Image via Wikimedia Commons/Kandukuru Nagarjun

Filling the Gaps of Trans Dalit Rights Movement

The Indian trans community has been leading the fight against Brahmanical patriarchy for years, but their histories have often been buried or overlooked. As the South Asian trans movement expands, holes in the narratives still persist. However, there is the growing demand to fill in those gaps.

Brahmanical patriarchy often warps the trans community’s image, diminishing it into a casteless, sensational society. Trans folks have had to fend against global fetishization and consumption of their identities in the fight for their basic rights. Dalit Bahujan Adivasi trans folks face these same evils as well as caste oppression that limits their livelihoods even within trans spaces. Despite fighting alongside, and often leading, their siblings towards trans liberation, their stories are overwhelmingly passed over in favor of Savarna narratives. Throughout the histories, Dalit, Adivasi, and other caste-oppressed folks have had to push back on this constant erasure while fighting for LGBTQIA+ rights.

In 2019, the Center for Law and Policy Research in Bengaluru conducted a year-long study on Dalit trans people and other marginalized communities in South India. In their research, they uncovered the extreme barriers Dalit Trans people face to access resources. 59% of the respondents reported facing verbal harassment in the last two years, while 56% faced sexual harassment when trying to access necessary goods like food and shelter.

This report uncovered what Dalit trans folks have been saying for years — there needs to be more focus on Dalit trans rights. The larger trans movement has historically ignored both the problem of caste and the contributions of Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi trans leaders to the movement.

“People with privilege, only upper class and upper caste, savarna people can occupy that mainstream, larger level space and we are completely erased from the histories,” said Grace Banu, the founding director of the Trans Rights Now Collective, and one of the country’s leading Dalit and trans rights activists. “We have our forefathers and our foremothers but again all their histories are erased.”

The invisibility of caste fractures caste resistance and has kept resources away from caste oppressed trans folks. According to Banu, Savarna trans people have monopolized most spaces, as well as any aid designated for the whole trans community.

The NALSA judgment and intersectional erasure

This casteless paradigm culminated in the NALSA Judgment of 2014. With the ruling, the Indian government recognized the trans community as the “third gender” and placed them in the OBC (other backwards category) of the reservation system. Activists like Gee Semmalar have called out the ruling for its mischaracterizations of trans women and ignoring other marginalized groups under the trans umbrella. Most noticeably, caste was completely left out of the judgement.

By consolidating the trans community into the OBC category, the Indian government gave Savarna trans folks the legal go-ahead to deny caste and benefit from it. The new reservations helped savarna folks as the government saw no need to protect caste-oppressed folks’ access to the system. Despite these glaringly obvious issues, the judgment was lauded as a revolutionary step towards trans rights by the LGBTQIA+ community. Savarna trans activists behind the bill were subsequently celebrated as the brave victors, but they didn’t start the conversation.

“[W]hen I asked questions about jobs or education for transgenders I was alone,” said Living Smiling Vidya (known commonly as Smiley), a celebrated author and artist who has helped lead the charge for trans reservational rights. “There are a lot of people, who now talk about reservation, who laughed at me at that time … Then after five years, they also raise the same question and they kind of claim that they started it; it irritates me a lot.”

The NALSA Judgement set a precedent for what and who the LGBTQIA+ community considered important in the fight for equality. After the NALSA verdict came a unified protest from the LGBTQIA+ community against Section 377, a penal code that recriminalized homosexuality. During these protests, it became clear that the South Asian LGBTQIA+ community was ready to continue glossing over caste, while appropriating the activism of Dalit trans leaders.

This erasure pushed many Dalit, Adivasi, and caste-marginalized folks to say enough was enough.

“[W]ith the rest of the country there was this big churn around caste, [but] around the assertion of Dalit people but with Queerness or the LGBTQIA+ community there was very little,” said Dhrubo Jyoti, a Dalit genderqueer person and a journalist at major media publication in New Delhi.

