ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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‘We Were, Are, and Will Remain Discriminated Against’

Status of Transgender Persons in Odisha

Niraj Kumar (prof.nkumar@gmail.com) teaches at the Development Management Institute, Bihar.

That transgender persons are discriminated against and victimised in society has been widely recognised. However, in light of progressive judicial and state interventions, has the status of transgender persons improved? Through an analysis of narratives of transgender persons, with respect to their sociopolitical position, economic security, political participation, and health services available to them, an attempt has been made to understand the living conditions of transgender persons in Odisha, and provide a qualitative account of their status in society.

Transgender persons defy mainstream notions of gender, and have struggled for identity and equality in India, just as they have in many other parts of the world. Traditionally, transgender persons were once a part of the broader culture across the country and treated with respect. However, with the advent of colonialism, these sexual minorities were vilified and excluded from society (Chakrapani 2010). Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was used extensively to victimise transgender persons, and they were treated as criminals in breach of public decency, which led to the complete ostracisation and alienation of the transgender community from mainstream society. Post independence, the Indian Constitution ensured equality, liberty, and fundamental rights for all citizens, and endorsed the universal declaration of the right to equality and protection against any discrimination. Unfortunately, studies have revealed that transgender persons have continued to be subjected to human rights violations, discrimination, and oppression (PUCL 2003; Chakrapani 2010; Goel and Nayar 2012; HRLN 2015; Jos 2017, Mohanty and Padhi 2018).

The path-breaking judgment by the Supreme Court inNational Legal Services Authority v Union of India (2014) reignited hope for the transgender community. The apex court upheld the right of transgender persons to self-determine their gender. It directed the state to grant them a legal identity as the third gender, and advised the government to take all the steps necessary to bring them into mainstream society. The Rights of Transgender Persons Bill, 2014, passed by the Rajya Sabha in 2015, added momentum to the ongoing fight for the rights of transgender persons (Anuvinda and Siva 2016). Unfortunately, the bill did not receive the approval of the Lok Sabha, and the government subsequently introduced another bill, the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016 (GoI 2016). The new bill has been criticised (Anuvinda and Siva 2016; Jos 2017) and is yet to overcome numerous formal and legal hurdles. Meanwhile, following the Supreme Court judgment, many states have begun working towards the welfare of the transgender community (HRLN 2015; Singha 2015; Augustine 2016).

The Government of Odisha created the Department of Social Security and Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (SSEPD) to plan and implement appropriate interventions to alleviate the status of the transgender community in the state. The government has already implemented a few changes, including providing transgender persons the same benefits available to members of the backward communities, provision of scholarships for transgender students, and monthly pension for the parents of transgender children (Times of India 2015). The government is now contemplating methods to widen the scope of benefits for transgender persons and develop a state policy for them. However, development of sound policy and initiation of targeted projects for the welfare of transgender persons requires a detailed understanding of their status within the community, society, and state, as well as their living conditions and daily challenges. It is with this objective, of shedding light on the status of transgender persons, and providing an authentic understanding of how they navigate the spaces they inhabit, that this study has been undertaken.

Theoretical Framework

Although different approaches have been used in the past to study the status of transgender persons, depending on the focus of the respective studies, the social exclusion framework is considered the most exhaustive and inclusive. This framework has been extensively used by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to study the status of disadvantaged and disenfranchised groups, including the transgender community (Chakrapani 2010). The exclusion of the transgender community has been analysed by examining their participation in social, economic, and political activities. The Holistic Health Status questionnaire—in which mental, physical, emotional, and social health are integral components—was used to determine the status of transgender persons (WHO 2004; Bauer et al 2009). The present study considers three broad dimensions of the exclusion framework— (i) sociocultural, (ii) economic and social security, and (iii) legal issues and political participation—and also widens the scope of these parameters by incorporating some of the explained elements which emerged during interviews and are considered social determinants of health status.

Methodology

The study was conducted in Odisha, one of the least developed states in India. This qualitative study was conducted in two phases. Phase 1 comprised various methods of reaching out to the transgender community in the state and informing them of the study and the subsequent recruitment of 35 respondents who volunteered to join Phase 2 of the study. The concept of “saturation” was used, to determine the number of volunteer respondents for the study (Glaser and Strauss 1967). Although no new data emerged on the issues being analysed after 29 interviews, six additional respondents were interviewed.1

Phase 2 included detailed, semi-structured interviews, with a focus on qualitative information. The interviews were conducted either individually or in a group (of five or less) at locations suggested by the respondents themselves. Each participant was paid a modest honorarium of ₹1,000 for their participation. All the interviews were conducted by the author, and recorded with prior permission from the respondents.

