Emerging from shadows, trans people search for home and hearth

New Delhi: Till two years ago, Urmi Jadhav lived in a flat in Mumbai, paid rent on time and even had a legal rent agreement in her name issued after police verification. It lasted only till her landlord realised that Jadhav dressed like a woman but was not one.

Part of the trans community forced to live in the shadows by a society that shuns those who fall outside the male-female binary, Jadhav moved back to a nearby slum where she continues to live in unhygienic and insecure conditions.

The research assistant with Humsafar Trust, which describes itself as the oldest LGBTQ organisation in India, said mainstream society is unable to break free from stereotypes associated with transgenders, making it difficult for them to get a roof above their heads.

As if to echo her feelings, eight of the 23 transgenders who had joined Kochi Metro in a much lauded move quit the company barely a week after the Metro became operational. The reason – their inability to get accommodation in the city.

Most had to travel long distances or rent rooms in nearby hotels. With their expenses surpassing income, the big city job in Kochi ironically became a financially unviable option.

Lack of accommodation affects employment opportunities for many in the transgender community, forcing many of them back into sex work and begging.

“People refuse accommodation to us by simply saying ‘hum hijron ko ghar nahi dete’ (We don’t rent houses to hijras),” Jadhav told PTI.

“They continue to stereotype transgenders as sex workers and beggars who are dirty, and refuse to let us stay in the same society as theirs,” she said.

The widespread derision betrays not just bigotry but also ignorance, say activists. Transgender, they point out, is an umbrella term comprising all those at odds with their gender identity, including cross-dressers and those transitioning from one gender to another.

According to the 2011 census, which was based on the details related to the community’s employment, literacy and caste, India has 487,803 transgenders, of which only 56.07 per cent were reported as literate. However, activists say the data is obviously flawed as most transgenders don’t have identity cards.

For Delhi-based Abhina Aher, who founded TWEET (Transgender Welfare Equity and Empowerment Trust), easy access to basic needs like food, housing and employment is a far-fetched dream.

“It was very difficult for me to get a house on rent. While all my documents were based on my biological name, I looked like a woman. Finally, when I did get a place, I found that apparently my landlord had charged me double the amount.

“Besides, they also put several restrictions, like nobody should visit me… I could not bring even my family,” she said.

A safe roof over their heads is key, adds Neelam Jain, founder of PeriFerry, a Chennai-based job consultancy for trans people. There’s no point in getting them jobs if they are deprived of something as basic as a home.

“For people who have faced countless rejections through their life, the sole comfort could be a roof over their heads called home. Running a consultancy for trans people, employment is my focus area. But there’s no point working towards that if someone’s basic needs are not met,” she said.

According to Jadhav and Aher, the community is caught in a vicious trap where their economic condition comes in the way of a decent home and job.

“Often most transgenders do not have enough money to pay rent, because they have led difficult lives. Their money is largely generated from begging or sex work,” Aher said.

Echoing similar sentiments, Jadhav said the lack of acceptance is demotivating for those trying to be part of mainstream society.

“We end up feeling we are better off among our own kind.”

However, there could be a sliver of hope with some signs of change.

Ashok Bhasin, President of the North Delhi Resident Welfare Federation, said, “They are a gift of God and we must respect them. The only issue raised by fellow citizens was that they should be back within decent timings, which they agreed to, and they have been living here for over three years.”

B S Vohra, President of East Delhi, RWA Joint Front Federation, agreed.

“If any transgender approaches us, we will willingly offer them a place. They are also human beings. Who are we to discriminate?”