'Most Indians think only men and women exist'

Last Updated: Thu, Jan 03, 2013 11:02 hrs

​It has been six months since 26-year-old track athlete Pinki Pramanik was accused of rape. The accusation came from a woman claiming to be the Asian Games gold medallist's live-in partner. 

Pinki denied the charges but a voyeur's delight of public speculation about her sexuality and sex followed, combined with outrageous violations of her privacy. 

By now you would have heard many debates on Pinki's case and the treatment of the athlete. 

There is a human rights angle to her story, the issue of privacy, the problems with our legal system, and of course our understanding of sexuality and gender. 

The last bit is perhaps the most interesting, because as it turns out, Pinki is not alone in being treated as an oddity. 

The harassment appears to stem from a need to shame people who are different and this comes back to the centrality of our view of human sex. As gay academic Ashley Tellis puts, "There is absolutely zero knowledge about trans issues. Most Indians think only men and women exist. That's it." 

The result of believing that only men and women exist is that anyone who exists outside that binary is seen as deviant. 

This belief that a person is either male or female, along with assumptions of who can commit crimes of sexual violence, is what has left Pinki in the position of being told, at the age of 26, that she is a man, not a woman. 

But as Malobika of Sappho for Equality in Kolkata asks, "What about her social gender?"

Malobika, who has interacted with Pinki since she was arrested, points out that she was raised as a female child. Gender is a role we are taught, raised and conditioned to play. A medical report does not make Pinki male, unless she decides she is. 

Bangalore-based Gee Ameena Suleiman, a transman and activist, says that the mindset that a gender can be changed when it suits someone (in this case the police and medical establishment) needs to go. He sees Pinki's treatment as symbolic of a phobia of bodies that are different and that therefore need to be disciplined through shaming and harassment. 

"It is indicative of the systematic shaming of sexual minorities," he says. Bodies that are different, of course, range from intersex individuals to transgenders. 

As an example, he refers to an amendment to Section 36A of the Karnataka Police Act which is based on the Hyderabad Hijras Act. 

"It requires hijras to register themselves with the police... They can be targeted when crimes are reported in the area. This is a process by which details of gender minorities are made available to the government to use against them," he says. That is not the only form of harassment that the community faces. 

Siddharth Narrain, a rights activist and lawyer at the Alternative Law Forum in Bangalore tells me that a prurient curiosity of the public is common when it comes to members of the transgender community. Police have been known to ask male-to-female transgenders to show off their private parts when arrested. 

"If there is a brawl or something happening and a transgender is involved the first reaction is to strip the person," he said. He points out the need for guidelines on dealing with transgender individuals or persons of ambiguous sex when in conflict with the law. 

Malobika too speaks of the extortion and harassment of transwomen in the state. 

Pinki's case has been closely scrutinised perhaps because of the element of celebrity attached. But across West Bengal there are brutal violations of privacy of transwomen and gay men, including by the police. (Transmen are privileged in this case because they are less visible a community)  

The change evidently needs to begin with government machinery. 

"After the Pinki case, the police is very keen to know about gender. They want how to handle such cases... and at the same time even people at medical colleges don't know about gender," Malobika says. 

She believes that the only way forward is for those working among sexual minorities to start a unified movement. She also believes that the Supreme Court verdict on the decriminalisation of Section 377 will help. "We need to work with the government on this. 

We need to document cases across India, do consultations, frame what it is that we want. Social reformation needs to start local, become regional and then national," she adds.

Also by Ranjitha Gunasekaran: Don't we have the right to get married too?

Ranjitha Gunasekaran studied English and Mass Communications before joining The New Indian Express reporting team in 2006, covering urban local bodies and heritage. She left the paper to help the Communications department of The Banyan, an NGO which works with destitute mentally ill women before rejoining the Express Weekend section. She covered gender, mental health, development and edited the paper's Sexualities section, the first of its kind in the country. She headed the Weekend section from August 2010 to April 2011 before leaving to help ideate on and launch a daily school edition of the newspaper. She loves dogs and food and has written about the latter for the Express lifestyle magazine, Indulge, from 2009. She quit her job in October to focus on her writing.

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