The respondents were between 18 and 45 years of age. Among them, 28 were either illiterate, or had only completed education below Class 10. Although the respondents described themselves as unemployed, 32 respondents (91.4%) reported that their monthly income was less than ₹5,000. The respondents lived in poorly constructed houses, in groups comprising 4–20 people. With the exception of one respondent, all the others were born in Odisha and lived in different districts from the place of their birth and from where their parents lived. Fourteen respondents had moved out of their family homes before they turned 18, whereas the rest moved out between the ages of 19 and 30 years. Only eight respondents reported that they still maintained relations with their parents or family members. The respondents had also changed their names (from their birth names). Three of the respondents reported that they underwent genital reconstruction surgery, whereas seven had undergone breast augmentation.

Three representatives from the transgender community participated in the coding and explanation of the context for the various themes that emerged during the interviews.

The interviews were transcribed and checked for errors. The transcripts were analysed using a modified form of the grounded theory approach (Strauss and Corbin 1990; Glaser 1992). In this approach, the researchers’ past experience, theoretical framework of the study, as well as data collection and analytical skills are required in the analysis (Lincoln and Guba 1985). Two graduates from the transgender community coded, established, and explained the meaning of the key themes that emerged from the data. The emerging themes were integral to the life stories of the respondents, and were in line with the theoretical framework of the study.

Sociocultural Discrimination

Children or persons who transgress the accepted gender-related norms face discrimination and stigmatisation. The respondents described the torture and pain they underwent because they did not meet the behavioural expectations of their parents, family members, and neighbours. Words such asanaath (orphans),sautela (stepchild), andshraap (curse) were used to explain their status within the family. Chumki,2 27, elaborated,

It is very difficult to explain, rather there are no words to explain the suffering of a transgender child. Parents, who are considered gods in our society, can be even worse than the devil. This can only be experienced and explained by a gender-deviant child. Who says children are God’s gift? We are treated worse than a dog in our own family and society. I have experienced it day in and day out.

Respondents discussed how they were laughed at, taunted, ill-treated, or even beaten up by their family members. They reported that even their own siblings were unhappy to accept them as their brothers or sisters. Family members and relatives considered them unnatural and advised their parents to take action, including throwing them out of the house. Seema, 22, a transgender person hailing from a tribal community, noted,

I used to cry and try to break my head so that I’d die. I listened to my own relatives telling my parents that they must have done something “wrong” in their previous lives to be punished with such a child in their
present life.

A majority of the respondents agreed that stepping out of the house was difficult for them. Family members placed restrictions on their movements outside their house. If they went out, they were taunted with words such asmaachiya orhijra. Jamuni, a soft-spoken respondent, said,

We were taunted and asked not to do something through which our behaviour (such as body movement) became obvious. We were scared to go out, and even if we went out, we used to do so without informing anyone and mostly in the dark.

Another respondent, Sonali, 33, mentioned

As we turned into adolescents and our behaviour became more obvious and the chances of our recognition as transgender increased, we were not only verbally abused, but were physically tortured [squeezing of cheeks and other body parts] by fellow villagers and neighbours.

None of the families appreciated their children transgressing normative gender-oriented behaviour. Although some of the respondents were evicted from their respective houses, the majority found it impossible to stay within the confines of their homes and felt “suffocated.” Almost all the respondents realised, at an early age, that it would be impossible for them to continue living within the natural social milieu in which they were born.

The respondents reported that while leaving their parental houses or native place was painful, finding a suitable new place to live was even more agonising. Almost half of the respondents knew one or more transgender persons before they left their respective houses. For the other half, the move was abrupt. They were either thrown out, or the situation in the houses had become so grim that they saw no other option but to flee
their homes.

Madhu, who left her home only 13 months ago, shared her anguish.

Although I knew my present guru before I left my house, joining her group was an awful experience. A thatched room beside a railway track is home to six transgender person. No personal space, privacy, respect, or love for anyone. Everyone was just “living.”

