Trans-formation to End Discrimination (#IDAHOT 2014)

Alliance India’s Simran Shaikh, a hijra and AIDS activist, speaks out against discrimination and for LGBT equality.

Alliance India’s Simran Shaikh, a hijra and AIDS activist, speaks out against discrimination and for LGBT equality.

May 17th marks International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) around the world. I am sitting in my office at Alliance India in New Delhi as I gather my thoughts on the stigma and discrimination I have faced my whole life because I subvert gender conventions. My journey from a Parsi boy to a transgender activist has been filled with discrimination, stigma, violence, silent screams, and also triumphs. (Read more about Simran’s life.)

To honour this global day that celebrates sexual and gender diversity, I want to share my thoughts on the recent Indian Supreme Court judgement protecting the rights of transgenders.

On April 15th this year, the Supreme Court judgment recognised the third gender in India and granting legal recognition to Indians who identify as neither male nor female – to those of us those who identify as transgender women and men or as hijras. “Discrimination is no longer my favourite word,” I yelled with pride as my friends joined in the celebrations after this landmark judgment. The ruling guarantees the nation’s transgender population essential rights, including equal access to education and employment In India.

But will this stop people from staring at me on Delhi Metro trains, autorickshaw wallahs refusing me rides, and fellow passengers moving away from me on buses? Why do they do this you wonder? Because my existence bothers them. I don’t seem to fit the boxes they have neatly packed themselves into. I refuse to look and behave the way they expect. I offend their sensibilities by being me. Can a judgment validating my existence change all this? I don’t know, but it feels like we’re on the right track.

Homophobia is an aversion towards those whose sexual behavior differs from the heteronormative, and transphobia is an aversion to those whose gender identities transcend the male-female gender binary. Negative attitudes manifest in many ways, from contempt, fear and hatred to verbal abuse, harassment, and violence. Are these attitudes rational? In most cases,they are rooted in a belief that our differences are against the order of nature.

Over India’s history, hijras have been a revered community, but when this region was colonised by the British, regressive laws were put in place outlawing homosexuality and criminalising these communities. Sixty-seven years after independence from British rule, the third gender has been given legal protection in India. I don’t know how many more years will pass before the repeal of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalises consensual same-sex sexual behavior.

While the struggle to end discriminatory laws continues, I am deeply troubled by the everyday injustices faced by my LGBT brothers and sisters. We need to fight the internalised homophobia and transphobia in our communities and transform our fear of our own gender and sexual identities. We must celebrate who we are. Violence and discrimination must not be tolerated anymore. It cannot be a crime to exist. To deny our right to exist is the crime!

I am a proud member of the hijra community. In my teens, rejected by my family, I was given shelter by a hijra when all other doors were closed to me. Even today there are few professional options for someone like me. As a member of the Alliance India team, I’m fortunate to be doing professional work in HIV/AIDS that can have such a great impact on the transgender community in India. I dream of a day when all who are like me are given equal opportunities to thrive. Equal opportunity on paper must be put into practice. Changing attitudes will open minds, and with open minds, we can trans-form the world.

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The author of this post, Simran Shaikh, is a Programme Officer for the Pehchan programme at India HIV/AIDS Alliance in New Delhi.

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 addresses 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, Alliance India Andhra Pradesh, and SIAAP and will reach more than 450,000 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.

My Trans Reality: An Interview with Tista Das, Founder, SRS Solutions

(Photo courtesy of Tista Das)

(Photo courtesy of Tista Das)

An important step in the process of self-affirmation for many transgender people is to adapt their physical appearance to align with their gender identity. Many transgenders face significant challenges in accessing transition-related services in India. Government hospitals seldom offer services like Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS) and the private ones are too costly for many community members to afford. Without other options, many turn to quacks and other unlicensed practitioners for help.

SRS Solutions is a community-led and self-funded initiative that provides SRS-related information, counselling, and referral services to trans people in Kolkata. It was founded by Tista Das, a self-identified trans woman. In an interview with Alliance India’s Ankita Bhalla, Tista opened up on the tough times she has faced as a trans woman and what motivated her to found SRS Solutions.

Q: When did you acknowledge your gender identity? What was the response from friends and family?

Tista Das (TD): My parents always insisted that I was a boy, but I always felt like a girl. All my childhood playmates were girls. I used to behave and dress like them. I felt discomfort among the boys, and I was always forced to use the boy’s toilet. When one of my closest schoolmates was undergoing menstrual changes, I had an inner desire to be able to do so too. I missed the same changes in my body.

