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Out of the Box: Reshaping the Transgender Experience in South Asia

By Neha Kasera

While other regions of Asia have embraced transgender persons within their culture, from the Bissu in Indonesia to the Manang of Borneo, the experience of transgender persons within South Asia has long been fraught with challenges around legitimacy, identity, and representation

“We just didn’t fit in those boxes of male and female and then we became an outbox for everybody in the society.” (Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, transgender activist)

Within India, the battle for acceptance is fought at the most foundational levels, with members of the transgender community representing some of the most vulnerable people in our society. From our WC’s to our identity cards, gender within India has regularly been taught as a binary: male and female. The idea of a gender spectrum only emerged within mainstream discourse over the past decade, and even then, its mention is sure to be accompanied by controversy. Transgender people are often seen as inferior, being treated as beggars or thieves; as transgender activist Rachana Mudraboyina says, “due to stereotypes, we are often portrayed as criminals; nobody talks about what happens to trans people.”

Despite the fact that over 2 million of India’s population are transgender, the community is often silenced and continues to have to fight on a daily basis just for their voice to be recognised by the masses. But, even with the challenge of living within a society built on judgement and stereotypes, the community has fostered a number of remarkably inspirational transgender people who have broken down barriers and proven that their talent and hard work has little to do with gender.

Rudrani Chettri- a transgender activist who opened India’s first transgender modelling agency

Transgender activist Rudrani Chettri spearheads Mitr Trust in Delhi and opened the first Indian transgender modelling agency called Bold in 2015. Rudrani reflected on how a personal incident in her life affected her deeply. After being denied entry to a mall where a man told her “there is nothing available for people like you”, Rudrani recognized how her personal experience of stigmatization and the feeling of frustration was an unfortunately unifying experience, shared by so many other transgender people. This experience led her to the idea behind opening up a modelling agency, which she hopes will change such public perceptions of transgender people.

“For some reason, it is understood that people like me cannot participate in any so-called ‘normal’ activity,” she said.

With the motto of “you’re beautiful irrespective of your gender”, Bold was founded. “My dogs never discriminate, why must you? You’re intelligent beings.” Chettri said, beaming. She is an inspiration to many who have wanted to go into similar fields but have been denied a place because of their gender and identity.

Joyita Mondal- From school dropout to India’s first transgender judge

Born and brought up in a Hindu household, Joyita had to overcome a lot of obstacles and face constant discrimination in claiming her own identity as a trans woman. “I didn’t tell my family that I was unable to take the verbal bullying by other boys in my school. I just told my mother I had got a job in Dinajpur, a neighbouring district in the state, and wanted to go there. I told her that I would come back in two months if things didn’t work out, and she consented.” Joyita recalled bitter memories of how she dropped out of school when she was 15, had to sleep at a bus stand and beg on the streets. Through her fight for the rights of trans people, over time, she became familiar with the struggles faced by other communities as well and began working for the rights of all others facing social discrimination. She completed her studies through correspondence and got herself a degree in law. In 2010, she was the first trans person from her district to get a voter ID. Later, Joyita started her organisation, Dinajpur Notun Alo Society, which has gone on to help thousands of people in her district.

Manabi Bandhopadhyay- India’s first transgender college principal

“For me, it’s a long battle against ignorance. There was a time when I and even my father was threatened with consequences as I am a transgender. I spent my childhood in Nadia, and I came back to my home with pride and dignity after a long battle.” Manabi reflected on how humiliating it was for her to live under those conditions and be someone who she wasn’t. Despite the constant ridicule, she channelled all her energy and dedication in academics and continued to excel with flying colours. After completing her MA in Bengali, she became the first transgender person to get a PhD in her state. Soon after, she became a lecturer and started a magazine, Ob-Manab, specially made for trans people. A few years later, she was made the college principal at Krishnagar Women's College in Nadia district. Manabi aims to be an inspiration to her students and wishes to spread the importance of education amongst others as well.

Prithika Yashini, India's first transgender police officer

After fighting social dogma, gender bias and many glass ceilings, Prithika Yashini became the first transgender to be appointed as a police officer in Tamil Nadu. Yashini attempted to achieve a next to impossible goal by applying to become a police officer despite knowing that the police force is filled with male chauvinism. Many couldn't digest her bold move of applying for the force. Her application was rejected, with a demand that she restrict her gender identity: either 'male' or 'female'. Despite this, she went ahead and filled it as 'transgender', refusing to comply with the binary interpretation of her gender. This led to a legal battle and finally citing a court order she won the battle against 'Tamil Nadu Uniformed Services Recruitment Board'.

The 6 Pack Band

From not being accepted by their families to getting global recognition by winning the coveted Cannes Grand Prix Glass Lion award – Six Pack Band, India’s first transgender band, has been on a roll. The six band members are Asha Jagtap, Bhavika Patil, Chandni Suvarnakar, Fida Khan, Komal Jagtap, and Ravina Jagtap. The six transgender artists were selected from among 200 others who turned out to audition for a part in the band.

“We see eunuchs at traffic signals begging for a living. No one hires them; there is no dignity for them as they are abandoned by family and society.” Asha explained how the band aims to bring positivity and sunshine into today’s gloomy world. They aim to make the society an ideal place to live in for every person irrespective of their gender, caste and background.

Individual progression, societal change?

But the stories do not end here. There are endless stories where transgender people have empowered themselves in a hostile society by excelling in their respective fields. Be it standing up for elections, or becoming a soldier, or pursuing a career in STEM, the community has constantly silenced social media trolls.

And because of the courageous individuals, who dare to be themselves, we see societal changes following their lead. Just last week, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment launched a portal that will allow transgender persons to apply online for certification of their chosen identity. Transgender people can now upload an affidavit declaring their gender identity, which then becomes the basis for an identity card. This is encoded in the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2019. The portal also acts as a database for building a community.

Further afield, societal progress for the community was found in Pakistan, where the first Christian church for transgender people was opened. Transgender people are often shunned by religious sites, but Christian transgender people are a minority within a minority. But now, the transgender community of Karachi where the church is located have a safer space. The church’s name, The First Church of Eunuchs, provoked controversy, as eunuchs are often seen as a derogatory term for transgender people. However, the church’s co-founder and pastor Ghazala Shafique says that she chose the name to make a point and that in Bible verses eunuchs are favoured by God.

So, despite the slow tide of change, we see the progress the transgender community has impacted wider society. India has a long road ahead to gender justice, and the transgender community wants legal reform so that they are as free and empowered in their public and private lives like any other citizen of India. It is a long journey, but the transgender community is willing to fight until the crimes and inequalities against them are recognized by the government and the society lets go of these stereotypes.

“Society tried to put us aside, but the society is my world”- Laxmi Narayan Tripathi.


About the Author

Neha Kasera is a student at Queen Mary, University of London, studying Linguistics.


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