Thinking about wordsThere are very few universally accepted definitions of who a 'transgender' is. The term is often very widely interpreted to include such diverse groups of people as transsexuals (nowadays they are often considered a subset under the larger group transgender), 'queer' men and women and even cross-dressers. In this article, this broadest definition shall be adopted. There will always be debates around the meaning of these words, but one word which is surely unacceptable is the Indian word 'hijra'. The word is extremely derogatory and is always used in a negative sense. Looking at the larger picture however, it appears that the word is only an extremely small part of the discrimination that these people undergo on an almost daily basis.
It starts right after their birth. The parents, who are either semi-literate or afraid of social perceptions, try to hide the nasty truth. But be it at school or anywhere else, the truth will get leaked out someday or the other. As a result, transgender individuals are often socially withdrawn from an early age. Not to mention the fact that the education of these individuals is often hampered. The Census report of 2011 (the first one to contain separate data for the transgenders) found that this particular community was much worse off in terms of literacy than the national average (46% versus 73%). This inequality ultimately ends up being multiplied in the later stages of their lives. Since they are generally not well educated, they cannot aim any higher than their 'traditional' professions. And their 'traditional' professions (you know which professions I am talking about) do not pay well, let alone give them a sense of security and respect.
The transgender community has a long history in Indian mythology with some versions of the myth claiming that they received some boon from Lord Rama. As a result, anyone they blessed was able to receive the fruits of their blessing. During the Mughal era as well, they performed various useful jobs for the emperors and the nobles, sometimes acting as spies. The exact nature of ostracization that they would have faced in the society of that period is not surely known.
Legally discriminatedBut one thing that we do know for sure is that legal discrimination was first placed upon them in the colonial period. The British trying to impose their sense of morality on Indian society first passed the Indian Penal Code of 1861 whose Section 377 continued to hound these communities for a long time afterward (To be sure the transgender community has as much variety in sexual orientations as any other group. But they were the ones most affected by this decision). Then almost a decade later came the Criminal Tribes Act which apart from putting severe restrictions on nomadic tribes, also made life miserable for the transgender community. While the former provision was struck down by the Supreme Court last year and the latter was declared void soon after independence the British policies ended up creating long term changes in the society as a whole, generating a huge lot of suspicion and hatred in the minds of the people regarding these communities.
The legal measures that are required to prevent harassment against transgender people are still quite weak and have only been discussed very recently. Moreover, it is important to remember that if society doesn't become progressive enough, legal measures do not suffice. There should be a realization from everyone of us that transgenders are people like us, with feelings and emotions and the right to be treated equally.
There are surely some changes that if brought about will result in a positive transformation. For example,
the education of these communities can be improved. They should be given some job-related skills and employers should be encouraged to leave aside old prejudices and employ the eligible ones. The process will be painfully slow, that is for certain. But it will result in increased visibility of these people in well-paying jobs. As they become more visible outside their traditional low-paying derogatory professions, they will begin to increasingly command more respect.