In a landmark ruling yesterday, India’s Supreme Court decided that transgender individuals need no longer identify themselves as “male” or “female” on official documents. The court also called for an expansion of rights:
Hijras are deprived of jobs, education and health care; turned away at hospitals, limited by the practice of male and female wards. India had taken steps to ensure their recognition when India’s Election Commission earlier allowed a third gender of “other” on voter registration forms for the national elections now taking place.
But the Supreme Court on Tuesday expressed concern over transgenders being harassed in society and said “it was the right of every human being to choose their gender.” It directed the government to bring them into the mainstream, ordering it to set aside quotas for jobs and education for transgender individuals, bringing them in line with the benefits already afforded other minority groups and lower castes. The court said hijras will be entitled to “all other rights,” including passports, voter cards and driving licenses.
Rama Lakshmi explains how to square this ruling with the decision the court handed down in December, reinstating a colonial-era law criminalizing homosexuality:
In many ways, expanding the rights to transgendered people is far easier than legalizing homosexuality in India. For centuries, eunuchs – called hijras in Hindi — were given a special place in Indian religious epics and parables.
“Granting rights to transgenders is more acceptable to our psyche because we find many transgender characters in our religious, cultural mythologies and literature. Some of our Hindu Gods were of third-gender, some Gods changed their gender seamlessly to perform specific roles and rituals,” said Rose Venkatesan, who transitioned from being a man to a woman four years ago and is a former television host and an independent filmmaker in the southern city of Chennai. “There are temples and annual religious festivals for the transgender community.”
But in modern times, the eunuch community has lived in closed and segregated communes, either feared or reviled by their neighbors. In cities, it is not uncommon for eunuchs to show up at wedding parties and celebrations of the birth of a child wearing vibrant clothing and singing and dancing, clapping their hands aggressively and demanding money in return for blessing.
(Photo: Transgender Indians express their happiness with victory signs after the Supreme Court verdict in which it granted recognition to transgender people as a third category of gender in New Delhi, India on April 15, 2014. By Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)