In May this year, Kochi Metro Rail Ltd, an enterprise owned by the government of Kerala, appointed 23 transgender people in different positions in its workforce, a month before it began its operations. "We would like to give members of the transgender community their rightful share in different jobs at stations," Elias George, managing director of Kochi Metro, told The Hindu. "There will be no discrimination between them and women workers." The company planned to scale up the number of transgender employees to 60 in the next few months.
Kerala has the highest literacy among Indian states (94%, according to the Census 2011 data) and its Left Democratic Front (LDF) government is often praised for enlightened policies—such as equal employment opportunities for transgender people. It's another matter that society there, as in most parts of India, is indifferent to the implications of such official gestures or development indices.
In the first week of their job, 8 of the 23 transgender people, all trans women, quit. Employed in a variety of roles, from ticketing to housekeeping staff, which paid between ₹9,000-₹15,000 a month, most of them found it impossible to make ends meet, especially since landlords in the city charged them ₹400-₹600 a day for the most basic accommodation. That is, if they agreed to rent a place to them at all.
Some of the trans women had given up begging on the streets or sex work (both are illegal in India) to take up a government job. Others had found employment after being sacked from an earlier well-paid private-sector job because of their gender. If they had hoped for a steady income and better stability, they realised their predicament within hours of joining the Kochi Metro. At the end of their first day at a 'regular job', one of them was forced to pick up a customer for sex and another went back on the streets to beg to supplement their incomes.
The Kochi Metro case is a typical example of an ostensibly noble intention frustrated by the bitter reality of public prejudice. Three years ago, India's judiciary recognised the third gender as a valid identity that deserved all the constitutional privileges enjoyed by the other two genders. Last year a bill was tabled in Parliament to formalise the rights and safeguards of transgender people. Although it is yet to become law and there are several problems with its framework (more on that later), it is no doubt a step in the right direction, at least for what it seeks to achieve: equal rights for all citizens, irrespective of their gender. Society, however, is guided by its own rules, or rather misrules, whose roots are too deep and visceral to be hacked off overnight by one fell sweep of legal goodwill.
In the expanding rainbow of the LGBTQ+ umbrella, transgender people are the most visible in everyday India. Also perhaps the most reviled by the public, they are seldom visible in professional settings, be it in private or public sector offices.
Around for centuries, from royal harems to myths and folktales to the streets of 21st century India, the transgender population is ubiquitous, but till date (mistakenly) perceived as a homogenous community by the rest of society. Usually treated as outcasts and banished from home, they are feared for their power to inflict curses. For decades, only the 'hijras' who sing at weddings or at the birth of a baby to bless the occasion, beg at traffic lights or on trains and buses, and do sex work, were the most recognisable faces of the community, and believed to be synonymous with it. This (mis)identification, to the exclusion of all other transgender people, persists, causing damage to the hundreds who want to, or do already, work in other professions.
If identifying as genderqueer is mired in challenges in India, coming out as trans is even more difficult. Along with the phobia of sexual difference, it brings out the deepest, darkest biases of class among middle India. If you identify as transgender, the unthinking assumption is you're headed for a life of indignity on the streets, with a future that's dark and hopeless.
Thankfully, as the law and government are taking small, if wobbly, steps towards honouring the rights of transgender people, more members of the community are debunking the myths and misinformation about them by joining the workforce, often against staggering odds.
Transgender people have been part of India's workforce for as long as it has existed, employed in jobs as diverse as academia to shop attendants. It's another matter that many of them may not come out at work or choose to express their gender identity through clothing or other outward signs. Then there are those who have embraced their sexual difference unabashedly, even at the cost of facing hurdles at workplace.
Olga Aaron, founder of the Bringing Adequate Values of Humanity (BRAVOH) movement, is a trans-rights activist, who has worked in white-collar jobs for over 20 years. "At home, my family never refers to me as third gender," she says. "I used to be a son to my mother once, now she calls me her daughter."
