Liberty, equality, identity: Giving wings to the transgender community in India

Mumbai  (DNA) : In April last year, the Rajya Sabha passed The Rights of Transgender Persons Bill, 2014, heralding the first steps towards equality for the transgender (TG) community. Paving the way for a law, the bill calls for proper education, jobs, pensions and legal aid against any discrimination or abuse. The movement for employment opportunities, though minuscule, has been quite impactful with people and organisations, both mainstream and from within the TG community, looking beyond traditional livelihood options such as begging, sex work or seeking ‘baksheesh’ at festivities. For instance, India saw its first transgender principal in Manabi Banerjee, who took charge of West Bengal’s Vivekananda College, and TG model Rudrani Chettri to soon start the country’s first TG modelling agency after a crowdfunding campaign. Real integration, however, will need change in mindsets. Ornella D’Souza lists a few examples of how a beginning is being made.
Relying on hair and make-up

A student of Delhi-based Zeenat Club, which trains transgenders to be beauticians and hairdressers.
Transgender (TG) people in northeast Delhi’s congested Khajuri Khas, Shahadara, Bhajanpura, Seelampur can now join Zeenat Club. This TG-only club trains them to be beauticians and hair-dressers.

While students get diplomas at the end of a six-month course, senior trainer Kanika says she herself was not as lucky. “I had to drop out of a VLCC course because of lewd comments and harassment,” she remembers.
Anjan Joshi of SPACE (Society for Promotion of Awareness, Care, Empowerment) the NGO behind the initiative, says Zeenat Club trained 124 TGs from.2012 to 2014. “It began as a three-month course and then became six-month long. At present, there are 50 students, Along with beauty training, messages on health and human rights, safe sex and HIV/AIDS are also included in the curriculum.
The NGO also started a three-month computer training course last year. “We already have 100 students and are open daily, from early morning to late night,” says Joshi.
Another runaway hit is Zeenat Clubs boutique for TGs. “Someone who worked with a leading fashion designer had to leave after being falsely accused of stealing. She started this boutique and is supported by others skilled in embroidery and tailoring,” he adds.
Kanika, who makes Rs 12,000 a month, feels beauty training has been empowering. “I don’t do toli badhai [the tradition of singing and dancing at weddings, births] any more,” she says. Fellow club member Sakina earns half this amount, but she’s happy. “Despite being trained, no parlour was ready to take me on. So I started in my rented space. TGs are my main clients, but housewives from the neighbourhood too come now. There’s greater acceptance from them. They tell me ‘Eh Sakina, I’ve made some kheer, I’ll send you some,’”
Integration through art

