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
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