Transgender Bill falls short of estranged community’s expectations

When she settles into the ladies’ seat in a Kerala state transport bus, neither the conductor nor other passengers express any objection, though some of them do take a second and third look.
In a grey t-shirt and brown jeans, with her hair pulled back in a ponytail and the remnants of mehndi on her fingers, Faisal Faisu, who came out publicly as a transgender three years ago, says she is not usually stopped. “But I am not one of those people to cause trouble. I gauge the situation and act accordingly. If you want a different reaction, you will have to ask someone else,” says Faisu, smiling. Finding a space for herself, whether in a bus or in a larger society that treats her community with fear, rejection and prejudice, had never been easy, from the time she was growing up in Chavakkad, a beach town in Thrissur village, to her life now, as an activist for minorities and an employee of the Kochi Metro.

Transgender people are those whose gender identity or expression differs from their assigned sex. The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, introduced in Parliament in 2016, was supposed to make life of people like Faisu better by guaranteeing equality and promoting their welfare. The bill came in the wake of a 2014 Supreme Court judgment, which said those apart from the binary gender should be treated as the third gender.

It also upheld a transgender person’s right to decide their self-identified gender. But when it was finally introduced, it came under severe criticism from activists, lawyers and members of the community on various grounds, right from its definition of a transgender person. Then, in late July, a Parliamentary Standing Committee recommended several changes to the bill, including the fact that transgender persons remained at the risk of criminalisation under Section 377. “The bill must at the very least recognise the rights of transgender persons to partnership and marriage,” it said.

Faisal sees the continuance of Section 377, a colonial-era law that criminalises non-peno-vaginal sex, as one more obstacle in a long list the community needs to overcome. “What is there to be said about an outdated law that has been scrapped even in Britain, the country that introduced it in India,” she asks, as the bus gets closer to Edappally Metro station, which she has to reach before 2 pm, when her eighthour shift in the housekeeping department will begin.

Day-to-day Struggle

In Faisu’s experience, as a transgender person and an activist who argues for all marginalised communities, it is hard to prove transgressions under Section 377 so the police foist petty cases on the community, though the threat of Section 377 may also be there.

“Unless both law and society change, things won’t be any different for us,” says the 30-year-old. Recently, she says, she heard of an incident where six members of the community were arrested in a case where they were the original complainants. At the station, when one of them asked for drinking water, Faisu says the police told her to help herself to the water in the toilet. “When an officer of the law, an educated person who is supposed to know all the laws of the land and our rights, talks like this, should we be surprised that other members of society shun us?” she asks.

One of the five children of a cook and a housewife, Faisu had to drop out of school due to poverty. She did a string of odd jobs before joining the NGO Sangama and, then, the Kochi Metro. “I did construction work and in hotels but I faced a lot of exploitation.” Growing up, Faisal knew she was different but was not entirely sure till she met other members of the transgender community. “Till then, I thought I was all alone. My family members never acknowledged me and relatives stopped visiting us because of me,” she says.

It was during a TV debate on the 2009 Delhi High Court verdict decriminalising Section 377 that she publicly acknowledged her identity as a transgender and began speaking out at various public forums.

Though she is finding it hard to survive on the Kochi Metro salary of Rs 9,000 a month in hand, she does not want to quit yet because she believes that would discourage the organisation from hiring other transgender persons (of the 23 community members hired, nine have quit).

Though she is finding it hard to survive on the Kochi Metro salary of Rs 9,000 a month in hand, she does not want to quit yet because she believes that would discourage the organisation from hiring other transgender persons (of the 23 community members hired, nine have quit).

Currently staying in a shared room at a lodge behind the Ernakulam Junction railway station, she hopes to rent a house sometime soon, where she hopes her mother can join her.

The 27-year-old is clear about some of the things the government needs to undertake.

“We should be able to get married legally and protected from exploitation by our partners. We should also be allowed to adopt children — we would raise them as model citizens,” she says. With her hair in a bun and long nails painted a deep red, Shilpa says she began dressing like this all the time once she moved to the city of Kochi two years ago. “I did not reveal my identity earlier because transgenders are often equated with sex workers and I did not want who I was to affect my mother’s life,” says Shilpa, who switches to shirt and jeans and tucks her long hair under a cap when she visits her mother in Kothamangalam once a month. While her mother knows her identity, she does not want anybody else in the neighbourhood to find out.