Madhu’s non-verbal cues, perhaps, expressed more than her words. Her facial expressions when she explained her living situation indicated the most deplorable conditions one could imagine, while teary eyes and her inability to complete her statements also indicated her feelings of exasperation and helplessness. The existing mistreatment and subsequent discrimination faced by transgender persons has hindered their involvement and acceptance in mainstream society. Almost all the respondents narrated their ordeals of dealing with government agencies and the police. Jasmine, who has been arrested on three occasions, commented,

We are criminals without even committing any crimes. Common men see us as a problem. In police stations and government offices, we are viewed as the cause of problems. You tell me, where should I go? I don’t have any place, not even to die.

Economic and Social Security

The respondents accepted that most of them were not well-educated and lacked the skills required to get good jobs. However, according to transgender persons, the lack of job opportunities was caused by society’s perception of them rather than their competencies. Mehani, a well-educated transgender person, who now works for a local non-governmental
organisation (NGO) explained her story.

I am a diploma holder in electrical engineering and had applied for a job in a small company. The first question during the interview to me was “Are you a transgender?” I answered in the affirmative. Instead of asking the next question, all the three people sitting on the interview board burst out in laughter. I was very embarrassed but could muster the courage to ask them “Is being transgender a problem?” Although their answer was “no,” they said, “You may not be suitable for our organisation.” I must tell you, I was not so surprised by their answer but I was very disturbed by their staring and laughing. I left the interview and walked out.

Discussions with the respondents revealed that transgender persons were dependent on four different activities for their livelihood, namely, group begging (begging in trains, at roadsides, toll plazas, and local markets), sex work, dancing, and acting in local vernacular dramas. Dressing up as a woman/transgender person for begging and repeatedly cajoling prospective clients is difficult, distressing, and dangerous. They cited instances when they were attacked and beaten by either common men or the local police. Although being in a group helped them, they did not enjoy these jobs. Malini asked,

Begging is begging, whether it is done by us or by beggars. Who wants to do it? It is always humiliating. But you let me know, what should we do?

When asked about exploring the possibility of other types of jobs, Malini first smiled and answered,

I used to work as a construction labourer in this city. After working for a week, the contractor asked me to leave the work that I had been doing and satisfy his sexual urges. Had I accepted the contractor’s offer, I would have gotten my wages, but then I would have been his sex slave. I will ask you the same question again—what should I do?

A majority of the respondents opined that people in society remain prejudiced against transgender persons and believe that they can only be beggars or sex workers and they cannot work alongside common people. Their sufferings do not end here. The respondents described the existing norm in the transgender community under which they had to share a certain percentage of their earnings with their respective gurus. In return, the guru provided them with recognition, a place to stay, and support, in case any problem occurred. Kanchan, 19, said,

Just to get a roof on my head and two meals, I work like a servant to the guru. Even if I am ill, I have to beg or do sex work to get the minimum amount for the guru. Non-adherence to the norm may result in abuses, assault, or even social boycott.

Although the respondents were hesitant to explain this income-sharing norm in detail, the discussions (with transgender persons who were not gurus in their community) proved that their own leaders exploited them in some ways.

Thirteen of the respondents accepted that they worked as sex workers to make ends meet. Among the three most common ways to earn a living in the community, engaging in sex work was noted as the most lucrative. However, the major source of income was region-specific. Sex work was prevalent and lucrative in industrial areas with a high population of migrant workers. Moreover, most of the participants agreed that they worked as male sex workers and engaged only male customers. Although almost all the respondents were aware of the possibility of being infected with HIV when engaging in this work, eight (out of 13) respondents accepted that using precautionary measures was not always possible. Sweta, 33, who has worked in the sex business for the past seven
years, explained,

We do sex work for our survival. Most of our customers are already drunk when they meet us and only want hasty sexual indulgence. I do everything that my customers force us to do. I get bruised every day and pray to the Almighty that I do not get infected by HIV.

Chandani, 19, said,

When I do sex work, I forget who I am, keep my identity and self-esteem aside, and just care about the money that I get at the end of every service. I don’t do this because I enjoy it. Forced sex or getting raped can’t be anyone’s profession, and I’ll tell you, no one likes it.

