Let’s Talk About 377 | This regressive law denies me dignity: Transgender activist Akkai Padmashali

A transgender person asks how they can be equal citizens and access rights if their personal lives — and sexual relations — are criminalised and used to abuse them?
(Art by Malay Karmakar)
(Art by Malay Karmakar)
Updated on Feb 08, 2018 09:36 AM IST
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ByAkkai Padmashali

I knew I was a woman when I was six years old.

I loved sarees and often played with my mother’s make-up and jewellery — my favourite was a pair of anklets that I would fasten around my feet and pretend to be a big actor. Often, these adventures would end in bitterness as amma would scold me for not acting like a boy and shaming the family.

By the time I was 14, I knew there was no sliver of confusion left in me — I was a woman and was determined to live my life as one. The declaration was not taken kindly to. My parents forced me into some kind of house arrest for three months, took me to quacks and doctors in a bid to “convert” me. I faced a torrent of physical and emotional abuse, all because I wanted to live my life the way I liked – with dignity.

I felt helpless. I tried to commit suicide. Twice.

At 16, I left home and joined many of my other transwomen sisters on the streets. I spent four years begging and doing sex work on the streets of Bengaluru. I had waged a battle at home, but now a far more daunting war lay ahead of me – of establishing myself and fending off predators and abusers, who often included the police. It is then that I was first introduced to the demon of Section 377.

This regressive law was used against me and my friends at every turn. The police didn’t understand what this law meant but knew enough to use it as a weapon against us — to threaten us, malign us, abuse us and force sex from us.

Once in 2007, when some of my transgender women friends were hanging out in Bengaluru’s famous Cubbon Park, the police descended on them. It had been a particularly trying day and they needed a place to meet up, talk and console each other. They were laughing and sharing gossip over steaming cups of tea when local policemen started shouting at them.

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What did we do wrong, this is a public place – can we not stand here like any other citizen – they asked the police. But the men were in no mood to listen; they said the transwomen were dirtying the place by indulging in sex work, and dragged them to the police station.

What followed next was worse than hell. In full public view, the women were made to shave their heads as some kind of punishment for who they were, and then thrown into the lock up after being charged under Section 377. They were not even accorded the basic right of a separate cell and were dumped under the men’s section. Throughout the night, the policemen abused them, alternately beating them up and sexually assaulting them. Some of the male prisoners were also encouraged to assault them. They were ridiculed with “hijra, nine, chakka” and were forced to disrobe, and take off their saris. By the time we found them, the women had slumped into a stupor, and could barely speak. But the police was unrepentant and repeatedly justified their actions saying that’s what the law — Section 377 — warranted.

There are numerous other instances where many of my transwomen friends and I were charged and threatened with Section 377. We were sometimes dumped in police vans and whisked off, sometimes thrown into jail and sometimes blackmailed. We fought back whenever we could but often we had to give in. We were, after all, one of the most marginalised sections of society. We faced rejection everywhere, and often didn’t have the resources to fight. It is precisely because of our predicament that Section 377 was repeatedly used against us.

In my experience, I have seen that Section 377 is used disproportionately against vulnerable communities such as transgender sex workers or beggars, who often have nowhere to go. Even after the Supreme Court’s 2014 verdict that recognised transgender persons as equal citizens and made provisions for us in employment and education, this draconian law results in us being treated as criminals.

For me, this is an invasion of my privacy – privacy not the way the world understands it, privacy within confines of four walls, but privacy that is enshrined in my body, in my gender and sexuality

For me, this is an invasion of my privacy – privacy not the way the world understands it, privacy within confines of four walls, but privacy that is enshrined in my body, in my gender and sexuality. I might be a transgender person, a beggar, a sex worker, but I am a human too, I have sexual feelings, I fall in love, I want to be with someone. By criminalising my sexual experience, Section 377 denies me the dignity and self respect that the Constitution guarantees me.

This is why I am part of a petition in the Supreme Court against Section 377 that says this colonial law is violative of not just the constitutional guarantee of equal rights, but also the 2014 verdict. After all, how can transgender people be equal citizens and access rights if their personal lives — and their sexual relations — are criminalised and used to blackmail and abuse them?

In the petition, we say that Section 377 “works unequally against transgender persons. “Because the gender identity of transgender persons is not based on their biological sex, Section 377 makes an unreasonable classification against transgender persons making all acts of sexual intercourse by them a criminal offence.

“Section 377 of the IPC which criminalises transgender persons, acts as an obstacle to the full realisation of the rights of transgender persons and meaningful recognition of their right to life with dignity, personal autonomy and self-determination.”

In a landmark 2014 verdict, the Supreme Court accorded "third gender" status to transgender persons and paved the way for a more equitable representation of the community in jobs and education.
The court said transgender persons would be treated as belonging to the "third gender" for the purpose of safeguarding their constitutional rights
Granted the right to self-identify their gender. The court instructed the central and state governments to grant them legal recognition
The court instructed governments to treat transgender people as socially and educationally backward
Governments asked to make provisions for reservations for transgender persons in educational institutions and public appointments
Governments told to open separate HIV centres for the community
The court instructed the governments to provide medical care to transgender people in hospitals and ensure toilets and other facilities
The court told the governments to take steps to create public awareness so that pervasive discrimination against transgender persons can be stopped
The court said governments should frame various social welfare schemes for the welfare of transgender persons

I am 32 now. I have set up many community institutions, won an honorary doctorate, and Karnataka’s second-highest civilian award. I am happily married and am working towards building a successful career. But I cannot rest until Section 377 is kicked out. Who are the police to tell me what’s unnatural? Who is the society to stigmatise my sexual relationship? As the world’s largest democracy, we cannot accept this regressive law. I will not stop until this law is repealed.

(The author is a Bengaluru-based transgender activist. In 2015, Karnataka conferred her the Rajyotsava award, the state’s second-highest civilian honour)

(This is the fourth part of Let’s Talk About 377, a five-part series on the challenges faced by India’s LGBT community. Join the conversation with #LetsTalkAbout377 on social media or send us your stories and suggestions at talktous@hindustantimes.com)

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