A key point in the National Law Services Authority versus the Union of India (2014) (popularly known as the NALSA judgement) was its definition of gender identity.
“Gender Identity refers to each person’s deeply felt internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond with the sex assigned at birth, including the personal sense of body which may involve a freely chosen, modification of body appearance or functions by medical, surgical or other means and other expressions of gender, including dress, speech and mannerisms. Gender identity, therefore, refers to an individual’s self- identification as a man, woman, transgender or other identified category.”
Two years later, The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016 failed to protect this right to self-identification and instead, defines a transgender as follows: A transgender person means a person who is— (A) neither wholly female nor wholly male; or (B) a combination of female or male; or (C) neither female nor male; and whose sense of gender does not match with the gender assigned to that person at the time of birth, and includes trans-men and trans-women, persons with intersex variations and gender-queers.
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It is in this backdrop that Rachana Mudraboyina, a transgender activist herself, founded Trans Vision, a YouTube channel that aims to correct misunderstandings about the Transgender community and make their needs and rights part of mainstream discourse. According to Rachana, judgements and rules can make a difference only when perceptions are challenged. As she jokes in this interview with Hidden Pockets, “It is only when perceptions are challenged that chemical reactions take place in the brain and there will be some change.”
Trans Vision is a Hyderabad-based channel that wants to counter perceptions about the Transgender community by putting accurate and scientific information online, beginning with: Who is a transgender?
Trans Vision and its journey
What has been the thinking behind creating a YouTube channel such as Trans Vision?
Every week, in Telangana and the Hyderabad region, we hear of at least 2-3 incidents of violence against transgender people- from assault to acid attacks. In the background of this, Swabhimana Sabha [Pride March] and the NALSA judgement, we formed a collective to try and address the issue. Most violence stems from discrimination and stigma and we believe that the best way to stop this is by removing misconceptions about the community. We wanted to cultivate a valid and healthy environment to discuss and remove these prejudices. When I surfed on the internet, I realised that there were so many misconceptions about the trans-community. A lot of them were in Hindi and spoke about how trans-people were born because of a hormonal imbalance in the parent’s biology, astrological reasons like being conceived on an inauspicious day and so on. These misconceptions were spread among millions of subscribers. We thought that if wrongful information can be uploaded and spread so easily, why not try to put things right using the same media. By creating dialogue and changing perceptions, maybe we could change the situation of crime and violence against the community.
Which are areas where you felt that discrimination is still rampant despite the progress made by society in terms of LGBTQ rights?
Discrimination in terms of the identity of a trans-person, in the education and employment sectors are three areas that hurts the community most. Even though we are citizens of India, many transgender people do not have ID cards recognising them in gender they identify with. Without a general name-change policy, the government eliminates and excludes them from various social schemes allowing for a livelihood, housing, etc. It is a big crisis. Many people talk about why so many of us are either involved in sex work or begging. They look at the end product without understanding the systemic failure that led us here. We have been systematically excluded from traditional education and employment systems and this is what the end product looks like. Employment is a third area of extreme discrimination. While policies like NALSA exist, unless the ground reality- the negative perception towards the trans-community changes, nothing will change on the ground. While policies try to help us get jobs or an education, stereotypes are thrust upon us. Where is the space for a trans-child in the image of a family? We have a continuing lack of gender information and gender sensitivity with only two visible genders whereas, it is universally accepted that gender is a spectrum that varies, and often, along with cultural identities. Unless these variations are brought out in dialogue, perceptions are not challenged. It is only when perceptions are challenged that chemical reactions take place in the brain and there will be some change.
What has the journey been like from the time the idea was initiated to today- when the first few videos have already been put up on the YouTube channel?
Initially, we though that we would do something using mobile cameras. But when we discussed it, Moses Tulasi, producer and director of the movie Walking the Walk suggested we create our own media and he would provide technical assistance. It took us about six months to get here. Right now, a few episodes in Telugu, Kannada and Urdu are on Youtube. The videos in Telugu have got good response.
When we began shooting, we realised that each episode costs about INR 11,000-12,000 including studio costs, travel, and equipment and to accommodate for the fact that each of us lost our day’s income. Whatever we produced so far is out of our savings. And we are unemployed, doing either sex work or begging.
What kind of problems did you face in bringing out this channel? Do they reflect the problems or discrimination you faced as a transwoman?
Money was our biggest challenge and now that we have reached the halfway mark, we are a little more confident about getting the full money. [Trans Vision successfully reached the target amount of its crowd funding campaign.]
Another challenge was that most donors wanted to remain anonymous mainly because it was for a trans-cause. This, we felt beat the objective of the channel, that people be open about being a transgender or about supporting transgenders.
Trans Vision’s content
What are some of the misconceptions, myths and topics that will be discussed about in the coming months?