An independent professional now, she did have her share of difficulties at various workplaces. "After my colleagues came to know about me, I felt closely watched, I was given more work, harassed in the way other women are," she says. "But I never got worked up, even when I was asked a seemingly insensitive question."
Such 'offensive' queries, Aaron says, are usually the result of ignorance rather than a deliberate attempt to be obnoxious. Clarifying such doubts, without losing one's composure or feeling diminished, is a life skill, an integral part of the never-ending process of sensitisation.
Not everyone is fortunate to have co-workers who will listen and let live, or to have enough reserves of fortitude to get through intimidation and harassment day after day, sometimes for years at a stretch.
The story of Manobi Bandopadhyay, India's first transgender college principal, is one such horrific testimony that reveals the stubborn resistance of society to accept what it has always considered alien to itself. In her recently published memoir, A Gift of Goddess Lakshmi, Bandopadhyay, who was born 'Somnath', recalls her journey from being the beloved only son of her parents, bullied through school and college, to getting a PhD in Bengali Literature, holding an academic job for two decades in an inhospitable college in suburban Bengal, before finally being appointed the principal of another institution in 2015.
As a lecturer in a college in Jhargram, West Bengal, in the 1980s, Bandopadhyay says she faced problems similar to those who left their jobs with Kochi Metro. "It was next to impossible for me to find a permanent place to live in," she remembers, forced to move from one makeshift apartment to the next until a kindly landlord decided to take her in. Worse still, her colleagues were openly hostile, instigating a section of the students against her and leaving her out of most decisions.
Even though Bandopadhyay ends her story on a note of harmony, with her appointment as principal at a prestigious college in the Nadia district of Bengal, the real-life postscript to the book is much grimmer. At the end of 2016, after fighting, in her own words, "a long battle against ignorance", Bandopadhyay resigned from her job, citing lack of co-operation of her colleagues as the reason behind her decision. Her academic achievements, including the authorship of several books and articles as well as the editorship of Bengal's first journal for transgender people, weren't sufficient insurance against age-old blind spots.
You would imagine Bandopadhyay's struggle to have smoothened the path for the next generation of trans professionals. It has and hasn't.
For 27-year-old schoolteacher Atri Kar, it has taken two transfers from various state-funded schools in Bengal and sexual reassignment surgery (SRS) to find her professional niche, though she has many more battles to fight still.
"When I decided to come out at work in 2014, my colleagues at the time were openly hostile," she says. "In a meeting involving 10 people, 9 would be allowed to speak and be heard but I would be left out." Although people were better disposed towards her at the second school, one person took objection to her presence in the staff room, forcing her to move on to her current job. "My acceptance here has been total," says the English teacher, adding that people at home and her neighbourhood have also reconciled themselves to her new identity. "The driver of the auto-rickshaw in which I've been travelling since I was in Class VIII used to call me dada (brother) and now he calls me didi (sister)," she says. "Maybe because I am educated, I have a government job, and I am in the media limelight, it's easier for people to move on. Our society, after all, is inherently elitist."
Making a difference
Kar's observation about elitism is spot on. Class may not necessarily be able to insure anyone against harm, but it does have the potential to shape destinies. It often boils down to the school or college you went to, the circumstances and attitude of your family. Think of Naina, a teenager studying in a posh Delhi school, who came out as a transwoman during assembly in front of her entire school. Before she got there, Naina was driven to the brink of suicide. With the support of her mother and her friends, she emerged as herself, stronger, and now, after SRS and change of identity in all her documents, ready for higher education and to enter the workforce as a confident woman.
But unlike Naina, a great many transgender people looking for blue-collar, let alone white-collar, jobs face a major obstacle: lack of adequate educational qualifications.
"The biggest hurdle for us is to source the right candidates," says Neelam Jain of Periferry, a Chennai-based organisation that works with transgender people to place them in jobs. "Many of them do not have high enough qualifications for us to pitch them to corporates."