I came face to face with my trans reality when I saw a photo of female genitals when I was in Class 8th. I was perplexed. The question ‘why was I different from girls?’ kept playing in my mind. I was desperately searching for a way out of this anatomical cage. I wanted to align my body with my psyche. Then I came upon an article of postoperative trans women in a leading Bengali fashion magazine. I jumped in joy, but my entire family and most of my friends were strongly against my desire. In my first medical intervention, I was taken to a psycho-therapy clinic. The clinician there was understanding, and she requested my parents to let me live my way. My parents were against this and searched for a new psychiatrist, who gave me six electric shocks to cure my ‘disorder.’

I was lucky to have some supportive friends. Every day I changed from male to female at my friend Nupur’s house. My friends never refused me, even after they became subject to ridicule by neighbors because of me. Most people only consider two genders in life: male and female. They are seldom think beyond this conventional gender frame.

Q: What prompted you to start SRS Solutions?

TD: While my peers were going to college and checking out career options, I was denied admission to university because of my gender identity. While my friends where enjoying gully cricket, I dealt with insults from neighbors who took it upon themselves to make my family’s life and mine miserable. I was scared, upset and totally at a loss.

There was a strong urge in me for surgical intervention, but I had no money. I was introduced to the eminent author and professor Nabanita Debsen who told me about an executive opening at a sister concern of Indian Oil Corporation for a trans woman. I successfully made it through. Now I had a job and an income, but no place to undergo my physical transformation. Government hospitals were just playing with my emotions and wasting my time. Private care was not what I could afford. I underwent the same agony each day.

I underwent psychometric testing—a primary diagnostic procedure to conform whether a person is really suffering from gender dysphoria and is eligible for SRS—and was recommended for hormone replacement therapy. But again my resources were limited. I approached government hospitals in vain for genital reconstruction. I lost all hope. Then my parents came to my support. My mom sold her jewelry and my father took some loans. I got donations from school teachers. Still it was not enough. Finally, a miracle happened. I got an opportunity to act in an English short film as a protagonist girl. This income helped my desire come true.

The hardships I had faced seeded within me the idea of an organization where people in gender distress can get proper solutions. My desire was made stronger by the suicide of one of my transgender classmates. I finally established the SRS Solutions in Kolkata in 2012.

Q: How do you feel post transformation?

TD: I have chosen to be a woman neither to get any socio-legal and political advantages nor to get a sex partner. It was unbearable for me to live in an unwanted body, and every day I desperately hunted for a way out. I always loved to see myself as a girl physically in front of the mirror. I always felt trapped in a male body. I felt incomplete and wanted to align my body with my psyche. I only wanted to be a beautiful, decent girl, nothing else.

Q: What are the common problems faced by trans people in India related to SRS?

TD: Trans people in India who want SRS face problems in arranging the finances needed, identifying qualified facilities for surgeries, and gaining social acceptance for their transformation. A large number of us are oppressed because of the alarmingly low level of awareness at all levels of society. Few doctors are skilled in SRS, and most don’t understand gender identity issues. The pressure of having to fight society at every step, along with our own discomfort of being stuck in bodies we wish to change, is highly traumatic.

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Readers can learn more about the challenges faced by transgenders and hijras in accessing gender transition services in India in our recent publication,Transforming Identity, which presents findings of our recent research on this topic.

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The author of this post, Ankita Bhalla, is Communications Associate at India HIV/AIDS Alliance.

With support from the Global FundPehchan 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.

More or Less Equal: Reflections on Freedom

In India, there is a need to make sexuality more visible and to voice issues around sexuality more publicly, without stigma and shame. (Photo by Peter Caton for India HIV/AIDS Alliance.)

In India, there is a need to make sexuality more visible and to voice issues around sexuality more publicly, without stigma and shame. (Photo by Peter Caton for India HIV/AIDS Alliance.)

The Indian Constitution declares that all Indians are granted the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression. On Independence Day, Shaleen Rakesh explores what freedom means for young Indians struggling to express their sexuality:

I am at the barber’s shop, and reflecting on the sensual quality of something as practical as having a haircut in Delhi. The guy is massaging my scalp, it is highly tactile, and I am instantly aware of it. In India, there seems to be an unconsciousness around the body – you don’t have personal space, people do not think it wrong to crowd close together, to touch one another. In buses and the metro, you become aware of a very close and mostly unselfconscious proximity.

This unconsciousness of certain aspects of anatomy and gender and the way you are in public is a paradox – in some ways India is a tolerant society, since it recognizes homo-affective and homosocial relationships. As far as sexual behaviour is concerned, India can be very accommodating, but it becomes very intolerant and homophobic when it comes to a question of identity.

It seems like a constant partition of freedoms. You are free to do what you want but not express freely who you are.

There is a need to make sexuality more visible and to voice issues around sexuality more publicly without stigma and shame. People who are straight also feel sexuality is silenced in India: they are victims of a similar oppression. The objective of breaking silence is to look at the issue from a cultural point of view.

