Transgender and Social Justice in India

Md. Farijuddin Khan *

Trans-Gender (Nupi Manbi) Community of Manipur at work in Imphal :: March 10 2013
Trans-Gender (Nupi Manbi) Community of Manipur at work in Imphal in March 2013 :: Pix - Deepak Oinam


Transgender is often used to refer to people who "do not conform to prevailing expectations about gender…" (Stryker, 2008: 123). Thus, transgender people are defined from the traditional understanding of gender (male or female) and include broad arrays of groupings such as transsexuals, heterosexual cross dresser males, inter-sexed individuals, etc. whose identity has been defined outside the stereotyped gender norms. Cross-dressers stand for persons who live opposite to the gender with which he was identified at birth but non-transsexual.

Discrimination and Exclusion in India

The stereotypical gender norm of either male or female is a discursive social construction which, unfortunately, has been internalized by societal beings. This stereotyping creates taboo and often transgender people face social oppression, abuses, physical violence, intimidations, threats, etc. because of their perceived atypical appearances or characteristics. There are various kinds of hurdles that transgender people face in society.

In a deeply religious and conservative society as India, transgender people face variety of issues. They are excluded effectively from socio-cultural aspects of life, economically and politically as well they are isolated from the rest and hence there is very less participation in the decision-making processes. This further exacerbates their plight and they remain one of the most excluded and oppressed communities in Indian society.

One key reason for their exclusion is that there is no recognition or at least ambiguity in recognizing their status as a "gender", thereby depriving their legitimate civil rights and many privileges that the two recognized genders of male and female get. The problem of not recognizing a third gender (or sex) deters them from going to courts to fight their cases in cases of discrimination and deprivations (Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India, 2014). They are treated as a non-legal entity and unnatural in every sphere of their lives.

This is not to deny or not recognizing various changes that have accompanied the changing times, particularly, in urban centres and cities of India. The Delhi High Court's landmark judgment in favour of LGTB (Lesbians, Gays, Transsexuals and Bisexuals) a few years ago not only created awareness among citizens but also instilled a sense of assertiveness among the members of the groups.

Even political class of the country had to respect the judgement. It became a reference for activists and academicians for debate and discussions in public forums. National media captured the essence of the judgement in true spirit to make case for the "excluded" community's rights and dignities. Debates were organized on national televisions about the judgement and its consequences.

Condition in the North-east India

Apparently, transgender people face relatively less discrimination in the North-east. There are reasons to this. Transgender people thrive in not so urbanized corner of India (North-east) owing to its diverse and culturally more tolerant society. In Manipur, a state with relatively higher conflict-rate, there has been always space for transgender persons since time immemorial.

Maibi, a priestess of Meitei religion, is usually performed by a transgender woman to show her devotion towards the religion. It has been accepted in the society.

Sumang Lila (theatre plays) is a highly localized entertainment platform for the locals. Leading roles are portrayed by talented transgender people. Miss Northeast Transgender Beauty Contests (2012) was organized to create awareness about them and give them a dignified space in the society.

Thus, generally speaking, North-east India has been more accommodative than other regions of the country when it comes to respecting and giving their due spaces in society. Male to Female (MTF) transgender people are quite common in the region. Fortunately, transgender people in the North-east have been able to seek job opportunities and not been excluded.

Debating their Rights: Feminist Perspectives

This is one part of injustice meted out to transgender persons. Another aspect of injustice they face is quite interesting. The term "transgender" has been also used as a political term by many feminist writers and thinkers, especially in the United States, to identify their stance on the issue of medical interventions by transgender people for self-definitions. This is an ongoing debate within feminist community.

There are sections within feminists who pathologize or condemn medical interventions, or simply transsexual surgery. They argue that this is an act of denying their originality under pressure. For example, Sheila Jeffreys argues that such interventions violate human rights. She compared it with "political psychiatric in the former Soviet Union" (Williams, 2014).

On the other hand, feminist such as Judith Butler refutes this kind of allegation and attack. She argues that the right to self-identify is a right that a transgender person should enjoy without bothering much. The first set of feminists, often gender critical feminists, argues that a transwoman is a mutilated men body. This kind of argument showcases a tendency on their part to serve as prosecutors of transwomen. This is against the highly liberal ethos which feminism generally accompanies and hence unfair.


Transgender persons face many problems. There is open discrimination against them. Some of them are: lack of unemployment, social oppression and exclusion, restrictions in educational, cultural, marriage and health facilities, homelessness, drug abuse, hygiene problems, etc. The need to address these problems urgently lies with government and role of civil society. People have to be sensitized. Legal, political and economic interventions by government need to address social injustice against them.

First and foremost thing that is required is to give their gender status in official documents to avail medical and job facilities to them. Legal recognition is very much important as it could lead to subsequent social and political recognition. There should be changes in the statutes such as Indian Penal Code (IPC) in case of India.

The definition of "Rape" in IPC must be elaborated to include transgender persons. They must be enumerated in the census and their region wise population has to be documented for proper interventions in various spheres that impact their qualitative lives.

1.) Stryker, Susan (2008), Transgender History, Berkeley: Sea; Press.
2.) William, Cristan (2014), "Gender Performance: The TransAdvocate Interviews Judith Butler" [The TransAdvocate, May 1, 2014,
URL: 3.) Government of India, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (2014), "Social Defence - Transgender Persons", Report of the Expert Committee on the Issues Relating to Transgender Persons,

* Md. Farijuddin Khan wrote this article for
The author is currently a Ph.D student at the Centre for Canadian, US and Latin American Studies (CCUS&LAS), School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be reached at fareezjnu(at)gmail(dot)com
This article was posted on November 20, 2014.

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