Love can never be categorised or legislated. Last April, a friend sent me a link to a video advertisement on YouTube, warning me to be "ready with your handkerchief". While I watched, the images on the ad hit me like a bus. They brought forth a flood of emotions and memories from my years growing up as a transgender woman in Mumbai, India. If you haven't yet seen this video, you should—it's an emotional and overpowering 3 minutes!
The "Touch of Care" video is part of a recent advertisement campaign for Vicks lozenges. The images challenge the concepts and norms of a traditional family in India. It shows a girl going to boarding school speaking about her strong mother who adopted her despite all odds, and who wishes to see her grow up to become a doctor. As the ad ends, we see the mother is Gauri Sawant, a hijra activist and transgender woman. Since its release, the video has gone viral, attracting more than 9.5 million views on YouTube.
The story reminds us that people do not need to be legally or genetically connected to become a family. Gauri and others like her have broken the traditional concepts of family. In a recent interview, Gauri stated, "Through this film, society will understand that motherhood has no gender. All you need is care. The only thing that matters is people's perceptions—the day that changes, everything will."
Since our friendship began in 2000, Gauri and I have worked together to promote the rights, health and well-being of hijra and transgender people in India. It was in that year, we began organising hijras and transgender women to participate in the first public protest against the government's crackdown on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil society groups in north India using draconian provisions of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Later in 2012, we jointly filed a petition letter with the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) in a social justice litigation to the Supreme Court of India on rights and equality of transgender persons.
Against all expectations we were successful! On 14 April 2014, the honorable court in their judgment recognised that fundamental rights are extended to the third gender in the same manner as they are extended to males and females. Furthermore, non-recognition of the third gender in both criminal and civil statutes, such as those relating to "family, including marriage, adoption, divorce, etc. is discriminatory."
More and more transgender people in the region are challenging social norms, demanding greater inclusion and noting the importance of family in our societies.
Since 2014, this judgment has set a clear example for local courts pronouncing affirmative judgments on legal gender recognition, right to inheritance and property, and against discrimination in healthcare settings and the workplace. For Indian transgender people, the NALSA judgment remains a watershed moment.
Through all these years, hijra and transgender women have taken strength from our unwavering belief that we are right; our demand for our rights is part of the larger chorus of voices of disenfranchised Indians across the country calling on the State and judiciary to uphold our constitutional values of equality and non-discrimination.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says clearly "all are equal before the law... all are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination." The NALSA judgment, provided a much needed push for the Indian judiciary system and legislature to sit up and take notice of the rights, health and well-being of hijras and transgender people. Building on the momentum of the transgender ruling, lesbian, gay and bisexual groups are now referencing the NALSA case in their petitions for decriminalisation of same-sex sexual behavior and for equality.
As a UNDP policy analyst on human rights with the Being LGBTI in Asia programme, I am using my personal experiences to support transgender activists in the region as they shape their advocacy strategies to work with governments to formulate inclusive public policy and pass comprehensive transgender legislation.
More and more transgender people in the region are challenging social norms, demanding greater inclusion and noting the importance of family in our societies. We are seeing empowered transgender advocates work with governments, the judiciary and human rights bodies to further protect the lives of transgender people in their communities. As a transgender woman, I am proud to be a small part of this historic movement.