It is difficult to imagine from the delicate flick of Noori's wrists, the sway of her waist and the way her feet keep beat with the song that the 28-year-old has never been formally trained in dancing. But for the visible body hair, it is equally difficult to imagine that the dancer, more graceful than many women, was born male. On ordinary days Noori, a social sector worker, prefers to wear a t-shirt and jeans to work.
That changes at least twice every year, on Holi and Diwali. On those days, dressed in a salwar kameez and jewellery, Noori goes with her toli to perform the traditional badhai or dance of blessings that hijras do at weddings, births or festivals, and to collect money from shopkeepers in her area. "I don't do this on a daily basis because, being somewhat educated, I feel I can serve my community better by working at Mitr Trust, an organization that works for the welfare of the community's members," she says. As a child, she had nurtured dreams of becoming a teacher but couldn't pursue a teachers' training course owing to financial constraints. Then, there was the fear of how society would react to a transgender school teacher. Would she even get a job?
Watch: India's transgenders: Turning over a new leaf
In a landmark judgment in April 2014, the Supreme Court awarded transgenders the right to identify themselves as distinct from male or female and as belonging to the "third gender". It also directed the central and state governments "to take steps to treat them as socially and educationally backward classes of citizens".
The judgment goes on to address, in great detail, such issues as the need for proper healthcare facilities and separate toilets for transgenders. A year on, the best that has happened, is another official progression - a private member bill on transgender rights that was passed in the Rajya Sabha last month. "We were all so happy when the Supreme Court judgment came in. States such as Bihar, Odisha, Karnataka, West Bengal and Jharkhand had started talks to create welfare boards for transgenders. But the Modi government filed a petition seeking more clarifications on the verdict.
Ritika (in blue) faced abuse in younger years because of being a transgender. (Saumya Khandelwal/ HT Photo)
This made all the states put the issue on the back burner," says Abhina Aher, a "transgender hijra woman" working as programme manager at India HIV/AIDS Alliance. It cannot be denied, though, that transgenders are beginning to be given their rightful place in society. "It has given us an identity, helped increase the access of the community to things that were hitherto inaccessible for us," says Mumbai-based transgender activist Lakshmi Narayan Tripathi. Today, transgenders can have bank accounts. Since the verdict, a few, like Mumbai's Satyashri Sharmila, have come to hold passports that state their transgender identity.
However, it also true that transgenders are still not accepted by the mainstream. "Most people don't even know the meaning of the term transgender. For them, it only means hijras," says Rudrani Chhettri Chauhan, a transgender activist from the capital. For generations, Indians have had an uncomfortable truce with hijras. Their blessings are sought at births and weddings, but at other times, they are discriminated against. "One person refused to take back a bottle of water he gave me because I had touched it," remembers Sita, an activist who is a member of the kinnar (Sanskrit for hijra) community. For most, the rejection starts at home. Over the years, the dialogue around even more unfamiliar terms such as 'transmen and women' and 'gender queer' has done little to improve the mainstream's understanding of or sensitivity towards transgender people. "On public transport people poke at my breasts to see if they are real," says Abhina.
Sita is an activist working for the upliftment of the Kinnar community. (Saumya Khandelwal/ HT Photo)
The desire to have a physical self that complements their psychological identity drives many to opt for the scalpel. Traditional methods of castration followed at hijra tolis have, for many, given way to hormone therapies, laser hair removal procedures and sex reassignment surgery (SRS). "But these are often so expensive and there is so little knowledge about safe standard procedures, that, often, one is driven to the doctor who quotes the minimum rates. Many of them are just quacks and health hazards are high," says Amrita, a transwoman social worker and activist. If the surgery is successful, the transgender gets the outward physical appearance she desires but finer details like her voice often continues to strike a false note. The surgery also does little to remove the loneliness that is an innate part of most of their lives. "Every transwoman gets proposals from thousands of men. But in 90 per cent of these cases the men just want to use the transwoman sexually," says Rose Venkatesan, a former transgender radio jockey and television host, who feels her former workplaces used her as a curiosity item to raise their TRPs.
"To give a transgender a third gender identity without decriminalising section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises any form on non peno-vaginal sex is to give them gender identity without the right to practise their sexuality," says Mumbai-based LGBT activist Ashok Row Kavi. There are other pressing practical worries too. "According to our data, only about five to ten per cent of transgenders have even completed school. Without education, the only means of earning open to them is begging and sex work," says Kalki Subramaniam, a transgender activist, author and actor from Auroville, near Pondicherry.
Preet, Ritika, Sita and Bali, all members of the Kinnar community gather at the community office. (Saumya Khandelwal/ HT Photo)
The Supreme Court verdict directs the governments to "extend all kinds of reservation in cases of admission in educational institutions and for public appointments". Following the verdict, some universities included the transgender category in their admission forms. "But many transgenders drop out at the school level because of discrimination and abuse. The boys would feel me up, corner me and force me to masturbate or provide them with oral sex," remembers 22-year-old Ritika. The harassment that starts at school follows most to the workplace. Twenty-six-year-old Natasha was forced to leave her job at a call centre when she her identity of a transwoman was disclosed. "Offices need to have a no discrimination policy in place. Just as schools and colleges should include gender awareness studies in their curriculum," says Malobika, an activist from Kolkata.