Jain's own background is in the corporate sector but now she works with the trans community closely to try alleviate the stigma against them in the workforce. Most companies are tactful enough to not refuse outright but the usual excuses range from lack of vacancies (even when the facts show otherwise) to saying that the candidate doesn't fit the profile they are looking for.
"Due to lack of clarity in the legal language and the absence of an enacted law, some don't want to hire pre-operated people or are worried about Section 377 [of the Indian Penal Code]," adds Jain. But even if Periferry manages to get an applicant through—it has placed 6 transpeople, so far, in roles such as outlet managers and housekeeping staff—it ensures that the future colleagues are adequately sensitised before the worker joins the job.
Apart from reiterating the basic rules of running an inclusive workplace—from using gender-neutral terms like partner (instead of husband or wife) to having designated toilets for all three genders to not bringing up personal questions unprovoked—Periferry runs a full-fledged gender sensitisation workshop, facilitated by a transwoman who is trained in advocacy.
The good part is many corporates are already pro-actively seeking to address the problem of inclusivity in their workplaces, though it's early days still, by most accounts. According to a study by Mission for Indian Gay & Lesbian Empowerment (MINGLE) using a very small sample in white-collar jobs, as of 2016, 85% of the respondents are out to their colleagues, while 69% are out to their families. Those who did come out at work found greater acceptance, though only 48% of them are covered by anti-discrimination policies. Evidently, being able to behave and talk about themselves freely at work matters enough to most people to even risk unemployment.
The Godrej Group is one of India's leading corporates to have well-defined pro-LGBTQ policies, including benefits for partners, irrespective of their gender. "On our people policy documents, we have included 'other' as an option for our transgender team members," says Mahnaz Shaikh, Head of Diversity & Inclusion, Godrej Industries and Associate Companies Limited. "The word 'spouse' has been replaced with 'partner'. Our adoption policy is designed with a gender-neutral primary caregiver in mind."
Apart from conducting gender sensitisation workshops across its businesses, at the headquarters in Mumbai and in the regional offices across India, Godrej is also piloting an "unconscious bias workshop" to sensitise its team members about all the stereotypes that exist at workplaces. The company, which has several thousand employees in India, has one transgender person working with it at the moment.
The biggest impediment to fair representation of LGBTQ+ people in India's workforce is a legacy of our colonial masters. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), framed by the British in 1860 but still going strong in 21st century India, criminalises sexual acts, even between consenting adults, that are against the "order of nature". The latter includes non-procreative sex and affects nearly everyone, along with members of the transgender community.
Perhaps it's the draconian language of the law and its prolonged misuse by the police to intimidate queer people that make most companies too nervous to realise that the law does not criminalise an identity but a specific sexual behaviour—so it is difficult to prosecute an individual for simply identifying as queer.
Persecuted like any other member of the LGBTQ+ community by the police, transgender people had it even worse, as they were denied a legal existence until as late as 2014. All that changed overnight as the Supreme Court, in a landmark case now known as NALSA (National Legal Authority Services vs. the Union of India), upheld the constitutional validity of people belonging to the 'third gender', granting them all the rights and freedoms guaranteed to any man or woman in India.
In spite of the wave of cheer that coursed through the LGBTQ+ community, rekindling hopes of repealing Section 377, the NALSA judgment is far from perfect. In a scathing critique on Round Table India, trans activist Gee Imaan Semmalar took it apart for its confusions and conflations (it clubs all transpeople under the third gender), use of the pejorative term 'eunuch', and its general blindness to trans men. It also does not talk about the sexual rights of trans people, acknowledging the Supreme Court's views on Section 377, which the court had upheld in 2013.
"The NALSA judgment only clarifies that all fundamental rights apply to transgender persons, including right to express themselves in a gender of their choice," says Surabhi Shukla, a lawyer who is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Oxford. "It does not speak about the sexual rights of the transgender person. It remains to be seen how the court will view sexual relations between a transgender person (say, trans man) and a woman post NALSA. The court may either construe it as a heterosexual sexual relationship or as a homosexual sexual relationship."