When I’m still waiting for my shampoo, three or four young guys walk in. One of them is dark-complexioned and is looking at himself very intently in the mirror. His friends start pulling his leg: “Dude, what a fabulous complexion you have! How come you don’t have a girlfriend?” The boy was obviously embarrassed about being dark and being teased publicly but couldn’t find the words to retaliate and offered an embarrassed smile. His friends were laughing.

Soon the friendly banter started recounting failed sexual overtures with girls. I thought the young guys, in their talking and making fun of their own sexual feats – or lack of them – there was a great irony at the core, and a certain sadness also. I felt sorry for them for a moment, thinking, why do they need to be in this place where the only way they can articulate some of their frustrations is in the form of a joke? I identified with it. At 19, I felt oppressed about my own sexuality. Of course, I couldn’t even talk about it in barber shops. I still can’t actually. Invisibility and silence are the problem we share.

As I walk out of the barber shop, I realize how conflicted and bottled up most Indians are when it comes to talking about sexuality. It’s a cultural prison most of us find difficult to step out of.

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The author, Shaleen Rakesh, is Director: Technical Support, India HIV/AIDS Alliance.

India HIV/AIDS Alliance (Alliance India) is a diverse partnership that brings together committed organisations and communities to support sustained responses to HIV in India. Complementing the Indian national programme, Alliance India works through capacity building, knowledge sharing, technical support and advocacy. Through our network of partners, Alliance India supports the delivery of effective, innovative, community-based HIV programmes to key populations affected by the epidemic.

Four Years to a Different Me: Reflections on the Anniversary of the 377 Decision

On July 2, 2009, the Delhi High Court read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, decriminalizing homosexuality in India. Four years on, the impact of this historic ruling still resonates in the lives of LGBT Indians. Photo by Peter Caton for India HIV/AIDS Alliance

On July 2, 2009, the Delhi High Court read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, decriminalizing homosexuality in India. Four years on, the impact of this historic ruling still resonates in the lives of LGBT Indians. Photo by Peter Caton for India HIV/AIDS Alliance

‘I still cannot forget that moment. Though it happened some four years back, the memories stay with me. I tried every possible way, but it refuses to fade away. I live with it every moment of my life,’ said Shilpa in a soft voice.

I met Shilpa last week during a train journey to Jaipur. It was an early morning train, and mercifully there were not many passengers in my coach. I tried to catch some sleep, but as the train crossed into the Delhi cantonment station, I heard the loud voices of some hijras on board the train begging for money. As the three of them entered my compartment, one of them caught my attention: she stood at 5’2’’, had a petite frame and dressed in impeccable floral salwar suit. With an attractive smile and an elegant grace that preserved her dignity, she put forward her hennaed right hand to bless every passenger and beg.

The other two hijras of slightly shorter stature than the first stood behind her in complete silence but with same gesture – hands forward in expectation of at least a five-rupee coin. Many passengers ignored them, turning their heads away, cursing under their breath but loud enough for others to hear, ‘Oh God! What have I done today to see such cursed faces so early in the morning.’ All three of them pretended otherwise, but it clearly showed that they had internalized this humiliation and indifference.

As the one in the floral salwar approached me, I smiled and said, ‘Hi.’ She was perplexed at first, a bit hesitant as to how to return my greeting. Was it the first time that a stranger greeted her or even acknowledged her presence? Before she could respond, I gestured for her to sit next to me. Surprisingly, she sat without any reluctance. ‘This is going to be an interesting journey,’ I thought to myself. She silently signaled to the other two though her big kolhed eyes to continue begging in other compartments.

‘Hi, I am Rahul,’ I introduced myself in Hindi. Her smile broadened, ‘My name is Shilpa.’ Our conversation began but soon I realized it was she who took the lead, asking about my occupation, my trip to Jaipur, where I live in Delhi, where I’d stay in Jaipur. Then I asked about her life. She talked about how beautiful her childhood was and got excited as if unraveling some mystery. The other passengers looked on in disbelief, but I didn’t care. She described the delight of wearing her mother’s make-up, albeit secretly, and her desire to be an air hostess as they are so beautiful and always dress so nicely.

As she grew, she told me, she realized she could never achieve her dreams because she was born a male. In adolescence, her family scolded her for being feminine. She recalled one day in 8th class: ‘My teacher took attendance and when he called my name, he questioned derogatorily, “Are you like this since birth? So sissy, such a disgrace to your family.” Everyone in class laughed loudly. I stood there frozen. I did not know how to react. My eyes were in tears. No matter how hard I tried, I could not hide my feelings. One of the students commented, “Look he is crying like a girl…sorry, she is crying like a girl, or better still, it is crying like a girl.” After a while, the class resumed, but I did not speak to anyone. I could not concentrate.’

