Suf­fer­ing in the shad­ows

Po­lice have re­cently cracked down on those seek­ing sex­ual ser­vices from transwomen in Chen­nai. But the ac­tion fails to ac­count for the daily re­al­i­ties of the trans com­mu­nity, say ac­tivists

Sunday Express - - CHENNAI - JAYANTHI PAWAR

THE re­cent po­lice crack­down on those seek­ing sex­ual ser­vices from transwomen at Nungam­bakkam in Chen­nai has not only threat­ened their liveli­hood but also their lives as the men held by po­lice have started at­tack­ing the transwomen af­ter be­ing re­leased, be­liev­ing they tipped off the cops.

A 23-year-old sex worker Neha (name changed) from Nungam­bakkam re­counts just one such in­ci­dent. “I was talk­ing to a client at around 12.30 am when the pa­trol po­lice caught him. Though he was let off with a warn­ing three days later, he and a friend came on a mo­tor­bike and threw stones and beer bot­tles at me as I was wait­ing for cus­tomers. They also ver­bally abused me be­cause they thought I had tipped off the po­lice,” she ex­plained.

“Since, we con­tinue to work in the sex trade de­spite po­lice de­tain­ing us, they have now started tar­get­ing our cus­tomers, but lit­tle do they re­alise the ef­fect that their ac­tion has on us,” she added.

In the last week, 25 men have been booked on charges of caus­ing pub­lic nui­sance in and around Nungam­bakkam. Th­ese were men were found ap­proach­ing the transwomen at night for sex­ual favours. Nungam­bakkam po­lice said this ac­tion had been taken up af­ter they failed to con­vince a few transwomen in­volved in sex work in the area to take up em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties iden­ti­fied by the po­lice.

A month ago, the Nungam­bakkam po­lice had con­ducted a meet­ing with the transwomen and of­fered to help find them jobs with salaries be­gin­ning at `15,000 de­pend­ing on their qual­i­fi­ca­tions. Po­lice had of­fered to find the transwomen jobs in pri­vate soft­ware com­pa­nies, spas, beauty par­lours, tai­lor­ing shops or ho­tels de­pend­ing on their qual­i­fi­ca­tions. “How­ever, no­body came for­ward to take up the of­fer,” said a po­lice of­fi­cer. It was then that po­lice de­cided to start ar­rest­ing the cus­tomers. Po­lice said their ac­tion fol­lowed fre­quent com­plaints from res­i­dents about the lo­cal­ity be­ing un­safe for women at late night.

But why were the transwomen un­will­ing to take up the jobs? A few transwomen from Nungam­bakkam ex­plained their predica­ment and how the po­lice of­fer, though wellmean­ing, would not help over­come the chal­lenges the com­mu­nity faces.

“When a house is given to us for rent, the house­own­ers charge twice or three times the nor­mal rent. For in­stance, if a house is rented out for `3,000 to cis­gen­der* peo­ple, they charge us `9,000. Cur­rently, I live in a one Bed­room-Hall-Kitchen house at Choolaimedu in a very con­gested street, very close to the Cooum and pay `14,000. Sec­ond, most of the trans­gen­ders have run away from home or have been sent off by their par­ents. In such cases, all our cer­tifi­cates, in­clud­ing birth cer­tifi­cates, are left back home. To ap­ply for a job, all com­pa­nies ask for th­ese cer­tifi­cates and we have to change our names to get a new iden­tity as a trans­gen­der. It takes two to three years for even a trans­gen­der per­son who knows all the pro­ce­dures to get a name change done. Till then we are left with no op­tion but to re­sort to beg­ging and sex work,” ex­plained R Anushri, lead or­gan­iser, Trans Right Now Col­lec­tive.

“Most transwomen are not aware of the pro­ce­dure to get a name change cer­tifi­cate. If we go by our old names we are ex­pected to cut our hair short and fol­low the same dress code as a male em­ployee. Af­ter we over­come all this and fi­nally find a job, they are ready to pay us only `8,000 to `10,000 re­gard­less of our ed­u­ca­tion qual­i­fi­ca­tions. With that salary, we would be able to pay for rent and elec­tric­ity,” she said.

