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Gender Apartheid: The story of Amruta Alpesh Soni and transgender rights in India

Amruta Alpesh Soni is HIV +ve and a Transgender

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Amruta Alpesh Soni
Amruta Alpesh Soni

Amruta Alpesh Soni, Advocacy Office, Project Vihaan, HLFPPT, Chattisgarh (5)

By Nishtha

The stigma attached with HIV is clearly evident when several people refuse to shake hands with Indian transgender activist, Amruta Alplesh Soni on a daily basis. Soni, who is HIV+, has been invited to speak at the 14th Annual Philadelphia Trans Health Conference at the Pennsylvania Convention Centre in the United States. Soni currently works as an advocacy officer with the Hindustan Latex Family Planning Promotion Trust (HLFPPT).

She shares her journey about coming out as a transgender, social stigma around HIV and her gender identity in an interview with NewsGram.

Nishtha: Being a transgender in India who is HIV+, what sort of social stigma do you face from the society?

Amruta Alpesh Soni:I came out as a transgender at the age of 16. My life has been a struggle with names like ‘chhakka’ constantly thrown at me. Things got worse when I was diagnosed with HIV. But then I decided to stay strong and pursued my masters in Marketing from Symbiosis.

The reason why I decided to come out as HIV+ is because I felt that if I keep my situation under wraps with my sexual partner and he ends up having sex with someone else, this virus will spread.

I am fortunate enough to work at a place where there is job security, but several people with the HIV virus are still struggling for their rights and protection. They have no social protection schemes. The government runs different schemes but there are no clauses for the HIV patients. I understand that there is stigma and discrimination in the society with respect to my gender identity but I have to overcome that.

N: You are actively working for the rights and social welfare of HIV+ patients. Do you face any challenges on the field?

AS: If someone refuses to talk, I usually tell him/her that I am HIV+ and if I am not frightened by the society, then why are you? I face challenges in government offices. First, they question my presence in their office and once the word ‘HIV’ is used, the officials refuse to cooperate. I provide the officials with field studies explaining about the ground realities about the disease. Most importantly, I motivate patients to speak about their problems. We try to give the patients as much support as we can. Now if they have any problem, they simply contact me. Their faith is important to me and I will ensure I never break it.

N: How did your parents react when you told them about your transition?

AS: At the age of 16, I started living as a transgender. My parents got to know after a year and a half that I have changed my sex.  They did not accept me. But my mother kept in touch with me and because of her I continued communicating with my family. When they saw my work in the media, things started becoming normal again. Although my parents have passed away, I still stay in touch with my stepmother and continue to visit my hometown as well.

N: You were granted the US visa after initial resistance by the US Consulate General Office in Kolkata. What was the issue?

AS: The online application of the passport has an option ‘T’ (for transgender) whereas I was surprised to see that there was no such option for the US visa application. The US consulate got confused about how to identify my gender. They kept asking me how I recognized myself – as a woman or a transgender? I said I am a transgender. Why should I be identified as a woman? When the government is giving me that identity why should I change that? I have an Aadhar Card and a passport as a transgender. They had a discussion with the higher authorities. After the media took up this issue, a few days later I got my visa.

N: While India has recognized transgender as the third sex, the LGBT community continues to fight for their rights. What is needed to make the society more aware about the community?

AS: We don’t need any special attention. We want to be treated equally. Have people ever thought over why transgenders ask for money at signals or in trains? The social segregation has its economic costs too. If we want to rent a place to live, we have to pay extra. If we sit in a bus, nobody will come and sit next to us so we have to travel by auto, which is again a financial load for us. Then they allege that we fight with the commuters. No one likes to sit silently and get showered with abuses. People respond to them. We do the same thing. We can’t live with the person we love due to societal pressures. The mentality of the society needs to change. We are ready to change but is the society ready? The government might be issuing orders but the officials’ point of view still remains the same.

 

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A Tale of Resilience and Courage : India’s First Transgender Judge Joyita Mondal

If we tell you about this Lok Adalat judge and her journey- tales of her struggle and battles against her family and the society at large, you would have nothing short of immense respect for her.

