New Delhi: Getting a glimpse of the everyday world of a transgender or a hijra was not proving to be easy.
Transgender is an umbrella term for persons who do not identify with the sex they were born with. Like Hijras and kothis, who both express a feminine gender identity, and are the most visible among sexual minorities.
Hijras belong to gharanas led by a Hijra guru and live in closed communities or deras. Outsiders are rarely given access to the deras.
Kothis, on the other hand, live by themselves and often have a precarious relationship with their landlord and neighbours.
On account of their gender expression, landlords are known to deny transgenders and hijras rooms on rent, or to charge them higher rent than others.
The more upscale the neighbourhood, the greater their exclusion.
Nevertheless, a few opened their doors to us. Jaya and Kiran, are in their twenties and are kothis. The term is common for feminised males belonging to a poorer socio-economic group. They live in a gritty neighbourhood in the capital, far from their families who are in the Andamans. Jaya's family has no idea that she lives as a kothi in Delhi.
Jaya, who is training to be a makeup artist, said, "It is difficult to disclose my trans identity to my family. I belong to a rural area and you cannot live as a transgender there, the way one can in a metropolis. They will treat it as a mental health problem. So I used to live like a boy earlier, and suppress my feminine side. I am very happy now. I experience freedom, to do whatever I want, wear whatever I want."
Her roommate, Kiran works as an outreach worker at Naz Foundation. She said, "I have a job and I want to live with society, even if society is not ready to accept me. I meet people from the Hijra community but I don't want to live with them in their deras. Only a few transgenders are educated. But even if they were to apply for jobs, they would be denied them. They have no option but to get into prostitution, which is full of risks. The police harasses them, forces them to have sex with them or demands money from them."
26-year-old Noori, a hijra, took up a room in a congested locality with Sneha, barely a month ago. The room is bare and they have yet to settle in. Noori, who is a project director with Parivartan Trust, said, "I left my house so that my family would not face humiliation because of me. Even if my family were to accept me, my neighbours and society would not. My brothers would say they faced taunts because of me. People would ask who is this hijra in your house? When I was small I would be teased about my feminine behaviour. The way I walked and talked was like a woman. At times I felt I was the only one like this and thought of giving up my life. In class 10, I realised that I was physically attracted to boys and not girls.
Noori joined the Hijra community six years ago and got the acceptance she sought. Sneha, on the other hand, does not wish to be part of the structured and ritualistic community of hijras. But the conflict and rejection that began at home, followed them everywhere.
Noori said, "On September 26, my friend, my guru and I went to Westend Mall. The mall security staff denied us entry, saying Hijras are not allowed here. We told them we are here for some work and not for begging. He said he was under instructions not to permit Hijras entry to the mall."
In another part of Delhi, 21-year-old Hijra, Falak, tells us abuse and violence is an everyday reality.
Falak said, "There's an old man living in this house who misbehaved with me terribly. He stands on his balcony and hurls abuses at me. They don't want a Hijra to live in this colony."
Falak and her friends were beaten by policemen a month ago. "The incident happened around Diwali. I came here to buy something late at night. A policeman harassed me and then rained lathi blows on me. You can see how people are staring at us even now, wondering what a Hijra is doing here. What was the fault of that girl who was raped brutally? If men can rape women, imagine what they can do to Hijras. I am also a creation of God, I don't have a soul of a bird. So what if I don't fall under either of the two genders, I am also human."
36-year-old Rudrani Chettri, who runs the community led organisation Mitr Trust, explains that the Hijra system of guru chela provides a support system, often their only one.
Rudrani said, "All people who call themselves a Hijra, they have to become a chela of someone and they are a part of the family. Just because of what you want to be, you are thrown out by the people who have given you birth. When I ask people where do you feel safest? They say their home, in the presence of their parents. For this boy, he is growing up and he is not at all safe. There are possibilities that he can be murdered. There have been cases where children have been burnt alive, and hanged and there is a suicide note. It is better not be murdered and join a system which supports you. Also you get some sort of financial stability because you get into some kind of occupation. For example, if I am thrown out of my family and I don't go to the hijra system, how many sectors are there which can offer me a job? But if I go to this system, I get some kind of a financial support somehow. They will teach me something, maybe they will teach me dancing, singing. Even if go there and I do sex work and I get picked up by police and get harassed, there are people who will come for me and save me."
The transgender identity is a fluid one. Many of the hijras we met said they were born a biological male, and described themselves as kothis till they joined the hijra community. They opt to undergo removal of male external genitalia or hormonal treatment. Very few hijras are born intersexed. Despite a recorded history of more than 4000 years in the country, Hijras are a disempowered group.
Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, who is a Transgender/Hijra activist, said, "Our community has existed for centuries. Religion has accepted us, there is cultural acceptance for us. Then why are we denied basic constitutional rights. Forget about everything else, but right to life of dignity is the biggest thing we want. The Republic of India should understand that. Why is that jobs are only available for male and female? Any citizen of India should be able to apply for a job. Why do educational institutes choose to leave out transgenders? I always say that in India, everyone got freedom, except our community. Though we are the only sexual minority that is visible, but still we are treated as invisible. People treat us like transparent glass."