Shilpa continued, ‘There was no one I could share my pain of being “other”…or my joy. For my classmates that day was like any other, but it changed my life forever. Everything changed for me from that moment.’ Her eyes were moist, but this time she controlled her tears. After a few seconds, she carried on in the same soft voice, ‘I did not go home that day. I sat in a park. Ram Niwas Garden. In Jaipur. At around five in the evening, I noticed others like me, feminine just like me, wearing ladies’ clothes, jewelry, even lipstick. “So I am not alone,” I thought to myself.

‘I took courage and walked up to them. I stood in front of them. One of them noticed and smiled, “Who are you, beta?” I did not reply. Another continued, “Have you lost your way home?” Again I stood motionless just watching them in awe. The third one touched my cheeks and said to the others, “This boy is like us,” and then turned to me, ‘Am I right?” I smiled, nodding in agreement. They asked about my family, but I refused to say a word. They offered me tea and biscuits which I gladly took. Later they took me to their home, a dera where hijras live, a different world for me.

‘There were so many like me. They offered me female clothes. Though too big, I was happy to wear them. I danced the whole evening in that long skirt. I remember it clearly, a magenta ghaghara. Nobody called me names for wearing it. Everyone called me beautiful in that dress. I slept peacefully that evening, perhaps the best sleep ever. Next morning, the senior hijra whom everyone addressed as “guru” re-named me “Shilpa” and declared that from then on I was her daughter. I was so happy now to have an identity, one that resonates with my personality, my emotions and my desire to be a woman. From then I started my life as Shilpa and moved to Agra to live with my nani, the mother of my guru.

‘Did you ever try to reconnect with your family?’ I asked. ‘This is my family. I live with my family,’ came the answer. I corrected myself, ‘I mean your biological family.’ Unhappiness overcame her face, and she replied, ‘Yes, I tried to but through my neighbors. They told me that initially my family was a bit worried, but they neither searched for me nor filed a police report. Later they performed my last rituals and after that, my brother declared proudly that my family was finally free of the curse of “that feminine creature.” When I came to know all this, I was depressed and thought to end my life. My nani suggested that I do daily prayers, meditation, yoga but nothing helped. I still get nightmares. When I hear a group of people laughing, that memory of a fourteen-year-old being humiliated by his classmates and teachers returns.’

She stopped. I was quiet. She looked out of the window. After a few moments, she said that this was the first time she had ever shared her personal story with anyone. Then she added, ‘Believe it or not, I am grateful to my parents for performing my last rites. I never expected any dignity in my lifetime or in death.’

As she stood to leave, I quickly asked her if she remembered the date of the school incident. She turned back and said, ‘How can I ever forget that day. It was a day of my death and rebirth. It was July 2nd, 2009.’

July 2nd, 2009!

I gasped, remembering it as the same day of the Delhi High Court’s historic judgment on Section 377 of Indian Penal Code was read. It held that that the criminalization of homosexuality was unconstitutional, noting that:

If there is one constitutional tenet that can be said to be the underlying theme of the Indian Constitution, it is that of ‘inclusiveness’. This Court believes that the Indian Constitution reflects this value deeply ingrained in Indian society, nurtured over several generations. The inclusiveness that Indian society traditionally displayed, literally in every aspect of life, is manifest in recognizing a role in society for everyone. Those perceived by the majority as “deviants’ or ‘different’ are not on that score excluded or ostracized.

Where society can display inclusiveness and understanding, such persons can be assured of a life of dignity and non-discrimination. This was the ‘spirit behind the Resolution’ of which Nehru spoke so passionately. In our view, Indian Constitutional law does not permit the statutory criminal law to be held captive by the popular misconceptions of who LGBTs are. It cannot be forgotten that discrimination is antithesis of equality and that it is the recognition of equality which will foster the dignity of every individual. 

Shipla’s rebirth coincided with a transformation in Indian society itself. Just as Shipla’s story is not yet fully told, the 377 decision’s impact is still being written. Now even four years on, the transformation has only just begun.

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The author of this post, Yadavendra Singh, is Senior Programme Officer: Capacity Building for Alliance India’s Pehchan Programme.

With support from the Global FundPehchan 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, PNROSAATHIISangama, 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.

Shivananda Khan, OBE (1948-2013)

Shivananda Khan, OBE (1948-2013)

India HIV/AIDS Alliance remembers the life and achievements of Shivananda Khan, one of South Asia’s leading activists who left an indelible mark on the global LGBT rights movement and did so much to expand the HIV response for sexual minorities all over the world. The following remembrance and poem were written by Alliance India staff members who worked closely with Shiv over the years.