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Joyita Mondal
Joyita Mondal is the first transsgender judge in India. Facebook

West Bengal, October 18, 2017: “People almost treated me as an untouchable, and even passed abusive comments. But now people even come to me often requesting me to mediate in family disputes,” said an evidently ecstatic Joyita Mondal Mahi.

If we tell you about this Lok Adalat judge and her journey- tales of her struggle and battles against her family and the society at large, you would have nothing short of immense respect for her.

If we told you about her sexuality next, it may elevate your curiosity a little.

But what if we told you Joyita Mahi Mandal is India’s first transgender judge? Would it make a difference?

Should it make a difference?

From Joyonto to Joyita – Early Life

Joyita, who was born male and given the name Joyonto by her middle-class family, used to play games usually played by girls at the age of 3. Assuming that these interests would soon take the ‘regular route’ towards more boys-oriented activities, family members and parents ignored a young Joyonto’s behavior. However, the change never happened.

According to reports, Joyonto was once scolded for wearing make-up, a behavior unusual for boys to partake; subjected to bullying from classmates for feminine gesticulation, Joyonto was forced to leave school.

Lack of support from the family and school-mates alike forced Joyonto to escape from home in 2009, after which days turned to months, and then years, begging for a livelihood and sleeping on the roads.

As a transgender forced to beg on the streets to a social worker and finally assuming the chair as India’s first transgender judge at the Lok Adalat in Islampur in the North Dinajpur district of Bengal, Joyita’s journey has been extraordinary!

India’s first transgender judge
Joyita Mondal Mahi. Facebook

Challenging the Society

“Transgender” is an umbrella term that describes a wide range of identities, one of them identified as ‘hijras’ – people whose gender identities do not match with their biological sex.

Hijras, a term commonly implied for the transgender community in India, are often looked down upon by the Indian society. They are mocked for their mannerisms, are often made to feel ‘different’, and labeled as suitable only for begging or unskilled work.

Life was no different for Joyonto on the streets.

Now transitioned into Joyita, she demanded nothing less than what she deserved – respect and dignity that every human being deserves, despite their sexual orientation. A struggle that was not easy, her efforts eventually paid off and she crossed several milestones.

Joyita’s Efforts For A Larger Good

According to a report, Joyita established an NGO by the name of ‘Dinajpur Notun Alo Society’ to cater to the transgender community in North Dinajpur district. She had been working on a range of issues related to the transgender community since 2011

It was there that she got in touch with her ‘godfather’ Thanduk Sherpa, Islampur’s Deputy Collector and Magistrate.

Her godfather introduced Joyita to a former additional district judge Subrata Poley, who, impressed by her zeal and enthusiasm to fight against gender bias, recommended Joyita’s name for a judge in the Lok Adalat (civil court).

Finally, Joyita Mahi Mondal was appointed as India’s first transgender judge in Islampur Lok Adalat on July 8 this year

A Lok Adalat comprises of a senior judge, an advocate, and a social worker. Joyita, as a social worker, has assumed the position of a judge. And now enters the premises in a white ambassador- a vehicle categorized for government officials.

Has Joyita Been Subjected To Discrimination At The Adalat?

Joyita’s appointment as India’s first transgender judge was welcomed by friends and supporters from the transgender community who had flooded her Facebook account with congratulatory messages.

Sometimes I can feel negative vibes from those whose cases I adjudicate — strange gaze, or body language. However, I must add that none of them has insulted me. At times, a few are just surprised to see a transgender on the chair of judge.”
– Joyita Mondal, as told to Hindustan Times

However, according to her, the environment in the Adalat is very professional and she has never faced any discrimination. She also added that the fellow judges in the court have also been extremely cooperative and treat her with dignity.

However, India’s first transgender judge is yet to gain acceptance from her family and parents.

The Long Battle Ahead

After the Supreme Court’s landmark judgment in 2014 recognizing the third gender under the law that is neither male nor female, attention was brought where it was due – on one of India’s most marginalized groups, transgenders. The ruling redefined their rights and the state’s responsibility to ensure their development and growth.

