If you watch a video interview of Naina, a young transgender person living in New Delhi, uploaded a couple of days ago, you will think her as anything but weak. Radiant and beautiful, Naina came out before her entire school during assembly last year. Her mother and friends support her unconditionally. In her darkest days, she had contemplated suicide, like many members of her community, but her fortitude and inner strength have seen her through – and hopefully has set her on the path of a better future.
That path is now expected to get even smoother, with the Cabinet's approval of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill 2016. Once this bill becomes law, it will empower Naina with rights and privileges denied to her so far. But the law's enabling force, ironically, will work only by putting her at par with scheduled castes (SC), scheduled tribes (ST) and other backward classes (OBC).
Transgender people in India, whether they belong to the elite or the underprivileged sections of society, have battled the stigma attached to their identity across the board. Shame, which causes families to kill one another in this country, is the great leveller and, along with the fear of the Other, it cuts across class, caste and religion.
After the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in April recognising transgender people as belonging to the "third gender", the door was opened for legal reforms that would allow for greater social justice in the daily lives of these people. Now, with the passage of the Bill, transgender people will hopefully have a better chance at being integrated into the so-called mainstream, leading to "greater inclusiveness", which, in turn, will make them "productive members of society," as a report in The Indian Express says.
While the intentions behind the Bill deserve to be lauded in the highest terms, a few questions also need to be addressed in this context.
First: is it possible for law to change a society's way of thinking and feeling about a certain section of its people? Legal protection may be a deterrent to harassment or violence, but can it erase the blight of stigma from the mindset of common people?
In the eyes of modern Indian society, transgender people are 'aberrations', performers who seek alms or curse back if they are thwarted. In spite of the presence of prominent members of the community in various walks of public life, from politics to showbiz, society is far from equitable towards them. Thanks to the coercive arm of the law, transgender people are soon to be allowed into more workplaces through affirmative action, but their quality of life will probably improve only in a limited sense.
Better income may ensure better standards of living, but it doesn't necessarily always guarantee dignity, respect and affection from the 'mainstream'. We are no strangers to stories of Dalit workers, even in white-collar offices, being subjected to mental torture, harassment and every other shade of overt and covert discrimination. So we can only hope to be prudent about a situation where transgender people are going to be part of the same workforce and expect to be treated as equals, maybe even as superiors in some instances, along with the rest.
Second: should the definition of welfare be limited to, or understood solely vis-à-vis, a community's material circumstances? Is it possible to imagine human rights without giving individuals the right to a private life, the right to love freely, marry a person of their choice and have children with them?
The major anomaly in the current scenario of gender justice is Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which criminalises sexual acts between consenting adults that are "against the order of nature". Recently, when Radhika, a transwoman, married Shivakumar, a man, in the Koppal district of Karnataka recently, the law created havoc in their lives.
Both of them, now legitimate subjects in the eyes of the state, could be prosecuted under Section 377 for making the mutually consensual, adult decision of having sex with each other. Will the passage of the Transgender Bill grant them spousal benefits? Will it give thousands of others like them the right to live out their lives romantically, sexually and emotionally, freely and fearlessly as any other couple?
The Transgender Bill is a harbinger of immense change – a truly historic moment in India's human rights movements. But it should only be seen as a stepping stone to more significant reforms in laws governing the private lives of citizens.