The auditorium was packed.
The National symposium for LGBT awareness was well under way. A week long program it celebrated the spirit of the LGBT community.
On the schedule were meetings to raise awareness, generate gainful employment opportunities for the community, symposiums, and cultural events. Today was the day ear marked for ‘Community Voices’, a session devoted exclusively to hearing stories of the oppressed and the community warriors.
I sat in the audience, in the section marked – Press; to attend and cover the last talk for the day.
A lady walked up to the lectern. Clad in a sober saree, draped on her tall, lissome frame, she cut an elegant figure. Her hair was braided and neatly coiled in a loose knot at the nape of her neck. The murmurs that had stirred up before the talk, stilled. Expectant faces turned to look at her as she clutched the pallu of her saree and draped it over her shoulders in a gesture of modesty.
She disengaged the microphone from its stand, grasped it in both hands and walked to stand at the edge of the stage, out in the front. Her confident demeanor, the smile flirting at her lips, all, belied the flux of nervous emotions she must have felt. But, she held them at bay.
Holding her head high, she scanned the crowd one last time, cleared her throat and began.
Thank you for this opportunity. It means a lot to be given time to recount my story and the story of my community.
Many of you may be wondering who I am. Many may be thinking why I am on this stage or why I have been handed the microphone to share my story. So, let me address those questions first. To the world in general, the world outside the LGBT community – I am nobody! And, nobody means – nobody! Because they would rather that I or my ilk did not exist.
To them, I am neither a man nor a woman. To them, I am some weird experiment of nature or may be a mistake in God’s plan. You see, to them, I am a Chakka, a hijra or as they say in English a Eunuch; someone not to be associated with. But, let me tell you, I am not just a nomenclature and I am definitely not God’s mistake.
So then, who am I?
My name is Durga. I am a transgender woman. But, before that I am a human being. I stand before you today as the voice of my community, to bring you our story.’
A hush fell over the audience as Durga stopped to catch her breath.
The reporter from ‘The Times’, sitting beside me, sat up straighter. Another in front brought out his notepad and poised his pen. A woman, sitting in front of the press section, tapped her phone to check the recording mode. The congregation stirred into action at the mention of a story.
‘Today, this gathering has people from various strata of the LGBT community. We have lesbians, gays and bisexuals among us. I salute you my brethren. You have fought for your place in the world and have carved out space. Your journey has not been easy. If anything, it has been beset with roadblocks at every step and turn. And yet, you have prevailed. You have overcome and you have emerged triumphant.
How do we, the transgender know this?
Well, we know because you no longer have to hide in the shadows. You do not have to remain closeted anymore. You have what my community has dreamed of but never received – acceptance!
Societal mindsets are changing. Thanks to a few brave voices in your community, even the demure ones have found expression. So, in the present, you can be open about your relationship. In some western countries, you are allowed to wed, adopt children and have a happy family life. Most among you are gainfully employed and in fact, people from your community are famous designers, artists, office holders and leaders. You are a part of the society, an accepted part.
But, we…we are nowhere because you are now considered what we so far have not been – normal!’
As her words sank in, a few muted murmurs started up. Her words had stirred up the hornet’s nest. I found myself reflecting on the many times that I had encountered transgender people, mostly begging for alms at traffic junctions in the city and once or twice in the red light district when I had gone to cover a story. Apart from that, I could not really remember seeing them in shopping in malls, going to the multiplexes or even eating at restaurants.
Did that mean that what Durga said was correct? Was her community still that shunned? Were they the outcasts in a sea of accepted societal outcasts?
Even as I sat and pondered on these revelatory thoughts, Durga continued speaking.
‘Our story is very different from yours.
We are treated as blights. Society does not want to associate with us. Society does not openly acknowledge us. We can neither find gainful employment nor means of permanent sustainability. There are no jobs for us. There are no opportunities. And, a large part of it is due to the misconception that people do not know whether to classify us as ‘male’ or ‘female’. They don’t know whether to call us ‘he’ or ‘she’.
I ask you, is it so difficult to make out? I mean, is our attire not a clue? Is it so difficult to walk up to us and ask us how we would like to be addressed? It is not difficult at all. We do not bite. We will not eat you alive. But, still people cringe from us. They do not want to be in our presence. They shy away from us as if we were a communicable or worse yet contagious illness.
I ask you – why?
Why are we treated like this? Are we not human beings? Did we not come out of a woman’s womb? Is it our fault that we were created like this? Trust me, none of us asked for this body. It was given to us. It was given to us by God. Yes, the same God that created you and others. So then, why is it that the perception the world has of you is so very different from the perception that they have of us? Are we to blame? Or, is society to blame?
I ask you – who is abnormal, we or the society?’
I cringed as I heard the last statement.
What Durga said was what I too, like many others had inadvertently been guilty of. I had behaved abnormally. It was true that I shied away from transgenders when they accosted me in a rickshaw at traffic junctions. I slunk as far away from them as possible, choosing instead to focus on some object in the distance so as to completely ignore the fact that they were speaking to me. Why?
