An update on the second Round Table discussion on 28 May 2016:
The second RT discussion in May was again a very small group. The talk by Olga Aaron (founder of BRAVOH) and discussion following however were both revealing and enlightening. Olga Aaron started by raising a very basic question: “A woman is never asked ‘Why do you choose to live as a woman?’, but a transperson’s desire to live as a woman or another gender is always questioned. Why?”.
Olga then went on to share about her own life and her journey to becoming a transwoman. She later touched upon the various stages that a gender-non-conforming child goes through. This was an eye-opener for some of us in the discussion. The stages around 13 years or so when the child has to deal with reactions of others to her/his behaviour is perhaps the most painful and confusing for the child and also the stage when the child herself/himself has neither the tools or the ability to be able to deal with these reactions, questions, teasing or worse. When a person who is 41 is unable to answer an existential question like – “why are you like this?” a child of 11 or 12 who is subjected to this question in all spheres cannot be expected to answer such a question. In most cases there is hardly any dialogue between the parents and such gender non-conforming children. The parents’ often only compare them with other children and keep berating them, ridiculing them and branding them with insulting epithets for being/behaving like a girl/boy. In schools the situation is even worse. We were pained to hear that the highest percentage of abuse happens in schools- verbal, physical, emotional and social abuse, and often teachers are the perpetrators. The perpetrators are emboldened because they know the parents of the child already don’t like the way the child is behaving, and so the child will not have the courage to share about his/her abuse with her parents at home as the parents will not believe the child. When there is no nurturing and affirming ethos at home the child will not report back about abuse that happens elsewhere. So Olga shared that the first step is to create awareness and conscientisation among parents that they should always keep an ethos of love and openness with the child so that they child will share whatever happens to them; parents need to tell the child that they understand the child is going through confusion about physical and emotional gender inclinations and that there is no hurry to decide one way or the other but that they are with them in their journey.
Olga pointed out that contrary to the general notion that transgenders are more accepted in India than in other countries, the reality is that transgenders are more tolerated in India not really respected. Because of their presence in our historical epics and texts they are part of the Indian scene for ages, but this has not translated to mean that they are “accepted” or “respected”, but merely that they are tolerated. Crimes against gender non-conforming children/ people are not reported as their behaviour is seen as deserving of violent reactions and abuse.
Olga also spoke about the work of BRAVOH that tailor-makes their strategy to analyse transgenders’ problems by dividing them into the “below-18 years” and “above-18 years” categories, and feels that most problems they face above 18 have their roots in the experiences and hardships they have undergone in their “below 18 years” period. The general public only sees the behaviour of transgenders above 18 as being rebellious or aggressive or as commercial sex workers, without realizing that their below-18 years’ experiences have brought them to the point where they are forced to behave this way. When children are forced to leave home when they are 11 or 13 with no means to survive, with no one to protect and no spaces to nurture them except the community of other transgenders, they learn the hard way that the only options to survive are not really what they would’ve chosen otherwise, but they do so to survive. So the clue to empowering transgenders is to help identify early and see that their families accept them and they are not compelled to run away, so that they will have access to education, protection and eventually have better options of what to choose to do with their lives.
Olga pointed out that there is no protection and no policies existing to protect such gender non-conforming children and so BRAVOH is trying to collect enough researched data and case studies to lobby for their inclusion in the categories of children with protection under existing National and UN policies like some categories of ‘at risk’ children. She also added that gender non-conforming children are also among the trafficked children, but not enough studies have been done to document all of this demographic information that can convert to basis for lobbying for policies.
The discussion that followed touched on various related points like the challenges of parenting especially with reference to parents who had the courage to let their children grow into who they wanted to be like Olga’s own mother. We talked about trans people who had sex-change to become the gender of their choice and the fact that for a transwoman the first challenge is to be acknowledged as a woman (with all the patriarchal underpinnings attached to what being a woman entails) before they can even begin to reflect about rights of women which feminists talk about. In this sense some of us realized that the feminist ideals we hold is maybe a privileged position that we need to acknowledge as such. Olga pointed out that the rights perspective of talking about their right to live with dignity, right to education, livelihood, protection etc are not in the radar of an average transwoman who has to have enough to eat and who is firs seeking to be acknowledged as a woman. For example a transwoman who is scolded, insulted, humiliated all through the day in society accepts the abuse by men who use her either for commercial sex or otherwise at night because she sees that act as an acknowledgement of her ‘womanhood’. Olga pointed out that the stereotype of a “woman” with all its patriarchal underpinnings is often the only model of acceptable womanhood these transwomen have witnessed from childhood and aspire to be such women, so they fail to see that they are being abused as that is seen as being part of “womanhood”. The most sobering point that hit those of us in the discussion was the fact that gender non-conforming children who run away from home at a tender age are never even reported as “Missing children” – which means their parents/families don’t even look for them. They are probably relieved that the problem-child ran away – this led us to realize that the structure of “family” which is touted to be all about love and nurture could actually be the most violent of units in the social structure.
Despite the smallness of the group the depth of the discussion and the interactions were sharp and honest. We had to end this session with hopes that we can come back to discussing this topic again as there were so many intersecting layers of analysis needed. We in AWRC hope we can accompany those like Olga who are working for the rights of transgender people in whatever way possible.