For Jane Kaushik, education was a nightmarish experience.
Starting from the Class 8, Kaushik, a trans woman from Delhi, was bullied viciously in school, first verbally and later even physically. “I was hit on my private parts and asked are you a boy or a girl?” said Kaushik, who is now 30. “ It would happen two-three times in a day. This was not only physically painful but also harmful to my self-respect.”
Kaushik, who belongs to an Other Backward Class community, had been assigned male at birth, and had begun experiencing gender dysphoria while in school. “I didn’t understand why I felt and behaved like a girl,” said Kaushik.
In Class 10, Kaushik attempted suicide by drinking a mosquito repellent liquid. To her despair, she couldn’t tell her parents, who had raised her as a boy, what was happening to her because she had internalised a sense of shame about it, and because she was afraid of upsetting them.
The harassment only intensified. In Class 11 and 12, Kaushik recounted, she was forcibly taken to the washroom by classmates and asked for sexual favours. “This is why I had low marks in 10th and 12th,” she said. “So much of my concentration was spent on keeping myself safe that I wasn’t able to focus on my studies.”
Kaushik attempted suicide again when she was in Class 12, by consuming a pest-control product. This time she opened up to her parents, but only spoke of her loneliness, and how she was different from others.
Her troubles continued after she left Delhi to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Alwar, Rajasthan. One time on campus, she recounted, when she was talking to a group of boys, she placed her hand on one’s shoulders in a friendly gesture. The boy grew irritated and pushed her down.
“There was a lot of hatred in his eyes, as if I had a disease,” recalled Kaushik. “Our lives are such a struggle, there’s no complaint mechanism for us. Where could I go to complain?”
While cis women have such avenues open to them, she added, trans women do not.
As a result of the experience, Kaushik spent long stretches of time at home, rather than attending classes. “By the time I finished my graduation, I was suffering from severe depression and gender dysphoria,” she said. “I would eat food and then fall asleep. I would stay in my room all day and not meet people.”
In this time, Kaushik had only one source of solace – she began tutoring neighbourhood children for a few hours every evening. The children didn’t judge her “on the basis of gender, caste, religion or colour”, she said. To them, she was “just a teacher”. The experience inspired her. “I decided to become a teacher because I get relief when I’m surrounded by kids,” she said.
Kaushik obtained a master’s degree in political science in 2018 and a bachelor’s of education in 2020, after which she began looking for teaching jobs.
After the horrors she had suffered through her education, she hoped that her work life would offer her some succour. “I will become different, I will become educated and then maybe society will treat me differently,” she recounted thinking. “But this did not happen.”
Initially, she applied for several jobs, sending out her resumé, where she mentioned her trans identity. She did not receive a single call back.
Kaushik then began going to walk-in interviews. In a few, she cleared multiple rounds of interviews, met the principal and even had her salary fixed. Yet eventually, when she mentioned the fact that she was transgender, she recounted that she would rejected and be given some version of the same excuse – “We’re sorry, but we can’t take you, we might face objections from parents.” On two occasions, Kaushik said, she was told she could have the job if she did not disclose her gender identity – she refused to abide by this condition.
By 2022, Kaushik was growing desperate for a job. In November that year, she cleared the interview for a private school in the small town of Mohammadi in Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri district, as a teacher in English and social sciences. The administration told her that they had no problem with her, but again advised her to keep her gender identity to herself. This time, Kaushik acquiesced.
A week into her job, students at the school discovered that Kaushik was a trans woman and spread the word around. On December 3, the principal called her to the office and asked her to leave the same day. Kaushik pleaded to be allowed to keep her job but the principal did not relent. Kaushik had to pack her bags, and leave town at 8.30 pm.
“There was no female passenger on that bus,” Kaushik recounted. “I was terrified traveling late at night from a small town. She endangered my life.”
It was only after a few stops that some female passengers boarded, and she was more at ease.
At the time, The Hindu had reported on the incident. The National Commission for Women took suo moto cognisance of it, and conducted an investigation. However, in January this year, the district-level panel appointed by the National Commission for Women gave the school a clean chit, stating that Kaushik was dismissed because she was incompetent at teaching social sciences and was irritable and behaved rudely with the staff and students.
