Indian transgender stands for office after landmark ruling

Indian transgender stands for office after landmark ruling

CHENNAI - Agence France-Presse
Indian transgender stands for office after landmark ruling

In this photograph taken on April 15, 53-year-old Bharathi Kannamma (R), a transgender hailing from the Madurai District in southern Tamil Nadu state and who is independently contesting the Lok Sabha elections, talks to women in a shop while campaigning in Madurai. AFP Photo

With a tight budget and a humble autorickshaw, a pioneering Indian transgender is campaigning in her southern hometown for a seat in parliament, just days after the country's highest court recognised "third gender" people.

Describing the Supreme Court judge's ruling as a "milestone", 53-year-old Bharathi Kannamma hopes to build on the momentum and overturn prejudices against India's several million transgenders.

Running as an independent candidate in the city of Madurai in Tamil Nadu state, she is thought to be the first transgender accepted as a candidate in a general election.

"Even when people come to see me talk, they have certain set notions," the social activist told AFP ahead of Madurai's polling day on April 17, in the phased general election that winds up in mid-May.

"It is only when they hear what I have to say and see me in person that they can get past the fact that I am a transgender," she said. 

In the Supreme Court ruling on April 15, the judge said a person can be legally recognised as gender-neutral, and transgenders should be included in government welfare schemes offered to other minority groups.

Often known as "hijras" in South Asia, transgenders are classified as people who have had sex change operations or who regard themselves as the opposite of their born gender.

They often live on the extreme fringes of India's culturally conservative society, sometimes falling into prostitution and begging.

Kannamma, however, is positive the judgment will help transgenders access education and employment opportunities, which in turn would help them contribute to their families' earnings.

"When transgenders make an economic contribution to their families, families will also hesitate to shun them," she said.

'Nothing to fear'

Kannamma herself only came out in 2004 as a transgender. Until then, she lived her life as a man and held the position of area sales manager at a bank in Madurai.

With a master's degree in sociology, she chose to leave behind the corporate life and devote her time to sensitising society to transgenders, especially in schools and colleges.

She currently runs her own Bharathi Kannamma Trust with the aim of helping the transgender community and those who live below the poverty line.

When she first ventured into politics, Kannamma said she found she was excluded from certain events.

"I noticed they would extend an invitation to me to participate in smaller gatherings but fail to invite me to larger ones," she explained.

She withdrew her support, but decided to run independently to help end discrimination against transgenders.

Her current campaign team includes two transgenders, four men and a woman, working on a daily budget of 5,000 rupees ($83). She also has a personal advisory board, which includes lawyers, doctors and other professionals.

Despite the challenges she faces, Kannamma said she found  her status as an independent candidate, without family, had won her backing.

"I have nothing to fear and I have no vested interest in being corrupt and the people see that," she said.  She's also campaigning on a wider ticket than transgender rights. "I would develop the city's infrastructure and importantly, rid its systems of corruption and bring it on par with the country's top cities," she said.

Since Kannamma signed up as a candidate, she has been followed by two transgenders fighting for seats in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

It is the first general election in which voters as well as candidates can register as "other" rather than male or female, which Kannamma believes should help motivate the community to take part.

However, only 28,341 have registered with the Election Commission to vote, highlighting the fear and stigma many face. And activists say there is still a long way to go until they reach full equality.
Activists still fight for rights

Kalki Subramaniam, another politically active transgender in Tamil Nadu who wants to get transgenders off the streets, said including them in jobs quotas for minorities may not yet be effective, given that few are qualified for such positions.

"Most sexually confused children drop out of school and college due to ridicule and the lack of a support system. Hopefully, these children will now have a future to look forward to," she said.

There is also the issue of sexuality - in a shock ruling earlier this year, the Supreme Court re-criminalised "unnatural" sex and made it an offence punishable by up to life imprisonment.

The sexual activity of many transgenders could therefore still be deemed criminal under Indian law, said activist Ashok Row Kavi, a leading Indian campaigner for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights.

"It's like being allowed to be called a lawyer but not being able to practise law," said Kavi of the court's third gender ruling.

"It's a sexless creature they are identifying. It's totally weird."