For 23-year-old Swapna, getting the necessary permission to write an examination has proved to be a huge achievement.
What young men and women of her age routinely do and take for granted, for Swapna was a huge mountain to climb. And, the reason: Swapna lives in a legal twilight zone – hovering between being a male and female. In other words, a transgender.
A few days ago Swapna was allowed to sit for the provincial Tamil Nadu civil services exam – thanks to a court order which allowed her to choose a sex of her choice when applying for the exam, an unprecedented victory for transgenders who have routinely been subject to endless discrimination.
In fact, the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu is the first in the country to offer this option to transgenders of choosing the sex of their choice.
Swapna, who chose to be a female, said, "The feeling was mixed, I was afraid and also felt a sense of achievement." For the last two years she had protested and taken legal recourse to be recognised as a female and not the "third gender", as referred to in official documents.
"What is a third gender? If transgenders are categorized under the third gender, then I would like to know what is the first gender? Are males considered the first gender? How is that alright?" asks Swapna.
She challenged the categorisation in court and the judgement in her favour came just in time for her to write the exam. The state civil services exam could be her passport to a secured job, if she clears it.
Another transgender co-petitioner in the case, Grace Banu, says this is just the first step. Banu has been fighting for reservation in education and employment.
"Most transgender persons are thrown out of their homes when they are young, leaving them with very few options other than begging or sex work," says Banu.
According to Banu, the taboo is so deep-rooted that some of them despite managing to get basic education don’t get jobs.
Banu with a diploma in computer engineering managed to find work in an information technology company, but was unable to work there beyond two years because of the discrimination she experienced.
"I had to quit my job a few months ago, and since then I have been taking up the cause of transgenders," says Banu.
|Transgender Banu being forcibly removed from a protest venue during a recent agitation in Chennai.[Photo provided by Banu/Al Jazeera]
However, she says support is hard to come by from the community. Most of them are dependent on daily wages earned through begging or sex work and they cannot afford to take a day off to join protests or to be present in courts.
"There were days when just about seven of us were present to stage protests," she reminisced. Their key demand is three percent reservation for transgenders in education and government employment.
"During these protests we used to be forcibly evicted. The police would refuse to give us permission to stage non-violent protests. Finally, we took the legal route," explains Banu.
Fight for basic rights
The case fought by Banu and Swapna sought basic rights and reservation for transgender persons. A temporary relief came in the form of the court order allowing Swapna to take a government exam.
The court has issued notices to the state government to respond to the other demands put forth by the petitioners. The next hearing is on December 18.
"We are looking forward to the next hearing as we hope that the Government will be forced to give its response to our demands," says Banu.
"Since we have been mentioned as the 'third gender' in official terminology so far, we are not entitled to any government benefits or schemes that applies to men or women. Whenever we demand our rights there is some government order or the other that is passed to appease us. What we require is an amendment in the law that allows us to choose our gender as male or female, depending on what we choose to be," asserts Banu.
I think society is ready to accept us the way we are, but the various structures like the political and bureaucratic class are conspiring to ensure that we do not become part of the mainstream
Others in the community, like transgender film-maker Rose Venkatesan, agree that the court's direction is a first step, but feel that this has only scratched the surface.
Rose has attempted to shatter the glass ceiling, attempting to work with and make use of the media to seek acceptance. "I think society is ready to accept us the way we are, but the various structures like the political and bureaucratic class are conspiring to ensure that we do not become part of the mainstream" Rose says.
After hosting television shows and radio jockeying, Rose has recently completed her own commercial feature film. But all is not well, says Rose.
"When my film reached the censor board for certification, the officials present at the screening asked me questions they would not ask anyone else," recalls Rose.
"An official at the censor board asked me why I had portrayed a transgender falling in love with a man in my film. I find this ridiculous" she exclaims.
"Now that my film is cleared by the censors, I find it extremely hard to get distributors for the film. I can see it in their faces that they do not look at me as any other film maker or my film as a product of creativity. The discrimination and taboo is very evident and I realize that it is not going to be easy to do anything different with such mindsets at decision making positions," says Rose.
"It is simply for this reason that I think most other transgenders have eventually resorted to sex work. People of the community suffer severe physical abuse in sex work, but they put up with it thinking that sex work at least provides them with a sustainable income," Rose points out.
The increasing presence of transgender sex workers is quite evident on arterial roads in the provincial capital Chennai especially during weekend nights.
Transgender sex worker who did not want to be identified says, "we are sent out of our homes because of our physical attributes. And it is not easy to be independent. We cannot rent a home anywhere in the city and it is only in slums that we are accepted. Even in the slums, if the rent is Rs 2000 ($30) per month for others, for us it is double that price."
As experts studying the issue point out, there still is no clear data as to the extent of transgenders in the population. The numbers apart, the problems faced by transgenders may not end with a three per cent reservation. There are problems in the minds of the sexual majority that need to be dealt with first, they aver.