Last week's Netflix release, Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare, is being welcomed by viewers across the board. The slice-of-life dramedy representing working-class women negotiating their private and public lives has struck a chord with the audience. Of the many themes that the film deals with, Konkana Sen Sharma's character (Dolly) grappling with her son's early signs of gender dysphoria, stands out as a refreshing and welcome change in Indian cinema's handling of sensitive subjects. Apart from the screenplay and the brilliant performances, what stands out are the journey and representation of transgender characters in a mainstream Hindi film such as this. The nuanced portrayal of a complex phenomenon to an audience that is largely uninitiated about even the existence of something called gender dysphoria is commendable.
Gender dysphoria, as per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), is the distress people feel when their gender at birth is contrary to the one they identify with. The term gender dysphoria is a revised diagnosis of DSM-IV criteria for the erstwhile term 'gender identity disorder'. This revision was aimed to better characterise the experiences of affected children, adolescents, and adults to ensure effective clinical care. Gender nonconformity is not a mental disorder in itself, but the presence of distress associated with the condition can lead to impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. In addition to that, the DSM-5 also has a separate post-transition specifier for people living full-time as their desired gender. This includes access to treatment for individuals undergoing hormone therapy, related surgery, or psychotherapy and counselling to support their gender transition.
Gender identity, however, continues to provoke debates and raises new issues on the already complex dialogue on gender. In June 2020, the author of the Harry Potter series, JK Rowling, posted a controversial tweet about the transgender community. After the initial backlash, she went on to post a series of tweets about transwomen being different from women who are female at birth and menstruate. After being called a Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist (TERF) for her transphobic comments, she issued a lengthy essay explaining her reasons for being worried about new age trans activism, which furthered her stance arising from biological essentialism.
'People who menstruate.' I'm sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?
Opinion: Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate https://t.co/cVpZxG7gaA
" J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) June 6, 2020
If sex isn't real, there's no same-sex attraction. If sex isn't real, the lived reality of women globally is erased. I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn't hate to speak the truth. " J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) June 6, 2020
The American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler " whose work on gender as performance revolutionised the popular attitudes on gender " in her recent interview called trans exclusionary feminism a fringe movement seeking to speak in the name of the mainstream. She debunked Rowling's claims of the assumption of the penis being a threat, and anyone with a penis identifying as a woman entering changing rooms posing a threat to women's safety, as pure fantasy at play. This transphobic narrative arises from fear but is far removed from social reality. The safety of transwomen is endangered in men's bathrooms and self-identification is a way of describing a lived reality.
While the debate regarding transpersons and their civil and political rights are being discussed in the West, the discourse in India is still in its nascent stage. It is only in the year 2014 that the Indian government's Census (Crimes in India Report by National Crimes Record Bureau) started counting transpersons " individuals who were earlier considered male. This development came after the Supreme Court's order in the year 2014 that created a legally recognised non-binary status for transpersons.
In 2019, the upper house of the Indian Parliament passed the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill 2019. Following the protests regarding some of the provisions of the 2018 Bill (criminalising begging, for instance), the 2019 Bill was passed incorporating some of the recommendations of the standing committee as well as the principles established in the National Legal Services Authority v Union of India (NALSA v UoI). While this was a step forward from the previous legislation, it has been criticised for failing to incorporate many of the principles of the same case (declaring gender without medical evidence and reservations for jobs and education, for instance). Additionally, the Act is also claimed to be discriminatory towards the community, while penalising offences. Considering these aspects of the Act, the Supreme Court issued notice to the central government in a writ/Public Interest Litigation (PIL) challenging the constitutionality of the Act, for which proceedings are still pending.
Following the Bill, which prohibits discrimination against a transgender person, including unfair treatment or denial of service in relation to employment, education, healthcare, access to public goods and facilities, among others, there are many companies such as KPMG, Infosys, Accenture, Nestaway and Sodexo that introduced policies and hiring plans to include transpersons in their organisations. The Transgender Persons Bill along with the 2018 Navtej Singh Johar v Union of India (where Section 377 was read down to exclude criminality of non-heterosexual intercourse between consenting adults) have played a crucial role in enabling organisations and institutions to have conversations about LGBTQ rights. This is also apparent with trade bodies like the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), who subsequently hosted panels on LGBTQIA+ diversity at their annual conclaves. Despite these provisions on paper, the experiences of transpersons in India have remained far from pleasant. For instance, there were 23 transpersons who were employed by Kerala's Kochi Metro Rail Limited in 2017, out of which eight had to quit their jobs within a month as the landlords refused to give them accommodation.
In the last few years, we have seen Bollywood breaking away from its polarised representation of transgender individuals, which was either the horrifying villain in movies like Sadak, Murder 2, or the comic stereotype with offensive transphobic humour directed at them in films like Style, Partner, and Masti.
Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare is an addition to the representation of the LGBTQIA+ communities in Indian cinema, where we are witnessing a gradual transition in the form of films like Aligarh, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga and Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan. With scope for many more stories about struggles of transpersons that need to be told, it is also important that they are told by trans individuals themselves. The tangible shift in the manner in which Bollywood is maturing in articulating issues pertaining to gender dysphoria, trans identities and struggles, lends one hope that the public discourse will also catch up with the same. Even though the legislative approach to the rights and welfare of the transgender community has been less than ideal, the social and judicial approach towards this community is definitely developing at a much faster pace. It is only through a holistic approach that the sustained othering of transpersons, seen as outside the bounds of 'normal', will be overcome.
Shruti Singhi is a Research Assistant at the Department of Sociology, Monk Prayogshala; Sumati Thusoo is a Research Author at the Department of Sociology, Monk Prayogshala.