My earliest memory of hijras goes back to a childhood summer vacation in Hyderabad in the 1980s. When I looked intriguingly at a few boisterous, sari clad persons walking past my aunt's house one afternoon, my mother said, “These cheerful people dance at the homes of newborns and weddings and bless the infants or the bride and groom. We may not see them in Chennai (where we then lived) easily, but they are present in Hyderabad. In fact, some of them danced outside the house where we lived temporarily, after your birth here”.

Like other gender minority individuals such as kothis, jogappas, panthis, and mangalamukhis, the hijras face a harsh existence, beginning with the popular parlance that labels them derogatorily as kojja, ali, ombathu, hermaphrodite or eunuch, which lack the tolerance that has crept into more mainstream words like lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer (LGBTIQ).

Gender-minority persons are most often seen begging at traffic intersections, in trains, parks and other public places. Some of them supplement their income through sex work. They lack employment owing to insufficient skills or academic qualifications, unavailability of housing because of the social taboos associated with their sexual orientation and partner preferences, absence of family ration cards, voter identification cards, etc.

“The challenges of most LGBTIQ persons begin at their homes,” says Umesh P, a 35-year-old transgendered person who hails from a village in Channapatna taluk of Ramanagara district in Karnataka. Umesh avers that parents, siblings and other family members often reject the gender identity of such individuals. Neighbours, teachers and friends ridicule or avoid them. Elders may forcibly marry off wards belonging to gender minorities.

As an altered gender identity is considered 'unnatural', some LGBTIQ individuals are subjected to exorcism and/or psychiatric counselling to overcome their strange condition. To escape social discrimination and stigma, many gender minority persons leave school and home. Having no money, job or residence, they end up begging, or in sex work.

An inspiring journey

Born as a boy into a middle income agricultural family, Umesh realized something different about himself when he turned seven. He preferred the girls, enjoyed household chores and drawing rangolis. Umesh also sported long hair which his aunt braided and adorned with flowers everyday while he studied in the primary school in his village. However, when he moved to a middle-cum-high school that was 1.5 kilometres away, his father compelled him to cut his hair as he was a boy.

Umesh's male friends started calling him a sanga (an insulting word for gender minorities) and teased him for avoiding them, especially when he walked to school. This scared and upset him terribly although he could not understand why he was being treated that way. Often, his school teacher also warned Umesh not to behave like a girl. To make matters worse, when he used the restroom, other boys abused him physically and sexually. That made a frightened Umesh avoid going to the rest room at all during the entire 9 am - 6 pm day at school.

Deep within, Umesh continued to experience feminine emotions.This led his older brother to hit him badly and inform their parents, who scared him. At the same time, he felt attracted to his older male cousin and was confused. But fearing social stigma, Umesh suppressed his feelings until he reached high school. Also, as his family tortured him physically and mentally, he lost focus on studies and left school while in the 10th grade.

Umesh adds, “After I discontinued school, I devoted myself to household tasks, although I could not assist with work on our land. My family which cultivated vegetables, coconuts and silk, encountered financial issues and got divided. As my immediate family hardly backed me, I relocated to the house of my aunt and maternal grandmother in Kanakapura. However, my cousins there were not supportive, and one of them declared that he was ashamed of me.”

To supplement the household income, Umesh joined a power loom factory. But there too, his effeminate voice attracted oral and physical abuse. He stopped using the restroom for the 12-hour duration that included walking to his place of work. Umesh was a depressed teenager who cried a lot and had no one to open up to.

It was around this time that Ashok (name changed) - a 13-year-old boy who joined the factory - revealed to Umesh that he too had altered gender tendencies. He was also harassed by his co-workers. When Ashok received an extremely painful and bloody blow on his face, their supervisor held Ashok's 'abnormal' behaviour responsible for his colleagues’ behaviour towards him.

Umesh left the factory, after earning 50 rupees daily for 8 months, for similar employment in the same town but the new outlet was eventually acquired by his previous employer. Also, he learned that Ashok was hospitalized with an alleged cardiac problem and had been forced to quit.

On Ashok's request, Umesh convinced the former’s parents to send him to work again at the same factory where the two had worked initially. However, after he resumed his job, Ashok continued to be teased and sexually abused by other employees. A little later, he passed away, apparently owing to his heart ailment.

When he turned 18, Umesh returned to his family and had to work on their land until he was 22. Initially, his father and brother refused him his share of land but after a two-year struggle with his family and the local nyaya panchayat, he got half an acre. With great difficulty, Umesh sold his land for a paltry 1.5 lakh rupees, which he gave to his mother for her constant support. During that period, he began to have suicidal thoughts and even attempted to hang himself, but his father saved him.

Soon after, Umesh relocated to the house of a female cousin who lived with her family in Bangalore. As he had no job or money, he performed household chores and ate little. Every morning Umesh walked from Mysore Road to the Majestic bus stand, where he met other LGBTIQ individuals.