“It made us wonder why it was so, why there was this kind of erasure where we could actually see caste very evidently in the texts that we were reading because it was all coming from upper caste people.”

At the New Delhi Pride in 2015, Dhrubo, along with Akhil Kang and Dhiren Borisa, held up signs that read “Queer Dalit Proud.”

“I think that was what kind of precipitated in us saying that actually even though this is a moment where we are against 377 and we are coming together to condemn the Supreme Court’s verdict, this is also a very important moment where we cannot forget that Dalit people also exist and Dalit queer people also exist,” Dhrubo said.

Dalit trans resistance across the nation

Like Dhrubo did in Delhi, Dalit activists at Pride walks in Bangalore, Kolkata, and Chennai commanded attention from the LGBTQIA+ community and forced them to reckon with caste in their spaces. Through art, workshops, and literature, they pushed many to consider what the queer community has been but also what it could be.

“After 2015, 2016 maybe, the queer community started blooming,” said Smiley. “They also started raising intersectionality, [and] started talking about disability rights in the trans community, Dalits, and tribes.”

But as the call for caste annihilation grew, so did the ignorance.

In recent years there has been a marked increase in the support for the Hindu right from savarna people in the LGBTQIA+ movement. Following the striking down of section 377, many savarna queer people have been wooed into the right wing ideas. Instead of continuing to fight for the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community as a whole, queer activists reverted to perpetuating casteism, islamophobia and transphobia in LGBTQIA+ spaces.

Similarly, some savarna trans activists have wholeheartedly embraced the Hindu right. In return they are given multiple platforms, even a place on The National Council for Trans Person to continue the tradition of caste erasure while the rest of the trans community suffers.

The fundamentals of change

The battle against caste hegemony and the growing national fervor in the LGBTQIA+ community begins at a very fundamental level.

“If you really want liberation for trans people in general the first thing that has to go is NGOS,” Smiley said.

According to Smiley, there are numerous NGO initiatives created to provide basic resources, from funding to healthcare, to trans folks. But instead of helping, they too heavily contribute to the dilapidated resource structure that favors Savarna trans folks and undermines the trans movement as a whole.

Indian NGOs often tend to be casteist spaces as well. Dealing with the NGO system is crucial to ensure that resources are available for Dalit and Adivasi trans folks at the community level. This is why organizations like Banu’s are important for the development and survival of trans rights. More specifically, Banu also stresses the need to demand government protected resources like separate reservational rights.

“When we get reservation rights, caste based, separate reservational rights, that time only, we will also be a part of this kind of platform,” she said.

In 2019, Grace filed a petition to the Madras High Court and the Supreme Court of India to determine reservations for Dalits and Adivasi trans folks. The Madras High Court has since issued notice to the Tamil Nadu government to follow through on recreational rights for trans folks and recognize separate reservations for Dalit and Adivasi trans folks. This victory sets an example of what needs to happen nationwide to ensure that Dalit and Adivasi have the opportunities they need to live their lives.

Many trans activists emphasize that if LGBTQIA+ spaces continue as is, the community will become more fragmented and all steps towards change will place more work on the marginalized. All South Asian movements for LGBTQIA+ rights need to make caste annihilation a priority. But making caste annihilation cannot mean depending on Dalit and Adivasi folks to do all the work. Dhrubo reminds us that the future needs to be more than correcting the corrupted systems in place — we must uproot the very framework we use to look at LGBTQIA+ issues and imagine the concept of community.

“A lot of people who think of Dalit queer people or Dalit queer resistance, it’s always a resistance where Dalit is equated to caste, or is equated to pain,” they said. “We want a future where Dalit people can be complete people, they can achieve their full personhood;. they can love; they can go on picnics; they can go across the world; they can date, they can fall in love; they can break hearts. They can do whatever without constantly having to remind themselves that they are Dalit or caste-marginalized. For me it’s important that we think of a future after the annihilation of caste where Dalit queer people are just happy people. Even if it’s a kind of dream of happiness.”