Things have certainly looked up thereafter for members of the Indian transgender community- whether it was about finding employment in public offices or seeking admissions in National Universities.

However, the battle has not been won completely.

There is limited data on the total estimated population of the transgender community in India, but anecdotal evidence amounts it between a half a million to two million people.

While members of the transgender community have legally gained recognition, the decision is yet to seep down to the root level as they continue to face criticism and alienation from the larger society.

The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016 aims to ensure greater involvement of the trans people in the medical sector and welfare schemes and programmes, thus allowing for a more inclusive society. The Bill is currently pending approval.

In the words of India’s first transgender judge, ““More time is required for the society to change and we have to give it time.”

 

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Women-Only Murray Edwards College of Cambridge University to Accept Transgender Students

Formerly known as New Hall, Murray Edwards has, up till now, been a women-only Cambridge college

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Murray Edwards
The college wishes to support students who do not wish to define themselves as either male or female. PIxabay

Cambridge, October 5, 2017 : Murray Edwards College at the Cambridge University, in a first of its kind step, has announced to consider applications from all students who ‘identify’ as female. The college wishes to support students who do not wish to define themselves as either male or female.

According to the official statement released by the college, the move comes from an understanding that asserts that gender is not binary. “Many of us within the college…have concerns that narrow gender identities and the expectations associated with them are damaging both to individuals and to wider society,” it said.

Formerly known as New Hall, Murray Edwards has, up till now, been a women-only Cambridge college.

Transgender students applications are now being taken into account for the 2018 intake. Alternatively, the criteria would also apply to those who wish to transfer to the college during their degree.

Gender issues have been at the centre of popular debates in the recent past. Due to increased attention and awareness, these exists a greater understanding of the complexities of gender in the present societies. The move by the council of Murray Edwards comes as an attempt to open their doors to ‘all exceptional women’.

Dame Barbara Stocking, the president of the Murray Edwards College was quoted by The Guardian as saying, “In order that we remain true to our mission of being open to all exceptional young women we recognize that it is right for anyone who identifies as female, regardless of their born gender, to be able to apply to study with us.”

Admissions Policy

The institute previously followed the admissions policy applicable to Cambridge University’s two other women-only colleges- Newnham and Lucy Cavendish. According to prevailing policies, these institutes accept applicants who are legally recognized as women.

However, Murray Edwards will now be opening its doors to students who ‘identify’ as a woman at the time of applications and to those applicants who had been identified as male at birth but have ‘taken steps to live in the female gender’.

According to reports, Lucy Cavendish is also expected to espouse a similar change after a council meeting.

The move has garnered mixed responses from the larger community.

On one side, supporters of gender diversity and the transgender community have appreciated the college for their decision. A charity organization, Mermaids took to Twitter to thank the college authorities for “embracing all young women.”

However, like every coin has two sides, the college authorities have also received significant backlash ever since the formal announcement was made.

The decision has been termed ‘ridiculous’ and ‘illogical’ by several feminists. A former lecturer at Newnham told The Telegraph, “If Murray Edwards really don’t believe that gender is binary, then they really shouldn’t be a single sex college.”

Top 5 LGBTQ Friendly Colleges and Universities

  1. Princeton University
  2. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  3. University of Wisconsin Eau Claire
  4. University of Pennsylvania
  5. University of California Los Angeles

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Indonesia’s Only Islamic School for Transgender People Quietly Comes Back to Life : A Tale of Hope and Strength

At this one-of-a-kind school, Ibu Shinta and her students are known as waria, a term for transgender women that combines the Indonesian words for woman (wanita) and man (pria)

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Ibu Shinta (center) is seen surrounded by students at Indonesia's only Islamic school for transgender students, which she runs out of her house in Yogyakarta. (K. Varagur/VOA)

Indonesia, September 22, 2017 : Indonesia’s only Islamic school for transgender people closed with much drama in February 2016 after it came under fire by a local hardline Muslim group. The school’s closure was one of the darkest points in a larger anti-LGBT hysteria that seized Indonesia in 2016, with its effects still reverberating.