Kaushik rejected the report’s claim of incompetence in teaching social sciences. On the allegation that she had behaved rudely, she said, “This was an issue of gender identity, but they twisted the facts to say that I misbehaved with the staff and children.” In January, the school had also filed a Rs 1 crore defamation notice against Kaushik for saying that she had been fired because of her gender identity – but it withdrew the notice in February.
Kaushik alleged that the National Commission for Women report only took one side of the claims into consideration. She herself was too scared to go back to Lakhimpur Kheri to give her testimony, and instead gave it over a video call. “I’m a trans woman, one of the most vulnerable groups in society,” she said. “If I go to an unknown place where the school can call the police, they can do anything to me. They could strip me and misbehave.” She added, “Who cares about us trans people? Nobody.” Scroll emailed queries about Kaushik’s criticisms of the National Commission for Women’s findings to the commission, but had not received a response as of publication.
In 2022, Kaushik filed a petition with the Delhi High Court to enable trans persons to apply under the category of “third gender” for teaching posts in government schools. Until then, vacancies only had openings for male and female teachers. The petition also makes a case for horizontal reservations – that is, for reservations for trans persons within existing reservation categories. In January, the Ministry of Home Affairs was made a respondent in the case. The next hearing will be held in August.
For years, trans activists have noted that as a result of Indian society’s casteist and patriarchal nature, the large majority of trans persons are unable to obtain decent paying work. In an interview published by Round Table India, Dalit trans feminist writer and artist Living Smile Vidya, described how transphobia impacts trans people socio-economically. “Transphobia is a type of brahminism,” she said. “It gives us no other option but to do ‘dirty’ jobs like sex work and begging and then calls us ‘dirty’, just like caste system did with Dalits.”
A 2017 study submitted by the Kerala Development Society to the National Human Rights Commission found that around 92% of trans women were “deprived of the right to participate in any form of economic activities”. The study also found that they were forced to take up “low paying work or undignified work as their livelihood”, such as badhai, or the practice of visiting homes on auspicious occasions, such as marriages, begging and sex work.
Eighty-nine percent of the respondents to the Kerala Development Society study, said that there existed no employment opportunities even for well qualified and skilled trans persons.
This problem persists despite progress on paper towards guaranteeing the livelihood rights of trans persons.
In 2014, the landmark National Legal Services Authority judgement, or NALSA judgement, by the Supreme Court of India recognised trans persons’ legal right to self-determine their gender identity and issued directives for their welfare. The court also directed “the Centre and the State Governments to take steps to treat them as socially and educationally backward classes of citizens and extend all kinds of reservation in cases of admission in educational institutions and for public appointments”.
Additionally, the 2019 Trans Rights Act includes a chapter on non-discrimination in employment which states, “No establishment shall discriminate against any transgender person in any matter relating to employment including, but not limited to, recruitment, promotion and other related issues.”
But these changes have done little to improve the lives of trans people on the ground. Kaushik noted that many states had not taken any steps at all towards implementing reservations for trans persons.
She said that though the government has “made such laws”, until they are “implemented in full spirit, nothing will happen.”
The Central government’s position in the matter is reflected in a 2021 cabinet note from the ministry of social justice, which recommended that transgender people be included in the Central government’s OBC list, and be granted reservations in states accordingly. However, in February 2023, in response to a question raised in the Lok Sabha on whether there was any plan to provide reservations to trans people, the minister of state for social justice and empowerment A Narayanaswamy responded that at present there was no such proposal.
Grace Banu, a Chennai-based Dalit trans activist and director of Trans Rights Now, has been at the forefront of the fight, which she said has been underway for over a decade. “We’ve been demanding reservations for so many years, we did so many protests, we got arrested and beaten up by the police,” she said. “We are fighting for our future generations.”
Trans people across the country are fighting not just for reservations for their community in education and jobs, but specifically, for horizontal reservation – that is, for specific sub-quotas to be set aside within existing reservation categories, for trans persons from those communities.
This is in contrast to vertical reservation, where a specific set of educational seats or jobs are reserved for trans persons from all caste groups; or, as seen in Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh, the system where trans persons are given reservations within an existing category, such as Other Backward Classes and Most Backward Classes, and have to compete with non trans persons from that category for the same reservations.
