India's transgender community on first steps to change: sensitisation, better jobs, medical care, legal protection

Despite attempts to change the lives of transgender people in India for the better, the community continues to face discrimination and violence. On International Transgender Day of Visibility, here are some voices from the community about crucial first steps that could help make a real difference.

From being mocked and treated differently, to facing unfair rejection at workplaces, to being subjected to violence and murder, India’s transgender community have had a harrowing time for ages. On International Transgender Day of Visibility, SocialStory reached out to a few trans people and trans rights activists in India to understand what they feel would make their lives better.

Crucial changes

“Legislation and education are two important aspects that we need to consider. Criminalising transphobic violence, and sensitising children and adults - especially mental health and healthcare professionals - about trans identities, are of primary importance,” says Liliana il Graziosco Merlo Turan, a twenty-one-year-old law student from Bengaluru, who identifies as an agender transwoman.

In the year 2018, World Health Organization (WHO) declared that being transgender is not a mental disorder. While this was a progressive move for the transgender community, WHO reclassified being transgender as a ‘sexual health condition’, raising questions on the move, despite its purported benefits.

Also read: Queer people of colour who made a mark in the year 2018

Despite the declassification of being transgender as a mental illness, many hospitals that offer gender-affirmation surgery require the patient to produce at least two psychiatrist-assessed reports that confirm that they have gender identity dysphoria, which many still address as a disorder. On one hand, this is to ensure that the individual is sure of their decision to undergo this huge change in their life, but on the other, it just makes the process a whole lot tougher for them, and belittles their right to self-identification.

“We need to make medical services accessible to trans people, and have proper provision for those who wish to transition (undergo gender-affirmation surgery), which involves both physical and mental aspects,” says 24-year-old Ardra, a trans person, artist, and a part-time student of philosophy and graphic design from Bengaluru, adding, “But this process should not involve trans people having to ‘prove’ their identity.”

The author of this article recalls a personal experience where their mental health evaluation report stated that they have ‘gender identity disorder’ simply because they had said they identify as non-binary. To them, this was quite offensive and inconsiderate, because they don’t see their gender identity as something that needs to be cured; it’s just part of who they are.

There are other concerns as well, when it comes to seeking medical help.

“We need proper health insurance. Because the government is already taking so much tax, they should be able to set aside a certain budget for healthcare for economically backward trans people as well,” Liliana points out.

Out with the judging, in with the empathy

And then there is the sweeping ignorance that the trans community deals with. “It’s a whole gamut of things that we need to rectify - from people making snide remarks at trans people to people assaulting them - and it all begins with sensitising the mainstream public about what being transgender really means,” says Anirudh, an activist from Solidarity Foundation, Bengaluru, which facilitates corporate placements for sex workers and sexual minorities.

Traditionally, India’s trans community has looked to street and sex work for their livelihood, due to which they are subjected to mockery and violence. So, a vital part of sensitisation begins with making people understand that these routes of earning money should be respected and protected. Shaming them for their choices and preaching from a privileged point of view, whatever may be the intention, does not help.

Normalising conversations

“I think it begins with seeing and recognising trans people in every aspect of society - trans people as teachers, classmates, shopkeepers, engineers, artists, and so on," says Ardra.

"And this kind of change can only happen with public sensitisation aided by legal reforms, starting with setting up a school curriculum that teaches kids about gender and sex,” they add.

Perhaps, visibility of trans people is not the only key to making progress. Allies of the trans community, including queer people, showing up for the trans community and not being the slightest bit ashamed of supporting them is of great importance, because no fight can be won single-handedly. And it starts at the roots, with children. There are two reasons for this. One is that they will learn to vocalise their support from an early age, and the other is that children exploring their identities will benefit from the conversation being normalised around them.

Also read: Breaking the binary: a guide to understanding sexuality and gender

What does the law say?

The common denominator here is sensitising everyone about trans people and trans issues. But social reform is not where it stops. Until 2014, India’s transgender community had no legal recognition. It was the NALSA judgement in April that year that gave them the right to self-identification. The NALSA judgement also made provision for reservations for transgender people across government and private sectors. While the judgement did have its flaws, it was well-researched, diplomatic, and shone a ray of hope among the trans community.

In contrast, the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill 2018 brought rage and sorrow to the Indian trans community, because it proposed the establishment of a board of people to determine whether an individual is transgender or not, based on their genitals and whether they have undergone gender-affirmation surgery or not. It prompted nationwide protests by the transgender community and trans rights activists. Thankfully, the Bill was lapsed in February 2019, when the Rajya Sabha was adjourned sine die.

“Having public defenders who are sensitised about trans issues and trans rights would be of great use, because a lot of trans people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds may not be able to afford legal help,” says Anirudh.

“Having more concrete laws about policies such as identity documentation, banking, property rights, and others, with regard to trans people, will certainly help as well,” they add.

Battling transphobia

There have been numerous instances of transgender people being murdered in India, with no investigation carried out, or reparations paid. The News Minute reported two such instances: Tara, who was found dead in the compound of a police station in Chennai, in 2016, and Pravallika, who was murdered in Hyderabad, in 2015. The trans community still seeks justice for them and the hundreds of others whose lives were subjected to fatal transphobia.

Also read: Transgender Day of Remembrance - Bengaluru remembers lives lost to transphobia

Inclusivity at the workplace

Most trans people have a tough time finding work in the formal sector, because they lack the required level of education and qualification, as well as general discrimination against them.

“Workplaces should start with gender-neutral restrooms. This may seem like a rather feeble step, but as a transmasculine person, having gender-neutral restrooms means I can spend less time and energy deciding which restroom I would feel safer in, and focus more on actually working,” says Ardra.

Anirudh, who has expertise with tackling issues that trans people face at the workplace, says these are the most common obstacles they come across:

  • Having the required identity documentation and setting up bank accounts
  • Facing some level of discrimination, and having difficulty adapting to working in the formal sector which involves time management and punctuality that many trans people are not used to
  • A sense of discomfort using washrooms
  • Having trouble with inadequately sensitised security guards while entering and exiting buildings
  • Most workplaces not having any procedures that accommodate trans people who transition while working, leading to them eventually quitting

Anirudh also notes a slight difference in the way startups and small companies react to employing trans people, compared to established MNCs. They say that it’s easy to place trans people in startups because they lack strict structures and rigorous procedures, and will welcome anyone who can help. But startups are hemmed in by their limitations to bring about any real change. “A lot of startups are not very invested in being inclusive - it’s just not their priority, because they don’t have the necessary bandwidth, and are only just starting to think about how they’re going to grow their business,” adds Anirudh.

Employing trans people in MNCs has two aspects as well. One is their reluctance to employ trans people because of the rigidity of their rules and regulations, and that they require a huge list of documentation that many trans people do not have. The other aspect is ‘pink capitalism’ or the over-enthusiasm MNCs show to cash in on the LGTBQ+ talent pool and consumer base, especially after Section 377 was decriminalised. “A lot of the jobs that we place people from the communities we work with are cab services, food courts, housekeeping, and such. And all of this is much easier to facilitate through agencies, rather than through lateral placements,” says Anirudh.

Also read: Unfurling the rainbow flag makes business sense for Corporate India, startups

In conclusion

Trans rights activists like Anirudh, and India’s trans community feel there can only be a positive change for India’s transgender community if the society at large, workplaces, and the legal system work together with a vested interest in bettering their lives.


Updates from around the world