Aravanis participating in Poornima Sukumar’s Aravani Art Project in Bengaluru.
28-year-old Bengaluru-based muralist and artist Poornima Sukumar’s association with the hijra community began while assisting a London-based documentary filmmaker. One filming spot was Prakruti Kala Seva Samithi, a TG organisation at the city’s KR Market. Here, up close with their exclusion from society and harrowing tales of beggary, sex work, harassment by cops and unemployment, she discovered their biggest joys came from putting on make-up and draping dazzling sarees. “When filming ended, they said ‘people come, film us and make money, but we stay where we are’,” recalls Sukumar.
Sukumar’s Aravani (Tamil for hijras) Art Project was born of that ‘guilt.’ Whether government schools or NGOs like Salaam Balaak Trust, their walls have had a makeover courtesy this BFA graduate from Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath whos taught at the National School of Design.
Aravani Art Project’s first experiment at integrating TGs into the mainstream involved painting the dilapidated building that houses their organisation. After much deliberation over the final design, the landlord consented. So, one Sunday afternoon this January, the TGs into the mainstream involved painting the dilapidated building that houses their organisation. After much deliberation over the final design, the landlord consented. So, one Sunday afternoon this January, the aravanis, and Sukumar’s friends, covered the wall in patterns reminiscent of a classic Raza painting. The aravanis usually unwilling to compromise on their time for begging or sex work, Sukumar was skeptical whether they would turn up at all. “But 15 did, and together with my friends, 25 of us painted the wall and had so much fun.” Patterns from the wall, extended to their bodies, symbolising inclusion in society. On completion, an applause broke out, lasting an entire minute, followed by the aravanis blessing the crowd. “Now the landlord wants us to paint his other buildings, which we will do for a price,” says Sukumar. “People are afraid to approach them and TGs mostly interact with members from their community, which only makes the bubble larger. This activity helped break the ice.”
Sukumar also involves them in other projects. For Embrace Impermanence, which involves recycling and decorating glass bottles, she has roped in five aravanis to paint 1,000 bottles commissioned by a corporate. They will earn Rs 100 per bottle.
Sukumar also gets a free stall for Kitsch Mandi, a flea market for upcoming designers, which she helps create the decor. “For the next Kitsch Mandi, I’ll be joined by two aravanis and split the sales, equally,” she says.
Other plans include a crowd-funding endeavour with Junta, a community-art network, to teach quilting. “The aravanis are ready to cook and clean in people’s homes. But that’s a long way ahead.”
A match for skills not gender
Bengaluru-based Value Wings Enterprises Private Limited, collaborated with Ondede, an organization run by TG activist Akkai Padmashali, to launch online job portal, in April 2015. Anyone, including TGs, between 18-60 years can apply. The online applications do not require one to specify gender. The applicant just has to upload his/her skill set, and if it complies with the job requirements, the automated system notifies the employer, who sends an interview request to the applicant. 1008jobs has received around 100+ openings from companies willing to hire TGs. There are openings for editors, cinematographers, art directors, illustrators, artists, actors, musicians, content writers, MS access expert and more.“But less than five per cent of TGs have used this service due to lack of awareness and education. So, we’re working with Ondede to train and prepare TGs for job opportunities,” says Rajeswari MN, executive assistant at Value Wings. TG agents will be hired in each city to fish out potential candidates from the community. “As the interest is present from both ends, job providers and transgenders, we shall soon have success stories.”
Unlock talent, open doors
Transwoman Kalki Subramanian, an activist, entrepreneur, journalist, actor, poet and filmmaker, runs the Sahodari Foundation in Auroville to empower TGs across India. A holder of two master’s degrees, Kaki has spoken on transgender’s rights in the US and was also invited to Rashtrapati Bhavan to participate in the swearing in ceremony of Chief Justice of India, Honourable Altamas Kabir. Under Project Kalki Films, she trains trans women to make films about their turmoils.
She feels that most NGOs for LGBTQIAs focus on funds for HIV/Aids awareness and neglect legal rights and employment. “Eighty per cent of TGs are dropouts, and none qualified to be engineers or doctors.” Beggary and sex work are hence rampant. “We are not a priority for the government. Only few states have Transgender Welfare Boards. So, the community must rise on its own. Many of us are multi-lingual, communicate fluently, write poetry… which was why I started the Facebook page, Jobs for Trans.”One Indian Road Safety Organisation (OIRSO), which came across the age, approached Subramanian to train and hire traffic safety assistants. “Sponsors were ready to pay monthly salaries of Rs 9,000, but Chennai authorities didn’t grant permission,” she says. Subramanian also got two transwomen jobs at Accenture with a salary of Rs 12,000 per month. But they quit abruptly for sex work that earned them Rs 35, 000 per month. She has now placed a transwoman, Agni, as an office assistant at a college in Pondicherry hired. “The Kerala government’s decision to flag off G-Taxi or Gender taxi by March end is a sign that these are hopeful times.”
Paving the path to success
Since the Supreme Court’s NALSA verdict, recognising transgender people as third gender, many organizations have come forward to hire TGs, only to discover they lack technical expertise. Recognising this hurdle, the Humsafar Trust has embarked upon capacity-building initiatives like computer training classes and soon-to-begin, English-language classes. Among the Trust’s initiative is a collaboration with Wings Travel for ‘Wings Rainbow,’ the country’s first LGBT community-powered radio cab service, which will kick off in Mumbai by March-end, when five members from the community, including two TGs, will take to the roads. One of the hindrances to such programs, points out Pallav Patankar, of the Trust, is the ‘commerce of judgment. “A transwoman makes almost Rs 30,000 a month through begging or prostitution. A mainstream job would pay about 10,000-15,000 per month. Naturally, they are lured by higher incomes, but this earning curve declines as they get older.”
Voices from the Community

Siddhant More (left) and Gauri Sawant
Thirty-eight-year-old Mumbai-based transman, Siddhant More, has had it relatively easier than fellow transmen in the corporate world. But after 15 years as a recruitment consultant, he’s not hired a single member from his community. “When I look out for them, they are either transitioning or already have, with a new name and gender.” Applying for jobs is daunting. Though a new passport is issued, education certificates carry old identities. That involves ‘coming out’ to potential employers. “Even after producing an affidavit or certificate from the doctor, employers stay clear because they assume there’d be legal hassles.” He says transwomen and hijras have more job opportunities because of higher visibility in society than trans men. “But people we have a good rapport with for years, are the ones who are far more supportive. After I transitioned, my boss told me, ‘I may not understand you, but I completely support you because you are a good person and a good employee. Even neighbours, much to my surprise, accepted me in an instant. “Coincidentally, this happened after the Satyamev Jayate episode on TGs.”

BJP MP demands Yogi Adityanath as CM candidate for UP assembly elections
Thirty-four-year-old transgender activist Gauri Sawant is director of Sakhi Char Chowghi Trust, in Malad. Sawant had started a canteen to ensure TGs in the vicinity, mainly HIV/AIDS infected, get one nutritious meal a day. This setup went kaput after constant harassment by police and authorities who refused legal sanction. Her organization now offers beauty courses and agarbatti-making classes. “But we only receive cheap jobs like a masseur’s role at unisex parlours. Even making agarbattis is turning out a failure because we lack marketing skills. It’s impossible to sell door-to-door, right?” she shares. However, Sawant advises friends prepping up for a job interview. “I ask them to tone down their make-up and attire. And there’s no need to show off those breast implants,” she reveals, adding: “The mentality needs to change from both sides. Unlike (TG activist) Lakshmi Narayan Tripathi who stays with her parents in a good locality, we reside in slums where every day is a struggle.”
(With inputs from Gargi Gupta)