The transgender identity remains lost in translation
Although Sintu Bagui is one of the first transgenders to become a Lok Adalat judge in Bengal’s Serampore district, his voter ID says “male”. Sintu insists he will update his gender status post these elections.
Sintu is an activist and also a part-time sex worker in the red-light area of Seoraphuli. At the age of 12, he dropped out of an all-boys school, where he was shamed bitterly. He did odd jobs — worked as a shop assistant and a construction site labourer.
On the day of the interview, the Congress has released its manifesto. Sintu brings it up and starts to talk about how the party has assured it will recognise “the sexual diversity among people” and everyone will be accorded “equality and equal protection of the laws” among other things.
Even the CPI(M)’s manifesto talks about passing the Rights of Transgender Persons Bill, 2014, to uphold the rights of all transgender persons and removing the lacunae present in the current Transgender Persons Bill, 2018.
Says Sintu, “We are very confused. We don’t know who to support, who to vote for.” Anindya, whose ideological affiliation has been with the Left, says the community has also resisted divisive and communal ideologies that have threatened it recently.
For 26-year-old Pallabi Chakraborty — who was once Pallab — getting a job proved difficult, even after she had completed her training as a driver and got her driving licence. “People kept finding reasons not to hire me. I interviewed for a job at a five-star hotel in the city. They didn’t refuse me outright, but the excuses were obvious,” says Pallabi, who claims to be the first transgender driver of Bengal and also the first transgender civic volunteer of Kolkata Police. “People like us are in a lot of pain because the gender of our soul and that of our body is different,” she says.
Atri Kar is a teacher at Ramnagar Government Primary School in Bandel, 50 kilometres from Calcutta. The 29-year-old made news last year as the first transgender from Bengal to appear for the civil services examination after a prolonged legal battle with the Central Administrative Tribunal. This year, Atri voted as a transgender, not a man, for the first time. “Transgender” refers to those whose gender identity does not match the gender assigned to them based on their physical attributes. It is not a comment on sexual preferences or practices.
Speaking to The Telegraph, Atri says, “The Supreme Court (SC) ruled in 2014 that transgenders could apply for education and employment under the ‘Other’ category. But, what I realised was that it had not been implemented everywhere. In most application forms, I was unable to find the ‘Other’ option under the section marked gender.”
The apex court bench had said, “…recognition of transgenders as a third gender is not a social or medical issue but a human rights issue. Transgenders are also citizens of India. The spirit of the Constitution is to provide equal opportunity to every citizen to grow and attain their potential, irrespective of caste, religion or gender.” After the SC ruling, the Election Commission (EC) categorised transgenders as the “third gender”.
According to the 2011 Census, the total transgender population in India was 4,87,803. As per 2014 news reports, of the total 28,527 registered transgender voters, only 1,968 exercised their right to vote that year. Latest EC data shows that there are 40,000 registered transgender voters today.
These elections, the Aam Aadmi Party has fielded Mahamandaleshwar Bhawani Nath Valmiki, a transgender from the Lok Sabha constituency of Allahabad. If Valmiki wins, she will be the first transgender to become a member of Parliament.
Congress appointed Apsara Reddy as the national general-secretary of the All India Mahila Congress in January this year. And in March, the EC roped in transgender model and actress from Manipur, Bishesh Huirem, to be the face of the voting awareness campaign in the state and also to generate awareness among the transgender community before elections.
Nevertheless, despite various debates and awareness programmes, the representation and participation of transgenders in the electoral process remains abysmal. Even the approach of political parties does not extend beyond tokenism.
Sintu says, “Roti, kapda, makaan chahiye. Whichever government comes to power should make this possible for us. People like me who had to drop out can never study. Transgenders should come under the purview of the Right to Education. We should be allowed to study medicine and become doctors.” Atri thinks reservations might be the answer to the woes of transgenders.
Pallabi keeps referring to “the mainstream” as if she were a citizen of a different country. She says, “Neither the state government nor the central government is bothered about us. That is why people like us are still begging. They don’t let people like me have a dignified life, and they won’t let us beg either... I was studying for my MA in vocal music but I had to perforce drop out.” She seems to think things will get worse if the BJP government is voted back to power. And then pauses and says, “Or maybe not. I don’t know.” At the end, living as a transgender citizen in the world’s largest democracy entails more than just ticking a box.
Anindya Hajra is an activist and founder member of Pratyay Gender Trust; she is also a transgender. Talking about the 2014 verdict, she says, “It was a historic thing. The verdict brought the attention back to transgenders, in a nice way. The SC coming out with a judgment in affirmative for transgenders is a big deal.” Anindya also admits that the complications have increased manifold ever since. She says, “Once you tick the third gender or the ‘Other’ option in a form, you have to prove your gender identity, which is something those checking either one of the other two boxes don’t have to reckon with.”
She talks of the time when she went to update her Aadhaar card. She says, “When I told them I wanted to change my gender identity, it was like a bomb had been dropped. I didn’t look like a transgender to them. You see, the whole idea of a trans identity is also determined in terms of appearance, surgical status, etc. For half-an-hour we were jostling with this. Two hundred people queued up behind me were getting restless. Anyone else in my position would have just signed male or female for the heck of it.”
According to Anindya, what transgenders could do with are awareness campaigns by the EC. She asks, “What sort of measures has the EC taken for the inclusion of transgenders in voters’ lists? What training has been given to the EC staff? We do not know of any.”
There have been instances when transgenders who wanted to update their gender status in their voter IDs were allegedly shamed and harassed by government officials. According to the 2011 Census, Bengal has 30,349 transgenders. This is the registered number, the actual figure would be way more.