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Celebrating Shiv
A remembrance by Shaleen Rakesh

In the summer of 2000, I was invited as a guest speaker at one of India’s first national gay conferences in Hyderabad. The event was organised by a man I had heard much about, Shivananda Khan. Holding a regional conference of this scale was not an easy task in those days. I met several activists there for the first time, people who are leaders of the movement today like Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, Vijay Nair, and Sunil Menon, among many others. Shiv was his usual dramatic self: cracking quips with elan, cigarette in hand, a perfect blend of ice and fire.

Shiv and I bonded from the start. He told me to be bold and chart my own course. Sometimes he would look at me with a long stare and say I was meant to be an activist. He said he never saw me happier than when I put on the activist hat. Shiv was the conduit for funding from the UK Lotteries Commission that supported the programme I headed at the Naz Foundation (India) Trust working with men who have sex with men and transgenders. I used to joke with Shiv that the British put in place Section 377, a colonial law against homosexuality, and now British money was funding efforts to have it revoked!

I will never forget the hours we spent together at Hotel Samrat in New Delhi, where Shiv, the author Jeremy Seabrook, and I would have long conversations on the nature of gay identity in India and alternative pathways to freedom. In Shiv, I had a soulmate with whom I could speak intelligently of repression and its costs.

Shiv’s contributions to the queer movement are too many to count. Though he had a global influence, the focus of his life’s work was always South Asia. In recognition of his efforts, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 2005, perhaps an ironic if deserved reward for someone who had worked so hard to achieve freedom for sexual minorities in a post-colonial world.

To a fellow activist and my dear friend, a final goodbye.

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Remembering Shivananda Khan
A poem by Yadavendra Singh

Though the sun was shining bright
The winds were blowing hot
Yet it felt like a cold and silent night
Night of December
‘Coz you were no more amongst us
Us – Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transgenders, Hijras,
We all want to thank you – yet again
You shall continue to inspire generations to come
With your charisma, your leadership
Your vision, your zeal
None can ever have this cut healed
Today we remember you – with our eyes closed, with our breath silent
We are sad but we won’t shed a tear
As we have a long way to clear
And we all want to thank you – yet again.

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Transgenders Speak Out in Kerala, India: A Blog for International Day Against Homophobia & Transphobia 2013

Due to often violent transphobia in Kerala, the community members who took part in the first-ever consultation with state government on transgender issues have requested anonymity. (Photo by Simran Shaikh, India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

Due to often violent transphobia in Kerala, the community members who took part in the first-ever consultation with state government on transgender issues have requested anonymity. (Photo by Simran Shaikh, India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

Shanno (name changed) is a 35-year-old transgender living in the Ernakulam district of the southern Indian state of Kerala. From childhood, Shanno bent towards feminine behaviour, a habit highly discouraged by her family and unacceptable in Kerala’s highly conservative society.

“I was mocked by neighbours and classmates. It not only made my life miserable but also that of my family,” she says. She dropped out of school and lost several jobs. “I remember locking myself inside my house without seeing sunlight for days. Suicide was the only word that played in my mind.”

Shanno’s case is hardly unique. Though Kerala has witnessed a number of social movements advocating for rights, the state remains visibly transphobic and homophobic. MSM, transgenders and hijras (MTH) are considered criminals, frequently harassed and even murdered.

Already disproportionately vulnerable to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, community members have limited access to quality health services, and healthcare workers too often treat them with little dignity or respect. Such discrimination undermines health and wellbeing, forcing the community to remain hidden with limited economic prospects. Many turn to sex work or leave Kerala for better opportunities elsewhere. The state has the highest migration rate for transgenders in India.

The Pehchan programme in Kerala is helping to change these norms.  Sangama, Alliance India’s Pehchan partner in Kerala and Karnataka, made history of sorts on April 23, 2013, when it brought 35 transgenders and hijras to meet with Sri. P. Mohanadas, a District Judge who serves as Member Secretary of Kerala State Legal Service Authority (KELSA). The authority works to provide legal aid to the poor and other marginalised sections of society to protect their constitutional and legal rights.

It was here that Shanno and others like her told how societal and familial pressure, transphobia and homophobia forced them to leave their families and turn to sex work or begging to survive. The participants demanded equal opportunities in education and employment, equal protection under law, and lives free of harassment from society and the police.

Mr. Mohanadas was convinced that there was an urgent need to address this pattern of marginalization experienced by transgender and hijra Keralites. He expressed his support for the transgender movement in the state, proposed a petition to the state’s High Court and described plans for other state-level action to support Kerala’s transgender and hijra communities. He observed dryly, “It’s strange that, in a country where all are guaranteed rights, trans people have none.”

