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Transgenders, journey towards marginalisation – Guest Editorial by Dr Veerendra Mishra.
To understand the current status of transgenders it is important to trace their journey through history. The presence of transgenders can be traced through various civilizations in almost all parts of the world. Interestingly their presence has been found to be respectful in history. The mention of transgenders can be found in almost all mythologies, be it Egyptian, Chinese, Japanese or Indian. Mythologies of these countries are considered to be emanating from the oldest of societies and their cultures. However, why the community, which has been looked upon with awe and reverence in some respect got marginalised is important to understand. It is imperative not just for the sake of understanding but because their marginalisation has led to discrimination of worst form, which in fact is gross violation of human rights.
Before going through some parts of history, it would be prudent to comprehend who are transgenders. Rather than complicating the issue by using jargon let us try to explain transgenderism in the simplest way. In a binary gender divided society, that is a society where sex is seen in pure two form, that is male and female, the moment child is born, the child is identified as either male or female depending on the visible biological genitals the child is born with. That identity is a life time recognition. The gender role that the child with growth has to play too is ascertained based on sex at birth. Normally, society accepts the behaviour as have been set, as per defined and expected gender role.
There is no refute to the universality of the gender signs and signals. It is all pervasive, hence even a little deviance gets noticed by any person. Individuals in society, by virtue of the accepted gender norms are expected to conform to it. So, to be precise, ‘sex’ is the biological differentiation manifested physically by appearance of genitalia and recognised as male or female. However, ‘gender’ represents the way a person psychologically recognises self through action and behaviour, which means the role that a person intends to play, either of a male or female.
Transgenders are those who explicitly manifest incongruence in their gender role, which technically is called as gender dysphoria. This means a person not being comfortable with the gender role assigned on the basis of sex by birth, psychologically feels being caged in the wrong body. A male may psychologically feel like being a female and vice versa. Transgenders may also have fluid identities. This indicates that transgenders do not conform to gender binary rules.
The Vedic literature in India dating back to 1500 BCE to 500 BCE have reference of transgenders through different nomenclature: tritiya-prakriti and nampumsaka. In the oldest scriptures there is mention of the glory of Gandharvas who are referred as male, apsaras as female, and kinnars as the neuter. There are many epic stories in Indian mythology where the Lords themselves and other protagonists have taken up playing the role of gender fluid persons. That can be found in Mahabharata and Ramayana too. In fact, the role of transgenders in the war of Mahabharata is critical, and they have been vital is swaying the course of war. They all have been depicted with high esteem. The transgenders of today, in India, claim to be the descendants of those esteemed people, not by birth but by behaviour.
Amongst the Native American, transgenders were referred to as the ‘two- spirited people’, and sometimes known as berdache. The term berdache was used by French explorers in North America, and it was believed by the natives that two spirited people had extra power for having spirit of both man and a woman, so that gift was extraordinary.
The presence of huge evidence of regarding the transgenders being priestess in worshipping Great Mother has been described by Roman historian Plutarch by subscribing Great Mother as an intersexual deity (an Hermaphroditic). Such evidences of transgender priestesses are found in Mesopotamian temple records from third millennium BCE and also in Babylonian records. Even Greek mythology talks about the sex-change, intersexuality and cross-dressing and mentions how their great mythological heroes and gods cross dressed at one time or another like Achilles, Dionysus, Heracles and Athena.
If we find such evidences of respect in history then what could be the reason for sudden marginal-isation. This could be attributed to mainly two eras. First, is the period of Islamic rulers, who did large scale castration and objectified the presence of transgenders. They were used as guards to secure their harems, which sheltered their concubines and sex slaves. There are evidences of this tradition of castration being practices to satisfy the carnal pleasures of the rulers. So, their position in society got degraded and hence looked upon more as sex objects.