Be that as it may, NALSA was certainly a significant juncture in the LGBTQ+ movement in India, leading to the framing of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016 last year, yet to be passed into a law by the Parliament. Like NALSA, the bill has raised many thorny juridical questions, which dovetail into serious worries about its implementation at a practical, everyday level.
In a blog on the website of Orinam, an all-volunteer unregistered collective of LGBTI people and allies based in Chennai, Shukla pointed out a number of problems with the bill. Starting with the way it imagines transgender identity (by linking biology with identity and ignoring gender fluidity) to making mandatory a certificate from a district magistrate for the establishment of trans identity to not giving reservations to transgender candidates in the workforce, it went against several recommendations by NALSA.
Kar, for instance, had a run in with West Bengal Civil Services Examination authorities when she found they had not included the 'third gender' option on their application form. The Railway Recruitment Board, which she also applied to, had the provision but no reservation for transgender people as directed by NALSA.
Those who have undergone SRS and are in the process of applying for change of name in their identification papers, including academic degree certificates, also go through bureaucratic hell. "I had to run from pillar to post to get all the paperwork in order," says Kar. "How am I supposed to do my day job at this rate?" In Bandopadhyay's case as well, the confusion over her degree certificates was resolved only after the state education ministry, in Mamata Banerjee's government, intervened.
In the end, in spite of adequate constitutional safeguards and anti-discrimination laws to protect them, the workers in Kochi had to leave. "Why wasn't strong action taken against Kochi Metro for failing to ensure the rights of its staff?" asks Jayna Kothari, Executive Director, Centre for Law and Policy Research, Bengaluru.
The failure is as much of the legal system's as of society's, which is even harder to change than the law. It all begins at home, usually in childhood.
"Any policy towards the well-being of trans people should realise that change has to begin with the family," says Aaron. In her advocacy work with the community, she has focused on strengthening rights of gender-nonconforming children, who, she says, should be seen as children with special needs. "We cannot blame the person for turning out the way she is. We must blame the social structure that is responsible for her."
Santa Khurai, who works with a community-based organisation in Manipur, agrees. Many underage trans youth in the state, she says, are forced into working at beauty parlours, some of which may exploit them for sex work, by their parents, who are the most difficult to sensitise. "Since young people don't come out in schools, it's hard to gather exact data, which makes advocacy with the government even more difficult," Khurai adds.
Early abuse exacts its toll in permanent damage, even self-destruction.
In 2014, shortly after the NALSA judgement, I went to meet Mona Ahmed, an iconic transgender figure in New Delhi. Her reaction to the court order was prudent. She was happy to learn that transgender people have a better shot at a decent life now, but wasn't optimistic about any significant change in societal bias. She pointed me to her disciple, a young boy who crossdresses as Roshni and earns a living by sex work, and said, "Who is going to give him a job in an office?" Roshni had dropped out of school after being tormented for being effeminate and had no desire to go back to that life of indignity.
More acutely, Ahmed wondered why hijras, who earn anything between a few thousand to lakhs of rupees by singing and begging, would want to enslave themselves to a desk and also take on the sniggering of their colleagues in the bargain, all for a paltry salary. Unpleasant as it may sound, Ahmed had a point there. Pallav Patankar, who was director of the Humsafar Trust, also speaks of a disconnect between the discourse of advocacy and the ground reality. "We've to ask transgender community leaders what they are doing to mobilise their community," he says.
The road that stretches ahead is long and full of uncomfortable truths. Society at large has to learn to look at transgender people as any other human being—and be held to account by law if they don't.
Soon after they started working in Kochi, some of the trans people appeared on a video, which went viral on social media, to make a few requests to the public. "When you look at me today, I don't want you to see someone who needs pity," one employee said. "When you see me, don't look twice," added another.
Sometimes all we need is a small reminder to usher in a big change.
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