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India’s transgenders fear being stripped of citizenship

On Tuesday 25th November the Rajya Sabha passed the Transgender Persons’ (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2019. The most serious flaws in the new law are 1) the procedure it mandates for legal gender recognition — the process by which trans people can change their documents to reflect their identity, and 2) provide proof of surgery.

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At 24, Indian transgender Ray has already had to fight many battles for recognition and now faces a new threat — losing her citizenship because of controversial new legislation.

The Delhi-based law student — whose official documents identify her as male — is among tens of thousands of people protesting against the legislation and a mooted nationwide citizens’ register, worried that it will render transgender Indians like herself stateless.

Her fears are not unfounded. In September this year, a petition was filed in India’s Supreme Court after around 2,000 transgenders were left off a citizens’ register in the northeastern state of Assam, throwing their future into doubt.

Transgender make-up artist Tulsi Chandra is among those who dreads having to return to her family in the remote Andaman and Nicobar islands to recover documents

Despite being legally recognised as a third gender in a historic 2014 Supreme Court ruling, they often live on the extreme fringes of Indian society, with many forced into prostitution, begging or menial jobs.

For a community that already faces severe discrimination in conservative India — much of it from their own families — transgenders feel they are at extra risk from legislation pushed by Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi aimed ostensibly at tackling illegal immigration.

“Many of us are thrown out of our homes, we run away from our homes facing abuse, we don’t have documents for ourselves, how do you then expect the transgender community to prove citizenship?”

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If Modi’s government goes ahead with its 2019 election pledge to draw up a citizens’ register, Ray and others will be forced “to go back to our families which are the first places of abuse most often for trans communities and individuals”, she told AFP.

Transgender make-up artist Tulsi Chandra is among those who dreads having to return to her family in the remote Andaman and Nicobar islands to recover documents.

“The reason I left home and came to Delhi was because my own family looked at me like I was an embarrassment,” the 29-year-old said.

At 24, Indian transgender Ray has already had to fight many battles for recognition and now faces a new threat — losing her citizenship because of controversial new legislation

“After the death of my grandparents, I haven’t been in touch with anybody in my family because nobody wants to accept me as their own,” Chandra told AFP, as she described what happened to a transgender friend in similar straits.

“At first the family promised to give her the documents but once she reached home, (they started)… forcing my friend, who identifies as a woman, to pretend to be a straight male and get married to a woman,” she said.

Official estimates for India’s transgender population, who are known locally as “hijras”, do not exist but the community is thought to number several million.

Read more: Foreign protestors take to India, government responds with threats

“For trans people it is difficult to even change your existing documents to the gender and name you identify with, from the one you are assigned at birth,” queer rights activist Rituparna Borah told AFP on the sidelines of a protest against the law.

“We do not even have basic rights… like the right to basic health care, right to livelihood, right to partnership,” she said.

“So how do we claim those rights as citizens now that we have to prove again that we are citizens of this country?”

Transgender Rights Bill

On Tuesday 25th November the Rajya Sabha passed the Transgender Persons’ (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2019, even though several opposition members urged the house to send the bill to a committee for further scrutiny. Since its introduction in 2016, the legislation has come under heavy criticism from transgender rights activists.

Perhaps the most serious flaw in the new law is the procedure it mandates for legal gender recognition — the process by which trans people can change their documents to reflect their identity.

India’s new law sets up a two-step process. First, it requires an individual to apply for a “transgender certificate” from the District Magistrate where they live. This can be done on the basis of a person’s self-declared identity. Then, a certificate holder can apply for a “change in gender certificate,” which signals to authorities to change their legal gender to male or female. However, this second step requires the person to provide proof of surgery, issued by a hospital official, to the District Magistrate for a second evaluation, and the official must be “satisfied with the correctness of such certificate.”

This sets an extraordinary amount of power with one government office to arbitrate which trans people “qualify” to be recognized as who they are. It also coerces people into medical procedures they might not want — a fundamental rights violation that Indian and international jurisprudence condemns.

GVS News Desk with additions from news agencies.