India is a land of diversity, be it in terms of cultures, art forms or languages. But gender diversity is an issue which has been shunned so far. Yes, we are all proud of our vast culture but how open are we to the diverse gender spectrum that spreads beyond the binaries of male and female?
Though late by half an hour, the talk on ‘Gender Diversity’ started at 6.30 pm amidst an eager crowd gathered in the IC&SR auditorium. Everyone had their eyes on the guest Kalki Subramaniam, a social rights activist, and a figure of inspiration in the fight for rights of the legally unrecognized genders. Herself a transsexual woman, she is founder and director of the transgender rights NGO Sahodari, which provides support to the transgender and intersex cause. Herself a holder of two graduate degrees, Kalki aims to make education accessible to all transgenders, introducing gender diversity into schools so as to cultivate tolerance among future generations, if not the present. For this, school faculty need to be sensitized too, she suggested. On the whole, the talk was very inspiring and instilled in many a positive attitude to the issue – the point she raised provokes much reflection on one’s notions of gender:
There are about 4.5 lakhs of Indians who have openly come out as transgender but chances are that there are five times as many who remain closeted for fear of social ridicule.
Indian society tends to see the phenomenon of identifying with a gender that is not aligned to one’s biological sex as some sort of madness that needs to be cured. Parents often send their progeny to a psychiatrist when they confess anything of the sort. What they fail to recognize is this: having an alternate gender identity is perfectly normal. In fact, analogous traits exist in many other animal species. There are even references to it in ancient Indian works, like the Mahabharatha. This is something which every citizen of the country must come to terms with.
Transgender people are often driven into the field of sex work because they have no alternative means of employment or survival, leading to high HIV rates among the group. They are not accepted in society and their earnings are much lower than those of the average (read: cisgendered) individual. They face rejection from important supports like teachers or parents, and are deprived of the means to proper education. They also lack sufficient counselling centres and educational institutions where they can be at peace, making the world a living hell for an ordinary gender-confused kid.
As for the legal scenario, though the government has recognized the ‘third gender’ on 15th April 2014 with much effort and persuasion from western countries and the constant backing of the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme), we still have a long way to go in terms of gender equality.
Many gender-confused people undergo gender reassignment surgeries because of the conflict they face between their external physical identity and their gender identity. Such surgeries are done, more often that not, in private clinics without any official documents (many of which have failed and caused more misery to the subject). They then settle down elsewhere assuming a new identity. The transition cannot be legalised, due to which many are unable to abide by legal obligations/formalities required for a lot of things in the country.
Another important issue that needs to be addressed is reservation. Whether or not transgenders should be given a status at par with OBC has been an issue of debate among the activists. Kalki expressed hopes for a future where the transgenders of India will have equal citizenship as the so-called “normal” genders, and that people will accept them to all spheres of power.
Finally, Kalki opined that the Tamil Nadu government has been a real catalyst in the whole movement, and that it currently has the best legal system supporting transgender rights in India, unlike its neighbouring state Kerala, which is still skeptical about the entire issue. She hopes that the governments will seek out more policies and also spread awareness.
A flurry of questions and opinions followed the talk as the floor was opened to audience. Those who spoke were not apprehensive at all and clarified all their doubts, and Kalki expressed her happiness on seeing the students of one of the country’s top colleges taking interest in the social cause.
Author’s note: All the views expressed in the above piece are those of Kalki Subramaniam.