As she locked her door with a diamond shaped key-ring, she stopped and hugged all of us. Her golden-coloured purse was kept on the thin wrecked corridor boundary of her 1BHK apartment in Faridabad. Her heels were making some sound while she was confidently walking on the road. It wasn’t just the tick-tack sound of her heels that attracted attention from the people standing near the small shops and kiosks of cigarettes. Acceptance in this society is still a tough task. She was happy that she was dressed in the way she wanted to, that she was wearing what she loves. Putting on her favourite lipstick colour was always denied by her mother. But now she felt liberated like never before. After all, she was feeling like a woman not only from the inside, but also from outside. She stood at the bus stand while people murmured continuously, scanning her from top to bottom. She looks at them with a smile and says, “This keeps happening. I am used to it.” As we bid goodbye to her after a hectic shoot, she shouted “ Send me my pictures. I will upload them on Facebook.”
Aarif, (name changed here and throughout to maintain confidentiality) who likes being called ‘Whiskey is a trans-sex worker by choice. “The name Whiskey defines me. I feel I am intoxicating,” she says. She is an independent person who earns sufficient to support herself and contribute some in the household. Her family is unaware of her profession and source of income. The only person who was closely knitted with Aarif was her mother, died years ago. Since then Aarif has been a little aloof from her family. In Aarif’s words, “There was a time when she used to dress me up as a girl. Afterwards when I started dressing up as a woman myself, she couldn’t look into my eyes”
Aarif a.k.a Whiskey is a gay male escort. “My clients don’t like hairy chests”, she chuckled , while shaving off her chest. She also works as an active volunteer in Pehel-an NGO dedicated to the rights of transgender community. Aarif reaches out to people informing them about HIV AIDS and other STDs. “I like making people aware of safe sex and the precautions they should take” says Whiskey. When she gets time, she also dances in marriage functions for extra income.
Whiskey is a multi-tasker. While she was giving us her interview, she simultaneously prepared tea. Taking large sips of tea she was talking about how things in a cinema hall are so over-prized and yet she goes there and eats it because of her love for film. While talking about this, she took a small sip, held it for a second in her mouth, swallowed it and said, “But it is so difficult to even watch a film in a theater. Guys start following me and then they pass sleazy comments too. It doesn’t matter whether you’re at Golcha or Select City. It happens everywhere.” As a woman myself, I could relate to her problem. But I was still privileged. Privileged for never have been victimized or stalked by men at a theater in a plush mall, at least. As a transgender, Aarif has to face the stigma of belonging to a community which is still a taboo.
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In 2002, four Kothi sex workers, Priya, Sheetal, Kamala, and Rajni (names changed here to maintain confidentiality) were picked up from the streets by the police and taken to Sampangiramanagara police station in Bengaluru. They were harassed inside the police station premises and severely beaten up, resulting in injuries on their hands, arms and feet. However, they were later released, without any charges, but with a warning that they should not be seen on the streets of Bengaluru again. They were in a state of considerable physical anguish. But despite feeling insecure about appearing in public, they approached Sangama, a sexuality minority rights organization with this complaint. In response to the complaint about recurring and pervasive police violence against kothi and hijra sex workers in Bengaluru, People’s Union for Civil Liberties (Karnataka), along with other human rights organizations such as Alternative Law forum, Development Initiative for Social Causes, People’s Democratic Forum, Sangama and Vimochana decided to institute a joint fact-finding to go into such human rights violations, and suggest measures for redressal of grievances and securing justice.
The case is a classic example of how the police, which works under the constitution, harasses the community as a whole.
The new Transgender Bill, 2016 was expected to be a milestone in the laws concerning the transgender community. The Transgender Rights Bill 2016 runs into issues of defining who a transgender person is. While the NALSA verdict indicated that anyone who did not identify with the gender assigned to them by birth could choose to identify as transgender without needing a physical examination and certification, the new bill undoes this possibility both in spirit and in practice.
In spirit, it offers a very problematic definition: “transgender person,” per the bill, is defined as a person who is
- neither wholly female nor wholly male.
- a combination of female or male; or
- neither female nor male.
By confining the transgender experience either in the negative (as “not” male or female) or in parts (as “neither wholly” or as a “combination”) it takes away the most important right of a person- the right of self-determination the right to identify however they wish to identify themselves. For instance, as just male or as just female or as a third gender category or anything outside of the three narrow suggestions the draft makes.
This is worsened by the draft’s “screening committees,” which feature doctors who will provide certificates for those who identify as transgender. Not only does such a policy entirely ruin the spirit of self determination, it also puts in place surveillance and gate-keeping mechanisms for an already severely discriminated-against community.
Whiskey asked me to put the artificial eye-lashes on her regular ones. While I was blowing her mascara dry, Whiskey spoke about violence against her at the hands of her clients. “Once a customer called me in a hotel room. As I entered the room, I saw they were around 4-5 men. I refused. We had a spat and they physically harassed me.”