This further deteriorated with colonisation of countries. Transgenders by then were viewed as homosexuals. And the colonists, professing Christianity, thought homosexuality as blasphemy. This pushed the transgenders to the lowest rung society. Evidence shows that Spaniards while invading Louisiana killed the men who were dressed like female believing them to be hermaphrodites or homosexuals.
In India under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, the colonial rulers declared transgenders (eunuchs) as criminal tribes. Here it is interesting to note that transgenders were taken as a caste, though factually a transgender does not belong to any particular caste. This led to extreme marginalisation of the transgenders. The discrimination meted became so extreme over last few centuries that they were left with no option but to beg and prostitute themselves.
Transgenders are considered to be engaged in disreputable behaviour like involvement in sex work and substance misuse. Perhaps the transgender stigma could be because of a combination of various factors like the stigma of being outside the gender binary, practicing sex work and other behaviours deemed disreputable, such as uninhibited display of gender/sexual difference. The other disadvantaged position of the transgenders could also be because of poverty, nomadic status for having left their families and living almost like refugees or being in migration status and other factors.
Studies show that the percentage of population identifying as transgenders is abysmally low. In USA only between .01% to .5% of the population identify themselves as transgenders, whereas in India it ranges from .04% to .28%.
The other challenges they face with growing age, and adulthood are that of Identity, Entitlement rights and even Citizenship. They are highly discriminated against in access to opportunities and resources. They struggle to find jobs. Studies have reflected how they have lost their positions and even jobs for having admitted to being transgenders. The impact of such discriminations are the cause of their compromised physical and mental health. Studies show that the ideation to commit suicide, or an attempt made to commit suicide is at higher rate among transgender than cisgender teens.
A lot is required to be done to mainstream the transgenders and negate the marginalisation process which started in the last few centuries under prejudiced rulers. India has taken a big leap by promulgating the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 and Rules 2020.
Every country should progressively reform their policies and come out with legislations in favour of transgenders.
© Dr Veerendra Mishra
Dr Veerendra Mishra, Indian Police Service officer (IPS), Assistant Inspector General of Police, Technical Service Branch, Police Headquarters, Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. Previously, he was CEO/Secretary, Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA), Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India. Earlier, he was Assistant Inspector General (CID) with Madhya Pradesh Police. He was awarded the prestigious Hubert Humphrey Fellowship (under Fulbright Scholarship) on the subject of human trafficking during 2012–2013. He is international expert of Anti-Human Trafficking. Besides, he has extensively studied the workings of police—both local police bodies and international bodies such as the United Nations Police (UNPOL). He worked in three UN missions Areas—in Bosnia–Herzegovina, Kosovo, and East Timor.
Dr Mishra did his PhD on “Changing Image of Police: An Empirical Study” from Barkatullah University, Bhopal, in 2004. He has authored a book titled Community Policing: Misnomer or Fact (SAGE, 2011), edited another book, Human Trafficking: The Stakeholders’ Perspective (SAGE, 2013) and authored latest book Combating Human Trafficking: Gaps in policy and laws (SAGE, 2015). He also writes fiction; he has written a short-story book (Cracking of Dawn-2009 Selective and Scientific Publication Delhi), contributed stories in the Chicken Soup Soul series, and published a novel titled ‘Treatise From a Deathbed’ (Kitabwale Publications, Delhi, 2019).
He also co-produced and co-directed a documentary film titled Do I Have a Choice, which is on the community-based sexual exploitation of Bedia community. He has developed and executed five 10 hours online course on Drugs (1), Senior Citizens (2), Transgenders (1) and Social Defence issues (1) at NISD (National Institute of Social Defence, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India (2021): Developed and delivered a five hours online introductory course on Human Trafficking for Pomeranian University in Słupsk, Poland May, 2021: Guidelines on investigation of Human Trafficking cases by Police to Sardar Vallabhai Patel National Police Academy (December, 2021).
Research Study on ‘Missing Children and Linkages with Human Trafficking’ with BPR&D (Bureau Police Research and Development), Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, 2018.