In 2017, trans-visibility is certainly higher than it has ever been before. Members of the community are employed as traffic inspectors in Mumbai, appear on a popular reality web series, are marrying for love, walking the ramp, slaying in saris and coming out proudly in the middle of a school assembly.

The headlines suggest progress, but there is something unsettling about the fact that the lives of transgender people are considered worthy of attention only when they are examples of what society considers exceptional achievement. Stories about “firsts” – involving trans-people who break barriers – are often shallow and tokenistic. They eclipse all other narratives, leaving out why the barriers admit so few in the first place.

This was never as apparent as on December 30, when India’s first school for transgender students was launched in Kerala: run exclusively by trans-teachers and inaugurated by transgender rights activist Kalki Subramaniam, the birth of Sahaj International School was a moment of hope. But on the same day, in Kolkata, India’s first transgender principal, Manabi Bandhopadhyay, offered her resignation at Krishnagar Women’s College, citing non-cooperation and mental pressure from students and colleagues.

Transgender rights activists hold a vigil to mark the 'Transgender Day of Remembrance' in Hyderabad. Credit: Noah Seelam/AFP

The briefest glimmer of hope

In 2016, instances of trans-achievement were highlighted in the news, while important stories about violence against transgender people were ignored. Both demonetisation and Cyclone Vardah affected transpeople disproportionately, but found only passing mention in the news.

Earlier in the year, the mysterious death by immolation of a trans-woman named Tara in Chennai, proved how callous the state continues to be, when investigating violence against members of the community. While the officers who had first picked up Tara (allegedly investigating her for soliciting sex) claimed that she had committed suicide outside the police station, they refuse to furnish any evidence to back this claim, or explain how she accessed the petrol to set herself alight.

Speaking with, Grace Banu, a trans rights activist from Tamil Nadu, said she believed Tara’s death was murder, not suicide.

“We have demanded that action be taken against the police officers who were responsible for this,” Banu added. “We want compensation for Tara’s family, and a job for her brother. We also want guidelines for police officers on how to treat transgender people.”

Banu was part of a group that went to the state police commissioner’s office to register a complaint against the policemen who abused Tara. There, she said, she and other protestors were beaten by the police once again. A study by the National Institute of Epidemiology released in 2016 had concluded that the greatest perpetrators of violence against trans-people are the police.

Tara’s death became a focal point for protests against the brutality that trans-people are routinely subjected to. At the vigils held at Jantar Mantar in Delhi, Bengaluru and Hyderabad, more stories of violence against transpeople were revealed. A homeless transwoman in Hyderabad was found murdered on the street. But, instead of investigating the murder, community members reported that the Hyderabad police harassed a group of transgender women that lived some distance away from the murdered transwoman, constantly asking for documents and treating them like suspects. In Bengaluru, a transwoman was found dead on the street. The cause of her death remains unknown.

A transgender person waits for an audition. Credit: Sajjad Hussain/AFP

Unending brutality

Sexual violence against transwomen was equally, if not more common, among these stories. Karthik Bittu Kondaiah, a trans-activist, recounted instances of harassment in Hyderabad just in the last two years, which included a gang of rapists who would kidnap and rape transwomen, and a separate group of young men on bikes who would smash bottles on the heads of transwomen.

“The deaths of several transpeople who live outside the community structure remain unaddressed, and we do not fully understand and have support systems in place to deal with many of these forms of violence,” Kondaiah said.

Another transwoman based in West Bengal, Raina, told that when she used to do sex work she would take it for granted that she would be beaten by the police, or abused by passers-by.

“If somebody throws water or eggs on you, or beats you, it’s not like you can go to the police, they won’t take any action,” she said. Trans sex workers are particularly targeted because their work is not recognised as legitimate labour, but as morally “unacceptable”, she added.

The sheer number of anecdotes like this, recounted in every part of the country are telling: in India, crimes against transpeople and trans-deaths are treated with routine apathy, there are rarely any investigations, and almost no record of these deaths.

“There’s no way to find out, because the family frequently misgenders the transperson,” said Dhrubo Jyoti, a genderqueer journalist and activist. “This is why people are pushing for the community to get involved when a death happens, so that the police don’t automatically go to the natal family.”

Nadika, a non-binary writer living in Chennai, told that the criminalisation of begging and the targeting of sex work is closely connected to the idea of purity imposed by the caste system.