In Kerala and elsewhere in India, Pehchan is working to confront and address the destructiveness of transphobia and homophobia. Discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity has devastating effects on individuals and communities. By creating opportunities for MTH communities to speak openly to decision makers in government about the challenges they face, Pehchan is encouraging advocacy and action and helping India heal the damage done by transphobia and homophobia.

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The author of this post, Simran Shaikh, 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.

Slow but steady: India’s march to equality for sexual minorities

With the Indian government adopting new measures, sexual minorities in India see a new ray of hope. (Photo by Peter Caton for India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

With the Indian government adopting new measures, sexual minorities in India see a new ray of hope. (Photo by Peter Caton for India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

Over the past five years or so, India has witnessed seismic shifts in matters concerning the human rights of sexual minorities. Despite being stymied by right-wing groups cutting across religious lines, the Government of India has stood by its commitment to protect the rights of these stigmatised and ignored communities.  Though it is too early to predict how new measures will change the lives of sexual minorities in India, it is encouraging to see the government acknowledge their existence and provide some hope of change.

Consider some of the actions by the Government of India:

Section 377 of Indian Penal Code

On July 2, 2009, in a landmark judgment, Delhi High Court ruled that Section 377 of Indian Penal Code violates Articles 21, 14 and 15 of the Indian Constitution. The judgment was widely celebrated and appreciated across the nation. But even before euphoria could lessen, a panoply of religious institutions queued up at the Supreme Court of India to challenge the Delhi High Court judgment. In total, 15 Special Leave Petitions (SLPs) challenging the decision were submitted to the apex court including petition from the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights.

Final Supreme Court hearings appealing the 377 decision began in February 2012. When the Supreme Court requested the Government of India clarify its stand on the Delhi High Court decision, the government came out in support of decriminalising homosexuality and indicated that it would not challenge the verdict. In March 2012, the Supreme Court reserved the matter for judgment. In addition, the Government of India has accepted one of the recommendations in the UN’s 2012 periodic review of human rights and has agreed to study the implications of the decriminalisation of same sex sexual relations in light of ongoing homophobia throughout India society.

A country-level report published by the UN Working Group on Human Rights in India entitled ‘Human Rights in India – Status Report 2012’ includes a case study on Professor Siras, an scholar at Aligarh Muslim University, whose rights of privacy, housing, and employment were denied by the University due to his sexual orientation. His death in April 2010 continues to remain uninvestigated, a situation that indicates that even though same-sex behavior may be decriminalized, there remains significant societal stigma that continue to prevent the full enjoyment civil, legal and human rights by LGBT Indians.

Increased Access to Social Schemes

The Aadhar card is a social scheme initiated by the Indian government in 2009. It includes a 12-digit individual identification number issued by the Unique Identification Authority of India and is equivalent to the Social Security card in the United States. In Aadhar’s second phase, the government has included an additional category under sex in addition to male and female: transgender. Similar provisions have been made in voter ID cards and passports, but in each case the option is ‘other,’ not ‘transgender.’ Recently, the government issued an order allowing hijras to use their guru’s name instead of their father’s/mother’s when applying for a voter ID card. (A ‘guru’ is the head of a hijra family or community.) This decision recognizes that many hijras are estranged or rejected by their biological families.

National Youth Policy

In 2012, the Government of India has included issues of sexual minorities in its National Youth Policy for the first time. The draft document says, ‘Transgenders have for long been the butt of ridicule and derision of the society. They have virtually lived a life of complete segregation from the mainstream, and gays and lesbians have never been accepted in the society as same gender sex has always been treated in our society as perverted and immoral behaviour. The result of these deeply embedded stereotypes and biases has been that gays and lesbians are reluctant to express their sexual preferences openly.’ The policy also mentions that special efforts will be made for employment and entrepreneurship for marginalised youth and for building the capacities of community-based organisations to create awareness of HIV and its social and health-related implications.

Justice Verma Committee Report on Rape Laws

In January 2013, Justice Verma committee submitted its report to the Home Ministry. The special committee was constituted following the brutal gang rape and murder of a female student in New Delhi in December 2012. In its report, the committee observed that there is an immediate need to recognise different sexual orientations as an authentic part of the human condition and that the use of word ‘sex’ in the Article 15(c) of the Indian Constitution includes sexual orientation as well. One of the recommendations of the committee is to disseminate correct knowledge in respect of sexuality and sexual options, without enforcing gender stereotypes. The report stresses the importance of communication efforts to encourage respect and understand gender, sexuality and gender relations amongst youth. The report also suggests making rape laws gender-neutral as sexual assault of males and transgenders is a reality.