Far from the tension surrounding transgender rights, in her one-room home inside the Mehendiyan graveyard, Mona Ahmed - Delhi's best known transgender - watches a Bhojpuri show on television. Years ago, Mona, who had dreams of helping the hijras, had founded the "All India Unique Welfare Association". She received no support from the community. "Those hijras involved in badhai work have money and respect. They don't want a conventional job," she says. But Noori says that "like every man or woman, the transgender wants to be able to choose what she wants in life." Until she can, Noori and others like her will continue to wipe off their make-up and slip into unisex clothes when they leave the comfort zone of the transgender community to visit their birth families.
Nestled amidst sugarcane and paddy fields, Koovagam village off Villupuram-Madurai highway, comes alive during the Chitrai Purnima festival at the ancient Aravan temple that gives the village its name and fame.
The story goes that during the battle of the Mahabharata, Aravan asked Krishna for a single wish - to enjoy the pleasures of a conjugal life before he sacrificed himself. Krishna took the form of a woman to marry Aravan and be his bride for the night and then embraced widowhood after his death. Transgenders, who believe in this particular community origin myth, gather here every year to re-enact the event and marry Aravan before being widowed the following day. This year, though, there was a marked difference with the transgenders' talking about their aspirations for a better life. This is so especially after the Rajya Sabha passed Tiruchi Siva's private member bill according benefits and rights to the community.
"We are here to pray for the bill to get enacted into a law so that we can live with dignity," says 25-year-old Aishwarya from Salem. The growing awareness of the need to fight for their rights has transformed the Koovagam festival from being a mere congregation of transgenders with religious connotations into the venue of a reformist struggle; a place where transgenders meet to demand their right to dignity, respect, equal opportunities in education, jobs and an end to discrimination and social rejection. Praveena, a qualified engineer, puts it best: "I want an IT job. We are second to none, just give us the opportunity and we will show you what we can do."
-- KV Lakshmana
"THE COPS DEMAND FREE SEX"
Dressed in a sari, her hair tied in a loose bun, a touch of kajal in her eyes and a small bindi on her forehead, Ragini is a headturner. Her looks are what she depends on to earn a living as a transexual sex-worker. "I wear more revealing clothes when I am on the roads waiting for clients. What shows is what sells," she says flashing an unapologetic smile. Of course, she has another set of clothes that she wears when she is with her family. "It's men's clothes then; no make-up, hair hidden by a cap. My mother and sister know what I am and what I do but would rather not face it," Ragini says wryly.
As the only son of the family, the pressure to "act as a man" were always great. "But I was effeminate in my ways. One day, a girl in my neighbourhood saw me walking. The way I was carrying myself alerted her. She called me and asked me whether I was a woman. Then, she brought me to meet this group of transgenders. That's when I got clarity about who I am," says the male-to-female transgender.
Ragini was just 15 when she was introduced to sex-work by a friend. "My father had an accident and I needed money. No one was willing to give me a job because I was so young. Back then, it was bad. The clients would physically abuse me in addition to having sex with me. Now I enjoy it. I have learnt to take care of myself and sometimes the men are so goodlooking," she giggles. With abuse from the family, social stigma that makes discrimination common at educational institutions and workplaces, and limited means of earning a livelihood, many transgenders are forced to resort to sex work. For some, it is also the only way that they can hope to get any sex. For them, the supreme court verdict means nothing.
"This is the only life I will know. Since I started coming to Kinnar Bharti group, I have been taught the importance of using a condom and always carry one with me. If the client wants any special variety I ask them to get it," says Ragini, who studied up to the sixth standard. Her rates depend on the size of the prospective client's vehicle; cars, parks and public toilets serve as boudoirs. "One has to be alert. Both, the clients and the police pose a threat. If the police catch us, they will let the client go but will harass us. Often, they force us to have sex with them. And that hasn't changed with the Supreme Court verdict," she says. Ragini hopes to save enough money to undergo a surgery that will give her the body of the woman she identifies herself as. Till then, body suits and hormonal injections to boost feminine features must do the job.
Ragini, 24, from New Delhi told Poulomi Banerjee
OF A GIRL WHO WANTS TO BE A BOY
It's not the name that she was given at birth but one that she feels suits her better. Flitting between identities, woman to most, a man to herself and those who know her best, Neel is a minority even among transgenders who are a sexual minority. Neel is a transman or a woman who identifies herself as a man.
"My parents, both government servants, thought little of it when, as a child, I insisted on getting my hair cut short or preferred to wear boys' clothes. But as I started growing up, it became an issue. One day, I had a fight with my mother over it. I guess they expected me to grow out of it," he remembers. Though a member of a LGBT rights advocacy group, he hasn't come out with his identity at his work place. "I am unsure about how supportive my colleagues would be if I came out with my identity. As of now, it is easy to just dismiss me as a girl with short hair and in jeans," he says. It is this same apprehension that holds her back from opting for hormone therapy to medically realign her body with the gender identity that she is comfortable with.
"Treatment is expensive. I can expect no support from my family. I am not sure how supportive my office will be. Also, all my official documents carry my birth name and gender," says Neel. "The SC verdict has given us the legal right to identify ourselves as the third gender, but has it brought us social acceptance?" she wonders adding that many of her friends who have undergone sex change procedures have faced much harassment at the government offices they visited to get their gender identity changed from male to female. "This even when they had supporting documents," she says.
Neel, 25, from Kolkata told Poulomi Banerjee