficult for those who are. For example, public toilets that only accommodate males and females can pose a problem. Then there are the more obvious hurdles like paperwork (official forms, censuses, etc.), which usually do not allow respondents to select a gender other than male or female. Travelling across borders can also be difficult, especially when a person's appearance does not match the biological sex on their IDs.

The third gender

In 2012, the Election Commission of India stated that voters would be allowed to register as ‘other’ on their IDs. The 2014 national elections was the first time this change could be effected. Then came India’s Supreme Court ruling in April this year, which officially recognises a third gender – a major milestone for the country’s transgender minorities. It is a welcome legal addition that complies with the rights to freedom, dignity, and self-determination.

This law enables people to identify themselves as third gender on identification documents. It also includes an order for governments to provide separate public facilities (such as unisex bathrooms), quotas for job placements and college admissions, and specific hospital wards for transgender patients. Furthermore, the state was requested to implement training and support programmes in an effort to change attitudes of inferiority and superiority related to gender identity or expression. Most of all, the changes seek to grant all transgender people the right to be recognised before the law, not to force any medical procedures upon them, not to attempt to conceal or supress them, and not to deny them any status such as marriage and parenthood.

Naturally, the ruling garnered much support from human rights advocates, and transgender activists and movements. However, it did not pass without some opposition, particularly by official bodies. India’s neighbouring countries, Nepal, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, already recognised a third gender before 2014, so this move was a necessary and overdue one. What remains to be seen, though, is whether the change in legislation will lead to any immediate benefits, in addition to an overall (and sustainable) improvement in transgender welfare.

Impediments to improvement

People protesting against section 377 of the Indian penal code
These people are protesting the colonial-era Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which banned “unnatural acts” and was finally repealed in 2009.

An overlap often occurs between transgender and lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) rights. In countries where homosexual acts are a crime, this also affects transgender communities, as they can be considered ‘criminals’ when involved with certain genders.

This is true of India. A landmark 2009 Delhi High Court order decriminalising same-sex relationships was reversed in December 2013. According to Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (a law from the colonial era, dating back to more than a century), any homosexual act is an “unnatural offence” and can result in a 10-year jail sentence. This is unjust in itself, but it also has the potential to conflict with the third gender law. For example, if a transgender woman, who is still legally identified as a male, has a sexual relationship with a man, she can be charged under this law.

Moreover, it is important to remember that not all transgender people want to make use of a third gender category. Some strongly identify as either male or female, a choice which needs to be accepted as well. This reinforces the fact that more research on social and health issues of transgender people needs to be funded and conducted. This will help ensure that the different groups contained within this umbrella term will be clearly identified and distinguished from one another, instead of being lumped together for the sake of convenience.

Alone, legal developments cannot bring about societal change. Public perception of gender identity needs to change to embrace and accommodate every community in a society. In the end, it is about making invisible groups visible, while recognising what is common to them all: their humanity.

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