Opening Doors To The Third Gender

By Imaad Majeed

In mid-April, India’s Supreme Court recognized transgender people as a legal third gender. Grounding its decision on rights guaranteed by the nation’s Constitution as well as international law, the court determined gender identity and sexual orientation to be fundamental to the rights to self-determination, dignity and freedom.

In October 2012, the Supreme Court asked the Centre and states what could be done to give back the historically and culturally deprived transgender people their fundamental rights and whether they could be categorized as the third sex after male and female.
The Bench, consisting of Justices K.S. Radhakrishnan and Dipak Misra, termed the deprivation of transgenders a crucial issue.

Notices were issued to the governments after hearing the petitioner’s (NALSA) arguments: stating that transgenders are deprived of social and cultural participation, are shunned by family and society, have only restricted access to education, health services and public spaces, restricted rights to marry, right to contest elections, right to vote, employment and livelihood opportunities. Under Section 4(d) of the Legal Services Authority Act, 1987, it is mandatory for NALSA to initiate social justice litigation.

In a petition filed to the Supreme Court, NALSA pinpointed the crux of the issue; that the transgender community is treated as a legal non-entity in violation of rights to equality, non-discrimination, equal opportunity and life guaranteed by Articles 14, 15, 16 and 21 of the Constitution.

Soundarya, an activist working with Sahodari Foundation, lives with 45 transgenders at a slum settlement built by the Slum Clearance Board in Thondaiyarpet. In what is essentially a single room with a hole in the wall to serve as a lavatory, four or five transgenders live together, she said.

“They do not work normal jobs because the salary they would earn is just not enough.

A transgender committed to sex work can make as much as INR 6,000 overnight, so they are discouraged from entering normal fields of work where they are discriminated against,” she said, “They would rather go around the neighbourhood collecting commissions from shopkeepers and small businesses, she added.

According to her, their community has not faced many problems with the local community Police officers who understand their situation, though most ignore their existence.

“At the age of 40 years a transgender is entitled to receive INR 1,000 per month from the Tamil Nadu government, and efforts have been made to provide voter identification, ration cards, PAN cards and even birth certificates.

We would like to see banks offer loans to us with lower interest rates, and vocational training programs to develop skills that will help the transgender community help themselves,” she urged.

While the gears appear to be in motion, the question that still lingers is whether Tamil Nadu can truly open its doors to the third gender.

In an interview with The Sunday Leader, transgender activist and founder of Sahodari Foundation Kalki Subramaniam shared her experience with social exclusion, fighting against the norm and how she feels attitudes can be changed.

Q. When was your first experience of being turned away by a landlord?

A. In 2008, when I first came to Chennai from Auroville I had trouble finding a place to stay. Most of my transgender friends were living in dilapidated houses, so I had to adjust to those conditions. I went with one of my transgender friends to all the “to let” boards, and most landlords refused, not rudely, but by simply saying “come back later” or that they “will call you back”.

I spent four days without a roof over my head. With very little money I kept looking, hoping to settle on a small space in a congested area, where destitutes and coolies live in compounds of 10×10 and 20×20, all sharing a common lavatory, indebted by rent.
Two hours before my scheduled departure, at which point I had lost hope, I made one last attempt. The landlord was an old man.
He had lost one leg. He allowed me to stay, though I had not told him I was a transgender.  I stayed on the terrace of his house, under asbestos sheets, for a year.

Q. What are the hazards transgenders face when living in Chennai?

A. Chennai is a friendlier place than most of Tamil Nadu. The people tend to be more open-minded.
Transgender communities reside in slums, among the lower-middle class, or even in government housing schemes.
Still, they are often teased by men, and it is mostly the transgenders who engage in begging or sex work who are most affected by this. Beggars are insulted, and are often recipients of sexual advances. Sex workers are raped by gundas, beaten up by the police, and raped by their clients. Then there is the vulnerability of transgenders to HIV and other STDs. Clients will pay more to have sex without a condom.

Suddenly a sex worker can go from earning INR 500 to INR 2000. Many will take the risk.

Five out of ten transgenders living in Chennai are infected with HIV, though there are no hard statistics on this. They are not excluded within the transgender community; some of my closest friends are infected with the virus but take care of themselves.
Health services are more accessible to transgenders in Tamil Nadu than other states, and there is HIV and STD awareness among the transgender community. Sadly, most sex workers are also alcoholics, and they just do not care.
They do not value themselves, and have lost self-respect. Life has left a bitter taste in their mouths. They will not apply for normal jobs because the salary is not sufficient. They are hardly qualified to earn more than INR 5000 a month, and they can easily make this amount of money in a day’s sex work.