I looked around as the sea of faces in the auditorium. Was it shame that I discerned on some faces, maybe a twinge of remorse? Or, was that just my guilt prickling at my conscience?
Is being different such a crime? Is that what gets one ostracized from society? Does being human not count at all? I wondered and my mind swamped with the flurry of such questions, I lost the thread of the talk till my thoughts were rudely interrupted by Durga’s jarring words.
‘Believe it or not but society thinks that we are born for two things only – begging and sex!
When a child is born in the ‘so called normal community’, we are called to bless the child. We are invited for weddings to bless the happy couple or when the new daughter in law enters the house for the first time. Now, don’t be confused by the invitation part here. We are invited but not invited in! We are not allowed to cross the threshold of their homes. We are only asked to shower blessings and then walk away with our ‘shagun’ money.
I ask you, is it so troublesome to offer us a glass of water or serve us some food? Why invite us and yet treat us like untouchables? Are we untouchable?
And, on that count let me tell you about the other profession that people think we are born for – sex!
You see, apparently we are a rarity in the sex trade. Men and women alike find us exotic because we embody parts of both the genders. Prostitution is the only profession that does not judge us. And, laugh all you want but the truth is that we get pimped out to the sarkaari babu’s and MLA’s more often than to others.
Hah! These so called saviors of society; they use us. In the name of sex, we are raped, sodomized and we are abused in more ways than I can recount on stage. We are paid a pittance. We are hired for a night by one individual but it is a group that more often than not partakes in the carnal pleasures. So, our abuse is not at the hands of one individual, it is at the hands of many. Our victimization is at the hands of groups also.
But, we cannot complain, can we?
Who will hear us? Where do we even lodge this complaint? Even if we tried, we would be shooed away because apparently, sex is the only profession that we are made for. That is a badge, a classification that society has given us. Times may have changed friends, if I may call you friends, but, the classification remains. It is seared into our souls by the psychology of the ‘normal’.
So, even today we continue to be what we were even generations back – unaccepted!’
At the last part Durga’s voice cracked.
She stopped speaking drew a ragged breath. I could make out that she was struggling to rein in her emotions which threatened to spill out of her eyes. Perhaps, speaking about the exploitation of her community brought instances of psychological and emotional hurt to fore that she had willed herself to hide.
I understood then that being a transgender meant keeping your emotions in check at all times. It meant, not exhibiting them because even if someone saw, they would neither offer a shoulder nor a kerchief.
Durga walked back to the lectern and took a few sips of water. Then, dabbing her eyes with the corner of her pallu, she walked back out and continued.
‘When I look at you people, my brethren from the LGBT community, I see hope.
You may think that I envy or worse still hate you. But, no, I do not. And, the reason is that if the winds of change can blow in your favour, then surely with your support and with the support of society, they can blow in our favour too.
The world today accepts the LGB community. The ‘T’, the community that we are, still awaits this acceptance. But, with support, I feel that the time is not far when perception about us will change. Together we can make that change. Dare I hope?
But, this will not happen overnight or even anytime soon. I know that it will take time – years or maybe a decade. But, for this to happen we, transgenders have to change the way we also think about ourselves. We cannot call ourselves victims. Not anymore. We are warriors!
My friends, the tattered beliefs of society need to be sewn together. Its torn, thinning fabric needs to be patched up and reinforced.
I implore you all, more than sympathy, give us sensitivity. People, the society, even our brethren need to be sensitized to the fact that we are human too. We feel and we hurt just the same as others. Together we need to understand that we need to shed the shackles of past perceptions and approach tomorrow with renewed insight.
Can we do it? Is it possible?
I beseech not just the LGB community, but the people as a whole. Please, include us in the framework of society. Let us carve a space for ourselves too, that is equal to the footing that you stand at. Let us exist in harmony with you. If you support, then this change can happen. If you accept, then we will gain a modicum of acceptance.
Because, we may be created different but underneath we are all the same – human!
Question is – will you support us? Will you accept us?
I leave you with these questions for I do not have the answers. It is only you who can answer them. It is only you who can delve deep and introspect because, before the acceptance comes to us, it has to be accepted by you.
Durga bowed and walked off the stage.
Silence hung over the audience like a pall. In that moment, in the asphyxiated air of my so called freedom, I felt suffocated. Durga’s talk made me feel like an outsider who had been given a sneak preview of an Oscar worthy film that left me with more questions than answers.
I looked around. There were similar questions on many faces. A few eyes were moist too. Durga’s talk had touched a chord. I was enlightened, as were many others, judging by their expressions.
Would there be a change in attitude then? Could Durga’s hope for her community translate into a reality?
I rolled my shoulders back as I gathered up my stuff and stood up to leave. I could not speak for the others but I knew that she had managed to change my perceptions
Author’s note – The events and characters in this story are fictitious. However, the message from the transgender community is not. It is the result of a talk given by a transgender at an MNC in South India. I am not at liberty to name either the transgender or the MNC but I do hope that I have been able to effectively communicate her message to the readers.