It was agreed that no transgender person would be asked to declare their present HIV status (whether positive or negative) in the interviews. Discussions revealed that although the number of deaths caused by AIDS had considerably decreased, many transgender people were either on medication or were infected, but not tested for HIV. Among the respondents, the fear of being afflicted with the disease was palpable.

Government Apathy

The respondents accepted that they knew about the Supreme Court judgment and the struggles of their leaders for their rights. The respondents recalled that they had participated in meetings where government officers and their own leaders narrated various schemes and benefits that the government had doled out to them. However, most of the respondents said that they did not benefit from any government scheme and were unsure whether they would receive them. Mehtab, who was born in a Muslim family and had to leave her house when she was a teenager, was very quick to respond to a cue on government interventions.

What are you talking about? The government, work for us? Does anybody think about us? We are hijras. We beg for our survival. Even for a ration card and voter ID card, we have to run from pillar to post. Half of my own transgender friends have yet to get the most basic documents. No one asks me about my status and what I need. You are the only person who is talking about my past and present.

Mehtab’s statement reflects the prevalent despondency among transgender persons. The respondents agreed that, in the last two years, many discussions and meetings have occurred, and media coverage and assurances have been provided. However, the assurances have not translated into reality. Interaction with the participants clearly reflected their despair. Discussions with the concerned government officials and a review of recent newspaper coverage indicated increased efforts by government agencies to bring the transgender community under the umbrella of socially backward communities and provide special attention to their basic problems. Some respondents accepted that the awareness among government officials and common citizens had increased.

Systematic probing and group interactions with transgender persons indicated the following reasons for the slow realisation of benefits: lack of awareness among transgender persons regarding different schemes; stringent and cumbersome processes (for example, requirement of documents such as identity proof, residence proof, and income proof); lack of responsiveness or interest among officers of the concerned departments; and a lack of institutions working closely with transgender persons.

Interactions also revealed that transgender persons who lived near the capital city, Bhubaneswar, or were a part of any state-level community or organisation, were more aware and hopeful of availing benefits than those from districts far away from Bhubaneswar.

During the discussion on health and related issues, almost all the respondents expressed their helplessness. Some of the primary concerns they shared during the discussion were that no doctor understood that the bodies of transgender persons are different from that of either men or women. There existed no separate wards and doctors for transgender persons. There is also a lack of expertise in ailments specific to transgender persons, acknowledgement of the psychological and mental stress they undergo, and medical services such as hormonal treatment, breast enlargement, and sex reassignment surgery. Sheetal Kinnar, 36, narrated,

I avoid going to doctors until my ailment becomes unbearable. The ailment is painful but the treatment is more painful. In the case of any disease, I have only physical pain but if we go to a doctor or hospital, I get both physical and mental pain.

Hospitals in Odisha lack the expertise and facilities for medical procedures such as breast enlargement and sex reassignment surgery (SRS). Transgender persons who desired to avail themselves of these procedures had to travel to other states. A respondent named Bijli recounted her failed attempt at breast enlargement at a hospital in Odisha. She then went out of the state for an SRS, explaining,

Although it was costly, it was conducted in a safe and nice way. My savings collected over several years were exhausted in one week.

Bijli’s commentary on her experience is reflective of the existing discrimination and malice in the field of healthcare. Moreover, the lack of health insurance, assumptions that every transgender person is an illegal sex worker, and branding transgender persons as carriers of deadly viruses and sexually transmitted infections, further marginalise this community. Although transgender persons are amongst those most vulnerable to mental and psychological disorders, none of the respondents mentioned that they were prescribed any psychological check-ups. Seven of the respondents recounted the ordeals of their transgender friends who battled depression or had committed suicide.

Legal and Political Challenges

Discussions revealed that the inequality and discrimination the respondents faced at the hands of common citizens made them both angry and sad. When asked about their status as citizens of India, the respondents related their inability to obtain fundamental documents, such as voter identity cards and Aadhaar, even after extensive and continuous follow-ups. Transgender persons are not on the priority list of civil society andNGOs. Respondents who are working to improve facilities for the transgender community reported the indifference of government and non-government agencies towards the problems faced by transgender persons. In recent times, the media has been quite active in highlighting the issues of transgender persons. However, being a sexual minority, has affected their social and political negotiation power. Madhu, a transgender person who was thrown out of the house at the age of 14, explained the political status of transgender persons.

