Historically,transgender women or hijras, have been the most visible of sexual minorities in Indian society. Regardless of differences in regional traditions, the heteronormative perception of many involves hijras (one of many transgender identities) demanding money. Most times, they are accused of harassing people until money is given. Their visibility has given rise to the stereotype that all transgender people are the same.
As with all stereotypes, this one too requires a careful dissection. This impression of transgender people – that they do sex work – has not just been the subject of debate in just the hetero-normative society, but also within the transgender community and the larger LGBTQ community.
This debate continues with the recent post of Apsara Reddy, a prominent transgender woman from Chennai. On Facebook, she wrote a strongly worded take on transgender women soliciting sex and begging on city streets. Here’s the post:
Portions of the post:
“Streets lined with transsexual escorts, scores of men in SUVs, bikes and even groups of men in some cars all impressing them, bargaining with them and making small talk and laughing. I drove past a few times and I spoke to a few girls. All had the same story "No one gives us jobs". I offered them work and they laughed and mocked me!
A bunch of boys saw me and asked me "what's your price". I refused to answer but was furious. I found a cop patrol vehicle meters away so I got out. The cop said, “Madam what can we do. They curse us, come after us with slippers and even in the station they say we tried to rape them. Instead we keep quiet".
As the night progressed I was ashamed of the transgender community. I felt sorry for them but this was no way to gain dignity or acceptance. And how can they ask for rights or jobs when they put themselves out there as symbols of sleaze. Refusing to mainstream themselves.
It's about time they are picked up and rehabilitated or some stern action taken. Or else our residential areas and our neighborhoods will soon be infested with such activity. They need to understand the value of dignity.
I shudder to think about the health and hygiene hazards. I say let female cops arrest them and ensure they are fined and counseled. And all the hapless and helpless bystander/onlooker cops need to be told to go by the law rather than operate with fear.”
It’s a complex issue, no doubt. Both concerns about health, profession and perception were raised in the post. Apsara Reddy’s post and a subsequent article in a newspaper have come under criticism from some within the community.
Hijra activist Vyjayanthi had this to say: “Apsara benefits from a certain privilege, because the transgender community, however marginalized, suffers from a class divide. The over implication and trivialization of sex work does not help the cause. I am not attacking her on a personal level. But she reminds me strongly of Marie Antoinette.”
Vyjayanti also says that Apsara has ‘trivialised the issues of the community with her shallow and dogmatic words’. “Her statement goes to show how she is living atop a castle and dictates all that goes around in transgender politics. She is extremely cut off from the main issues that we face. Apsara has no working knowledge of the criminalisation of sex work. The law does not criminalise sex work, only soliciting is illegal.”
Apsara in her post also offers jobs to such women. But according to Vyjayanthi exploring the view of offering alternative employment opportunities to transgender sex workers, is a murky road.
She narrates the instance of Pari (name changed), a 20 something transgender woman, who made a seamless shift from the realm of her red tinted brothel to a proprietary firm as a receptionist. She was over the moon, realizing how lucky she was to not face the same fate as many others. In the third month of her job however, her boss demanded sex for money. She realized that all the positive feedback attention he had showered her with had an ulterior motive. Dog tired of the reality, she’s on the lookout for another job.
“As a stranger is I offer a transgender sex worker a job, she has more reason to worry than be thankful.
I'm not sure if Apsara Reddy knows what it's like to be thrown out of the house at 13 and fend for herself,” says Vyjayanthi.
There’s also another bitter pill to swallow. “The truth is some of them choose to stay in sex work despite being offered other opportunities, says Jayashree B, who’s worked in the field for over 8 years, handling ‘high risk' groups under the national HIV program. “We offered jobs to many transgender women as beauticians. Some of them stayed, some of them left because their fate has always revolved around the money and benefits of sex work,” she says.
Jayashree recalls an instance where she started a conversation with a hijra who clapped at her, and she immediately sobered down. But what if we don’t have the time or energy to understand? “Then we need to be more compassionate and understand that the clapping is simply a defense mechanism particularly in the case of men. It’s also probably because they were abused by men, raised by a single mother or never had a father figure,” she says. A sense of comfort she says arises from clapping off the patriarchy.
And here’s what Apsara had to say in response:
“The transgender community should be ashamed for not seeing the value in mainstreaming and instead lobbying to continue what they do – sex work. Why don't they fight as hard for education, housing and dignity? My question is how will society accept and respect you if you move around in groups, flash your privates and curse people? The change has to largely come from the trans community. There is a certain code of conduct and decorum needed in a society. Transwomen can’t terrorise people, families and children. The fact that foul language, overtly animated gestures and attire define the community says a lot.
Sadly those that I've helped both personally and in my professional capacity as an editor have only let me down. Most of them solicit at the work place, get abusive and blame the management for discrimination. Just to get paid and walk out. I've seen life as a young boy who was bullied, suffered an alcoholic father, times when we had no money to pay school fees and prejudices of relatives and neighbors. But I rose above it.”
Well, the conversation is never as simplistic as anyone thinks it is.