Being financially marginalized, he and his acquaintances walked to Cubbon Park for sex work. They earned less than what other sex workers received though, with customers paying poorly or even nothing. Often, the local police verbally abused and caned them. Although a few police personnel empathized with Umesh and others, the latter vanished on spotting the police, fearing harassment.

Life in Bangalore enhanced Umesh's desire to be a heterosexual woman. But he heard that the traditions of a hamam (a household where young hijras or chelas lived with and served an older guru) were binding. After hosting him for six months, Umesh's cousin and her husband who were uncomfortable with his sexual orientation requested him to leave owing to their financial constraints in early 2002. He then relocated to Bilekalahalli to live with the sons of his aunt's friend from Kanakapura. 

Around a year later, Umesh started volunteering with Sangama (a 15-year old non-profit organization based in Bangalore that empowers sexual minorities and sex workers to avail their rights) and also attended meetings conducted by Vividha, a forum for sexual minorities. Soon after, he got involved in a sex worker community mapping exercise with Swasti, a local non-governmental organization (NGO) and worked with them for five months from December 2003 onwards.

In June 2004, Umesh joined Sangama in the role of a peer educator which required him to create awareness of fundamental rights among gender minorities and sex workers. “Despite the salary being low, I took that job as it was interesting. Further, I stopped doing sex work as I had always found it tough. In the six years that I was at Sangama, I performed various roles -- that of a community mobilizer, a drop-in centre (DIC) supervisor for counseling on HIV prevention and treatment and a learning site coordinator for social workers and students.”

“I was also involved in advocacy within the LGBTIQ community and networking with other movements and human rights campaigns across Karnataka, trained staff and intervened in a number of crisis situations,” he shares.

Towards the end of 2009, Umesh left Sangama along with other gender minority individuals to launch Payana, a community based organization (CBO) to handle discrimination of gender minorities within and outside their community. He was the Payana President for a year and a half, while supporting himself through a research grant that studied the socio-economic status of autorickshaw drivers. After that, Umesh joined a social enterprise that provides loans at affordable interest rates to persons planning to become autorickshaw drivers.

At present, Umesh is involved in a community media project with Aneka (a five-year-old non-profit organization based in Bangalore, engaged in advocacy for the rights and entitlements of sexual minorities and sex workers). He simultaneously oversees the functioning of Jeeva, a non-profit trust that he founded in November 2012 to facilitate self-expression and personal development of LGBTIQ individuals who are financially backward.

Determined survivor

Presenting a contrast of circumstances with Umesh is Sana Shree, a transsexual woman aged 26, who has lived in Bangalore throughout.  This cheerful lady who maintains the website and information resources at a city-headquartered organisation promoting socially responsible tourism wants to be a role model for the LGBTIQ people, against whom both society and the state discriminate.

Sana Shree maintains, “Archaic laws like IPC section 377 which criminalize homosexuality and section 36A of the Karnataka Police Act (that allows the police to arrest hijras  who do not register themselves) will discourage gender minority people from disclosing their true identity, affecting their health adversely. The December 2013 Supreme Court order upholding section 377 will reverse the increased social acceptance and reduced police harassment achieved after the Delhi High Court struck down section 377 in July 2009”.

The feisty Sana herself withstood teasing and harassment by her schoolmates and beatings from her alcoholic father for her feminine attitude since she was 10. But sexual abuse in college drove her to befriend other gender minority individuals during her undergraduate business management programme. After Sana's parents discovered that she was missing classes, they confined her at home for six months. Unable to bear the harassment, she left home for a hamam and started sex work.

A demanding guru and clients made her quit the set up and become a peer educator at Sangama from 2008 to 2011. Continuing sex work for additional income, Sana experienced severe verbal, physical and sexual abuse from the police. Ironically, the money earned from sex work paid the 1.8 lakh rupees for her Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS) and breast implantation at a private hospital in Andhra Pradesh around September 2007.

As Sana's career advanced, she stopped sex work and tried to resume higher education at Bangalore University. But her school certificates that showed her as a boy, prevented her and she could not get them changed. Sana then moved to Samara, a CBO for gender minorities where she handled the Monitoring and Evaluation of 3000 LGBTIQ community members. Elected the Samara director for one and a half years, she underwent personality development, leadership and communication training.

Meanwhile, Sana acquired a voter identity card after a three-year struggle and a separate ration card showing her female identity. Incidentally, she is the first LGBTIQ person at her company (Equations) and among the few in her community who work in this inclusive organization, where championing the rights of gender minorities is not the primary organisational mission. In one more heartening development, two years ago, her mother invited Sana back home where she now lives.

State governments are slowly coming around to more inclusive attitudes towards gender minorities. Karnataka listed them as backward classes in 2010 and reserved one per cent of post-graduate seats for them. The state also offers a small monthly pension for hijras over 45. Tamilnadu created a Transgender Welfare Board and announced free SRS and counselling in government hospitals.

Also, Pride marches, Queer festivals, and positive news stories have highlighted their challenges, as well as showcased their successes. But without a significant change of attitudes in society, the police and in government, LGBTIQ persons continue to face isolation, as well as violation of their civil liberties.