“It is not just problematic but regressive,” said Grace Banu, founder of the Trans Rights Now collective. “The community has opposed it from the beginning.”
The activists’ demand was for comprehensive anti-atrocities and anti-discrimination legislation that would be able to uphold equal access to civil rights. But they say the new bill’s discrimination clause is not clearly defined, which means the measure will have no teeth. It also does not explicitly state common forms of discrimination in employment, education and housing.
The penalty for sexual violence mentioned in the bill is lower than for such crimes against women and does not define specific physical sexual offenses that transgender people face, activists said.
Coming in the wake of a slew of progressive court judgments, the provisions of the new bill are seen as a setback in the struggle for gender rights. In 2014, the Supreme Court recognized the right of self-determination of gender identity to the trans community, acknowledging the need for affirmative action as well. Last year, the court decriminalized gay sex, overturning a 157-year-old colonial law.
After criticism, the first iteration of the bill introduced in 2016 was not passed, but activists say the needs of the community still have not been reflected in the new bill. While there is no accurate estimate of the number of transgender people in the country, the 2011 census put the population at nearly half a million.
The biggest cause for concern among community members is that to get an identity certificate, they must apply to a local government official.
“This is in contradiction of the right to self-determination mandated by the court,” said Vihaan Vee, a 23-year-old who identifies as a trans man.
Moreover, this identity certificate will only identify people as transgender, not as male or female, unless the person has undergone sex reassignment surgery and can provide proof. Vee said he wants to be identified as a male, not transgender, but without surgery that is not possible under the new bill.
“This is almost like forcing our bodies into surgery,” he said.
For many like Vee, surgery is prohibitively costly and difficult to access. The demand to make sex reassignment surgery free or far less costly is not mentioned in the bill.
For Banu, the non-inclusion of affirmative action for the transgender community, which exists in India in education and government jobs for historically marginalized communities, marks an institutional failure.
Another part of the bill being protested is a clause that seemingly pushes trans people into residing with their biological families or to be moved to rehabilitation homes. Vee, who ran away from home two years ago, said the family home is often the first site of violence for transgender people.
“Trans community has alternate family structures where people stay together,” he said. “This is an attack on that.”
Several members of Parliament raised these concerns before passage of the bill.
“A bill should be wholesome and comprehensive. Why don’t you give six weeks at least, send it to Select Committee and then you hear them out?” said Tiruchi Siva, a parliamentarian from a regional party.
The struggle that led to the bill is not over.
“This is the first time our gender identity would have been recognized,” Vee said. “But instead of making things better, it will do us more harm.”
Activists say they are gearing up to mount a legal challenge to the bill.