As he sat on that chair, years of toiling in his eyes and a glimmer of hope within, one could only wonder how long it must have taken to get here. In fact, just 10 years ago, this article couldn’t refer to Montu Rongpi as a man. His ordeal reverberates the pain, anxiety and tortuous lives of trans people in northeast India and, indeed, across the country and many parts of the world.
“I was going through anxiety issues as I got fired from my previous job; nobody was willing to hire me because of my gender. I am educated, I speak good English and Hindi, and know basic computer work. But, because of my gender, I had no value. I lost all my savings. I didn’t have food to eat due to the lockdown imposed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. I ate only one meal a day,” Montu says, close to tears as he remembers the years behind him.
Those tears of Haflong-based Montu are of respite. Things are looking up. He now has a job as a hairstylist in Guwahati, and can now make some money for food and a roof over his head. This is perhaps the first time he can work since 2015 when he decided to come out and live as his true self. Before then, Montu lived in self-denial, afraid of what the world would say, how people would see him and all the sacrifices he’d have to make.
Montu grew up in the 1980s, at a time when the Indian society was a lot more intolerant to transgenders. “I knew I was different, but there were zero resources available, and it was something that I had to live with, in silence. Nothing else about my life felt like I was a woman. I never had a self-image in my head that presented me as a woman. I wore boxers, shirts, jeans, shorts and the like. I never felt comfortable in female attire. I longed for the musculature of my male-bodied peers,” he says.
By the time Montu was 20, he had a pretty good idea of what was happening to him; he had read about transgenders and the rest. However, he was still too scared to come out: to the point that he attempted suicide in 2015.
Coming out was hard, but Montu had decided he was either going to live as his true self or not live at all. Although he lost family and friends in the process, he has come to realise that the greatest love of all is the love for self.
Like Montu, several other trans people have to go through the ordeal of accepting their identity; of owning who they are. While there are, perhaps, millions who are afraid to come out of their shell as a result of society’s (and even government’s) disdain for them, there are those who have been bold enough to come out and have continued to face rejection, taunts, criticism, attacks and even outright seclusion in India.
On paper, it may seem like laws and policies have exterminated the caste system, the reality is that social castes have simply been redefined as cases of discrimination and unequal treatment have continued unattended. This is even more pronounced when one considers the way trans people and others within the LGBTQIA community are treated.
The term “Hijra” is used to refer to transgender people, intersex individuals and sometimes, eunuchs. Although loosely discussed, referred to and even sometimes featured in the entertainment industry and politics, that is as far as it goes. Hijras are not exactly accepted in mainstream Indian communities. Not stated on paper, but careful observation would reveal that this group of people are denied the rights and freedoms that make them human in the first place. Today, they live by themselves in secluded communities on the outskirts, exiled at a tender age of 16, ridiculed and reduced to beggars and sex workers, and virtually denied the opportunity to be incorporated into India’s main community.
When you consider that society has taken everything else away from a group, survival becomes the only morality left.
Nagaland-based Lorein knows this too well. Lorein’s void grew with her through her childhood. She felt out of place, misunderstood and unwanted. She never wanted riches or fame; all she needed was acceptance and love. All that was absent until she met Duldul Rahman. All she knew before that time was begging and prostitution, waking up every morning on a bench by the road to sounds of whispers, jeers and outright taunts.
The transgender community is even ignored by politics and legislation, who would rather turn a blind eye because it strikes some self-righteous chord. They would rather not offend the majority in society who treat Hijras as outcasts.
In recent time, the threat has been backed by a paradoxical legal provision that makes it impossible for trans people to decide to be trans. Let’s consider a few instances…
An Indian Supreme Court Ruling of 2014 passed recognised “transgender” as a third gender, entitled to enjoying fundamental rights and benefits, including education and employment. Ironically, the Transgender Persons Bill passed in 2019 took back some of those rights and privileges granted by the Supreme Court (whose judgement should be law). The “right to self-perceived identity” was granted to trans people as long as they register with government and provide proof of gender confirmation surgery.
The paradox seems baffling to rights advocates who can’t comprehend how one law gives you one thing with one hand and takes it with another. The law itself already calls it the “right to self-perceived identity”. Would it still be “self-perceived” if one needs to provide some medical papers showing proof of surgery? Does it mean one cannot perceive himself a man or a woman unless that person has gone under the needle? Are the concepts of femininity and masculinity restricted to issues of physical traits? Where does biological, emotional and hormonal considerations come into play?
An October 2015 High Court ruling in Delhi also puts things clearly and begs the question of human choice. As Justice Siddharth Mridul said, “a transgender [person’s] sense or experience of gender is integral to their core personality and sense of being. In so far as I understand the law, everyone has a fundamental right to be recognized in their chosen gender.”
