“FINALLY!!!” read the email from Jacsen, coordinator of this year’s Trans-Health Conference in Philadelphia, as he sent my plane tickets on the morning we were scheduled to travel. The ticket had already undergone three corrections to my name, and I had lost all hope that I would actually make my maiden trip to the US to attend the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference. With this news, my apprehensions vanished!
It all started last November with a forwarded email about the conference. An annual event started twelve years ago, the Trans-Health Conference gives the transgender community a platform to discuss issues that affect our health. Excited by the prospect of bringing our experience in India to this meeting, my colleague Simran Shaikh and I proposed a workshop on ‘Equal Access/Equal Health: Empowering transgender and hijra communities across India through advocacy, community mobilization and capacity building under Pehchan programme’ with the objective to share good practices introduced for transgenders and hijras in India under our Global Fund-supported Pehchan programme. Our proposal was accepted, along with a scholarship award from the conference that made our participation possible. With travel arrangements in place, we were on our way.
During our journey to America, Simran and I did not miss any opportunity to sensitise the people we met about our lives as transgenders. We interacted with airport staff, custom officers and screening guards. I still remember during the security screening in India, a police official was astonished that two hijras were carrying cameras and laptops. He could not stop staring at us as he found himself rethinking his attitudes towards our community. British Airways staff accompanied us through the mad rush at Heathrow airport in London to help us make our flight connection. One acknowledged his ignorance as he waved goodbye, ‘I wish I’d made an attempt before to understand the transgender community. It took me 30 years to make the first step!’
The three-day conference in Philadelphia was a joyous occasion for us to represent India’s transgenders and hijras. The organizers reported 3,500 people had registered. The biggest surprise for me was the number of young transgenders between 14 and 21 years of age, not only participating but conducting workshops on issues like transition and family support along with their parents, who discussed support group formation and the importance of safe spaces for trans youth. Sessions covered a range of topics, including: intersexuality; feminisation and hormonal treatment; HIV & AIDS; dealing with trauma; naturopathy and yoga; and spirituality and religion. It was eye-opening to realise across the globe how similar the challenges of transgenders are: rights, security and dignity.
One of the most interesting sessions for us was experience sharing and story-telling. In this session, we described the Pehchan Hijra Habba and highlighted how through community capacity building and visibility efforts, we can build inclusive, conscious communities that legitimize and honour all forms of gender identity. Our workshop on Pehchan was attended by more than thirty trans community members, many from the US but others from around the world. People were astonished with the sheer scale of the programme and the implementation strategies adopted under Pehchan, including how we are collaborating with government. Natalie, who travelled from Israel, shared the progress being made by transgenders in her country also with government support.
As we said our goodbyes to the many new friends we’d made in Philadelphia, it was amazing to realise the common points connecting the global transgender movement. In some ways, India has a remarkably progressive understanding of the trans community. In trying to understand the trans experience in other countries, it gave us new insights into the complex challenges that India faces in responding to the needs of gender minorities. We were honored to meet trans leaders from around the world at the conference, and it gave us great pride to share our own efforts to improve transgender and hijra health and helped us cherish the charismatic leadership of India’s transgenders and hijras who paved the way for us.
The authors of this blog, Abhina Aher and Simran Shaikh, represented Alliance India at the 2013 Trans-Health Conference in Philadelphia. Abhina is Programme Manager: Pehchan and Simran is Programme Officer: Pehchan.
With support from the Global Fund, Pehchan builds the capacity of 200 community-based organisations (CBOs) for men who have sex with men (MSM), transgenders and hijras in 17 states in India to be more effective partners in the government’s HIV prevention programme. By supporting the development of strong CBOs, Pehchan will address some of the capacity gaps that have often prevented CBOs from receiving government funding for much-needed HIV programming. Named Pehchan which in Hindi means ‘identity’, ‘recognition’ or ‘acknowledgement,’ this programme is implemented by India HIV/AIDS Alliance in consortium with Humsafar Trust, PNRO, SAATHII, Sangama, and SIAAP and will reach 453,750 MSM, transgenders and hijras by 2015. It is the Global Fund’s largest single-country grant to date focused on the HIV response for vulnerable sexual minorities.