Q. How has the Sahodari Foundation worked towards finding homes for transgenders?

A. Engaging with house owners has been of no use as it is the landlord, solely, who has the right to ultimately agree or deny his tenancy.
It is not about what Sahodari can do for them, but people’s mentality.

Q. What measures can Tamil Nadu take to truly be inclusive of the transgender community?

A. The problem with the legal rights of a transgender is that there is nothing that is allowed or not allowed with regard to housing, as transgenders are not acknowledged under the normative binary gender that has no place for them. There is no rational reason for this discrimination. The transgender population is so small that allocating houses in the government housing board, offering land pattas and dormitories can effectively alleviate their situation. Private institutions like the Young Women’s Christian Association, youth hostels and ladies hostels should be inclusive of the third gender.

Q. Where has Tamil Nadu fallen short in meeting the needs of particularly transgenders?

A. The government fell short a long time ago. The education system ignores gender and sex. Some of the most educated chief ministers are not aware of who we are, because they never read of us in their textbooks. Look at this generation of transgenders – they are engaged in sex work because they were not accepted by society.

Q. Where do you see the root of this taboo? How has it translated to exclusion?

A. India has a history with the third gender and the concept of gender-bending. With the British Raj came suffering for the transgender community.
The Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 termed transgenders, along with Dalits, roadside dancers and tightrope walkers, as  criminals by birth, with criminality being passed on from generation to generation. They were often harassed by the police.
Then came the missionaries with their Victorian moralities, saying we are wrong. Section 337 of the Indian Penal Code punishes us for unnatural offences. While what was really Christian morality was being preached, it became a sin to be different. The missionaries offered education sans humanity, with no compassion, and zero-tolerance. It was a systematic unlearning.

Q. How can attitudes be changed?

A. It starts at home and at school. Regardless of whether we are provided with housing, some semblance of a livelihood, and an education – is it sustainable? First we must stop the problem of transgenders being thrown out of their families. There has to be sensitisation of teachers, awareness must be raised so that they understand how a transgender child should be counselled and encouraged to study further. Empowerment allows for a real sense of dignity, despite not being accepted by the family.
We need a social science curriculum on gender-queer people, people born with both reproductive organs, people born with no genitals, as even doctors regard these as deformities. What if the child does not see it as a deformity?

Q. Do you see Tamil Nadu opening its doors to transgenders without discrimination?

A. Slowly. For the past four years, activists have been working with the UNDP to sensitise Supreme Court judges in all districts towards issues pertaining to transgenders, and the acknowledgement of their identity.
This led to NALSA drafting social justice litigation, over a period of one year, to ensure justice for transgenders, social inclusion, housing, and recognition of the third gender.
Today, the Supreme Court has acknowledged the legitimacy of a third gender. What is left is for people to change their mindset. That can only happen with time.

2 Comments for “Opening Doors To The Third Gender”


    Apropos the story ‘Opening the doors to the Third Gender’. The scribe Imaad Majeed needs all commendation for bringing to light the plight of ‘Third Gender’ and better known as ‘Thirunangaigal’ in Tamil Nadu.

    I fully endorse the views expressed by Kalki Subramaniam since she has been championing the cause of ‘Third Gender’, who were running from pillar to post to get an identity for themselves. Thanks to the recent verdict by Supreme Court of India in according the ‘Third Gender’ status.

    However, the Third Gender need to go a long way as there is still lack of awareness among their clan about developing their skills and talent to get decent and well placed jobs. Kalki is definitely, a cut above the rest. And she is straining her nerves in every possible manner to sensitise her clan.

  2. Sylvia Haik

    The zero tolerance attitude of the Victorian British Raj to anyone who was sexually deviant was prevalent also in little Sri Lanka and sadly there has been no change. When the debate in most countries these days is the matter of Same Sex Marriages, we are still criminalising homosexuals and the punishment is dire. Our leaders fail to recognise that sexual deviancy is not acquired but is in the psyche of the individual and no amount of punishment is going to change him or her. They are still human beings and moreover, they are also Sri Lankans. Let us be the first to break the Asian tradition and let them enjoy their Human Rights.

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