Last month, the Indian Parliament passed a new bill (The Transgender Persons [Protection of Rights] Bill, 2019) that claimed was to protect the transgender people of India. Instead, it has been outrightly rejected by the transgender community and activists. The bill was criticised for not just being regressive but also for lacking anti-atrocities and anti-discrimination provisions—in other words, it’s transphobic. VICE spoke to Neysara—an activist and the founder of Transgender India , a safe space for transgender Indians across the world—who opened up about growing up as a transgender person in India, what it means to be one, and how the new bill will do little to no justice to her as a human being.
In 2006, when I came out to my family, they wanted to kill me in the name of honour. I was living in Mangalore with them, and my sister and brother-in-law literally came to kill me because they felt that me embracing my trans identity was shaming the name of my family. They wanted to get done with it because I wasn’t giving into any form of pressure. By this point in my life, I was already contemplating suicide because I couldn’t be who I am. When my family asked me to “correct” myself, the only form of correction I thought possible was to finish myself off. But I wanted to give myself one last shot, and that’s why I ran away.
Back then, the only safe space I was told was “safe” was what turned out to be a human trafficking ring. I was presented with the option to live in this tiny community, but I had to earn to live there. I thought that if I had a job, I could give them money to live there, but they wanted more than that—they wanted me to do sex work just because of my feminine physique. Along with me were many vulnerable people—including children below the age of 18. My other options were to go to the police, but they had dismissed my case and said I wasn’t in any danger. And that if I was in danger, it was only because of my “immoral behaviour”.
Today, when I look back, I think about how the new bill could have provided a safe space or a shelter home where thousands of vulnerable people like me could seek refuge, where they could provide real support instead of telling us that we can’t go against our families. For a child, there could be a legal provision or at least a trans-sensitive helpline in the model of Childline. If people like me were threatened by their family or had nowhere to go, these legal provisions and safe spaces could have really helped. But they’re still not there.
The only safe space I ultimately found was my school friend, who’s gay. My first instinct was to cover myself up and so, I wore a burkha for two years while going through my treatment. After two years, though, when I finally removed my burkha, I was only to get into another mask as a cis woman. Even that wasn’t enough for society. After my transition, I was left with zero identity. If asked, I could not even prove that I was an Indian. I’ve tried to convert the degree certificates and identity cards I have to my new identity but it has been impossible.
Even though this has been a huge problem for transgender people forever, the new bill doesn’t address it at all. Instead, you’re asked to go to court. For educational degrees, the new bill doesn’t direct any educational institution to change the name on the certificates that people have earned. As a consequence, it was impossible for me to earn a livelihood. The only thing I could do was to start a business, that too on my friend’s name and by using his identity card, and be at the mercy of other people just to live and sustain myself.
Then in 2012, while I was running a business, a guy from the sales tax department came for a regular check-up and asked me for sexual favours. It’s a very usual thing for Indian officials to take bribes, but this person told me he wanted me to sleep with him. I made a video of his request and took it to the Commissioner of Sales Tax. The Commissioner didn’t know I was transgender but, within a year, they did some background check and found out that I am one. He came to me and said that I’m not woman enough for a sales tax official. The offender, who was at my feet and asking for pardon, also found out and said, “Oh, had I known you’re a transgender, I would not have even looked towards you.”
The case just ended. I wanted to pursue it because I had video proof, but I don’t know if the government would take it seriously. What’s the use? He is a sexual predator with a government position and power, who preys on young women running small businesses. And as per the new bill, the court could easily let him go free with just six months in jail, only because I am a transgender woman. The effort just didn’t seem worth it. This is just an instance of how transgender people are scared of law and order. The police have often traumatised them. And the bill doesn’t make it easier for transgender people to access law and justice.
In 2017, a girl from Pune went to court for the first time in the history of independent India to report sexual violence, and while she was not the first one to face sexual violence, she was the first trans person who sought justice. The judges let the accused go within a week because they said there were no laws to prosecute them. But with the current bill, the accused will be bailed out at the police station. And once he’s out, he’s might do everything possible to make the complaint go away. The rape of transgender people is now officially a petty crime.
Another problem of the bill is that it doesn’t recognise the right to identify one’s gender, and only letting a certificate do that, which will be provided only once a sex reassignment surgery is done. How will a magistrate know my gender identity? Should I show my genitals? It takes months of evaluation with psychologists and psychiatrists. When a bill says that it’s for the protection of transgender people, shouldn’t it make accessing law and order institutions easier for transgender people?
Additionally, the mandated medical procedures are expensive, and one has to go through a bureaucratic process to, first, get surgeries, and then to get those surgeries validated. We are the ones who’ll have to travel and pay, and for those who don’t know how to read and write, they’ll have to pay people to fill forms and pay bribes everywhere. Where will we get money for all this? Are you giving us jobs? Are you ensuring we’re getting the education? No. The least the government could do is give free transgender hormone therapy. We’re a minuscule community. Instead of putting the onus on people when they’re already so vulnerable, why can’t the government establish facilities to help us out? If this bill is about protection, they’ll have to do exactly that, instead of telling us to go and get surgeries done. In fact, not everyone even wants to do these surgeries.
When I moved to the Netherlands last year, I went to register my marriage. You need a single status certificate, a birth certificate and passport for documents. After a long legal struggle, my passport is under my new name now, as a woman. But my birth certificate is still under my previous, male name. It’s a different person’s birth certificate; I don’t own it. I went to the municipal corporation in India and they refused to change it. When I returned to the Netherlands and showed it to the marriage registrar, that guy said, “Yeah, we understand that countries like India will not change this. So we accept whatever you have.” Here, gender is just one of the things in the lives of the citizens; it’s not one’s whole life.
In a society like India, being trans is being subhuman. You’re thrown out of the society, and not welcomed within. Where do we find trans people today? Not in what we can call human societies. They’re out in the fringes, ostracised. This bill was supposed to get the trans people back to human status. But it did exactly the opposite of that. As a trans person in India for the last 15 years, the first thing that happened to me when I came out to society was I lost my humanhood. The bill has not given my humanhood back to me.
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