Activists argue that because trans persons hail from all groups and communities, if vertical reservations are implemented, trans persons from dominant communities would corner all available opportunities. Banu said that this kind of vertical reservation “completely erases trans people who don’t have caste and class privileges”. Alternatively, where trans person are incorporated into existing reservation categories, activists argue, non trans persons from those categories would corner available opportunities.
Horizontal reservation, activists say, would ensure that those most oppressed, as a result of both their caste and gender identities are not excluded from these measures.
The story of Reshma, a 29-year-old Dalit non-binary trans person from a remote village in Odisha, is revealing of how those who belong to overlapping marginalised communities suffer most intensely.
Throughout their education and early professional life, Reshma has faced discrimination on the basis of their caste as well as their gender identity.
At the school level, Reshma faced abuse despite the fact that their father sent Reshma and their siblings to a centrally run residential schools for talented students from rural areas. “I was sexually assaulted by my seniors there,” said Reshma, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym.
The teachers too were unhelpful, Reshma recounted, often passing comments about Reshma’s gait and deportment.
And while all students were beaten sometimes in classrooms, Reshma recounted that teachers would sometimes call Reshma to teachers’ rooms, where the teachers would lock the door and beat them up.
At school, they didn’t want to wear the boys’ or girls’ uniforms. They would have to use the boys’ toilet, which made them uncomfortable – so, they would wait till it was completely empty to use it. “Boys and girls were supposed to sit separately, where was I supposed to sit?” they said. “All these reasons are why trans and gender non-binary people drop out. Despite all this I passed my tenth and twelfth exams with good results.”
After school, Reshma pursued a bachelor’s in science at a university in Cuttack. They then obtained a master’s in a university in a different state.
In the first year of their master’s, Reshma, in confidence, divulged some details about a young man they found attractive on campus to a friend, who then went and informed the boy. The man was queerphobic and grew furious on hearing this. He brought two more people along and beat up Reshma in public on campus – Reshma was saved by a roommate, who dragged Reshma away to safety. Reshma didn’t think of complaining to anyone. “I had internalised homophobia at the time,” they said. “Besides, who would I even complain to? If someone asked, people would probably say that I’m gay. I felt so ashamed, I wanted to quit university.”
But Reshma persevered, and in 2016, enrolled for a doctoral degree at the same university. “I had thought that by attaining higher education, I would build a name and earn respect for myself in society,” they said.
Initially, Reshma’s guide wasn’t aware of their gender identity. A few times in the laboratory, the guide would remark that Reshma was wearing kajal and nail polish. At the time, Reshma didn’t think much of the comments and made up excuses to sidestep them. “I would tell her that my nails were hurting so I painted them,” they laughed. Their peers, though, knew that Reshma was queer.
The same guide also subjected Reshma to casteist comments. Since Reshma hailed from a marginalised background, they had not had access to practical experience in the laboratory, though their theoretical understanding was strong. They recounted that their guide was unsympathetic about this, saying things like, “Why did you get reservation?” and “Where all do you people come from?”
Reshma recounted that one time the guide questioned Reshma about the legitimacy of their school and college certificates and asked them to show her the certificates to check their marks. In the four years that Reshma was there, they said, their supervisor changed their research topic four times.
Several times, Reshma said, the guide made them do “utthak-baithak”, a humiliating punishment involving sitting down and standing up while holding one’s ears, in front of their peers.
At the time Reshma had a government fellowship, but after two years their guide had it stopped. Following this, they survived on loans from friends and family.
Things came to a head when Reshma wore unisex clothes for a conference and was forced to change by their guide. Soon after, they were handed a notice that terminated their enrollment in the programme, citing as justification the fact that they had not submitted their thesis. According to the rules, a student’s enrollment could be terminated after five years on these grounds, but Reshma recounted that they still had a year left. Moreover, it was common at the department for students to extend their PhDs – some of Reshma’s peers had received extensions of two, and even three years. In fact, very few of their peers finished their PhDs in the stipulated time.
The termination notice set off a protracted struggle – Reshma met administration officials several times to plead with them that they be allowed to continue their PhD. But the noose tightened around them – officials seemed more sympathetic with their guide.