 It is laudable that the Government of India has taken such positive steps towards making equality a reality for sexual minorities. Though these efforts suggest that India’s sexual minorities have entered a period of social restructuring, India remains a long way from realizing the dream of full equality, in law, policy and practice. For example, the recent law on surrogacy states that only a man and a woman who are married for at least two years will be allowed to engage surrogacy services in India. While facing ongoing barriers to equality, we should not be discouraged from claiming our status as full and equal citizens of India. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, ‘Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so must straighten our backs and work for our freedom.

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The author of this post, Yadavendra Singh, is Senior Programme Officer: Capacity Building for Alliance India’s Pehchan Programme.

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, 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. 

From Inequality to Inclusion: Recognizing the Vulnerabilities of Sexual Minorities in the Response to the Delhi Gang-Rape

The Justice J.S. Verma Commission stresses that the word ‘sex’ in the Constitution of India should be understood to include sexual orientation. (Photo © 2012 Peter Caton for India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

The Justice J.S. Verma Commission stresses that the word ‘sex’ in the Constitution of India should be understood to include sexual orientation. (Photo © 2012 Peter Caton for India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

Convened in the aftermath of the horrific gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi this past December, a special commission headed by former Chief Justice J.S. Verma was tasked to suggest amendments to criminal laws to improve the security of women in India and ensure speedier justice.

In its 657-page report released in January 2013, the Commission has provided an initial set of recommendations, but it has also gone a step beyond its mandate. Unexpectedly and to its great credit, the report has made special mention of India’s sexual minorities, who are too often also victims of social stigma, discrimination and violence.

Even in the first chapter of the report, the Commission stresses the need to acknowledge differences in sexual orientation as ‘a human reality’ and recognizes the range of sexual and gender identities.  It also makes clear that the use of the word ‘sex’ in the Constitution of India should be understood to include sexual orientation. The full passage is a remarkable testament to social progress in India:

We must also recognize that our society has the need to recognize different sexual orientations a human reality. In addition to homosexuality, bisexuality, and lesbianism, there also exists the transgender community. In view of the lack of scientific understanding of the different variations of orientation, even advanced societies have had to first declassify ‘homosexuality’ from being a mental disorder and now it is understood as a triangular development occasioned by evolution, partial conditioning and neurological underpinnings owing to genetic reasons. Further, we are clear that Article 15(c) of the constitution of India uses the word “sex” as including sexual orientation.”

The report also powerfully justifies the inclusion of sexual minorities as indisputably entitled to their human and legal rights and fully embraced as equal citizens:

“Thus, if human rights of freedom mean anything, India cannot deny the citizens the right to be different. The state must not use oppressive and repressive labeling of despised sexuality. Thus the right to sexual orientation is a human right guaranteed by the fundamental principles of equality. We must also add that transgender communities are also entitled to affirmation of gender autonomy. Our cultural prejudices must yield to constitutional principles of equality, empathy and respect.”

The report proposes qualitative indicators measuring the perception of safety and security for women and other vulnerable groups as a tool to improve police performance and accountability. It also makes case for ‘community policing,’ a strategy to involve local populations and increase confidence in the safety of the citizenry. The report places emphasis of building capacities of the police on both gender-based violence and discrimination.

These suggestions and the arguments used to justify them are not only indicative of dynamic social change in India but also offer an unprecedented opportunity for civil society—including those of us working to improve the health and wellbeing of marginalized communities—to build and sustain collaboration with law enforcement agencies and the judiciary.

Through this engagement, we can begin to address some of the structural forces that increase vulnerability to HIV and hamper efforts to create an enabling environment for women, sexual minorities and other groups who continue to live in constant fear for their safety and security.

Read our January 3rd blog, The Other Epidemic: Gender-based Violence in India.

Read the complete report here.

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The author of this post, Yadavendra Singh, is Senior Programme Officer: Capacity Building for Alliance India’s Pehchan Programme.

With support from the Global FundPehchan 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, 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.

The Other Epidemic: Gender-based Violence in India

Highly visible, India’s hijras manage the threat of violence as a routine and dehumanizing part of their daily lives. (Photo © 2012 Peter Caton for India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

Highly visible, India’s hijras manage the threat of violence as a routine and dehumanizing part of their daily lives.
(Photo © 2012 Peter Caton for India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

The world has watched over the past weeks as India has struggled to address the causes and consequences of sexual violence, an all too common part of life in this country. The horror of the December 16th rape and murder in New Delhi has not diminished, its brutality a reminder in extremis of our collective failure to respond to male violence in its myriad manifestations.

If there is any good that can come out of this grim demonstration of humanity’s darkness, it is the emerging movement to speak publicly about the culture of rape, harassment and discrimination that limits and destroys the lives of too many Indians. The government’s response so far has done little to build confidence that change will come quickly.

