Part 1: The political ambition
Kiran Naik is a disabled, transgender man from Karnataka, and an activist who works on sexuality and disability. For several years now, Kiran says, the transgender community in India has been fighting for the right to vote. “We have literally begged them to give us the vote… and finally, we have it,” Kiran says.
“Now, what we need is political participation,” he says, as he asserts that his next goal is to enter electoral politics.
He’s not the only one in the room. There is Durga, a trans woman and leader from Sarvajna Nagara, who in all likelihood will be contesting in the 2019 Assembly elections in Karnataka under the AAP banner. There is Janavi, a trans woman and a young graduate who has struggled at every stage to get an education, and who now wants to work at the grassroot level and win an election. There’s Kavya, who wants to enter politics but is unsure if transgender men will be accepted by political parties...
And to make this dream come true, Kiran, along with several other transgender persons and activists working on LGBTQI+ issues in Karnataka, organised an unusual and crucial meeting in Bengaluru last week. Called ‘Political spaces and sexual minorities’, the meeting was an interaction between representatives of political parties and the members of the LGBTQI+ community in Karnataka - especially the transgender community from different parts of the state.
“We invited leaders from all political parties to come and interact with us,” Kiran says. “We wanted to see what the politicians would say to us. Whether it’s a communist party or a Dalit party, whether it’s a party that has money or a party that doesn’t have money,” he adds.
But while everyone was invited, only a few parties turned up: Leaders from AAP, CPI(M) and BSP participated in the event, and a leader from Congress, which is the ruling party in the state, made an appearance and a speech, but did not interact with the community.
Part 2: The political class
When you have been in the business of politics for decades, it’s perhaps natural to believe that being invited to a function would mean, to give. And the politicians on stage at Gandhi Bhavan did give - they gave speeches, they gave advice, they gave encouragement to their audience to come and join their respective parties.
On stage, the representatives of diverse political parties, from a state that is headed for elections in the coming year, echoed the same views: “There is no discrimination in our party.”
Kamala Nabhan, a leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Karnataka said, “We are the party that gave seats to two transgender women in the last election.”
Shanthala Damle of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) introduced the audience to Durga, a trans woman who is a member of their party. “She will be fighting under our banner in the upcoming election,” the leader said.
“Please look at what our party has done in Kerala - it’s the first state to have a policy for transgender persons, the first state to have held a sports meet for transgender persons,” said CPI(M) leader GN Nagaraj.
“We need a law for transgender persons, a policy for transgender persons. Why don’t you all come together to prepare a petition, and I’ll help you take it to the Chief Minister,” said Congress leader Dinesh Gundu Rao.
“That’s what we’ve been demanding for four years in the state though, and while the Congress party has been in power here, and while we’ve petitioned the government several times on the issue, nothing has happened,” explains Kumar, an activist who is part of the team working on bringing a policy for the rights of transgender persons in Karnataka.
But before Kumar or the others could pose any questions to the representative of the ruling party, Dinesh Gundu Rao had left.
“The thing is - while I agree that it is very important that transgender persons get seats during elections, and I appreciate the fact that BSP gave seats last time, and AAP is going to give seats this time - it is not enough. It’s not enough to remember the community when elections come up, and forget about us afterwards,” Kumar says.
“Why don’t they give us the space and opportunities that they would give other candidates? If they gave a person a position, and some funds, and asked them to work for a constituency for a few years before the elections, the people in the constituency would know them and they might actually have a chance of winning. Political parties need to do much more for the LGBTQI+ community to get that political space,” Kumar says.
Part 3: The struggles
When the questions started coming from the community to the political leaders, to an observer, it felt like one group was a little out of their depth in the situation, and it wasn’t the LGBTQI+ community in the hall.
The party leaders had given their opening comments, and among the advice given was that transgender individuals, and the transgender community as a whole, should be stubborn about getting an education.
“I have been very stubborn about getting an education, and I’m a graduate,” said Janavi, as she spoke up after the speeches. “But after my graduation, when I went to the University to apply for a PG, I was told that people like me cannot be given an admission - despite the fact that the state has announced a 1% reservation at the post graduate level for the transgender community,” she said.
“When I applied for a job at an IT firm, they were happy with my interview and were ready to give me a job - until they looked at my certificates and saw that the name there was that of a boy. I told them that I am a trans woman, and they refused to give me a job - they told me I’m only good for sex work and begging,” Janavi informed the leaders, and the hall at large.
Janavi’s point - and that of many others - was simple. While it is easy for us to look at the transgender community and say they need to ‘get educated’ or ‘get training’ - what’s more important is for the system to remove the roadblocks for them to be able to get an education.
Later, speaking to TNM, Janavi says, “We need reservations - and not at the postgraduate level, but from school.”
Most transgender persons drop out of school around puberty, Janavi says, and this is why the state - and the political class - needs to bring in affirmative action from Class 7.
“There’s a saying that if you educate a man, you education one person, and if you educate a woman, you educate an entire family. Transgender women are also women, so why aren’t you educating us?” Janavi asks.