In response to Reshma’s complaint that their termination on the grounds of non-submission of their thesis was invalid, the assistant registrar informed them that the reasons cited in the termination letter were, in fact, not accurate. “My head spun upon hearing this,” Reshma said. “How can you correct an official letter just like that?” The assistant registrar then issued a new letter citing lack of attendance and inadequate progress in work as reasons for termination – Reshma explained that it would be difficult to conclusively argue against accusations of a lack of progress. “I broke down and cried a lot in front of them, begging them not to do this,” they said.
After that, the head of the department asked Reshma to write a letter about their problem – but monitored it to ensure it was not detailed. They recounted that they were also made to sign an undertaking that they would not “create any trouble that would affect the department’s name” and warned that if they did create trouble, the district’s superintendent of police would be summoned to ensure that they be expelled rrom the campus, they said.
But by then Reshma had reached out to the university’s Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe cell and submitted a complaint about the treatment meted out to them.
Finally, a new committee was formed to investigate the matter, which revoked the termination and allowed them to continue their work.
Reshma requested for an extension, that their guide be changed, and their fellowship be reinstated. But their demands have gone unheard. “I don’t have the money to live in that big city anymore, how do I pay fees and hostel charges?” they said. “So, while my expulsion has been revoked, it has only been nominal.”
They are currently in their hometown, working with old data – because their fellowship still stands cancelled, they cannot afford to travel to their university to work in the laboratory. “Where I come from, Dalit kids don’t even get admitted into the science stream,” Reshma said. “Nobody in my family, none of my relatives or neighbours has done their PhD. I was the first one to do so, coming from these circumstances.”
They added, “Several people die by suicide in such cases, they’re not able to bear it. But I’ve been used to discrimination my entire life, so I bore it and fought it out.”
The petitioners in the NALSA judgement were NALSA itself, an NGO named Poojaya Mata Nasib Kaur Ji Women Welfare Society, and the transgender activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathy. The judgement, which is widely considered a landmark in the fight for trans rights, only mentions that reservations be extended for trans people, without prescribing any specific methods of implementation. Trans activists, though, are certain that they need to be horizontal in nature to accommodate the intersectionalities of caste and class within the trans community.
The Kerala Development Society study found that trans people’s caste location was crucial in determining the livelihood opportunities they could access. Upper caste trans women, for instance, would visit houses for badhai during auspicious occasions, while “middle castes” were involved in asking for alms, and lower castes typically took up sex work.
The only state that has implemented horizontal reservations, in line with the demands of trans activists, is Karnataka. In 2021, it granted horizontal reservation of 1% in government employment to trans people across caste groups that have reservations. It is yet to implement a similar policy in educational seats.
Other states, such as Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh, have granted trans persons reservations under existing categories.
Banu explained that vertical reservations, and reservations within existing groups, were inadequate. She gave the example of trans Dalit women who appeared for the 2023 Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission exams but did not make the cut. “They secured more than 200 out of 300 marks and for us these are superb marks,” she said. “Because unlike cis people we don’t have families”, and other kinds of “social and economic support and protection”.
The failure of Tamil Nadu’s reservation policy, of granting trans persons reservations under the MBC category, is apparent from the results of the exam. Your Story reported that the 2023 exam saw 17 lakh candidates appearing for 7,000 posts, out of which 152 were trans candidates – but none made the cut.
Banu feels that horizontal reservations would help create equality for all trans communities, and not just the relatively privileged ones who already occupy space in society. “We want benefits for all communities – EWS, OBC, BC, SC and ST,” she said.
Sunil Mohan, a 40-year-old trans man, activist, research scholar and filmmaker, argued that horizontal reservations alone would not suffice, and that there was need to develop more holistic policies for trans people. “We can’t treat every marginalised community in the same way,” he said. He argued that “Right now, they only have one model of the caste system”, and that reservations were designed only in response to this model. In the case of other kinds of marginalised groups, such as trans persons, he said, “I am not sure the same model will help.”