A number of things seem wrong with the 2019 law; the fact that an individual must apply for a “transgender certificate” seems not too far-fetched. However, the said individual must also apply for a “change in gender certificate”, so that authorities can effect such changes legally, but this certificate can only be obtained if the person provides “proof of surgery” from a hospital. Yet, this “proof” must be deemed “satisfactory” and “correct” by the district magistrate. Trans people like Montu and Lorein find it hard to believe that the law would compel people to go through a medical procedure they may not want to.
Both the United Nations and the World Health Organisation (including the Asia-Pacific Transgender Network) recommend that states should eliminate abusive preconditions and issue legal identity documents based on request. It holds that what is important is recognising “each person’s self-defined gender identity”. Rights Activists also agree. Transgender activist and first transgender judge of Assam, Swati Bidhan Baruah made ‘Ami Tritiyo’ – a two-and-a-half-minute video recently to condemn the incessant discrimination of the trans community by a largely patriarchal Indian society.
“I came up with this video to highlight the problems faced by our people. There is a huge gap between the society and our community. The solution begins from sensitisation. In ‘Ami Tritiyo’ we casted our community members in lead roles to demonstrate the actual emotions,” Baruah said.
Assistant Professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and co-founder of Xukia and Queer Adda, Bitopi Deka, simply regards the trans bill as “heteropatriarchal”. In her words, “It is exclusionist and insensitive to the issues of trans people, which is quite the reverse of what the bill was intended to do.” She blames the insensitivity of the bill on the lack of consultation of the trans community and activists by the Indian government. To emphasise the discrimination and lack of opportunities accorded trans people, Bitopi asks; “How many trans people do we have in any kind of authority positions in India?”
And just when you try to reflect on that, he throws up another question; “Are our workplaces trans friendly? Forget workplaces, how many public toilets in our towns and cities are trans-friendly? How many trans people have been driven out of their homes and families for accepting their identity and coming out with it? The police atrocities on transgender people, absence of reservation for transgender people in education and recruitment opportunities and so on, add to the range of struggles that transgender people have to face every day,” she adds.
On his part, Shivalal Gautam, a queer activist, co-founder of the Assamese LGBTQ+ group ‘Xomonnoy‘, and co-organiser of the annual LGBTQIA+ Guwahati Pride walk, says it is about time Assam begins to talk about all the indignity and inhuman treatment meted against transgender people because there is need for protection. Gautam observes that the National Register of Citizens Act (NRC) must be revisited to safeguard the trans person, as much as it does any other person in Assam. Gautam also voices the need for specific policies and actions that will tackle the actual issues faced in Assam and, by extension, northeast India. The issue of cost in the gender affirmation process is another factor that stifles the rights of trans people, according to him.
“The central ministry has come up with a five-member committee that is supposed to look after the problems the transgender individuals face. Not a single person from the northeast region has been included in the committee. How would someone else know what’s happening in these 8 states of NE region? There is no food security in place. No job opportunity. People coming from marginalised cast or poor economic background don’t have special reservations. There’re no spousal benefits or inheritance. They do not have livelihood options,” says Gautam.
“The way forward to all of it is the government should be willing to hear our voices. There should be consultations. Proper participation of transgender individuals and activists is important. That’s how the authorities will know the real problems from people doing grassroots level work,” he adds.
Manipur-based queer and transgender rights activist Santa Khurai is another figure to have have spoken up on the subject. “Even the word, ‘third gender’ is a gender bias term,” she begins.
“Northeast is a conflict-ridden region and the consciousness on gender issues is zero,” she adds.
To back her initial premise, Santa says, “I am a Nupi Maanbi (transgender woman), not a third-class gender. Do men occupy the first position in gender? Women second? And trans third?”
Sharing her opinion on the Trans Bill, Santa says in a tone of disappointment that the voices from northeast India region are not given enough importance.
“The Trans Bill is not going to serve the community. Specifically northeast India, as the region has its own cultural paradigm and the bill is completely against our belief system as we transgenders believe in gender plurality. And gender in not fixed like the Western construct. You will find the gender plurality belief in Meghalaya, Manipur and Nagaland. In the bill, trans is being fixed to one gender, i.e. trans. If a person wishes to identify either as male or female then the person has to go for Sex Reassigned Surgery (SRS). Many aren’t even aware of SRS. Here in northeast, community members are living either as men or women without undergoing any surgery And the society doesn’t question their gender or asks for certificates for gender validation.”
Like Gautam, Santa also thinks the northeast should have a specific focus on the subject of transgender, and not necessarily take on the central colouration.
“I want to appeal to the government to ensure that trans persons have the same civic rights as other people in society, with regards to property, inheritance, adoption and recognition in relationships,” she adds.