Though vol­umes have been spo­ken about trans rights, ev­ery day is a chal­lenge for many in the com­mu­nity. “Ev­ery of­fice we go to at­tend an in­ter­view, we are looked at with dis­gust. We are asked to work ex­tra hours or asked for ex­tra ‘favours’. This could be one of the rea­son why transwomen pre­fer to con­tinue do­ing sex work, where they are their own bosses,” said a transwoman who did not want to be named. Anushri also pointed out that she was the sixth can­di­date in the trans­gen­der cat­e­gory to ap­ply for a gov­ern­ment job in the em­ploy­ment of­fice, but was still on the wait­ing list. “Af­ter me so many trans­gen­ders must have ap­plied and are still wait­ing. Till they find jobs, there is no other source of in­come,” she said.

“Even in the trans com­mu­nity we are re­spected only if we make our own liv­ing. We do not have par­ents or rel­a­tives to sup­port us fi­nan­cially at any given time. And find­ing a safe job that pays you well is a dis­tant dream and that’s the main rea­son most transwomen start off do­ing sex work. Once, they are con­fi­dent of start­ing a busi­ness with money saved, they quit,” said Ha­jitha, a transwoman.

For in­stance, Neha is pur­su­ing a de­gree in dance and does sex work to pay her fees. “Once I get my de­gree, I plan to start a small dance school,” she said.

While Nungam­bakkam cops may be well-in­ten­tioned, many in the trans com­mu­nity have had bit­ter ex­pe­ri­ences with po­lice. For in­stance, in Novem­ber 2016, a 28-year-old transwoman named Taara was found with se­vere burn in­jures out­side the Pondy Bazaar po­lice sta­tion. She later suc­cumbed to her in­jures at the Kil­pauk Med­i­cal Col­lege and Hos­pi­tal. At the time, a few po­lice per­son­nel had al­leged that Taara had self-im­mo­lated with petrol out­side the po­lice sta­tion af­ter she got into a fight with the cops who had seized her two-wheeler. Many in the trans com­mu­nity, how­ever, charged that Taara had been as­saulted by the po­lice­men when she ar­gued with them and had threat­ened to set her­self ablaze over what they had done to her. The day af­ter her death, over 100 transwomen protested and dam­aged parked ve­hi­cles de­mand­ing ac­tion against po­lice per­son­nel for abet­ting Taara’s sui­cide. Mean­while, a se­nior po­lice of­fi­cer said the de­part­ment was do­ing its best to pro­vide al­ter­nate liveli­hoods for mem­bers of the trans com­mu­nity.

“As we be­lieve most of them are forced into the sex trade, find­ing them jobs is the only way to help them. Also, if they ap­proach us re­gard­ing any cer­tifi­cate-re­lated is­sues, we are ready to help them,” he as­sured.

One sug­ges­tion the com­mu­nity has for the po­lice, how­ever, might make a dif­fer­ence to their lives if the de­part­ment obliges. A transwoman, on con­di­tion of anonymity, pointed out that po­lice are cre­at­ing aware­ness on the im­por­tance of CCTV cam­eras and ad­dress res­i­dent as­so­ci­a­tions to do so. She sug­gested that po­lice also tell the as­so­ci­a­tions to treat mem­bers of the trans com­mu­nity as they would cis­gen­der per­sons. “They can tell them to pro­vide us houses at the same rent as the oth­ers. Don’t we also de­serve to stay in de­cent ac­com­mo­da­tion?” she asked.

*per­sons whose per­sonal and gen­der iden­ti­ties cor­re­spond

to their birth sex

Even in the trans com­mu­nity we are re­spected only if we make our own liv­ing. We do not have par­ents or rel­a­tives to sup­port us fi­nan­cially at any given time. And find­ing a safe job that pays you well is a dis­tant dream and that’s the main rea­son most transwomen start off do­ing sex work

Ha­jitha, a transwoman

As we be­lieve most of them are forced into the sex trade, find­ing them jobs is the only way to help them. Also, if they ap­proach us re­gard­ing any cer­tifi­cate-re­lated is­sues, we are ready to help them

Se­nior po­lice of­fi­cer

Most transwomen are not aware of the pro­ce­dure to get a name change cer­tifi­cate. If we go by our old names we are ex­pected to cut our hair short and fol­low the same dress code as a male em­ployee. Af­ter we over­come all this and fi­nally find a job, they are ready to pay us only `8,000 to `10,000 re­gard­less of our qual­i­fi­ca­tions

R Anushri, lead or­gan­iser, Trans Right Now Col­lec­tive

SOUMYADIP SINHA

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