Having embraced her identity as a transgender woman around 2012-’13, Riya Sharma cannot bear to be called Rahul anymore.
She was assigned the male gender at her birth in 1994, named Rahul and spent her student years trying to fit in at the government-run boys’ schools in West Delhi that she attended. Her harkat – mannerisms – routinely betrayed her. “I felt, walked, talked and sat like a girl,” she said.
Now a graduate, Sharma, 23, originally from West Delhi’s Raghubir Nagar, would like her school and college marksheets to reflect her new name – Riya – and identity as a transgender person.
But the government’s Department of Publications, the Central Board of Secondary Education and Delhi University have set conditions that make it practically impossible for her to set her educational records straight.
Sharma is now suing all three in the Delhi High Court. Considering that it is already rare for members of the transgender community to finish school, let alone graduate, her case against educational institutions is likely a first in India.
Rahul and Riya
All of Sharma’s education certificates – her Class 10 and Class 12 board exam marksheets and those from Delhi University – still bear her old name, Rahul Sharma.
Sharma has not undergone a full sex reassignment surgery yet. Consequently, in July 2016, her application for a change of name in her documents of public record (such as voter ID or driving licence) was rejected by the government’s Department of Publications. Additionally, Delhi University will not replace Rahul with Riya in its records till Sharma’s school board, the Central Board of Secondary Education, does it. And the Central Board of Secondary Education only makes such changes if it receives an application for the change before the board results are published. As Sharma’s petition, filed in early July, says, she is “stuck in a cycle”.
The petition also argues that the insistence of the Department of Publications that she produce a certificate indicating sex reassignment surgery is contrary to the rights recognised by the Supreme Court in its 2014 NALSA judgement. Named after the main petitioner in the case, the National Legal Services Authority of India, the judgement had declared transgenders as a “third gender” and a backward class entitled to reservations.
“The judgement clearly says that [gender identity] is self-identification by the person and no surgery is required for an individual to identify themselves as any other gender than the one they were born as,” said Sharma’s lawyer, Yashraj Singh Deora. There are two other court cases challenging the Department of Publications’ conditions.
The Central Board of Secondary Education’s bye-laws require transgender persons to come out while they are still in school. In reality, most transgenders wait till they are adults. “A child may know from a very early age but will not declare it unless they are confident their parents and society will support them,” said Deora.
Sharma’s did not, and her life took the same course as that of most hijras, or transgender women, in India – leaving home, becoming a chela (a disciple) under a senior hijra or guru, and earning through toli-badhai, the traditional practice of blessing newborns and newly-weds in exchange for money. However, what sets Riya apart is her education.
‘Be more manly’
Sharma knew she was different by the time she entered secondary school – for Classes 6 to 10 – in Tagore Garden in New Delhi. A boys-only institution running in the evening shift, it had a reputation for being difficult. Local residents called it a chidiyaghar, a zoo.
“Soon after I joined Class 6, some boys locked me in a room and tried to remove my clothes,” said Sharma. The boys were punished but the experience scarred her.
“There were two other boys in my class who we knew were gay but I avoided them,” she said. “I feared I would be exposed if I did not and be bullied and beaten like them.”
It was hard for her to fully repress her urge to dance, to clap as she had seen hijras visiting her colony do, and the few friends she had guessed her secret. At the school where she went next, where she attended Classes 11 and 12, she found acceptance more easily. “They [students] just objected to the claps,” she recalled.
Although there was no concealing that she was different, Sharma could not count on her family’s support if she openly identified as female. Her father, a carpenter, constantly counselled her to drop her mannerisms, “be more manly”. Coming out was not an option.
Rahul Sharma had to be content with identifying herself as Riya on her Facebook page.
After completing school in 2012 – two years before the NALSA judgement – Sharma took admission in the BA programme of Delhi University’s distance learning wing, the School of Open Learning. Around the same time, she discovered Mitr Trust, a West Delhi non-profit working with the transgender community. She joined their outreach programme about creating awareness about HIV infection among transgender sex-workers.
Her brother complained about the company she kept. Her father grew violent. “He would drink and beat me and call me a chhakka [pejorative for eunuch] in public,” she recalled of the year 2012. Even her mother withdrew support after discovering condoms she had kept for distribution in her bag. Her elder sister was already married and had left home.
In March 2013, she left home. She stayed in her office for some weeks, then at an administrator’s home. In June, a newly-adopted guru organised accommodation for her in a single room in Sagarpur, another West Delhi colony.
Sharma’s mother and brother landed up at the Mitr Trust’s office one night in July that year, broke furniture and threatened its workers with further violence if they did not disclose where their “son” was. Fearing more such attacks, Sharma left Mitr Trust, her room and moved in with a sex-worker for the rest of 2013. On January 19, 2014 she left for Mewat, a region spread over the states of Haryana and Rajasthan, and a life of toli-badhai.
Sharma tried to keep up with her studies as best as she could, ensuring she re-registered each year and collected the study material. “I went for my 2015 exams in male attire but faced problems because, by then, I had long hair,” she said. She wrote her exams, still as Rahul, but failed economics and history.
On January 9, 2016, she underwent a surgery by a doctor popular with the transgender community in a Haryana village. It was not the sex reassignment surgery required bt the Department of Publications, and Sharma has no papers to show for it.
When she registered for her economics and history exams, Delhi University did issue her an admit card with an updated photo. But her marksheets – Sharma cleared both exams – still have the name Rahul Sharma on them.
A proper job
Sharma has now applied to the Indira Gandhi National Open University’s master’s programme in gender and development studies but could submit only her Aadhaar card – the 12-digit biometric-based identity card – obtained after her surgery, as proof of identity. She hopes the different name on her marksheets will not affect her chances for admission into the course.
Sharma made peace with her family last October, extending support as they dealt with her sister’s marriage collapsing. She reconciled with them completely during her younger brother’s wedding in November.
Despite all that, Sharma still depends on toli-badhai. These days, she operates around Bharatpur, a town in Rajasthan, and occasionally comes home to Raghubir Nagar in Delhi.
“My family just wants me to stop begging and either study or try for a proper job,” she said. “But for all that, I need my papers corrected.”