“The whole basis of the caste system is that some jobs are purer than others,” she said. “This plays out in terms of what the city looks like – who can be in the city and who can’t, who can access public space and who can’t. The job of ensuring that an ‘impure’ person doesn’t occupy public space is given to the police.”

Riya Sarkar, a transwoman, was the presiding officer at a polling booth in Kolkata during the state elections. Credit: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP

The NALSA judgement, passed in April 2014 by the Supreme Court of India, had affirmed the fundamental rights of transgender people in India. It was widely hailed as a step towards progress for a diverse community whose members had never been granted basic rights such as healthcare, housing, education and employment.

The judgement gave broad directives to the Central and state governments to provide reservations in public employment and education to transgender people, to ensure that transgender people could access healthcare and receive protection from violence and discrimination. Significantly, it also recognised the right to self-determination of gender – which meant that it affirmed a person’s right to express their gender identity, without the need for external certification or policing.

A year later, in 2015, Member of Parliament Tiruchi Siva introduced a private member’s bill on the rights of transgender people in the Rajya Sabha which largely respected the dictats and spirit of the NALSA judgment. Had this private member’s bill been passed in the Lok Sabha and actually implemented, activists say it could have made a colossal difference to the lives of millions of transgender people in the country. Instead, the government of India stepped in with two different and progressively worse versions of the bill.

At present, the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016 (the full text of which was presented before the Lok Sabha on August 2, 2016, and is still pending clearance) is deeply flawed. A detailed crowdsourced critique of the bill, published on Orinam, an LGBTQ support group in Chennai, points out the Bill’s very definition of the term transgender is incorrect and reinforces harmful stereotypes. Traditional Indian trans-identities, which were recognised and named in the earlier Bill (such as jogappas and shiv shakthis) find no mention in the present version either.

Where the NALSA judgement had emphasised the self-identification of gender, the 2016 Bill requires that a transgender person acquire a certification of identity, failing which, they will be unable to lay claims to any employment or medical benefits as outlined in the Bill.

Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, a celebrated transgender rights activist. Credit: Sajjad Hussain/AFP

How does a transperson get this certificate? By appearing before a “district screening committee”, comprised of a medical doctor, a psychiatrist or psychologist, a district welfare officer, a transgender person and a government official, who will examine the transgender person to determine their classification. In practice, this will enable a group of strangers – who are likely to be ignorant of transgender rights at best, bigoted at worst – to be the gatekeepers of transgender identity.

While the entire idea of the committee is invasive, the requirement of a medical doctor is particularly troubling because the NALSA judgement recognised a person’s right to determine their own gender, irrespective of whether they had undergone medical or surgical procedures to alter their body.

Healthcare – already difficult for transgender communities to access – has been severely neglected by the present Bill. It gives no guidelines for the setting up of separate wards for transgender people in hospitals, something that has already had fatal consequences in several parts of the world: in Pakistan, for instance, a transgender person died last year, because the hospital staff could not decide whether to put them in the male or female ward. The same thing happened in India in 2014.

Since the bill only recognises either the natal family or the rehabilitation centre as legitimate spaces for transgender people, it effectively criminalises traditional Hijra and Aravani communities.

In 2015, the Madras High Court cleared the path for K Prithika Yashini, 25, to become India's first transgender sub-inspector of police. Credit: AFP

Trans-activists confirmed that even after two years, the NALSA judgement remains largely unimplemented even by the state governments. “Not a single state has implemented it,” said Aruna, a trans-activist from Tamil Nadu. The success stories are usually individual and tokenistic, and ensure jobs or education for only a few people, while vast swathes of the community continue to struggle against widespread and systemic inequality.

Instead of recognising this inequality, the Centre’s latest proposed Bill will exacerbate it. Trans-leaders said the government’s consultation process has been opaque and exclusionary – dates for consultations were randomly posted on the ministry website, were only accessible to people who had access to the internet and could speak English, and time windows to receive responses from the community were very small.

Despite this, comments and responses were regularly sent by community organisations working all over the country. However, it is clear that they have not been regarded by the Centre at all. Most of the people who will be directly affected by this legislation have not even been consulted.

“This is the handiwork of some sold-out NGOs and doesn’t at all reflect the popular will of the working class transgender population,” said Hyderabad-based trans-activist Vyjayanti Vasanta Mogli. Spokespersons of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment remained unavailable to comment, despite repeated attempts to reach them.

Winner Bobby (left) and second runner-up Ritu pose after the finals of the 'Indian Super Queen' beauty pageant for the transgender community in Mumbai. Credit: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP