Toilets for the third gender: A welcome move, much more to be done

Members of the transgender community participate in the ritual practise of marrying the Hindu god Aravan and then mourning his ritual death (seen) in an 18-day festival in Koovagam, India. By Kabir Orlowski – kuvagam28, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6745259

In a forward looking move, the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation recently directed states and the Swacch Bharat Gramin Mission to ensure that people belonging to the third gender have access to toilets and washrooms of their choice. This is to provide members of the transgender community clean and safe toilets – an issue that they face since neither men nor women have been keen on allowing them to use public toilets. This directive comes after the Supreme Court recognised transgender people as third gender, in 2014, stating that ‘it is the right of every human being to choose their gender.’ Currently Mysore is the only city which boasts of a single ‘third gender’ public toilet.

According to an official count released in 2014, there are approximately 4.9 lakh transgenders in the country – according to transgender activists, though, the actual figure may be six to seven times higher.  However, it was only in the 2011 census that so many people openly admitted to being transgenders. And, out of this figure, 55,000 were in the 0-6 age group category – revealing that many more parents were willing to identify their children as belonging to the third gender.

An attempt towards inclusion

Attempts have been made in the recent past to provide the community with the dignity they deserve. Kerala and Tamil Nadu were the first states to introduce transgender welfare policy, which allows them to undergo free Sex Reassignment Surgery from male to female at government hospitals, provides them with free housing, admission to government colleges on scholarship, enables them to procure various official documents, helps them find sources of livelihood through formation of self-help groups, among others. Similarly, in June 2016 the Odisha Government became the first in the country to extend social welfare benefits – such as pension, housing and food grains, to members of the third gender, in a bid to improve their overall social and economic status. The state has also directed the Sub-ordinate Staff Selection Commission to recruit transgenders to the post of warders in jails.

While India had granted voting rights to transgenders as a third sex in 1994, it was only in April 2014 that the Supreme Court declared the transgender community as a socially and economically backward one, entitled to reservations in jobs and education. In a landmark judgement, of the National Legal Services Authority v. Union of India, colloquially called the NALSA judgment, the Supreme Court ordered the government to ensure their equal treatment. It broke down the standard format of man and woman, and laid foundation towards the acceptance of the third gender as people with equal rights.

Taking the judgement forwards, on April 24, 2015, DMK MP Tiruchi Siva proposed the Rights of the Transgender Persons Bill, 2014, which was then passed by the Rajya Sabha. This was the first time in 46 years that the Rajya Sabha unanimously passed a private members bill. A forward looking Bill, it prohibits the discrimination against a transgender person in areas of healthcare, education, employment and directs state and central government to ensure that the community also gets welfare schemes. It had also proposed the setting up of special statutory commissions, such as OBC, SC or Women’s Commissions to provide for more protection of the rights of the Community.

The community has also seen many individuals who have fought against the hurdles and prejudice to stand out in their chosen fields. They have shone in the field of politics, arts, education and others. Shabnam Bano Mausi, a member of the Madhya Pradesh State Legislative Assembly from 1998 to 2003, is the first transgender Indian to be elected to public office. Madhu Bai Kinar, stood against BJP’s Mahaveer Guruji, defeated him to win the municipal elections, and went on to become the mayor of Raigarh, in Chhatisgarh. Transgender rights activist, film actress and Bharatnatyam dancer, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, is the first celebrity transgender person and the first transgender to represent Asia Pacific in the UN in 2008. Kalki Subramaniam, a journalist, writer, actor and activist is also the first transgender entrepreneur in the country. In the field of education, Manabi Bandyopadyay made waves as India’s first transgender principal at the Krishnanagar Women’s College. There are many more achievers in the community, some who have become known for their contributions, others who have silently fought for their rights.

Still not enough

Though the Bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha, there was much delay in getting it passed in the Lok Sabha. On December 26, 2015, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment uploaded another version of the Bill, titled the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016.  This has run into much controversy, with activists terming it a watered down version of original Bill and one that severely undermines the NALSA judgement of the Supreme Court.

One of the main pathbreaking aspects of the SC judgement, and the 2014 Bill, had been the right of the community to self-determine their gender. However, the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016 requires members of the Transgender community to obtain a certificate from a doctor as proof of identity that they are transgender. It is then upto the District Screening Committee, which would comprise of a medical officer, a psychologist or psychiatrist, a district welfare officer, a government official, and a transgender person, to issue the person such a certificate. This undermines the whole purpose of the freedom of self-determination, and by involving a Medical Officer, makes the susceptible to unnecessary and humiliating examinations to prove their identity.

Moreover, the Bill gives a complicated definition for a transgender person, where they defined as (A) neither wholly female nor wholly male; (B) a combination of female or male; or (C) neither female nor male. By defining the transgender experience either in the negative (as “not” male or female) or in parts (as “neither wholly” or as a “combination”).

Since long, the transgender community has been an ostracised one, without access to basic rights, education and employment. They have been discriminated against, marginalised, abused and, reduced to begging and living in the fringes of the society. Violence on the transgender community is quite frequent and a study by a team from the National Institute of Epidemiology conducted on 60,000 transgender people, from across 17 states, including Tamil Nadu, found that the transgender community faces discrimination and abuse – both physical and sexual – from various corners, mainly law enforcement agencies.

While efforts like the directive on toilets for third gender people are welcome, by not capitalising on the Supreme Court judgement and by proposing Bills that are drifting away from the whole purpose, the Government is undermining efforts being made to bring much delayed justice to a community which has gone through harrowing times.  A change in the mindset of the society, and a readiness to accept the community, is equally required. This is beautifully conveyed in the recent ad by Vicks. The heartwarming campaign, a true story, talks about the struggles of a mother who adopts an orphaned girl, cares for her and educates her. She then sends her daughter to boarding school so that people don’t find out about her true identity – that of being the daughter of a transgender person. The daughter, who is the narrator, talks about how, while her mother wants her to be a Doctor, she wants to be a Lawyer so that she can fight for the right of her mother, and many more like her.