I am a trans woman and I’ve been struggling to survive with my preferred gender identity right from my childhood. I was born and brought up in a Bengali middle-class family. My struggles began decades before the transgender rights verdict of the Supreme Court of India in 2014, the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019, the reading down of Section 377, Indian Penal Code in 2018. These policy and legal developments, whatever be their positive impact, were unimaginable when I decided to resist the heteronormative impositions of society.
Every moment was a struggle, and every night when I went to bed, I’d think what the next day would be like, what new hurt and challenges it would bring. Studying in a boys’ school, followed by a co-educational college, was no less than a nightmare. Above all, my parents had their set of expectations from their ‘son’. Yet, I managed to complete my studies with the vision of a new tomorrow. Life got better when I started working in community-based organizations and later national and international NGOs on the health and social justice concerns of trans people. Over the years, I have grown both personally and professionally.
Today, when I look back and compare the contemporary scenario for trans persons with the situation earlier, only one thought comes to mind. We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.
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If I have to talk about the challenges trans persons face today, it’s difficult to decide where to begin. I’m sure it’d be the same for every marginalized community. For the trans communities, the policy and legal changes may have brought about some protection. However, widespread inclusion in healthcare, education, and livelihood is still inadequate. I think that we, the community leaders, activists, policymakers, advocates, and healthcare professionals, are still failing to address the issue of inclusion based on needs, evidence, and adopting a participatory approach. No wonder then, trans students still drop out from school and college, healthcare is anything but community friendly, and reliable livelihood opportunities are few and far between.
Yesterday, my efforts were concentrated on contributing to social movements for rights. The movements must go on, but today, after laws like the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act and the associated Rules have been passed, I feel we need to work more on what’s often called ‘mainstreaming’. The day is yet to come when each one of us would be seen for our skills, talents, values, and struggles, rather than our gender identity or sexual orientation. There are many individuals, organizations and collectives working to bridge this gap, and I hope this will lead to positive outcomes in good time.
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Looking ahead, I feel there are two interlinked areas which need close attention – the mental health of trans persons and their old age needs. These are issues that can’t be left to governments and larger society. The trans and queer communities also need to put their mind to these issues.
Mental health, of course, is a universal concern, especially when we see how modernization and digitization is keeping us away from each other and making us lonelier. There was a time when my parents and relatives kept constant watch on my behaviour and movements. They were concerned that I might become the reason for them to face criticism from the extended family and the larger community. Strangely, I miss that – not the policing aspect, but the physical and even emotional closeness of the natal family. Today, I have a partner, and many queer and trans friends and colleagues, but how much togetherness do we have? We’re more in touch over social media than in person. This often makes me demotivated about life. What’s going to happen tomorrow when I won’t be able to work anymore? Will I have a support system? Will my chosen family be next to me if I fall sick like my natal family used to be?
We do have old age homes in the cities, but these are accessible almost only to cisgender and heterosexual people, and often only to the well-off ones. I’m sure the quality of care they receive also depends on their financial strength. In contrast, what’s there for queer and trans people, and especially for trans persons? In recent years, government-supported shelter homes called Garima Greh have come up in some cities for trans persons. However, these too don’t provide long-term geriatric support. As a trans person, after struggling for my entire life, can’t I even aspire to spend my remaining life in dignity and without fear of being ridiculed and neglected?
While I’m thankful to the government and civil society organizations which have started the Garima Greh programme, I feel much more needs to be done in terms of careful planning, training, and sustained financial resources to ensure old age support for trans persons on a large scale. Perhaps public-private partnerships can ensure this. Donor and philanthropic agencies also need to prioritize this concern.
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Ten years from now I’d like to see trans inclusive shelter homes and old age homes in every state, if not every district of India. These need not even be exclusively for trans persons. Rather, they must be committed to providing healthcare and mental health support to all the marginalized people, to all those who have been left behind by a society obsessed with ‘moving forward’.
Can we dare to imagine social movements that look beyond boxes like gender identity and sexual orientation, or even caste, class, race, and religion? Indeed, social movements that aim to ensure care, support, and dignity for the aged, infirm, and most neglected?
About the main photo: The author conducting a sensitization session on transgender health concerns with the staff of All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi earlier this year. Photo courtesy AIIMS