A queer thing called love: For transgender people in India, finding love is not easy

How do transgender individuals meet prospective lovers/partners?
A queer thing called love: For transgender people in India, finding love is not easy
A queer thing called love: For transgender people in India, finding love is not easy
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By Mrinalika Roy

Love is difficult to find, especially if you are a transgender person in India. A country where inter-caste or inter-religion relationships often lead to death and same-sex relationships to incarceration, it’s little surprise that people have a hard time understanding that transgender individuals are also in need of and entitled to relationship and marriage rights.

“There is no difference between transgender woman and biological women. We have the same feelings. We want the same things – love and support,” explains Panna, a transwoman in a documentary made by Chennai-based NGO Sahodari. For transgender people however, finding love, let alone marriage is unimaginably difficult.

In 2014, the Supreme Court recognized transgenders as ‘third gender’ and promised constitutional rights and freedom. But legal status does not translate to social acceptance.

A 2011 video survey in Chennai undertaken by NGO Sahodari showed that most men were uncomfortable marrying transgender women. Four years on, little has changed.

“Men are attracted to transgender women as much as to biological women. Why do you think the number one livelihood choice for most transgender women is prostitution? (Because) there is such a big demand. Men have sexual relations with us but don’t want to acknowledge us or their relationship with us in public,” says Kalki Subramaniam, transgender activist and founder of NGO Sahodari.

Kalki has received dozens of proposals and has thousands of admirers. But most suitors are looking for short-term affairs/relationships, not marriage. “The fate of most transgender women is same. Men have sexual relationships with them but never own up in public. Most transgender women in relationships are usually mistresses to men who often have wives and lead a double life. Often, the partners act as pimps. They make the transgender woman work and take most of her income. They are exploited physically, emotionally and financially,” says Kalki.

Kalki’s initiative is directed towards poor and illiterate transgender individuals.

“Most transgender people in Bengaluru are runaways from rural areas. They are poor, uneducated and mostly beg on streets or earn a living as sex workers. It is easier to find partners if you are educated and know how to strike up a conversation or present yourself better,” says Uma, transgender activist and founder of NGO Jeeva. Uma, who identifies as a woman but was assigned male gender at birth, concurs with Kalki that most transwomen end up in parasitic relationships where their partners exploit them.

A 2011 survey of transgender people jointly undertaken by Sangama, Swabhava and KHPT in Bengaluru revealed that 61% of respondents worried that they will be hurt if they allow themselves to become close to others. 42% worried about being alone. About 58% feared that their partner does not really love them. Many of the respondents also admitted to facing regular physical abuse from their partners.

This begs the question - are educated and economically stable transgender individuals faring better in the love market? “They are doing marginally better,” says Uma. Many transgender individuals in Bengaluru live with their partners and openly acknowledge their relationship.

But even these never culminate into marriage. Arnav, who identifies as a man but was assigned female sex at birth, was in a relationship for eight years before the woman married someone else. “It was difficult. She said she would never be able to own up to the relationship in front of her family,” Arnav says.

Family pressure is the number one trigger for break-ups. “Most transwomen are rejected by their partners’ families who say she won’t provide them with heirs. Since she cannot reproduce, they claim she is not a real woman,” Uma says.

How do transgender individuals meet prospective lovers/partners?

“Most transgender women work as sex workers and often their customers become their lovers/partners. Those begging on the streets often begin relationships with people they meet on the road, like shopkeepers, motorists etc. What other avenue do they have? These poor people cannot go to pubs or restaurants or join clubs. More importantly most establishments don’t even allow entry to transgender people,” shares Uma.

Many transgender individuals in Bengaluru admitted that their social lives usually revolve around the NGOs they work with. “Most friends I have were found working with an NGO. We all are in the same boat and hence it is easier to open up about yourself without fear of judgment. The gatherings, press conferences and protest meets are the platforms we meet and socialize,” says Sonu, a female-to-male transgender.

Transgender individuals who are better-off also avoid restaurants or pubs. “We have a handful of restaurants and pubs that are trans-friendly and we only frequent these out of fear of being stared at or bothered elsewhere,” shares Arnav.

Only one pub in Bengaluru organizes ‘trans-nights’. Are these events helpful in meeting prospective friends or lovers? “Not really. Yes, some clubs are trans-friendly and have exclusive nights for us. But, we end up meeting the same set of people. They are friends or colleagues, so, the chances of meeting prospective friends or lovers are slim,” rues Arnav.

With dearth of physical spaces for socializing, have transgenders turned to the web? India was emerging as the biggest market for Tinder and understandably so. “ I joined Tinder. It was a mistake. I matched with a couple of people but as soon as I told them that I am transgender, they disappeared,” says Arnav. This year, Tinder CEO Sean Rad said they may introduce a transgender option soon.

It was the absence of dedicated dating sites for transgender people that drove transgender activist Kalki Subramaniam to start a matrimonial site for transgenders in India back in 2009. Thirungai.net received more than 2,000 applications wihin a short span of time. Candidates were screened and eligible ones were posted online. Many people connected through the site, but not a single match ended up in marriage.

“You must understand, this was before the 2014 judgment that accorded third gender legal status. Not many people wanted to take a chance lest they be booked,” she clarifies. Unfortunately, the website was shut down due to lack of funds but Kalki is hoping to revive it. “Such platforms are needed, so that transgender people can interact with others without fearing a backlash. I want to start a national transgender Swamvara, a physical gathering where they can register, meet others and get engaged perhaps, Kalki adds.

In reality, finding desirable partners are the least of their worries. Most transgender people are wary of running afoul of Section 377, which criminalizes all penile-non-vaginal sexual acts.

“I don’t know of a single marriage officiated in Bengaluru courts where one of the partners was transgender. Trangenders mostly engage in thigh sex, anal or oral sex. All these forms are illegal in India,” says Uma.

The case of Shivkumar and Radhika is a good example. Shivkumar married Radhika, a transgender woman, on June 21 in Bengaluru. Two days later, the couple was separated and threatened with section 377, after the groom’s family lodged a complaint.

Many transgender people are also wary of making their identity public. Legal marriages also require documentation which many of them lack.

After the 2014 judgment, government introduced third gender category in Aadhar cards and passport documents. However, no such provision is available in marriage forms or certificates. Even today, one must fill out ones identity as either husband (male) or wife (female) in marriage registry forms thus perpetuating the binary gender construct which the 2014 judgment meant to break. “This is a big oversight. Third gender option should also be available in marriage forms. If we are talking about legal recognition and equality, then this is an important step,” said Danish Sheikh, a lawyer and activist.

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