So said Priya when I met her at the community dinner on the eve of the recent 3rd Hijra Habba (Habba is a Kannada word meaning festival) event organized by Pehchān project in association with India HIV/AIDS Alliance in Delhi, that brought together over 350 hijras and transgenders from across the country to focus attention and demand implementation of their constitutional rights. Her serene poise and calm demeanour immediately attracted my attention. Priya, a transgender from Hyderabad, and now a Training Officer with India HIV/AIDS Alliance’s Pehchan Project, had to tread a thorny path before reaching this respectable position.
Here is her story in her own words:
“I started my career as a theatre artist. I am a dancer, actor and choreographer. Then in the late 90’s, I lost some of my close friends to HIV/AIDS, which disturbed me greatly and I wanted to do something for the people living with this dreaded disease. I am very talkative by nature and I love to interact with people. This helped me get a job as a capacity building consultant with PATH India. But after 6 years the project got over and I became jobless in 2004. I had to start from scratch to rebuild my career. I could not go back to dancing, as I had been out of practice for all these years and, moreover, it was not easy to re-establish my network. I had been into sex work earlier, and to make ends meet I was forced to go back to it. In between I would do some consultancy work too (on HIV/AIDS prevention, and SRH issues) as and when I got it. But I had to survive and help my family too—my mother, my younger brother and sister. So I did sex work to supplement my income as there was no other work coming my way. My friend helped me get the job of a counsellor in an organization working for PLHIV. But after the contract was over I was back to square one. But I was now detesting sex work more and more. My heart was not into it. I did not feel comfortable and happy doing it. I was really sick of selling my body.”
“At this point of time the Pehchan project came into being. I applied for the post of Training Officer (TO). I appeared for the interview but was disqualified as I was not a graduate. I was heartbroken. But my friend Vishnu managed to get me some other work in Pehchan. Later the post of TO came up again in 2013 and by this time I had completed my graduation. So I got the job”.
“As you must noticed, I stammer at times (frankly speaking I had not noticed this at all, so engrossed I was in her story). So people at the community based organizations where I had worked earlier would make fun of me and tease me. I was a target of their jokes and snide remarks, more so because I am a very frank and straight forward person. But I was confident in myself. As a capacity builder, I was able to convey to the people what I wanted to convey and they would understand me. My stammering never came in the way of my work. But when I got the job of the TO, I stood all the more vindicated. Those very people who had made fun of me, now stand with obedience in front of me when I visit their organizations as a TO. Those who used to abuse me earlier, have now to respect me because of my new position. This way Pehchan gave me a new Pehchan”.
When I asked Priya about how the Supreme Court judgment granting ‘third gender’ status to transgenders and hijras has affected their lives, she gave a very candid reply –“We celebrated the judgment as it was indeed a landmark and we thought that it would make our lives a lot better. But the government has not been very proactive on this. Yes, we have got our social entitlements like voter id card, aadhar card, passport as third gender, which is a big thing. But this alone is not enough to give us two square meals a day. All transgenders do not want to do sex work, and neither do they want to beg for a living. But they do not get any other work. When they apply for a job, they are most often rejected on some pretext or the other due to their hijra status, even when they have the qualifications. It seems it will take more time for society to accept us for what we are”.
“At the same time the hijra community will also need to normalize and change their behaviour and get rid of their peculiar mannerisms– like clapping of hands and abusing people. When the government has recognized our identity, we should also make efforts to improve ourselves. We need to get educated. It was only because of my education that I am today what I am. We have got habituated to begging and doing sex work, instead of studying, to make a decent living. Most of us think of making a quick buck through softer options like sex work and begging—which seems to be an easy way out. But we have to change this attitude. We have to understand that education is very important as it brings a lot of changes in our attitudes, behaviour, mannerism and way of talking. Education teaches us to live respectably”.
“Community will have to change and so also society. Society will have to recognize that there is more to a life of a hijra than just sex work and begging. Society needs to utilize the myriad talents of hijras. We are very good dancers, make-up artists, singers, we have a good dress sense, and above all, we have a lot of patience. Given the opportunity, we will make good dancers, dress designers, beauticians, and nurses. Only if we could get some such vocational trainings it would be really helpful”.
(I am tempted to mention here that in Thailand it is very common to see ‘lady boys’ working in beauty and massage parlours and the hospitality sector (and other sectors), with no eyebrows lifted)
Priya’s adverse circumstances motivated her to study. “I was not getting a job, I was not happy doing sex work, all doors were closed upon me. Studying was the only option left for me and it became my best option. Once I went back to my studies, I really enjoyed it. I am now doing my post graduation. Unless we taste the fruit of education we do not understand its utility. It is only because of my education that I could work in a good position. Only when our community understands the importance of education—that it will get us respect, job and a dignified life—will they go for it. And to achieve this, society will have to help us too and give us a chance to study.
Government recognition and societal acceptance of us–both are very necessary. My request to society is that please stop seeing us as only sex dolls– a change in your attitude will do miracles”.