Building a Transgender Inclusive India

In the intricate fabric of Indian society, the distinction between sex and gender has often been blurred, leading to misconceptions and discrimination against transgender individuals. While sex refers to biological characteristics such as reproductive organs, gender encompasses the societal roles, behaviours, and attributes considered appropriate for men and women. Transgender individuals, therefore, are those whose gender identity differs from the sex assigned to them at birth. The realisations of a mismatch in the assigned sex at birth and the gender identity can happen at any age and post-that it is the individual’s agency to their gender transition (appearance, pronouns, hormone therapy or even medical procedure). A society living in binaries struggles to understand and accept these nuances leading to discrimination.

The roots of this inability to understand and in extreme situations even ostracize have significant colonial roots. India, and more specifically Hindu mythology has prominent transgender figures like Shikhandi and Ardhanarishvara, who challenge binary notions of gender. Transgender communities have found mentions in folklore, epic and early Vedic and Puranic literature.  Pre-colonial Indian society acknowledged a spectrum of gender identities, however, the colonial imposition of Victorian moralities led to rigid gender norms that marginalized transgender individuals and resulted in criminalizing behaviors that deviated from heterosexual, cisgender norms. In 1871, the colonial government criminalized the hijras with an aim to ‘exterminate’ them.

Indian cinema and media have played a pivotal role in shaping public perceptions of transgender individuals, often perpetuating harmful stereotypes and misconceptions. Portrayals of transgender characters in mainstream media tend to reinforce stereotypes, depicting them as objects of ridicule or pity instead of humane characters with relatable realities and depth. This portrayal not only reflects societal attitudes but also reinforces them, perpetuating a cycle of discrimination and marginalization. 

However, thanks to social media, movies are only one of the many ways to consume content now. Due to social media platforms such as Instagram that offer independent content creation to an extent, influencers such as Sushant Divgikar/Rani KoHEnur and Dr Trinetra use their platform to spread awareness about modern transgender identities and representation on the large screens. Another noteworthy mention is that of Shreegauri Sawant who is a transgender activist and does prolific social work in this space.

To combat discrimination against transgender individuals, concerted efforts are needed across multiple fronts. Legal reforms aimed at recognizing and protecting the rights of transgender individuals are crucial in fostering inclusivity and equality. The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019, represents a significant step towards addressing the systemic discrimination faced by transgender communities in India. This stands crucial as it gives a politically recognised identity to the transgender community and the official engagement of the Indian state with the concerns and safeguarding of the transgender community. However, effective implementation and enforcement of such legislation are imperative to ensure meaningful change.

Effective implementation here also includes the critical social dimensions. While the Act is a great legal step, in one’s day-to-day life the social stigmatization faced by transgender persons often results in limited access to education, healthcare, and employment opportunities . Funding support to initiatives which work towards the development of transgender persons are catalytic. An interesting example is of the IndusInd Bank which provides CSR support to the Sahapedia Frames Photography Grant under which a grant-winning photographer has covered Tamil Nadu’s unique Koovagam festival for transgender persons .

This CSR support was extended without a singled-out mention of LGBTQ. This shows that in addition to benchmark policies such as the Equal Opportunity Policy, CSR can be a champion of support to the transgender communities. As CSR is quite the double agent which can flip financial, organizational and social elements into wins or risks, corporates are often hesitant to support areas of gender and sexual norms without adequate government endorsement . Here PACTA, an India-based law firm and policy think tank recommends funding initiatives that fall under the CSR scope with transgender communities and sexual minorities as a key target group and the creation of specific impact targets.

While the issues of transgender people are historical and complex, as individuals, the present is quite simple. It is bizarre how often people forget to give dignity and respect when they encounter an individual who does not fall into the conventional and convenient binaries. The language they speak and their body language take a dip towards another member of the same society. Yet this is based on our convenience as well! Because the same society wholeheartedly welcomes transwomen to bless their young ones and the newlyweds. The blessings which are so respected for an occasion do not translate to respecting the trans-community as members of the society. 

The recommendation here is quite simple. With the world quite literally at our fingertips – read, listen, watch and become more aware. In addition, in the Indian subcontinent, we have magnificent languages which have the ‘respect form’. In case anyone is ever stumped or even annoyed by gender identities or pronouns, just remember to be respectful and kind. Our respect form helps us out effortlessly!

Reading recommendations: 

  1. Corporate Social Responsibility and Sexual and Gender Minorities: Building the Bridge
  2. A Manifesto for Trans Inclusion in the Indian Workplace – Godrej India Culture Lab


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