As an instance of a poorly designed intervention, he recounted that some years ago the Karnataka administration had wanted to give buffaloes to trans people to help them earn a living. At the time, he explained, prominent trans activist and leader A Revathi had criticised the fact that the government had not allotted space for the buffaloes to be housed, and had not provided funds for fodder to feed them, or for other expenses that would be incurred. “They dump things on the community, and if they don’t work then they say we have given opportunities but they’re only not working,” said Mohan. “Rehabilitation is not a one-time thing. I have a problem with giving and taking – it’s a feudalistic system. The privilege you’re accessing, and practicing is at our cost, we have to be underprivileged for it.”
While a few states have introduced some form of reservations for trans persons, in the case of Maharashtra, trans people have encountered stiff opposition from the government to their demand to be considered for employment at all.
In November 2022, Nikita Mukhyadal and Arya Pujari, both trans women, approached the Maharashtra Administrative Tribunal, or MAT, to be allowed to apply for employment with the Maharashtra police force under the “other gender” category.
The tribunal directed the state to include the “other gender” option in application forms and formulate policies for their physical exams.
Within days, the state contested this order at the Bombay High Court, arguing that the entry of trans people in the police force “is and will not at all be practicable”, as the police recruitment task was a “Herculean effort”.
This was not the only occasion on which the state took this position. Three months earlier, contesting another plea to have a post of a sub-inspector reserved for a trans person, the state had said recruitment would lead to “incidents of sexual abuse both ways – they would be abused and they would abuse the men”. More recently, in June 2023, the state argued, “Considering the extent of vertical and horizontal reservations which are already provided, providing additional reservations for transgender persons seems difficult.”
The matter of reservations is now pending with a state-level committee. In March this year, the Indian Express reported that 73 trans persons applied for the Maharashtra police. None, however, were successful.
Trans activist and Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi spokesperson Disha Pinky Shaikh remarked that such legal battles take several years.
“There’s a huge difference between when the court gives an order and when the government applies it,” Shaikh said. “Even today, there are so many institutions which don’t have an option for the third gender.”
Shaikh cited the examples of the Union Public Service Commission and the Maharashtra Public Service Commission as services that did not reserve any positions for transgender persons. “Several schools and colleges don’t have it in their admissions forms,” Shaikh added. “Maybe for the authorities, ten years is not much time, but in this time, several have had their hopes broken and resorted to begging, sex work or other avenues which have destroyed their lives.”
Mukhyadal, who is 35 and belongs to a Dalit community, is staring at a similarly bleak future, though she has battled immense odds for many years.
Mukhyadal was born and brought up as a boy in Daulatabad village near Aurangabad, Maharashtra. Her father worked in the forest department. Her mother passed away when she was two years old. “I had a terrible childhood,” she said. “My father used to get transferred every three years, so I changed schools often. My stepmother wasn’t good to me.”
When she was in school, Mukhyadal realised that she was attracted to boys, but that other boys were attracted to girls. “I couldn’t find anyone like me,” she said. “I didn’t understand what was happening to me. I tried to kill myself then.”
In 2005, she left home for Aurangabad and began studying for an art and craft teacher’s diploma, supporting herself by working as a waiter in restaurants. She then enrolled for a bachelor of performing arts programme, but she dropped out owing to financial difficulties. Despite this setback, she became a professional dancer.
“I travelled across the country for dance,” Mukhyadal said. “I used to do lavani, item songs, classical and traditional songs.” But she realised that the physical exertion and travel that dance required was taking too much of a toll on her. After that, for a year she tried to run a beauty parlour from her house, but got very few clients. Next, she set up a snacks stall in Pune, but that too proved unsuccessful. She attributed the lack of clients to her trans identity.
Finally, in July 2022 Mukhyadal got a steady job as a security guard at the Pimpri Chinchwad Municipal Corporation in Pune along with 34 other trans persons. The move was lauded as one that would help trans people “mainstream” and “lead a dignified life”. The job paid Rs 16,000 for eight hours of work, six days a week.
But she found the salary she earned as a security guard inadequate to meet her needs. It was after writing to the chief minister and the deputy chief minister, seeking help with procuring a government job, and receiving no response, that Mukhdayal approached the MAT, which issued directions in her favour.
But, she argued, though the state allowed trans person to apply under the third gender category, it did not implement the order in spirit. “They made us compete in the general male category,” Mukhdayal said. “We know they are doing this intentionally. I am tired. I feel like I have fought as much as I could.”