Shilpa describes a childhood marked by sexual abuse, including at the hands of an alcoholic stepfather and the pastor at the orphanage where her mother left her when she went away to work as a home nurse. After Class VIII, she began doing jobs and soon found work in a hotel, as a waiter and cashier.

Witnessing a Theyyam (a ritual dance) performance opened a new world to her, one where she could don female roles and perform, and she joined a community of men who would perform professionally.

She wants to somehow save money for her sex reassignment surgery, which she says will cost around `2.5 lakh and, later, for her own house. “The transgender community itself is divided. Those who have got surgeries done are sometimes contemptuous of those who haven’t. And then there is the class difference — some of the so-called prominent faces will not speak up for the community, though they rose up because of their identity as a transgender person,” she says.

In its State Policy for Transgenders in 2015, the Kerala government had mentioned the setting up of a fund for sex reassignment surgeries and there are private hospitals offering the same in the state. In 2016, the state health minister had also said the government would look to reducing the price of sex reassignment surgeries but Shilpa says there is little information available to them about these proposals and what stage they are in.

For a Better Future

It was the same policy that convinced 24-year-old Alga  to finally return to her home state two years ago. She had left home as a 17-year-old to work in Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu, where she was adopted by a guru and could earn a living as a transgender person. “I was even given a house there by Jayalalithaa (as part of the state’s welfare policies). But I decided to come back home when the policy was announced in 2015.” The State Policy for Transgenders acknowledged the rights to self-identify as a man, woman or transgender, emphasised equal access to public spaces, protection against discrimination and harassment, the right to employment and equal opportunity for access to education.

But the return has not meant a happy reunion with her family. Alga, whose father was a daily wage labourer, says they tolerate her only because she used to send money from Chidambaram. “I also don’t visit them often because I have a younger sister and I don’t want to be responsible for ruining any marriage proposals that may be coming her way,” says the 24-year-old.

Trained as a pet nurse, she plans to apply for a job soon and move into a flat with her boyfriend, whom she plans to marry. “But we will only get married once I have had my sex-change surgery. And I will not have a hush-hush wedding, I’ll have a proper ceremony.”

Others, who requested that their names be withheld, say they are forced into sex work to augment their income and to have some savings.

“Apart from my living expenses, I need to save money for my sex reassignment surgery and for a house. If the government at least gave us some land, we would not have to worry about security,” says Jisha, who requested her real name not be revealed as she did not want it known that she was resorting to sex work. A former employee of Kochi Metro, she too quit because she found the salary insufficient.

  Though Kochi Metro later arrived at an arrangement whereby transgender employees could stay in a hostel run by nuns for Rs 500 a month a little further away, not everyone wanted to exercise that option.

Sabari Kishor, one of the organisers of Queerala, an LGBTQ organisation in Kerala, and an overseas education consultant, says there are multiple issues the transgender community is grappling with. “People ask why the transgender community does not have more visibility. But if you are visible, you are also more liable to be exploited.”

Both Shilpa and Alga say they are yet to receive identity cards recognising them as transgender persons, as promised by the government. But they are not alone — a survey of the transgender community conducted by the State Literacy Mission revealed last week that 37.5% of the community had no identity card at all.

For their part, members of the community underline that what they seek is only their rights. “The Supreme Court has laid down that gender equality is our right. When they are ensuring this, nobody should act as if they are doing us any favours, whether it is the people or the government,” says Faisu, emphatically.

Other recommendations of the Standing Committee

The bill does not refer to important civil rights like marriage and divorce, adoption etc, which are critical to transgender persons’ lives and reality, wherein many are engaged in marriage-like unions, without any legal recognition from the state.

Transgender persons remain at risk of criminalisation under Section 377. The bill must at the very least recognise the rights of transgender persons to partnership and marriage.

The bill must recognise transgender persons’ right to marriage, partnership, divorce and adoption, as governed by their personal laws or other relevant legislation.

There is an urgent need to provide for protection against sexual assault and rape of transgender persons, but the Bill does not specify the exact non-consensual acts that are sought to be prohibited. Moreover, there is no clarity on how these acts would interplay with Section 377 of IPC, which criminalises all penile, non-vaginal sexual acts between individuals.

The bill is silent on granting reservations to transgender persons under the category of socially and educationally backward classes.

A provision for separate frisking zones of transgender persons at public places such as the airport. For this, transgender persons should be appointed.

There should be a provision to provide the transgender persons separate public toilets and other such facilities.

Source:http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/transgender-bill-fails-to-change-life-of-estranged-community/articleshow/59933236.cms

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