There are many misconceptions about how a trans-person is born, that it is a genetic disease and so on. These misconceptions are the first target of our discussions. There are other misconceptions such as there are no celebrity trans-genders- national or international- we want to talk about them, the books and movies made on transgender lives. We will also talk about international policies, judgements and legal issues. Some of our episodes will deal with the historical and cultural aspects of the transgender community- such as Tamil Nadu’s Koovagam festival. We have also planned episodes where we will trace trans-characters in Hindu mythology and talk about their roles in mythological history.
Is there a reason behind choosing Kannada, Telugu and Urdu to spread your message? What is your future vision for the channel?
Our target is the vernacular masses. Hindi has a large audience but there are a large number of Telugu, Kannada and Urdu speaking audience as well. We want to bring our message to the masses and we felt these languages were more suitable. More audience means we can reach a larger number of people. We hope that one day our YouTube channel becomes a TV Channel and we are able to provide employment to a lot more members from our community.
How do you think the videos will be used?
We hope that it can be used as a subject for gender sensitisation. We hear that in some places in Karnataka, the videos are being used to sensitise people on gender issues.
How do you decide on the kind of content that needs to be created on your channel? Do you engage with your audiences?
In the first season, we will mostly be providing information that dispels perceptions and prejudices against the transgender community. We hope that in season 2, we can bring in a few celebrities, talk to them about the stigmas and misconceptions they have heard and what they think about these prejudices and use it as an opportunity to correct them. We hope that when people listen to their hero’s statements and opinions, they are a little more willing to listen. We do engage with our audience. We invite them to ask questions. So far, there haven’t been many but as more episodes are aired, we believe there will be more questions and comments. The comments so far have been encouraging.
Do you think you will face the same discrimination and prejudices from the audience watching your programme?
Family is the first unit that excludes trans-people and this is where the message really needs to go. In terms or trolling or negative feedback, we welcome all feedback as long as it helps foster dialogue. If someone says something negative, we hope that others speak against it and that’s how a dialogue happens- by discussing differing opinions.
Challenges that continue to persist for the transgender community
What kind of changes are you hoping will come about thanks to Trans Vision, which will eventually allow people who identify as transgender to live a life of dignity?
I would like to refer to tangible rather than the intangible [benefits]. With Trans Vision, a few people will also get the option of working in something other than sex work-another livelihood option. Second is the main objective of changing perceptions and motivating people to come forward.
Are judgements [such as NALSA] and other government initiatives enough to see actual change on the ground? What else needs to be done?
Judgements like NALSA give hope to the community. As I said earlier, they make us more visible. But judgements, orders and rules alone will not make the situation better. Despite the NALSA, judgement, the government is now bringing out a Transgender Protection Bill, but there are many issues with it. For instance, IDs will be given only after a screening process, in which persons have to stand nude before a screening community. The point is that judgements and government orders alone will not change anything unless we change the perception of people. It is the people who run governments and implement orders and bias and prejudice always seeps in.
Is the situation changing today? Are we seeing more acceptance, although discrimination persists?
We need to break the silence and not treat it [violation of human rights] as a ‘trans’ issue but as a gender issue. Even feminist spaces were not very inclusive of the transgender community, even though we are fighting along the same lines as the feminist movement. We are minorities and so if no one speaks up, everyone is silent. However, this silence is slowly being broken. Arundathi Roy is writing a book on a transgender woman. We are a collective ally with feminist and student movements and many a time they have come forward in solidarity. There were occasions when we could not even entire police stations to complain against violence or discrimination, let alone file a FIR, but they have come forward to help us. These are our allies.
Can you tell us how perceptions towards the transgender community have changed over the years and have allowed or not allowed the community to live a life of dignity?
For me, dignity is a relative term. The only community that had some respect was the hijra community. They are a collective community and their respect comes from a hint of religion and culture attached to their identity. But then the power within these communities flow from top to bottom and there are infringements of human rights within the community.
On the other hand when there is discrimination from outside, they ignore it. They have internalised the stigma and violation of human rights, blaming it on fate and simply accepting it. However, because of trans-activists before me who fought for our rights, the newer generation of transgenders have some hope. There is hope for a mainstream education and employment. NALSA has been used as a tool in this regard.
Considering that the general awareness levels even among the transgender community is less, do you intend to also talk to the transgender community to talk about their inclusion in different ways?
Of course. We will be talking about different groups within the transgender community and trying to dispel all myths and misconceptions around everybody in the community. This is not just about empowering different communities but also having a dialogue and saying we exist, they exist.
What has the Telangana government done with respect to transgender inclusion? Have they executed the five centrally sponsored schemes?
They have done absolutely nothing. They are silent. We have visited the secretariat many times, but every time it is the same question: how many are you? We are not an important vote bank for them. However, we are trying and we are optimistic. I think the ground reality now is of a silent, peaceful and growing resistance.
About the writer: Merlin Francis is a journalist currently working as Editor at the Centre for Study of Science, Technology and Policy. She writes on issues of social justice, climate change and women empowerment.