Many transgenders remain hidden because of the lack of a well-defined, organised community. For instance, those who are born biologically female and express a masculine gender identity.
Its late evening as we reach Simran's house in another tough neighbourhood. The 36-year-old was born in a Parsi family in Mumbai. Her father was a leading doctor. Simran left her family and joined the Hijra community at the age of 15. Her experience of gender is integral to her sense of being but there is no official recognition of the third gender.
Simran who is a programme officer with India HIV Alliance, said, "The passport authority gave me two only two options. They said you can either claim to be male or a female. So I had no option but to choose female. Somewhere deep in my heart, I don't consider myself as female. I have always considered myself a person of the third gender and as a Hijra community person, I wasn't given that."
Transgenders and hijras are deprived of the fundamental rights available to the other two sexes - male and female. They have been excluded from effectively participating in social and cultural life, economy and politics and decision making processes.
Transgenders' issues had never been officially assigned to any department of the Central government. They suffered from neglect.
In August last year, the National Legal Services Authority initiated a social justice litigation. It filed a petition in the Supreme Court on behalf of transgenders and Hijras seeking a legal identity for the transgender and Hijra population.
The case has the potential to break the binary gender norms of male and female in law and administrative practices in the country.
The petitioners believe recognition of gender identity would lead to provisioning of social entitlements. Some other concerned individuals and transgender activists have also impleaded in the case.
Ernest Noronha, programme officer, UNDP, and an impleader in the case, said, "We said give us the right to choose male, female or transgender. Because the community has opinions and options in their mind as in how they want to be identified as. There are Kinnars who want to be identified as Kinnars in order to keep their lineage. We are asking the court to us option to choose between male , female and trans. We don't want to called as Others, or Eunuchs because it is a Biblical term and a derogatory term and it has no connection with modern day transgenders we are referring to nowadays.
The petition also seeks a welfare board or commission for transgenders. While some state governments, like Tamil Nadu, have already made pioneering moves in this regard, these are standalone programmes and not part of a nationwide mandate.
The Supreme Court bench has reserved their judgement.
Another positive development took place in July last year, when the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment was appointed as the lead ministry by the Prime Minister's Office to look into transgender issues which were cross cutting. For instance, health, identity and education issues, Aadhar cards, ration cards, were with different ministries. Transgenders do not benefit from existing schemes.
The first ever National Consultancy Meeting on the issues of transgenders was held on August 23, 2013. There are cultural and social differences in different states. It was decided to constitute a task force with representatives from transgender community, academics, doctors, and representative for the various concerned departments. The expert committee is expected to give its recommendations next month.
What is also significant is that for the first time in the country, the Planning Commission in the 12th Five Year plan has identified development issues for transgenders.
The Centre's department of Aids Control has engaged with transgenders and hijras since 1999. It took a pragmatic approach to address their vulnerability to HIV AIDS which is as high as 18 per cent in some states.
The programmes extend health services to transgenders and is an entry point to address issues of stigma, social and economic exclusion.
Lov Verma, Secretary of the Department of Aids Control, said, "Among general population HIV prevalence is 0.27 per cent. Among transgenders and Hijras it goes up to 8.82 per cent. That gives you an idea of where exactly the challenge lies. Because it is such hidden population, the first challenge was to know the numbers, so that we are able to design an intervention accordingly. That is why it was very important and we got National Institute of Epidemiology on board, and they have done a fantastic study over 17 states and they have mapped the existence of this community in both the rural and urban areas."
Till date no census has been conducted on the transgender and Hijra community. The mapping exercise is reportedly the first in the world, and indicates that the department's interventions need to be scaled up four to five times. The challenge is to access the hijra gharanas and build leadership in a community that is marked by low levels of education.
Transgender/Hijra activist Abhina Aher, who is also founder of the Dancing Queens troupe, said the community was losing people everyday. "The other day I got a call from Mumbai. One of my best dancers had committed suicide because she could not reveal her HIV status to her family. She slit her own throat. It was shocking. Do you understand that kind of trauma? Transgenders at the age of 23, 24, 25, 26 years are dying. Interventions with young transgenders have become necessary."
But these efforts to bring transgenders and hijras into the mainstream are in disjunct with the Supreme Court's ruling on December 11 criminalising their sexual behaviour. The court overruled the landmark decision of the Delhi High Court four years ago, which had read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.
Even as central ministries are taking proactive steps to give hijras and transgenders a right to live with dignity and a legal identity, the Supreme Court's ruling criminalising gay sex has been a setback.
The law is deeply symbolic for trans identities who face oppression in private and public places, and a daily struggle against blackmail and police harassment.
The question is of dignity for the third gender.