[The facts and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and have not been verified or endorsed by the project team in any way]
Last year, the BBC announced Chandigarh as ‘the perfect city in the world’. It stood out in comparison with cities like Amarna of 1346BC, Palmanova in Italy, Milton Keynes, and St. Petersburg etc. But what if Chandigarh was judged in terms of gender? Will it still stand perfect? Will its planning still do justice to its citizens? I doubt.
If we zoom into various spaces of Chandigarh, we will realize that it is not born out of gender neutral minds. Close association between spatial division and gender norms is clearly reflected in the structure of the city. Just as an example, it won’t be surprising to see how masculinity takes over all the spaces at night and femininity is kept ‘safe’ at home. Also, heteronormativity is an unconscious presumption while cities are planned. Rarely are residential areas built near working places, presuming women as home makers and men as office bearers. So while city planners take care of men and women in their own ways, where do the transgender population go?
One thing should be clear that transgender population does not solely include Hijra (castrated men who follow gender norms of women), gay or lesbian community. Large sections of transgender population do not follow their inner instincts of gender behaviour under pressure of being ridiculed by society and hence remain invisible. Hidden from the heteronormative society they exist and have a strong network among themselves. The gardens in Chandigarh act as meeting place for them after the sun sets. Everyday transwoman in men’s attire cruise around gent’s toilet at bus stands waiting for a sexual partner. And certainly, the transgender population is bound to be hidden when they are absent in language, city planning, in knowledge passed about gender and sexuality, and in defining family structures or when it comes to teaching gender norms.
Within the city are the hidden stories of many transgender who die the death of silence under the burden of fear and shame. One such story, of Dhananjay, would have met similar fate had it not been for his courage gathered out of his heart wrenching experiences. 46, married, father of two – identifying as a transwoman did not come easy to him. Here is a snippet from the conversation that I had with him which will reflect on the gender justice that the city does to a person who identifies as transwoman:
Preetika (P) – How has your been life as a transwoman?
Dhananjay (D) – I realized that I did not fit into the structure of society around the age of 12 when every child becomes aware about one’s sexuality. At that time, family, friends, society, norms and everything around me went contrary to what I felt of myself. My homophobic teachers used to call me by abusive words like chakka, machar, halwa, hijra, namuna which in turn gave nerve to students to laugh at me. Expecting clarification about my sexual orientation from family was too remote an idea when even talking about sex was a taboo. Under social strains I got married in 1992 with a hope of curing myself but it dragged me into further ordeal. I used to feel as if I am being raped. Because I was been pushed into something I was not made for.
P- How did you manage to live such life?
D- I ran away from home to escape traumatizing reality and even attempted suicide but my love for family stopped me. There was no fault of my children for the way that I am, so why should they suffer? But there was immense pain inside me about my identity. Lack of friends from the queer community kept me in confusion about my sexual identity for long and only by age of 25 I began to identify myself as ‘gay’ out of the little knowledge that I acquired from magazines or television.
P- How did the idea of starting an NGO for transgender people come to you?
D: There was one episode that recast my life completely and gave me a goal for my existence. CBI misused my sexual orientation to solve one case. They blackmailed me and sexually abused me to solve the case and I was completely unaware about it. In 1998, a mathematics exam paper was leaked from the administrative branch of Panjab University where I was working. Till year 2000 no accused could be found in investigation but what caught the eye of CBI was my sexual orientation which was then deviously used to solve the case. I was kept nude in CBI office for days and was pressurized to falsely allege that it was the Registrar of the University who leaked the exam paper. When pain became intolerable and CBI threatened me about revealing my sexuality to my family, I finally signed the papers. I was kept in judicial custody for 9 months and was released in 2001. The whole process cost me around about 4-5 lakh and I also lost my job. The police kept my passport and I was not allowed to leave the city and had to inform police if I wanted to. Also, I acquired a STD due to sexual abuse during custody. On my visit to a doctor for treatment, I was advised not to indulge in ‘such wrong activities’. Nobody, including doctors and advocates, helped me to get justice for the sexual abuse that I underwent. I approached NGO’s working for homosexuals but it ‘dealt’ only in issue of HIV-AIDS and not human rights. This motivated me to work full-time to fight for the rights of LGBTQ+ community in Chandigarh. It took me one year to register CBO Saksham Trust and I was persistently questioned by authorities for voicing in support of illegal sexual identities but nothing stopped me. Today, it’s been 15 years since I have been assiduously working for the rights of sexual minorities.
P- You have been organizing pride walk in Chandigarh for 3 years now. How did it happen and what all came in your way while organizing it?
D- My NGO stands with every person who faces discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation but there was a need to reach a larger section of the society. Pride walk was one way to reach out to people. I wanted all sections of society to be part of my fight for our rights because only then equality can come in society. But in this male-dominated society talking about homosexuality is dangerous where women are still fighting for their rights. After persistent efforts I got permission from Panjab University and police administration to conduct the pride walk. In 2012 I managed to organize the pride walk with help from my friends and a few teachers which was a success. I overcame one big hurdle in this process – coming out to my family. They did not know about my sexual orientation before. But to fight for the rights of others, it was important for my family to know my identity. So one day I told my wife about it and to my surprise she was ok with it. She understood how I married her under social pressure. My children also accepted me and today my family is my biggest strength. You can see them holding rainbow flags with high energy during pride walk. But even though it’s been three years of conducting pride walks the situation in society is no different. Still people from the community have to face discrimination at every step whether it is family, police or in public. There is still a long way to travel to reach our goal. And I now have hope that at least in my life time I will see homosexuality being decriminalized by law.
So here is brief peep into life of Dhananjay who underwent mental torture for 14 years because of one case. And there are endless stories that he narrates about awful experiences of the queer community which are instructive and tormenting at the same time. Queer presence leads to raised eyebrows in public; they are abandoned by the family and face exploitation at the work place. Police uses colonial laws to blackmail sexual minorities which add on to their atrocities. Even though transgender population are recognized by law, they earn livelihood by begging or doing sex work on railway stations and bus stands. Homes of the transgender population are mainly on the periphery of the city. Why is this so? Where do we place this in the picture of perfect city where they were born and raised?
Recently, condoms were found in school buses in Chandigarh. So on similar lines to the idea of security which was attached to transgender in Mughal times, Chandigarh administration ordered schools to keep transgender as conductors in school buses if women were not available for the job. The reason being that transgender are no threat to the security of children. Persisting archaic ideas come in the way of upliftment that the queer community deserves today from the side of administration. Sexual minorities demand for equality in every essence- whether it is education, jobs, social acceptance or marriage. The idea of making our city ‘beautiful’ can expand to any extent but not without an inclusive social structure and equal opportunities for all its citizens. The idea of the utopian city demands to uncover a model which is inclusive and caters to the needs of all sexual identities, in which transgender are not found outside the main city, gay and lesbian community do not have to ‘deal’ with their sexual self and the idea of diverse sexualities comes as naturally as the idea of heterosexuality . There is a need to understand that gender and sexual identities are socially constructed and they have always been changing.
By Preetika Sharma and Dhananjay Chauhan