By Samarth Yadav*
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. A Chinese proverb that cannot be truer for Sanjay (changed name) when he took a life-changing step of coming to Mumbai from Kolhapur. As my interaction proceeded, the first thing I was told was to use the pronoun of his choice, he/him/his. Born a female, Sanjay identified himself as a trans-man, who lost his family, friends, and town, not literally but figuratively, to the fight of being himself. He sheds a tear of sadness for having lost loved ones to prejudices but is also determined to the cause that there are no more people like him.
India abolished Article 377 of the Indian constitution on the 6th of September 2018 with a unanimous ruling, but the road is still rocky. Are laws enough to change society? What else does it take to create an environment that is inclusive of the personalities, freedom, and choices of individuals? Digging deeper, I came across “My Name is Sunil”, a Black Ticket Films conversational documentary with Sunil Mohan, a transgender activist.
Sunil Mohan is a young activist; having gone through a personal and political journey, he identifies himself as a genderqueer and is a strong advocate of the rights of people with transgressive gender and sexuality. Sunil recalls that it was his friends who decided on his name as Sunil. However, he chose not to change his birth name legally. He mentions how inefficient rules and laws have been troublesome in an already arduous journey which is not only against the society about finding a place for oneself but is often accompanied by abandonment from family and friends. He mentions how the need for documentation of the strength of the community came as a mocking from the court since there hardly remained any identification or individuality for the community.
One of the volunteers in the documentary mentions her journey; she held a school certificate with gender as male, a passport that says TG (for transgender), but identified herself as a female. She addresses how this written identification is a stark reminder of exclusion to a different community; however, she remains faithful for at least having an identification. There are numerous others fighting the same identity battle, within themselves and to society. She mentions how coming to terms with her identity was a fight in itself.
Although my search for understanding the issue started with an urge for a discussion with an activist, due to a lack of communication channels, I figured out that I would understand them better when I converse with people who live through them. In an attempt to understand the same, my interaction with Sanjay spanned his journey from childhood. He narrates, ever since he could understand sexual orientations, attraction, and self-identification, he has been clear about what he felt about himself. Even as a teenager, he would dress up in a shirt and pants, have short hair, despite facing constant humiliation and mockery. But his firm stand and search for individuality has led him to where he is today. He remembers when he ran away from his village to Mumbai, with a thousand rupees in his pocket and nowhere to go, no home to live. Countless nights that he slept on the footpath and numerous sexual advances that he faced while trying to earn a living.
As he recalls, his father would come home and beat him up, not knowing what to do and how to deal with him. His face would turn into disgust and cringe at every mention of words like, Queer, trans or Hindi word “Kinnar” (which in his dictionary was not a community, but an abuse). He would constantly push for getting him married to a man even before turning of consensual age and would deny interactions with any girl. “Coming to the city was challenging and liberating at the same time. While it provided me with the sense of freedom the chance to be who I am, it came with its own set of problems and hurdles. Everywhere I went to work, people’s eyes scanned me as if I were a zoo animal. Their hesitation for interacting with me defied my intelligence and capabilities as a human.”, says Sanjay.
Sunil’s documentary also raises several questions and issues faced by transgenders. A volunteer states, “A person’s gender should not be identified with their sex. Someone with a woman’s genitalia should be able to identify themselves as a man. Gender is a personal choice, not the society’s construct.” Another volunteer I could personally interview states her trauma as a sex worker, where a constant address as transgender (while she identified herself as a woman) was scarring, to say the least. She mentions how constantly the sex she was born with was not something she identified with and gets emotional on the journey she faced not only to identify herself, but also to the society as the gender, she felt to be.
With the scrapping of 377 and identifying transgender across every institution, it is a way forward from a legal perspective but has society changed. The community still faces challenges unheard and uncalled for. Sexual harassment, unemployability, preconceived notions and marginalization from society are stigmas that are deeply rooted in the Indian mindset. While the community from rural and small-town India is constantly oppressed with numerous stories unheard of, the metro cities like Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore and Delhi provide some breathing space. However, the discrimination is so persistent in minds that ignorance has increased to the highest levels of its normalization.
It makes me recall an instance when I was in Chennai doing my bachelors. I, with a group of friends, was travelling to Chennai Central on a local train when a group of transgenders entered and asked for money with their signature claps. I gave them a ten-rupee note (the maximum I could manage as a student) in return for a blessing to be successful in life. However, to my utter disbelief, I was stunned by the harsh criticism by my own peers, stating them being capable of earning a living physically and that donations were worthy for a person with a disability and not the community. I still ask people the same question that I asked that day, would you employ them in your office or your house as domestic help? Is it really their employability or our stigmas that have created this barrier? Is the legal recognition enough to change society and find the community the place every human deserves?
*PGPM 2020-22, Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore