The Kardashian khandaan is not anybody’s idea of a role model. Well, technically the former Bruce Jenner is not a Kardashian, except by marriage. Yet, I find myself moved by his transformation to Caitlyn Jenner.
Forget for now the oozing cynicism: Is she doing it for the money? Is this a marketing prelude to a new reality show that goes on air later this year? Does Annie Leibovitz’s Vanity Fair cover break new ground or does it reinforce stereotypes of feminine beauty?
Valid questions, and yet I’m cheering because an Olympic gold decathlon winner, a macho symbol if there ever was one, has spoken up and emerged as a symbol for transgender rights. For me, for now, that is enough.
America’s response is teetering (and tweetering) between applause and shock. An online petition wants the International Olympic Committee to revoke Jenner’s 1976 gold for competing as a man. A New York Times op-ed called the transition a “commercial spectacle on an enormous scale, revealing some disturbing truths about what we value and admire in women.” Still others pointed out that few transgenders anywhere can afford the surgeries and hormone treatment available to Caitlyn.
But if the ongoing global gender conversation over sexual violence, over gay rights, over stereotypes just got a bit more interesting, then you can thank Caitlyn Jenner for that.
In India we’re yet to have our celebrity moment for transgender rights. Barring some individual progress — Manabi Bandopadhyay, who became the first transgender person to be appointed the principal of a women’s college, a couple of transgender TV anchors and even a transgender mayor — the community remains marginalised and discriminated against.
Yet, institutionally we have made progress right from when Tamil Nadu in 2008 set up a welfare board for transgenders and decided to provide free sex reassignment surgery in government hospitals.
In 2009 the election commission allowed transgenders to choose ‘other’ on ballot forms. In April 2014, our Supreme Court recognised transgenders as a third gender and asked the government to treat them as they would any socially and educationally backward group. And in April this year, the Rajya Sabha voted unanimously to endorse a Bill that promotes transgender rights, including financial aid and reservation.
Hijras have been a part of Indian culture from the time of the Ramayan and Mahabharat and continue to be called upon to bless auspicious occasions like weddings and births. But it is this superstitious belief that hijras have special powers and are somehow ‘different’ as well as their subsequent criminalisation by British colonial rule (including the infamous Section 377, which makes ‘sex against the order of nature’ a crime) that has also led to horrific marginalisation of a population that is officially 450,000 people in India (the community claims the figure is 2-2.5 million).
Part of the confusion stems from a lack of understanding of what is transgender — a broad term that embraces men who identify as female, women who identify as male, transsexuals, inter-sexuals (or hermaphrodites) and cross-dressers.
But part of the confusion is also a refusal to understand that everyone need not fit into binary definitions of gender or social stereotypes of masculinity and femininity. This lack of empathy coupled with a denial of legal status has pushed hijras to the margins, valued for their ‘good luck’ at auspicious occasions but socially shunned — often by their own families.
Gender is our most fundamentally profound basis of identity. It defines biologically, culturally and socially how we think, we dress, we act, we respond. Caitlyn Jenner’s decision to come out as a woman may not immediately open doors and dispel discrimination faced by transgenders. It does, however, let in a little crack of light.
The views expressed are personal