Aarav, a 25-year-old transgender man based in New Delhi, has been fighting a case in the Delhi High Court since March 2019. His petition strikes at the heart of his identity struggle — his name on the school marksheet, which is the basis for obtaining all higher certificates in India. The petition challenges the CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) by-laws that do not allow a change in the name and gender of students in the certificates after they are issued. While most can navigate these problems, for trans students, it is more than a mere inconvenience.
After a long Covid-induced delay, Aarav’s case finally gained some momentum in May, and the CBSE did end up giving an updated certificate. But the struggle didn’t end there. Amritanand Chakravorty, Aarav’s lawyer, says, “It revealed Aarav’s dead name [what he went by before his transition] and had a different serial number. These inconsistencies in his education documents and government IDs have cost him many jobs, not only in the organised but even the unorganised sector.”
The discrepancy means that Aarav has to explain his transition and choice to every potential employer. “If I wanted to give people explanations about my past, I would not try to get the marksheet changed,” Aarav explains in agitation.
The court will meet in September to hear his appeal.
Aarav’s battle is to land a job seamlessly without having to invoke the whole nine years of his past and transition. He would prefer to avoid a long-drawn fight like that of Adam Harry — India’s first trans trainee pilot whose struggle for employment came to light only recently. Earlier this year, he decided to take the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DCGA) to court. In 2020, Harry’s application for a commercial pilot licence was rejected on the grounds that he was undergoing hormone therapy. The claim that the therapy deems him unfit to fly has proven to be inaccurate.
Each step in a trans person’s life — from battling family struggles to workplace discrimination — comes with its own set of challenges and trauma. But for Aarav, tackling institutional hurdles was a fight he wasn’t prepared for.
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Documents, education, employment
For the most part, the Indian education system is not geared to meet the needs of trans persons. Dheeraj (name changed), a trans man based in Jabalpur, expresses deep frustration over not finding suitable employment. Although he has a bachelor’s degree in physiotherapy, he cannot get a steady job because documentation is a major issue. “The Madhya Pradesh Board [of Secondary Education], under which I finished my schooling, refuses to change my name on the marksheet,” he says. His venture to start his own clinic failed because he lacked adequate capital and external support.
Not only is the literacy rate for transgender people in India alarmingly low, even those who have passed class XII are victims to a uniquely slow bureaucracy.
“People in the education sector are not at all aware of trans issue,” says Aarav, now working as a cell coordinator at Humsafar Trust. He only recently managed to get admission into a college for a bachelor’s degree in social work. Rejected from previous sources of employment due to inconsistency in documents, his desire to improve his economic prospects has been nothing short of a nightmare. Getting his name changed in government IDs has cost him about Rs 10,000 to 15,000 per document. And then there is the ‘stubborn’ marksheet, which is still causing trouble.
Aarav’s work at Humsafar Trust involves securing jobs for transgender people in various industries as well as conducting desensitisation seminars in private companies, and he says that it has been quite successful. “Many transgender people have managed to reach the interview stage and even secure jobs, but there are still many who get rejected due to document issues or personal feelings of the interviewer,” Aarav says.
The discrepancy in documents not only affects job prospects for trans persons, but it also proves to be a roadblock to getting home loans. Prospective landlords are wary of renting to trans people.
And so the vicious cycle begins. “Their issues are so intricately interlinked, they don’t have bank accounts because they fail to provide residence proof, and they don’t have a residence and a regular source of income to apply for a home loan that could have helped them purchase a house,” says Preeti Choudhary who teaches gender studies and transgender discourse at University of Rajasthan.
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Coming out and healthcare
Even the healthcare system is stacked against trans persons. Officially, one can’t hold a gender identity different from one’s assigned sex through self-identification alone. Trans individuals need to have undergone gender affirmation surgery and require proof to even reach the stage of getting documents changed. But a tricky medical system stands in the way of their surgery and access to other healthcare services.
In The Working of the Indian Constitution, Diksha Sanyal and Pawan Dhall mention how the Transgender Person Act 2019 has complicated the inclusion of community members into mainstream society. Under the Act, individuals can’t access relevant services unless they provide a government-approved medical transition certificate, which is both time-consuming and costly. It further disincentivises many from accessing educational and social welfare opportunities.
“Our medical curriculum has seemingly not been able to sensitise our doctors enough to understand the needs of transgender people. Their identity has been heavily reduced to a sexualised object, they even get checked on their genitals for symptoms like cold and cough,” said Dr Choudhary.
Being transgender is often a ‘diagnosis’ rather than an identity. This stigma around identity physically and mentally isolates the community from the mainstream. Many psychologists even diagnose transgender people as gender dysphoric, where unease is felt due to a mismatch between the assigned sex and their gender identity.
The process of getting gender affirmation surgery is riddled with red-tape procedures that strip any sensitivity from the long process. The cost of the surgery is also very high, and it’s more for trans men, says Aarav, who spent Rs 30 lakh for the procedure with a precarious employment situation and without familial support. Before going ahead with the surgery, a trans person has to consult a psychiatrist.
“It takes any autonomy away from trans persons,” says Sumedha Kathpalia, a clinal psychologist at Karma Centre for Counselling and Wellbeing, a mental health practice that encourages queer affirmative psychology. Yet, the process cannot be done away with because of the misplaced belief that trans people might want to reverse their surgery, which will hold the psychiatrist and the surgeon responsible.
Psychologists at Karma Centre, who practice queer affirmative therapy, expand on the struggles at different stages. Sumedha Kathpalia, a clinical psychologist at Karma Centre, states, “The layered power structures and hierarchies involved in the transition process undermine the autonomy of transgender individuals and disregard their subjective experiences, creating additional difficulties to the process.”
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One loophole to another
Research in different parts of the world indicates that cases of self-harm and suicide in the transgender community are comparatively higher within the LGBTQIA+ community. Unfortunately, in India, a lack of statistical data prevents a detailed analysis of such cases where the issue is not individual, but systemic.
“Even support groups that are initiated for transgender individuals might not get enough registrations as people may feel unsafe to come out in a group setting, which is a very valid concern,” says Manavi Khurana, founder and senior counselling psychologist, Karma Centre.
The number of transgender men who are able to access therapy and other mental health resources is comparatively less. “One of the reasons for this could be that many transgender men might not have similar privileges while coming out,” Khurana added. For transgender men, coming out can be a matter of survival, especially if people in and around them are homonegative. In such circumstances, not having locally available life-saving resources can make therapy inaccessible in a lot of contexts.”
Trans persons like Aarav have to jump through one legal loophole after another to find acceptance on paper. But not all members of the transgender community have the tools to do so. “I just want to live a normal life,” says Aarav.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)