We are not a vote bank, so no political leader or party wants to raise our concerns. Had this not been the case, why would our bill [the transgender bill] be pending in the Lok Sabha for so long?

Dolli, a transgender activist, who works to help transgender persons through her NGO, stated,

We have been knocking at the doors of various funding agencies, but no one is ready to sponsor a project for transgender people.

Recently, demands have been made to reserve seats for transgender persons in local political institutions (municipalities andgram panchayats) and legislative assemblies. However, they have not achieved recognition as political entities, and their involvement in mainstream politics remains low. Transgender persons in Odisha have many leaders (gurus) fighting against each other for supremacy. The fights are fuelled by their desire for additional money (an increase in followers automatically increases the income of the guru through the income-sharing norm), greater social and political recognition (proximity to local bureaucrats and political leaders), and establishing themselves as messiahs of the transgender persons in the state. The respondents associated with one group were critical of other groups and their leaders.

In regard to this, Kanchan had very strong words for her community members.

We hijra [an abusive word] will remain hijra because we only think about ourselves and can’t agree on any issue. We are the only ones to be blamed for our own suffering.

Historical evidence points to the agency of transgender persons in Indian society in the past, and there exist stories in Indian mythology recounting the important roles they played. However, transgender persons are today largely forgotten, and struggle to attain respectable social positions. They have been deprived of many fundamental rights that the Constitution provides to every other citizen. The narratives of transgender persons in this study on their status in society reveal the societal discrimination and scorn they face. The findings of this study also suggest their declining confidence, and hope for improvements in the future. Their continuous fight for respect and rights has hardly amounted to anything substantial.

The findings explain the dismal standing of transgender persons on all status parameters. Their suffering begins in their own family and at an early age. Therefore, urgent and early intervention is required during their childhood, to provide them with the conviction and perseverance to deal with the tough circumstances. In addition to their sufferings, transgender persons face subtle but increasingly agonising distress due to discrimination by social and political institutions. The study found that their issues were complex because the beliefs of everyone—from their parents to the society as a whole—who mattered to them were involved. Changing deep-rooted beliefs is never easy, especially in communities that are conservative and deeply entrenched in their traditional culture. Although the parents of transgender children can be the starting point, the involvement of every segment of society is required.

Basic documents such as Aadhaar and voter identity cards are not only symbols of legal citizenship, but have also become mandatory to access many provisions. This study suggests that state agencies should accept transgender persons as equally eligible citizens who should be provided with all the benefits that a citizen deserves. An empowered department (such as the SSEPD in Odisha) dedicated to the cause of transgender persons is a welcome move, but proactive actions by other state agencies are required. Issues related to housing speak volumes regarding the present status of transgender persons and require government action. Respectful participation in social and cultural activities is important for the alleviation of their status in society.

A sustainable livelihood is required for economic and social security. The study data revealed that transgender persons in Odisha did not have any source of livelihood. All the respondents had a clear understanding that their current sources of income were unsustainable. Unfortunately, the lack of livelihood opportunities is caused by multiple reasons and has its roots in complex social beliefs. Transgender persons are not highly educated and have no formal training in any job-oriented skills. However, the lack of acceptance of transgender persons as potential employees in organisations is a major impediment, and ignoring their problems would further accentuate their problems and marginalise the community. Issues regarding healthcare facilities and legal provisions can be addressed through government initiatives because they are fundamental requirements for any citizen and are viewed as important by transgender persons.

Transgender persons have been ignored by every section of society, including governments and political establishments. Being a sexual minority with considerable social stigma has kept this community out of the priority list of those responsible for ensuring equal opportunities and a dignified living to every citizen of the country. The fact that a section of society is considered discrepant and left to beg or engage in sex work only because they do not conform to binary gender conventions is shameful and unacceptable in a democratic country such as India. A multipronged strategy should be adopted and implemented. Otherwise, the following assertion of Rani, a transgender leader, will prove to be true:

We are born to be discriminated against. We were, are, and will remain discriminated against. I feel like even God wants this.

Notes

1 Creswell (1998) and Morse (1994) concluded that for research using the grounded theory approach, 30–50 interviews should be sufficient depending on the subject under research.

2 To protect the identity of the respondents, pseudonyms were used instead of the respondents’ original names.

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