In the past, the standard and accepted reaction of the government and its institutions responsible for public safety and security has been inaction or worse. Of the more than 600 reported rapes in Delhi during 2012, only one so far has been successfully prosecuted. In Punjab, the police response to a young woman’s efforts to report her rape so diminished her that she ended her life rather than face further humiliation.

While tempting and indisputably true, we must do more than simply blame men. Men must change, of this there can be no doubt, but if we really seek transform society, we need to make peace with the complexity of gender and sexuality. Too often gender and sexuality are framed in a static male-female binary. Few if any of us can honestly say that we don’t routinely encounter variations. Yet these variations are ridiculed and criminalized for failing to adhere to the established norm.

Consequently, far too many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in India live lives of secrecy and shame. Those who reveal their sexual identities or who deviate from gender norms face social rejection, economic marginalization, and physical violence—by now a familiar litany of consequences for not being a heterosexual male.

If we are to address sexism in India and the violence against women and girls that it generates, we cannot ignore its connection to homophobia and transphobia. Though not identical, they are fellow travelers. Misguided ideas about male heterosexual power and privilege allow men and boys to claim control over the lives of those whose sexuality and gender are different from theirs.

Gender-based violence is an epidemic facing India and the world, and like AIDS, it will require a sustained and committed effort to overcome. Attitudes must change. We must never tolerate violence against women and girls. We must never be blind to gender’s diversity. We must never excuse or accept any violence based on gender or sexuality, and we must never step away from our responsibility to speak, to act and to end this epidemic.

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The author of this post, James Robertson, is Country Director of India HIV/AIDS Alliance in New Delhi.

Remembering Sukanya: International Transgender Day of Remembrance 2012

This Diwali, Aarthi called. I expected her usual warm greetings and was unprepared for her distressed voice.

“I wanted to tell you sooner but could not get you on the phone. Abhi, I have bad news for you.”

I was very tensed. Aarthi had never spoken to me like this. “What happened?“

“You know Sukanya?”

”Sukanya? I haven’t heard from her in nine years. She vanished from my life. The last I knew she shifted to Bangalore without saying goodbye. What happened to her?”

Aarthi replied, now sobbing, “Sukanya’s no more!”

My heart skipped. There was silence. At last, I shouted, “How? When?”

“She went to Bangalore. Nobody knew where she was or what she was doing.”

I had first known Sukanya as a dusky hijra girl when she was no more than 26 years of age. She used to work with me as an outreach worker when we ran a special programme for transgenders and hijras in Mumbai at the Humsafar Trust. More than her physical beauty, I always knew Sukanya to be humble and well-cultured. She used to greet everyone with a beautiful, sweet smile and a polite voice.

We had a special bond between us from the start. Sukanya and I were like real sisters, but there was a side of her personality which I never figured out. Some used to joke that Sukanya could be identified from a kilometer away since she was always drunk. To hide her drinking, she wore heavy perfume and used mouth fresheners. I encouraged her to quit many times, but her promises to stop would be broken the next day.

Finally, I got mad. I shared my anger. Sukanya cried and kept crying. I tried my best to console her. Sukanya talked about the rejection from her family. She told me about her struggle for survival as a hijra. She was an outreach worker part time during the day, but at night she did sex work. Finally she broke down and revealed she was living with HIV for almost two years. She had no support and was terrified of dying. The more she worried, the more she drank.

Sukanya told me, “I want to finish this life so that I can come back in next one as a good girl. Sukanya means ‘good girl.’ The life of a hijra is full of discrimination, hatred, and loneliness. In the next life, I want to be a pretty girl. I want to have everything in life. I want the love of my parents. I want to be married and have kids. I want to be healthy, and I want to earn my income with dignity.”

I connected her to a mental health counsellor, and she started showing improvement. I was happy with her progress. I moved to a new job, and my contact with her reduced. The last I heard about her was that she wanted to reconnect with her family and left without telling anyone. It made me happy to think of her reunited with her parents and living at home in Karnataka. Until Aarthi called on Diwali.

Aarthi told me that Sukanya had been murdered, brutally. Her murderer is rumoured to be her longtime partner, who hanged her from a ceiling fan to give the impression of a suicide. The police have still not charged anyone with the crime. For the rest of the day, I could not speak to anyone but kept thinking: Is it so difficult for a transgender to find love, live with dignity and be accepted by her family?

Her murder is still sinking in, and my thoughts return to her again and again. Above all, I hope she comes back in another life as what she always wanted to be: Sukanya, a good girl, but honestly, she will always be one in my heart.

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Abhina Aher is Manager for the Pehchan programme at India HIV/AIDS Alliance in New Delhi.

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, 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.