As her mascara dried out with my blows, I asked her if she reported it to the police. She laughed with with a clap, saying “You think they will ‘report’ this?” She started applying some glitter on her eye-lids then. It felt as if she was so sure of her own pessimism. That, she knew nothing could have possibly gone right had she reported it. It was being difficult to digest the fact that how could someone talk about sexual violence so normally. Looking at my bewildered eyes, she patted my back and said, “We are used to it. Now help me with my glitter, girl.”
There are a lot of such cases which failed to get reported because of the societal stigma attached to sex work, along with the sexual identity of the person who is reporting it.
The NGO where Aarif works gives her the much needed moral support. She has got her close friends there. It’s a closed group of well-woven people who are transgenders. All of them work for the same objective-informing people about HIV AIDS and how to prevent it. They live as sisters and consider each other family. “I feel secure and protected when I am inside the NGO premises. I know here nobody is going to mock at me, or my looks, or the way I speak or dress. They all are my sisters,” says Hawa, a 24-year-old transgender. As Hawa speaks to us, Saloni, another of the lot, mimics Hawa and teases her.
It was the dusk and the sun could be seen almost at the horizon from the metro train when we were travelling to Faridabad to meet Aarif. Aarif had given us an hour for the shoot. She had to meet her client after 6.As we reached her room, she was in a hurry and wanted us to start the interview right away. There was no electricity in the house and so, we helped Aarif to transform in her ‘Whiskey’ avatar by turning on the torches of our cell phones. While applying kohl in her eyes, she looked as graceful as one could get. No wonder she was a master at the art of make-up. But she was again and again asking us if it was on point. All of us do that while we are getting ready for an event, right?
She told us she doesn’t like to wear jewellery. But she wore a ring on her finger. I pointed at that ring and asked “Why that then?”, to which she smiled and said, “This was gifted by the person I was in love with.” Whiskey was 16 when she fell in love with a Punjabi guy in her high school. He used to live in the same colony as hers. That was the first time, she says, she understood what love is. She couldn’t hide the spark in her eyes while she talked about him. Looking at the ring Whiskey says, “Now that I see him, he ignores me. He says he is straight, now.”
Whiskey loves Bollywood dance. When she dances, she wants the whole stage for herself. But when she goes to functions as a guest and when people insist her to dance, she does not dance. “I dance in a very feminine style and they start mocking at me. So I avoid dancing in parties where I am invited as a guest,” says Whiskey.
Not being able to do something that liberates and expresses you is something that most of us wouldn’t understand. Whiskey is satisfied with her job. She loves breaking the barriers of gender at night and becoming what she feels she is. “I always wanted to be the ‘Queen of the night’. I want to be like Kareena Kapoor from the film Chameli,” says the bold and ravishing Whiskey, as she describes her dream to us. However, she also believes in love and sees herself spending her entire life with one person who understands her enough, like anybody else.
With simplistic dreams and great confidence, Whiskey wants to earn good and live her life on her own terms. Like everyone else, she has got a family, a job, friends and her aspirations. We were waiting for her cab to pick her up at the bus stop and there was no eye that wasn’t on us. Transgender person’s company itself is believed to be a taboo in our country. That moment we realized what she goes through each day, just to live how she wants and to dress how she wants; to walk, drink and meet people. She pays prices in instalments to be the Whiskey that she thinks of herself. And it needs a lot of courage to do that at a place where you can immediately get labelled. It is courageous of her to come out as she feels liberated in, in a society where the police is the prime oppressor of the entire community.
Transgender people face a range of abuses in India today. They may be evicted or fired without warning, and, when disowned by families, may lack the means to avail of education. They are often abused as labourers. The Transgender Rights Bill 2016 does not have a clear grievance redressal mechanism and, in addition to being ambiguous about the methods individuals must follow to seek justice, limits the jail sentence that the offender may receive to just two years.
Finally, the bill does not talk of reservations in educational institutions for members of the transgender community who do not belong to the Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes (although it was expected to provide for them under the category of Other Backward Classes, it has not). It is silent on the count of police violence against the community, which serves as an important reason why the community is relegated to the margins in India.
Aarif is scared but Whiskey is free. Aarif lies to his family that he works at a bank, Whiskey owns the night. These two are same people but, miles apart. As a society, it should have been our duty and responsibility to have blended both, Aarif and Whiskey in one. But we failed. There are a lot of Aarifs who remain in the closet and do not come out, not even at night, like Whiskey. If only the legal procedures and the people were sensitive enough to people and their self-determination, today this story wouldn’t have been a story and Whiskey could have been the Queen of both, the day, and the night.
Story Produced by Vishank Singh, Sumaiya Ali, Sahiba Nusrat Khan, Jamphel Sherab and Shabnoor Irshad.