A cautious round of applause to Kerala’s self-help group for transgenders
Transpeople are affected by our imagination of development that gentrifies parks and city spaces, throwing sex-worker transpersons out on the streets and vulnerable to violence. They are affected by the withdrawal of the State from education and health, which means they have to negotiate with for-profit organisations with no mandate of social inclusionauthors Updated: Feb 25, 2017 20:38 IST
Self help can be empowering unless touted as a remedy to systemic problems.
Last week, one of India’s largest self-help groups for women, Kudumbashree, opened their first transgender section in Kerala, receiving widespread praise. Commentary both online and offline was replete with the possibility of how transpeople, often pushed to the margins of employment and education, can claw their way back into the “mainstream” through such groups. This also reflected a welcome change of attitude from sections of the women’s movement after decades of refusing to recognise transgender women for what they fundamentally are, women.
But something rankled in the midst of effusive praise and fevered coverage the development received. The verdict came weeks before the third anniversary of the Supreme Court ordering overarching protections for the trans community, recognising a third gender and creating quotas in jobs and education.
But little has improved on the ground. Very few organisations provide the support and encouragement necessary for transpeople to get mainstream employment, let alone setting aside a batch of jobs for them. In schools and colleges, bullying and stigma is rampant that explains why there are few transgender students even in our universities that ostensibly have a declared mandate of “inclusivity”.
So two questions need to be asked: One, do transpeople need self help because no one else is willing to help them, and; two, in what horizon does this self help come from?
Education is an instructive field to explore the first questions. In state after state, even where transgender welfare boards have been set up, transpeople have had to approach the courts to get what should have been their most obvious right.
In Tamil Nadu, Grace Banu went to the high court to secure herself an engineering seat. In West Bengal, Atri Kar needed judicial intervention to change government procedure that blocked her from applying for a position she was qualified for. In both cases, the state administration — the primary purveyor of education — was mum.
Few transgender students still enrol for courses in colleges, even in prestigious institutes like Delhi University that have publicised a trans quota. The few trans students at the institution frequently complain of bias and bullying, indicating that authorities haven’t demolished structures or mindsets that have blocked access to this fundamental right.
In such a context, is small scale self help really an option for a people shut out from accessing health, education and jobs?
More importantly, can trans people self help their way into colleges or jobs? Or is the neighbourhood group’s telling silence on generating employment indicative of a larger problem?
The answer to the second question lies in the disproportionate coverage received by what is really a local initiative. Kudumbashree members have themselves declared that the group was at the neighbourhood level, the lowest rung in their organisation. There are 12 transpeople in the group and it’s not meant to be a large scale operation.
Yet, our full-throated validation of the move masked a deep acknowledgement of how the trans question has been reduced to a token — one that surfaces at diversity fairs, academic dissertations and whenever organisations want to appear progressive, but to soon be discarded after the mileage has been received.
The trans communities offer to us a radical way of looking at questions of gender, sexuality, care-giving, ageing and organising. They made us look at employment like begging or sex work and fronted questions of homelessness or communities offering care.
Instead, the question has been reduced to one of tolerance and whether they should be given quotas. The many photographs of transpeople and features on “sari-clad men” are meant to normalise trans people in the eyes of the mainstream, to make these radical questions comfortable for us.
So, the Kerala SHG runs parallel to the government’s efforts to make transpeople more respectable and policed by making “gender-certifying” bodies and outlawing begging in its new transgender rights bill.
Transpeople are affected by our imagination of development that gentrifies parks and city spaces, throwing sex-worker transpersons out on the streets and vulnerable to violence. They are affected by the withdrawal of the State from education and health, which means they have to negotiate with for-profit organisations with no mandate of social inclusion.
In this milieu, the Kerala body is a great step by the communities to empower themselves. But any praise by us must be fronted by a self-reflective critique of why they are forced to help themselves. Any other applause is insincere.