If you ask today around the leafy Kotagede neighborhood of Yogyakarta, a university town in Central Java, for the Al-Fatah pesantren, or Islamic boarding school, you may get some blank stares. But if you ask for “Ibu Shinta’s house,” you’ll be immediately sent on your way. Even some locals don’t realize her briefly famous school is up and running again. But for Ibu Shinta, the 2016 episode was only a hiccup in the history of Pesantren al-Fatah, which turns nine years old on Thursday.

Ibu (“Madam”) Shinta is Shinta Ratri, a 55-year-old transgender activist who moved the school to her family’s Javanese-style house in 2014 when the school’s original founder died. After four months of closure, Ibu Shinta quietly reopened al-Fatah’s doors in June 2016, during Ramadan, which she described as a “good time for worship.”

Beyond providing a place for weekly religious study, the re-opened school is also a lifeline of services and just ordinary social life for the local transgender community.

Waria social services

Ibu Shinta and her students are known as waria, a term for transgender women that combines the Indonesian words for woman (wanita) and man (pria). Many have found employment as sex workers or in hair salons.

The al-Fatah school has become an important local center of the national “Transgender Care” program, an initiative of the Indonesian Family Planning Association to give vocational training, ID cards, and social services to wariaacross Indonesia.

“There are also services related to education, like starting a ‘trans school’ for waria adolescents, and programs for elderly waria like mobile clinics and food aid,” Ibu Shinta told VOA. “Complete, right? We pray that it works out.”

On its last anniversary, the school organized a free health clinic with a local doctor that was attended by 76 people.

The Transgender Care program currently operates in eight provinces, and Ibu Shinta said an effort to “map” all its participants and services across Indonesia is an eventual goal.

TRANSGENDER
Ibu Shinta (in green) and other waria gather for evening prayers at the Al-Fatah school in Yogyakarta. (K. Varagur/VOA)

Study group

Al-Fatah’s main scholastic activity is a weekly study group that meets on Sunday evenings, where waria can pray together, discuss Islamic theology, and practice reading the Quran in Arabic.

On a recent Sunday, there were six waria present, including Ibu Shinta; she said there are about 42 members in total, but the weekly attendance fluctuates between seven and 25. A local university student helped Yuni Shara al-Buchory read some Quran verses. When the evening call to prayer sounded, they filed into the reception room to pray. Ibu Shinta and Yuni Shara put on satin mukenas, women’s prayer dresses, and the others came as they were.

“I felt lost for the four months the school was closed, without a place to study religion,” said Yuni Shara. “I would go into town to hang out, work, buy snacks, and eventually I would wonder: there is something missing, but what?” During that time it was like, she said, her life was incomplete.

But it would be wrong to paint al-Fatah as merely a place for quiet study; after all, its students aren’t teenagers like in an ordinary pesantren, but working adults. The remaining six days a week, and even after hours on Sundays, it’s a community hub for Yogyakarta waria. They watch movies, cook and eat together, and swap gossip on each other’s clients.

It’s a deep well of normalcy for a group that occupies an increasingly uncertain societal space. Granted, in Yogyakarta, that space is safer than elsewhere in Indonesia — even the region’s sultan called on the community to respect the waria at the height of last year’s anti-gay hysteria.

Optimistic outlook

Today, Ibu Shinta is “not at all concerned” about local Islamists. She is focused on building up warias’ social safety net as well as her own school. Al-Fatah does not fundraise, but Ibu Shinta does ask researchers and students to donate about $15 when they visit.

ALSO READ India becoming more Transgender- Friendly: Read this report

There is rising community goodwill again, with Ibu Shinta pointing out that last year her school received one goat as a donation on Eid al-Adha (the holy annual “Sacrifice Feast” when animals are ceremonially slaughtered and shared, and this year they received two.

“Waria and other trans women constructions or phenomena have been around for a very long time,” said Dede Oetomo, a prominent LGBT rights activist based in East Java. “Most Indonesians know about them, and have at least tolerated them if not accepted them fully, especially if they are not in their own families.”

“We are survivors,” said Ibu Shinta. “When there were attacks on and discrimination against us, it made us want to fight.” (VOA)