The euphoria rippled through phone lines, airwaves and satellite beams from the Supreme Court in Delhi to the farthest corners of the country. India's top court had granted transgender people the identity of the third gender — and the celebrations were instant.
Shouts of joy were heard in a tiny 10x10-feet kholi in Dharavi — Asia's largest slum — in Mumbai, as news came through of the apex court in Delhi 1,400km away, delivering the verdict that would change lives and give them a stab at dignity. Roommates Shefali and Gita, both transgender (TG) people in their 20s, got the news over the phone. "We couldn't believe it'd finally happened and put on the TV when our friend told us," says Gita.
Their roommate is away visiting family in Kolkata. "If Shona was here, by now there'd be agarbatti smoke all over after her loud puja," Gita giggles. "While we are all happy that the Supreme Court has granted us a chance to live with dignity, Shona would've gone overboard thanking all the gods and pirs on the altar…"
As she surfs channels, she stops at one with images of a TG bar dancer swirling in a spangled ghagra. "Look at this. On a day like this too, they will stick to flogging the stereotype. This bar shut down long ago but they keep using the same visuals. If they are so interested in the truth, why don't they come see how we live in small kholis with no toilets and bathrooms?" asks Shefali, who switches off the TV.
Gita and Shefali danced at bars between Dahisar and Borivli and are bitter about what the 2006 shutdown did to them. So how have they survived since? "You call this survival? From a flat, we have come down to a kholi. Even to afford a home in a halfway-decent chawl like this, we have to resort to sex work," complains Gita.
"I hope the court ruling will force the government to help us with jobs."
And that's what it's all about — jobs. "Unless we are given work, everything else will be just lip service," says Shabnam Mausi, a TG who was legislator from Sohagpur constituency in Madhya Pradesh from 1998-2003. The primary school drop-out, who speaks 12 languages, raised the issues of corruption, unemployment, poverty, and hunger during her stint as MLA.
In Tamil Nadu, which established a transgender welfare board in April 2008, Swapna, 28, who has cleared this year's Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission (TNPSC) exams, is also monitoring developments in the case closely. The young TG had moved the Madras High Court, seeking permission to take the TNPSC exam as a woman. "When my application for the civil services examination was rejected, I realised that transgender people are not allowed to apply under the 'woman' category," says Swapna, who is at the forefront of several campaigns and protests to change the situation. "I hope the Supreme Court judgment creates circumstances for us to apply as TGs. Many of us will opt for government service and become economically independent."
Life has been tough with many rejections, even from family. "My family had deserted me once they came to know about my identity as a TG," she recounts tearfully. "Though I scored 1,021 marks in the class 12 exam and received a Rs20,000 cash award for securing third place in Tamil in the district, my family ill-treated me."
She fled to Mumbai but was unhappy with the hijra group she got into because it was forcing her into prostitution. "I returned to Madurai in 2012, rented a house near Thiruparankundram with other TGs and joined a BA Tamil correspondence degree course. Now that I've been through it all, I feel confident of fighting on," she says and quickly adds, "The Supreme Court can give rulings. Using them to continue our fight for dignity is up to us."
Interestingly, over three lakh TGs in TN have separate ration cards identifying them as TG. Karpagam, a TG from Erode, who has played the lead female part in the Tamil film Paal, says the move led to their enumeration. "Once the government established our numbers, political parties began wooing us as vote banks and this only enhanced our bargaining power. I hope this will now be replicated nationally."
It is a hope that finds an echo with Gauri Sawant of the NGO Sakhi Charchowghi, who along with Ernest Noronha (Meera), was the first to file the PIL which led to the landmark judgment. Says their lawyer Sanjeev Bhatnagar, "This ruling will mean all identity documents, including birth certificates, passports and driving licences, will have to recognise the third gender, along with male and female. The government will also have to reserve public sector jobs, seats in schools and colleges for third gender applicants."
Sawant, 36, warns about losing the plot in the celebratory din. "This wasn't only about gender identity on official documents. We will have to take this battle ahead till we reach the logical finale of equality-based integration."
According to her, the apex court's ruling has helped give the TG community the space it deserved. "For far too long we've felt neglected as most intervention strategies tend to focus on the gays and lesbians as groups."
Gauri is joined in this by her fellow petitioner and one of the most prominent voices of the TG community. Laxmi Tripathi. "As if the hate, ridicule discrimination and revulsion we face from society isn't enough… TGs have always had to deal with transphobia from gays, lesbians and bisexuals," she said.
Ashok Row Kavi, one of the country's first voices to speak up for LGBTQ rights, says this is the time to stick together. "This should give us hope that we may see the court ending the recriminalisation of homosexuality." Swapna agrees. "What's the point of just giving people false hopes with official documents declaring we are TGs? Will that protect us from being picked up or persecuted by police when they catch us having sex?"
Many are linking the court's sympathies for TGs to social acceptance the community has traditionally enjoyed in both Hindu and Muslim cultures.
"Whether it is hijras, aravanis, eunuchs, kothis and jogtas, they have lived in abject poverty and face horrific exploitation. This battle for dignity was not only about the English-speaking urbane TGs but the ones who live really difficult lives in rural interiors," says Laxmi.
Chennai-based social-psychologist Dr L Shanmugham, who holds a doctorate on the TG community, observes, "The problem is also homogenisation in the process of oversimplifying. The various sub-groups within the TG community will have to find a way of expressing themselves without any one sub-group monopolising, as has been the case till now."
"We have to change our understanding of gender and sexuality as two or three absolute classifications as male, female and other. Without that, we will always have some or the other marginalised and ignored group not showing up on any intervention radar," he adds.
Already, some like equal rights activist Bindumadhav Khire of Pune's Samapathik Trust (which works with the LGBTQ community across Maharashtra) have begun using the SC judgment to correct certain anomalies. In a letter to the Indian Psychiatrist Association, Khire has said, "For as long as the tag of 'Gender Identity Disorder' or 'Gender Dysphoria' for TGs is retained in psychiatric classification, they will be treated as 'sick' by doctors and society. To remove this stigma, it is important that this mention (of dysphoria or disorder) be removed from the disorder diagnosis list."
A copy of this communiqué has also been mailed to Pedro Ruiz, president of the World Psychiatrist Association.
"Unless we don't start strategically using the judgment to push for ending discrimination, the Supreme Court judgment will not have served its purpose," says Khire.
For once even the divergent voices in the community agree. We like.
Things you need to know
Who are they?
Transgender is a broad community encompassing people whose gender identity does not align to their assigned sex. In India, they are also known as hijras, kothis, aravanis, kinnars, jogtas and shiv-shakthis, among other names.
What the ruling means
The Supreme Court ruled that transgender people would be recognised on official documents under a seperate "third gender" category. The government will have to change the way identity documents are created. Passports, birth certificates and driving licences will have to recognise the third gender, along with male and female.
Kathoey is a Thai term that refers to either a transgender woman or an effeminate gay male in Thailand. The word kathoey is of Khmer origin. It is most often rendered as ladyboy or lady boy in English conversation with Thais and this latter expression has become popular across South East Asia.
Kathoeys are more visible and more accepted in Thai culture than transgender or transsexual people are in Western countries or Indian. Several popular Thai models, singers and movie stars are kathoeys.