Why activists want Transgender Bill 2016 to be struck down

Sami S
Sami SDec 16, 2017 | 18:19

Why activists want Transgender Bill 2016 to be struck down

December 14 witnessed a protest in Bangalore against the Transgender Bill 2016.

Bangalore, on December 14, witnessed a protest against the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016. It was organised by the Karnataka Transgender Samithi (KTS), and supported by organisations such as the Karnataka Mangalamukhi Sanghatane, Jeeva, Payana, the Alternative Law Forum, Samara, and Onebede. 

According to the protesters, the bill would destroy their livelihoods and break their families. However, they are not alone in their opposition to the bill.


Across India, the transgender community is protesting against what they call an “outrageous bill, which violates their fundamental rights". They strongly feel that the bill is deceptively named Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, suggesting that it must have something beneficial for transgender people. That, if nothing else, it’s a step in the right direction. 

And it is this mask of state benevolence that the protesters in Bangalore ripped apart. “Bill for whom? Bill for the government, or for us?” asked Uma, an activist with Jeeva and the KTS.

Uma added, “The government has violated what the Supreme Court laid out (in the 2014 NALSA judgment). How can they disregard the highest court of their own country? They rejected our [the community’s] recommendations in the Standing Committee report. Where is the transparency and democracy in what they have done?” 

The Supreme Court’s 2014 NALSA judgment ruled that gender identity is a uniquely internal experience and therefore human beings have the right to assert their own gender identity (man, woman, or third gender.) The judgment drew on internationally recognised best practices and rigorous research on trans identity and expression, accepted by the WHO (World Health Organization), United Nations, and WPATH (World Professional Association of Transgender Health).


The 2016 bill disregards the provisions of the NALSA judgment and will take back those rights of self-determination, and instead put in a provision of a commitee "identifying" transgender people and issueing them identity cards.  Experts around the globe have roundly rejected as unscientific the notion that there are certain physiological traits inherent to transgender persons that would make it possible to “identify” them. 

A parliamentary standing committee was appointed by the government to look into the bill following widespread protests in 2016. However, the “experts” selected in committee have been quoted saying bizarre things in a national daily that reveal a complete lack of knowledge of transgender identities, including some extremely crude and unscientific ideas about what transgender people’s bodies are like.

Activists from Sampoorna India, an advocacy group focusing on transgender and inter-sex rights, condemned them in a powerful open letter for their “unscientific and voyeuristic characterisation of trans people that is founded on nothing but their own imagination".

At the protest, Uma summed it up succinctly, “No one asks the general public if they are male or female. Who decides? I have to decide what I am. Who is a third person to come and identify my gender?”


On December 14, helmeted policemen formed a wide semi-circle, batons in hand, somehow managing to look both strict and sheepish. But it was not them drawing thousands of eyes. It was the 500-odd women, dressed to the nines in bright sarees and eye-catching accessories. But where were these women sitting? On the bare road, amid the trash, the dirty water flowing out of a gutter, and the dust. 

It was not by choice.

“With this bill, the central government wants us to stop begging, stop doing sex work,” said Veena, another activist. “Can anyone live without their livelihood? We have to pay rent, pay for food and water. We had to leave our mothers and fathers. Where will our livelihood come from?”

“Why do people beg? Does the government understand why?” asked Malappa, an activist from the Karnataka Sexual Minority forum. "Suddenly if they bring in this law, where will we go?”

'When I get on a bus, can I sit on the ladies seat?', asks one protester. Photo: PTI file
'When I get on a bus, can I sit on the ladies seat?', asks one protester. Photo: PTI file

Malappa has a BCom degree, she said proudly. She once had a job paying Rs 30,000 a month. Then, she added in a matter-of-fact tone, sexual harassment happened. That was the end of the job.

Veena said, “The transgender community has people with every qualification. We have political people, educated people. We have the strength to really do something. You think we do this [begging and sex work] by choice?” 

According to the bill, "offences like compelling a transgender person to beg, denial of access to a public place, physical and sexual abuse, etc, would attract up to two years’ imprisonment and a fine".

It makes no mention of reservation for transgender people, no mechanism for ensuring any alternative livelihood if they were to stop begging or sex work. If anything, as activist Madhu Bhushan said, this bill effectively criminalises transgender people, because it targets the livelihood that many are reliant upon.

“You have to empower them, not criminalise the entire system surrounding them. Then everybody becomes a potential criminal.”

Another protester, Sana, said, “This protest comes from my stomach. Whatever else you do, you have to feed the stomach.”

“According to this bill, we should go and live with our biological families, back in our villages,” said Malappa. “Many transgender people come out of the family and live in the guru/chela family. The (biological) family is where they face harassment. The village is where they are humiliated and driven out of. If they are forced to go back, they will be humiliated and driven out again.”

Another woman added, “The bill wants family reconciliation, but it discounts the reality – that families reject transgenders.”

Nothing in the bill mentions the families that transgender people recognise, the guru chela families.

On December 14, everywhere, there were black placards with white slogans. Car horns drowned out the clinking of multi-coloured bangles as fists were raised in protest. And above it all rose the reverberating shout - DhikkaraDhikkara (for shame, for shame). This was just one of a series of protests erupting across India against the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill 2016. 

Eminent outfits like the WPath are urging the Indian government to withdraw the bill. A major problem with the bill, they state, is the screening committee which will supposedly decide who is a transgender. A committee with medical experts. 

Uma said, “Many doctors have no information about transgenders and it is not a part of their medical studies. Transgenders face a lot of health issues. But when they go to the doctor, the doctor becomes confused. They often just give us antibiotics.” 

The government’s spin is that the committee will help prove who transgender people are, so they can access benefits. But what are the consequences of this?

“Men murder transgender people, steal from us. What is your law doing? People can say anything about us and it goes viral without proof. That’s the harassment and violence we have to face just because someone said something. When it comes to us, people don’t go through a legal process to see what happened. We’re the ones who face the violence,” said Veena. 

Oddly enough, for a group that routinely faces violence without proof or the protection of the law, if this bill becomes a reality, it is the transgender people who will have to prove who they are to the law. 

“Even though we have [identity] cards now, no one looks at them. When I get on a bus, can I sit on the ladies seat? If I sit there, the woman sitting next will get up. In name, we are equal. But are we equal? Law is about equality, law is about rights - but it is not equality in practice. That is why we want our own law for our equality," Veena added. 

"It is not about other people getting to identify us. Where I live, what name I live under, who my leader is – all that information already exists. If there is a problem, the state can always pin us down. This identification card will only be used to harass us further," she signed off.

Last updated: December 18, 2017 | 12:49
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