This article was first published by the Mint newspaper on July 20, 2016.
Not many in India know much about the life of a transgender person. They are hardly spoken about or interacted with by people who aren’t transgenders. Interestingly, India has a history of accepting transgenders. Our mythology is full of stories which mention them but in today’s day and age, they find little or no acceptance.
I must admit I did not know much about the lives of transgenders either. My experience with them has been limited to seeing them beg or land up on the occasion of a birth in the family, or at weddings, and demand money in return for blessings.
According to official figures (as per Census 2011), there are 490,000 transgenders in the country, and 70,000 of them are in rural India. However, this figure may be an underestimate as thousands of transgenders do not come forward because of the stigma attached to their identity in society. The actual figures may, thus, be much higher.
I am ashamed to admit that among the million-plus lives that we have touched through digital interventions in over a decade, not one of them is a transgender person.
But our impact sheet is finally changing: one of our Community Information Resource Centres (CIRCs) has recently started a digital literacy programme for a group of 15 transgenders in Puducherry.
When, through trainer-coordinator Sivakumar Paramasivam, we first met some transgenders, they were sceptical of our offer to impart digital literacy to them. “We are usually excluded from everything, and mostly unacceptable to society,” one of them said.
One of the people I met was Sheethal Nayak. She is 38 years old, almost six feet tall, and runs an organization called Sahodaran Community Oriented Health Development Society (SCOHD), for the transgender community in Puducherry.
Nayak started the organization 17 years ago as a small group of about 10 people who would meet twice a month to talk to each other. Over the years, the informal group became a formal organization. By 2002, SCOHD was working with 208 people from the transgender community. Today, they are a 1,223-member strong family. The organization’s office functions like a relaxation-cum-counselling centre. People come here to chat, read books, seek psychiatric help and legal assistance or to just feel part of a family.
But like most transgenders, Nayak’s journey hasn’t been easy. When she was young and trying to understand herself physically and mentally, she had never seen or heard about anybody like her—a man in the physical sense but a woman in every other. It wasn’t until Nayak visited a psychiatrist that she understood who she was, and that she wasn’t alone. However, after she accepted who she was and opened up to her parents, she had nowhere to go and no money to sustain her. Her family broke all ties with her.
After I spoke with her I realized that transgenders in this country often have few choices in life other than working as sex workers or beggars. Nayak, too, was a sex worker for a while after her family disowned her. While she has no complaints against society, she does feel let down by her parents. “Did I choose my gender? Then why did my parents disown me? What wrong have I done?” Nayak asked me.
And the struggle for Nayak hasn’t been only on an individual level. The organization that she runs has changed addresses 16 times in the last 17 years. Every time they rent a space, the landlord starts feeling uncomfortable after a few months and asks them to leave.
Nayak says until 2002-2003, members of their community couldn’t walk freely on the streets in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry or take public transport as people would abuse them. With the third gender being accepted by law, things are better now; people stare at them and whisper to each other, but are not outwardly hostile. However, there are still a lot of every day challenges that they face.
In the present context, when the world is going digital with a large number of men and women using mobile phones and other digital tools, can the transgender community be a part of the digital journey for inclusive growth?
A few days ago, when Sivakumar asked Nayak about her community’s feedback on the computer course so far, she told him: “Computer is a new thing for my community. They know how to use a mobile, but their knowledge of the Internet is limited to Facebook and WhatsApp for social purposes. Today, they are very happy to touch a computer, and feel proud to say that they can use one. It gives them a sense of dignity.”
We hope that digital literacy will be able to make a positive difference to their lives. Through access to the Web, they will be able to raise awareness about their community and connect with others like them beyond the geography of Puducherry.
“Knowledge of ICT (information and communications technology) and digital tools will also open up digital entrepreneurial opportunities for some of us who are rarely hired by anybody in a regular office,” Nayak says.
Incidentally, there is a Bengaluru-based company called Vindhya e-Infomedia Pvt. Ltd, which has shown interest in hiring people from Nayak’s organization.
These are little efforts that the digital medium can make, but things won’t change much unless society changes its mindset towards transgenders.