Transgender Day of Rage in Kolkata galvanises community to protest ill-conceived bill to 'protect' their rights

LGBT Pride in metropolitan India has its own look, its own leitmotif. The rainbow face paint. The trans woman in her gorgeous red-and-gold sari navigating the uneven road in high heels. The hand-drawn Ardhanarishwar posters and the little handmade rainbow brooches. The men pairing colorful pleated dhotis with elaborate nose rings and eyeliner. Face masks. Drums. Bollywood music. Azaadi slogans. The scrum of photographers with high-powered cameras.

But this year, Kolkata, home to the oldest Pride parade in India, added a different flavour to the usual Pride celebrations—a Transgender Day of Rage.

Transwomen, transmen and allies stood behind a banner showing a red clenched fist with the demand “Stop the Transgender Bill 2016”. They chanted “Aamar deho, aamaar mon, doorey thako rajshashon (My body, my mind, stay away, government.)”

Not since the fight to overturn Section 377 has there been such a national galvanisation of the LGBT community as the opposition to a Transgender Rights bill the government wants to introduce in the winter session of Parliament.

It was not meant to be this way. In a country where homosexual sex between consenting adults still remains criminalised by an antiquated law, transgender rights were one sliver of hope. The 2014 NALSA verdict was a landmark ruling where the Supreme Court unequivocally affirmed that the fundamental rights granted by the Constitution applied to transgender people. It gave them the right to self-identification–man, woman or “third gender”.

 Transgender Day of Rage in Kolkata galvanises community to protest ill-conceived bill to protect their rights

A protest for transgender rights. File image. Reuters

In response, the government has come up with its Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights ) bill, but the proposed legislation has sent shockwaves through the community.

“NALSA liberated many of us as trans persons because it recognized for the first time that we can be who we are without having to prove ourselves to any authority,” says Anindya Hajra, founder member of the Pratyay Gender Trust. “The proposed bill completely violates that spirit.”

This new bill wrests that right of self-determination away and hands it to district screening committees which will determine who is an “authentic” transgender and who is not. That’s sounding alarm bells within the community. Neel, a trans-man, remembers the humiliation of athlete Pinki Pramanik, stripped and poked and prodded as the government tried to determine Pramanik’s gender. “ To stand before a roomful of people to prove whether you are boy or girl or animal! This is inhuman,” says Neel. “It happened to Pinki and now they want it to happen in every district! And you call a bill that does this ‘Protection of Transgender Rights’?”

Aparna Banerjee, member of the West Bengal Transgender Development Board and the Amitie Trust, is even more blunt. “Will we have to strip in front of this screening committee? Then I’d rather strip in public.”

The problem says Banerjee, is that those who drafted the bill seemed to have no understanding of what transgender means. “I cannot find myself in this bill,” she says. It defines transgender among other things as “neither wholly female nor wholly male or a combination of female or male” and conflates intersexed with transgender. ““A transgender person is more than anatomy,” retorts Banerjee.

If the Supreme Court’s NALSA verdict came as a moment of enormous affirmation for the community, this bill from the government has had the opposite effect - opening up angry wounds. “There is already the notion of the real hijra and the fake hijra,” explains Hajra. “It is also kept alive by gatekeepers within the community.” Who has undergone gender reassignment surgery and who has not is a topic of much conjecture and a weapon to undermine rivals within the community. This bill could further medicalise the discourse. “The whole notion of fakeness vs authenticity is deeply internalized by our community,” admits Hajra. “When someone calls someone inauthentic, we forget that for many of us, it’s been, to use a cliché, a journey.” Hajra worries this will create so much state scrutiny it will further discrimination when asserting one’s own gender identity is already difficult.

The government, in its wisdom, has chosen to reinforce that schism. If anyone who drafted that bill had bothered to come to the Rainbow Pride Walk they would have seen the diversity of the community where the trans-man with facial hair, the manicured trans-woman in sleeveless magenta blouse and an exquisite kantha sari stealing a smoke, and the hijra with sindoor in her hair all come under the umbrella of “transgender.” Instead the bill seems to have only understood transgender to mean hijra. “We are not necessarily opposing the government, but this is supposed to be a transgender bill, not a hijra bill,” says Ranjita Sinha, executive director of Association of Transgender/Hijra in Bengal. “Transgender is an umbrella term. There are so many gender identities. A bill like this has to consider all of that.” But it only pays lip service. “I see the words intersexed, transman, transwoman used in the bill,” says Neel. “But I have grave doubts whether those who have written this bill understand what they mean.” “I fear a certain hijra-fication of the discourse,” says Hajra. “I am not saying that’s not important but that’s not the only way gender non-conforming people identify.”

Therein lies part of the problem. A government bureaucracy is all about conformity and putting people in boxes. Transgender, by definition, is something out of the box. Aparna Banerjee says while the rest of the country is worrying about linking their PAN cards to Aadhar, her community has other problems. “PAN cards do not allow anything other than male or female,” she says. “So what do we link to?” When you add talk of reservation and social welfare to the mix, it feeds into the paranoia that this will somehow open, as the Ministry of Home Affairs once put it in the context of Section 377, the “floodgates of delinquency”.

Even the bill’s understanding of the realities of the lives of hijras, probably the most visible face of the transgender community, is spotty. When a community group met the minister for social welfare, he had, according to reports, been adamant that “nuisance” practices like begging and demanding money for blessings or badhai had to stop. The bill accordingly says anyone who “compels or entices a transgender person to indulge in the act of begging” can face imprisonment, but it offers no alternatives, it addresses none of the causes why so many hijras beg and it pays no attention to the history behind practices like badhai and mangti. It also privileges biological family over the adoptive family of gurus and gurukuls. “If your family rejects you, it says there are government shelters,” says Neel. “But it does not say whether there will be special rooms for us there. Today if a transwoman goes to a shelter and is treated as a man, what is going to happen?”

The government does not have answers as it tries to steamroller over all the complexity in a one-size-fits-all bill. But the fight against it is also gaining steam. Banerjee walks the Kolkata parade carrying a sheet and asking people to donate whatever they can, ten rupees, fifty rupees, hundred rupees. The money, she says, will help bring thousands of transgender folk and their allies to Delhi to protest the bill.

Shreya stands watching the protest. A trans-woman, in a gown exploding with multicoloured feathers, red, yellow, green, blue and a train of white paper roses, she’s the cynosure of a hundred clicking cameras. She poses for all of them with catwalk poise.

It’s threatening to rain again and I wonder if she’s worried that the outfit that she’s worked so hard on will be ruined. “If it rains and it goes, it goes,” she says unfazed. “But that’s not going to stop me. I am here now.”

In its own way that defiant grit captures the spirit of the fight against the Transgender Bill. In front of Shreya, a copy of the bill is on fire. As photographers zoom in on the flames, an activist says with a shrug “We know how to fight. We have done it all our lives.”

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Updated Date: Dec 11, 2017 19:04:21 IST