Though ‘transgender’ is now an officially recognised category in India, people who identify as such still find social acceptance and housing tough to come by.
Text and Photos by Radhika Agarwal
Chandrakala invites me inside her pavement home. Supported by a roadside railing on one side, with walls of hay and an orange plastic sheet as its roof, the space inside is lit by a solitary lamp offered to Goddess Yellama, the deity worshipped by transgenders who follow Hinduism. Thirty-year old Chandrakala belongs to the transgender community and lives alone on a pavement near Elphinstone road. Her parents live two huts away with her brother and his family. “My parents have not been able to accept my sexuality even after so many years,” she says. As I look at some of the spaces inhabited by members of the transgendered community in the city, I discover that many transgenders have not been accepted by their own families and have in fact been turned out of their family homes. Not having a home, a space to be yourself, is one of the many heartrending troubles that the transgender community faces.
Transgender, according to the U.S. National Center for Transgender Equality, is a term for people whose gender identity, expression or behaviour is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth. In India, transgenders received legal recognition only in April 2014 though they were counted for the first time in Census 2011. The official count of the third gender – an umbrella term for people who do not identify themselves as either male or female – in the country is 4.9 lakhs, though gender activists estimate the number to be much higher. In Maharashtra, the census count is 41 transgendered persons per 1000 people.
The glow of the oil lamp is the only source of light in the miniscule space that Chandrakala inhabits. Earlier she stayed in slums nearby and when they were demolished, she moved under a flyover, which has now been sealed off for ‘beautification’ purposes. She fears that she might be removed from this pavement too. Chandrakala, who survives through begging on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays – collecting not more than Rs 250 to 300 per day– is not afraid of dealing with her poverty. What she fears instead is being moved to some other space with different people who might exploit her sexual vulnerability. Here, she has adjusted with her neighbours. With new people she will have to go through the trauma once again.
For instance, she talks of her experiences of going to the toilet. Before the public toilet in her area was built six years ago, she was forced to defecate in the open which would often be embarrassing as a few women would end up staring at her genitals. In that respect, having access to a public toilet has been a relief. She prefers using the ladies washroom but often gets awkward stares from other people around.
Even though the public toilet here charges Rs 3 per use and some more for taking a bath, making a huge dent in her meagre income, Chandrakala feels it’s a better option. Of course, what she dreams about is a house of her own with an attached toilet. Till then she will contend bravely with people’s stares and rebukes. “Sab logon ka soch to ab hum badal to nahi sakte? (Now, we can’t change all the people’s thinking, can we?)” she asks.
Sarita*, a 27-year-old transgender who works as a sex-worker, also lives on the street. “Ghar kya hota hai hamein kabhi pata hi nahin chala (What is a home, we never really got to know),” she says while eating her dinner at a roadside hotel. She would prefer to cook her own food but all her utensils were lost during the rains when she was out for work. With no family to look after her belongings when she’s not around her jhopdi, she feels the need for a permanent roof over her head. She has a sister and her children, but she says, “They harass me a lot, so I prefer living on my own”.
Humare community ke logon ke pass option hi kya hai?” says Shri Devi…“If I have to live in this house, I will have to listen to what they tell me”…She is not allowed to wear clothes which are ‘feminine’ nor put on make-up. Simple desires of having the freedom to express oneself through one’s clothes is denied to Shri.
“It’s most difficult to survive during the rains,” explains Sarita. Work is difficult to come by especially when water fills up to the knees and it becomes difficult to walk to the areas where she solicits her clients. Besides, finding a dry space to store clothes, mattresses, food materials and cooking items is the toughest. All her neighbours face the same problem, but as they live in families they learn to do things for each other. During the rains, many of them suffer from dengue, malaria and other water borne diseases. Sarita says she cannot afford to fall sick as she earns and lives on her own and also supports her sister.
What Priya, a 33-year-old transgender who works as a make-up artist, finds particularly annoying is that many people assume her to be sexually promiscuous just because she identifies as transgender. Thus, she prefers to always have a male friend with her when she has to meet a new person.
Priya came to the city when she was in Class 8. It had become difficult for her to stay at home with her parents. The family was ashamed of her, neighbours would ridicule her, and in school other students would tease her for being ‘feminine’. For her, everything about home was bleak, and suffocating. She liked to hang out with girl-friends but was forced to play games that supposedly boys play. Thus she preferred to run away to Mumbai. “Bohot suna tha ki Bombay sabko apnaati hai (I had heard that Bombay accepts everyone),” she says. She started looking for jobs in the film line and ended up as a make-up artist. She lived in an assortment of slums but was regularly abused and teased. Therefore she constantly moved in and out of several slum colonies and in between took shelter at a few friends’ houses. Recently, a dancer friend abruptly asked her to leave her house. She is now living with another friend but the insecurity of not having her own home always haunts her. To find a room in a building society has proven an impossible task. People judge her, assume her to be involved in sex work and often exploit her. Some landlords have even tried to take advantage of her by asking her to engage in sexual relations with them.
A real-estate broker in Chembur, who did not wish to be named, explains that “we do not rent houses to hijras as their presence in a building society causes property rates to fall.” The brokers if approached either completely ignore their request, or send them away to places on the outskirts of Mumbai to find flats. Here too, they are forced to pay higher rentals due to their third sex identity.
Priya has lived out of a suitcase and vanity box for most of her life yet she refuses to give up her dreams: of finding a partner to spend the rest of her life with, of buying her own house and of opening her own make-up training academy.
“Humare community ke logon ke pass option hi kya hai (What are our options)?” says Shri Devi, a 31-year-old make-up artist on being asked why she doesn’t wear sarees more often when she enjoys it. “If I have to live in this house, I will have to listen to what they tell me,” says Shri who lives with her parents, grandmother and three brothers in a one room-kitchen house in Parel. The flat was allotted to her parents under the Slum Rehabilitation Act, 1995. She is not allowed to wear clothes which are ‘feminine’ nor put on make-up. Simple desires of having the freedom to express oneself through one’s clothes is denied to Shri. Recently friends and neighbours have been asking her to move away from her family and begin a life for herself. “They tell me once my brothers get married, who will be with you but I ask, who will look after my mother if I go away,” says Shri.
Triveni Kendra in Malad is a non-profit organisation that is run by transgenders for increasing awareness and help for HIV and AIDS among hijra sex workers. Vashi, a worker says, “Even under MHADA (Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority), we don’t get houses. This is why we end up in slums.” She thinks there should be separate housing societies for hijras and the government should help them provide a better standard of living and more protection against exploitation. Shri and other transgender women are hopeful that now that they have been recognized as the third gender in India by an order of the Supreme Court, things will change. They are looking forward to welfare schemes for their development, better job opportunities, reservation in education institutions, protection against sexual and mental harassment, allotment of houses under government schemes and a separate board – with at least fifty per cent transgender community members – to look after the interests of transgenders.
Will India’s third sex finally get its dues?
*Name changed on request
(The photographs in this article were shot in Kamathipura during the 2014 annual festival of the Goddess Yellamma, traditionally worshipped by devdasis and transgendered Hindus.)