Earlier in the year a court in Pakistan jailed a same-sex couple for perjury, raising the taboo issues of homosexuality and transsexuality in the conservative society. Shumail Raj, who had undergone a couple of operations already to become a man, was accused of lying by the court as court-appointed doctors who examined Raj said he was still a woman! The sentence was subsequently suspended by the Supreme Court.
Sexuality confronts and challenges cherished notions of culture, traditional values, practices and rituals. And hence sexuality outside marriage is not recognized, sexuality of women is not seen as existing, sexual choices other than of the heterosexual variety are criminalized and transgender people marginalized. And our societies, because of these age-old structures, values and roles assigned to men and women within it, while very rarely assimilating transgender and transsexual issues. Because how do you fit ‘these people' into these traditional roles of a man and a woman? And that is why very often transgender persons, in their own lifestyles, also tend to slip into the accepted stereotypes of orthodox relationships and each person's role within it as defined by the society that rejected them in the first place.
Some Indian epics, so rich in their diverse stories, have had the space for everyone. Shikhandi was the warrior in the epic Mahabharata that no one could kill because he was ‘neither man nor woman.' And yet in many Indian films transgender people have been the subject of ridicule and buffoonery, increasingly replacing the regular targets like overweight or drunk people. And these would be seen as signs acceptance – when they become the butt of jokes in the mainstream media and entertainment. At least you are not been hidden in dark corners and spoken of in whispers!
Sexuality is inextricably linked with social exclusion. Heterosexuals constitute the sexual elite while Lesbians, Gays, Bisexual and Transgenders (LGBT), sex workers, the HIV-infected constitute the sexual pariahs, the social outcastes. And with barely any control over the environment that they live in, they face the worst kind of abuse and human rights violations imaginable. Often abandoned by their families (due to the associated stigma) or given up to be brought up by similar groups due to their ambiguous sex, they very literally start early in life to fend for themselves. Having being pushed into the peripheries of society by their own families, they often become sex workers.
The most serious problem comes when attempting to access health services, if and when they are available. Even in places where health services from the government are accessible, the abusive language and rough physical treatment coming as part of the ‘free service' — stigmatizing behavior by the supposed care providers — causes the biggest damage. The attitude of the service providers more often than not forces LGBT individuals to seek recourse in places where they are treated with more dignity or at least the pretense of it.
Most laws for people of alternate sexualities are archaic and continue to treat them as criminals. Hence, due to the illegal status bestowed on them not only is the cycle of exploitation and violence endless but due to the limited access to health services – more out of social ostracism as also refusal of treatment – they are forcibly pushed into back alleys for unsafe abortions and other treatments at the hands of quacks.
And in multicultural societies the laws are not just archaic but even confusing as evidenced at various symposia during the 4th Asia-Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health and Rights (4thAPCRSH) in Hyderabad, when several speakers spoke of the laws existing in their respective countries or regions. For instance, the fine on a Muslim transgender in Malaysia is much higher (anywhere between $200-$800) as opposed to $14 for a non-Muslim transgender. And it is this criminalized status that really poses the biggest threat to most people of diverse sexualities as they find themselves in situations of unprotected and potentially risky encounters – both in terms of health and laws of the state.
Despite the fact that discrimination based on sexual orientation and identity is seen as a fundamental violation of human rights by the United Nations' Treaty Monitoring Bodies, there are just too many member nations who continue to have outdated laws in place that place LGBT individuals in a severely disadvantageous position and they continue to face discrimination – social, economic, political and cultural – and ostracism all through their lives.
Not only do the laws have to be amended in most cases but it is these groups themselves who have to be part of any programs or efforts surrounding issues that affect their lives. In recent years in India many transgender people have contested elections like Shabnam Mausi in the central state of Madhya Pradesh to bring to the forefront issues of marginalised groups such has herself. And the 4thAPCRSH threw up the similar issue of the dire need for the rights of the people with diverse sexual preferences to be recognized socially and legally. Just like access to health services particularly related to sexual and reproductive health, procedures related to legalizing sex changes need to be simplified. Same-sex couples need to be treated at par with heterosexual couples and hence should have access to the same benefits as any other person. But most importantly it is the regime of discrimination that needs to be lifted for any change to be sustainable or else laws will remain just that…laws collecting dust between files in some government office and these marginalised groups will continue to remain just there – at the margins of society, pushed there for being different; different from the socially-constructed, traditional standards of acceptance.