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Friday, Aug 23, 2019

Lok Sabha elections 2019: ‘Life will be hard if trans bill is passed’, says first time voter

Mohul Sharma, who identifies as a transman, cannot get a voter ID card made, because, in a conundrum that is peculiar to the transgender community, he does not have “proof” of his gender identity.

lok-sabha-elections Updated: Feb 25, 2019 19:27 IST
Dhamini Ratnam
Dhamini Ratnam
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
A transperson needs to have pre-existing proof that already establishes the correct name and gender identity while applying for a voter’s card.
A transperson needs to have pre-existing proof that already establishes the correct name and gender identity while applying for a voter’s card.(Sanjeev Verma/HT PHOTO)

Mohul Sharma does not have a voter identity card. Sharma, who turned 21 this month, is not even registered in the electoral rolls of his assembly constituency, Nangloi, a neighbourhood on the western outskirts of Delhi packed with single- and double-storey brick homes topped with a troop of dish antennae. Sharma, who works as a food and beverage assistant at The Lalit, a five-star hotel in central Delhi, wants to vote in the upcoming general elections —he even knows whom he would vote for, if he could. The most important issue for him is the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, which was passed by Lok Sabha in December, but has been received with widespread protests because it denies the community the crucial right to self-identify their gender, among other issues. Sharma counts himself as one of them.

“The Trans bill is the single biggest mistake of the [ruling] BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party],” he said. “If it is passed, it will make life very difficult for us.” The bill, however, was not taken up by the Rajya Sabha during the final session of Parliament.

Sharma, who identifies as a transman, cannot get a voter ID card made, because, in a conundrum that is peculiar to the transgender community, he does not have “proof” of his gender identity. The two identifying documents that he possesses, the Aadhaar card and PAN (Permanent Account Number) card, are in the female gender he was assigned at birth. “I am not making a voter ID card right now because I know that it will be difficult to change the gender and name on it. First I’ll get my Aadhaar and PAN card corrected, and then I’ll get all these made.” Does he know what needs to be done? “Yes, main aapko batata hoon (let me tell you about it),” he said, narrating the procedure. When will he do it? Soon, he replies.

Family and friends

Sharma, whose parents separated when he was 10, takes care of his 11-year-old brother, who studies in Class 6. His father, who undertook counselling with him before Sharma began hormone replacement therapy in July 2017, died a few months later in an accident. While his mother lives close by, he is not in touch with her, or indeed much of his father’s extended family.

Sharma underwent surgery to correct his gender identity in August 2018. “After my surgery, my father’s family stopped talking to me.”

Sharma isn’t taken aback by this — his father was similarly excommunicated (“my grandfather wrote my father out of his will”) when he married a Muslim after separating from his first wife, Sharma’s mother. “We’re a Brahmin Pandit family from Uttar Pradesh. You can imagine the outrage,” he said. When we met him, Sharma’s 19-year-old sister, Garima, was to get married in a few days. Sharma was planning to attend, but was bracing for the judgmental remarks he knew he would receive from his relatives. “It’s their business to tell others how they should live their lives,” he said.

Proof and prejudice

At the crux of the debate surrounding the Trans bill is a similar criticism of paternalism in the state’s approach to the transgender identity. One of the provisions in the bill is the setting up of a district screening committee, which will comprise a medical officer, among others, to grant transgender identity cards. If a person identifies within the binary man/woman gender, they will need to reapply to the committee —this time, with a sex reassignment surgery certificate. Activists point out that this provision is not only unconstitutional, but also goes against the tenet of a Supreme Court judgment from 2014, which stated that gender identity is self-assessed, and does not depend on medical procedures.

Existing identity proofs further this conundrum. The National Voters’ Services Portal, where one registers as a voter, offers the option of “Third Gender” under “Applicant’s Gender”. However, the documents to be submitted — clustered under two categories, age proof and residence proof — do not ask for proof of gender identity or change of name. This essentially means that a transperson must have pre-existing proof that already establishes their changed name and gender identity while applying for the card. Although there is a provision to correct one’s gender and name on the voter card, the website does not specify whether or not transpersons must provide proof of their gender identity and name change.

This web of documentation — where one identifying document serves as proof for another — leaves the transgender and other gender-non-conforming populations vulnerable, because often they may not possess any of the options, or some proofs may be in the incorrect gender identity. Having accurate identity documents is not simply a matter of filing up a form; it is prey to official error, and prejudice.

“We can’t even change our name on 10th and 12th standard school certificates — most companies expect to see these when they hire you. My workplace is very sensitive to the issue, but that is so rare. Most places just refuse to hire transpersons. Even if they do hire you, the colleagues may not be sensitive at all,” Sharma added.

There for each other

In Sharma’s two-room apartment, Tushar, a close friend of Sharma’s who is also a transman, his sister Garima and his brother Pratik, banter about Garima’s need to visit the market every day before her wedding. Laughing, Garima said, “It’s my last few days of seeing the open sky!” A first-year student of Bachelor of Physical Education, the 19-year-old has very clear views about Indian politics, even though she doesn’t yet have a voter’s card. “[Prime Minister Narendra] Modi is best. We all vote for BJP,” Garima added, referring to her fiancé’s family, whom she has known for the past few months.

When asked about her natal family’s response to Sharma’s gender identity, she said: “At first, even I didn’t understand it. I was afraid that the surgery will harm him. But, then my fiancé explained to me that I need to be supportive. There are still some people in my family who are not very educated and don’t understand this.”

Sharma’s main support system is composed of other transmen, including Tushar, who was a senior at his school, and Aryan, a body-builder. He is also part of a WhatsApp group of transmen, where most recently, they were discussing the Transgender bill. Sharma came out as a transman five years ago — studying in an all-girls government school in his locality, made to wear skirts, and often chided by teachers for not being girl enough, he dropped out of school after Class 10. “I couldn’t imagine wearing a salwar-kameez,” he explained, referring to the uniform that senior students are expected to wear.

Jobs and representation

Sharma’s salary barely covers all his overheads, which include rent, Metro tickets, school supplies, food, and Pratik’s dance academy classes. “I’m wiped out by the 5th of every month,” he said. He hopes to get back to studying to complete his Class 11 and 12 through the National Institute of Open Schooling to increase his earning capacity. “There are so many people without jobs, even those with degrees and skill.” This is one of the reasons why Sharma is opposed to reservation: “Merit and talent,” he said, offering the oft-repeated alternatives. What does he think of the recent constitutional amendment to provide 10% reservation to the economically weaker section in the general category, like him? “Even that should not exist,” he said.

The recent appointment of Apsara Reddy as the general secretary of the All India Mahila Congress Committee, making her the first transgender woman to join the Indian National Congress, left Sharma very impressed. The day after the announcement, when Reddy was giving interviews at The Lalit hotel, Sharma was appointed as her butler. He got to observe her at close quarters.

“This was a strong point for me. This is something I could share with my family, my neighbours, and even in my (transmen’s) Whatsapp group — if you want to convince people, we need to tell them about people like her who are so well settled in their lives, and who are known,” he said.

“If I could vote, I would vote for the Congress just for this.”

First Published: Feb 25, 2019 07:23 IST

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