At the wedding of her baji (aunt), Tina was so awestruck by the dark red bridal suit that she was adamant she would wear one too. She was in Class 3 then and recalls her grandmother giving in to her stubbornness. 

Tina (19), who identifies as a transwoman, was even more thrilled when her neighbours and female friends in school praised her new maroon suit. She loved multicoloured colourful bangles and her mother did not stop her from wearing them either.  

These queer joys came to an end when she reached her teens. “Why are you making him a girl?” her father would rebuke her grandmother. Back in school, she was ridiculed for her non-conforming mannerisms. “It began with one of my teachers treating me like an alien. And then the whole class, especially the boys, started mocking my body,” said Tina. 

However, it was not only Tina’s trans identity that was ridiculed, she was also bullied because she comes from a tribal community. 

Tina is a Muslim Van Gujjar from Uttarakhand. The Van Gujjars are nomadic buffalo-herders who live in the Himalayan foothills. They are related to the Gujjar community of Jammu and Himachal Pradesh, but have been accessing pastures in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh since the 1800s. 

The community is one of many tribes dependent on wild habitat and cattle rearing. So words such as ‘bhains’ (buffalo) and ‘jungli’ (uncivilised) are often thrown at school children as pejoratives, Tina said.

Tina tells how discriminatory remarks are so frequent in school for the Van Gujjar children.

“Even children of my community who were straight were teased. Our teachers would often say: ‘Jungli ho, kuchh nahi kar paoge zindagi me’ (you’re uncivilised, you won’t be able to do anything in life),” Tina recalled. Trans youths commonly face such hostilities, so much so that they often either skip classes or drop out.

Driven to despair, Tina left home at 15 and after three unsettling years of trying to find acceptance among the Hijra community, she finally found her feet at Pravah, a Delhi- based non-governmental organisation focussed on building youth leadership in urban spaces. She now lives in Gendi Khata village in Haridwar district and works as a counsellor with Pravah’s young advisory group. 

Tina was initially reluctant to talk about her traumatising journey to independence but over several conversations we grew familiar with each other and she agreed to open up.

‘I was stigmatised for being a tribal’

Before Tina left her home, she got in touch with the local Hijra community for help. Like most children she was raised to fear Hijras. “If you don’t start walking like a boy or your manners don’t change, they will take you away with them:” this was a warning she heard often. But, she says, she soon grew comfortable in their company.

When Tina’s parents heard of this, they were furious but one of Hijras who had sheltered her convinced her father to let her stay. “We are keeping her so that she can help us and we will pay her,” they told him. 

Tina recalled even among the Hijras she felt marginalised because of her tribal identity. From her utensils to her clothes, everything was stored separately. And, she alleged, she was physically and sexually abused too. 

The first turning point in Tina’s life came when she learned about Maee, an unregistered volunteer group of Van Gujjars who help the community’s children acquire an education. Maee (‘cattle herder’ or ‘leader’ in the Gujjari dialect) was started by an activist and keen bird watcher, Taukeer Alam, in Gendi Khata. He began the organisation by setting up a children’s library at his home. Tina had heard about his work and started volunteering at the library.

Sitting against the pale yellow wall in Taukeer Alam's library, Tina now lives with his family.

She now lives with Alam’s family and juggles her work at Pravah with teaching young children in Gendi Khata.

Navigating many margins

“For somebody like Tina, who comes from intricately marginalised intersectional identites – Muslim, tribal, trans and from a very small town like Gendi Khata – navigating life becomes unfathomably difficult,” said Jatin Pawar, member and facilitator of Pravah’s SMILE Internship which allows young people to travel and connect with communities. 

State apathy towards the education of Van Gujjar children and the problems of the community – seasonal migration, inadequate documentation and the lack of work options – have kept first generation learners out of school. 

“I was very lucky because my parents sent me to school. That was partly because they considered me a boy. So it was very difficult for me to even say that ‘I want to take a day off’ let alone drop out of school,” said Tina.

Harassment in schools

In a 2019 study of sexual and gender minority groups, UNESCO and Sahodaran, a male sexual health project based in Chennai, discovered that 60% of individuals identifying outside standard sexual identities experienced physical harassment in middle and high school.

Tina eventually stopped going to school after she was sexually harassed by her teachers and seniors on three different ocassions. “It’s not easy to live that life but she has. For me, she is a fighter but I also feel angry about what she has been made to go through. No trans kid would have to face such heinous crimes if only our legal and child protection institutions really treated such cases of violence as violence,” said Chand, who identifies as a trans person, and is an associate coordinator at Pravah. 

The 2019 study also higlighted the high prevelance (43%) of sexual violence against LGBTQIA+ youth in primary schools. However, only 18% of those abused reported the crime to school authorities. And even when they did, 29% of students were asked to change their “perceived feminine behaviour” to avoid being bullied, and 49% were asked to “ignore” the incidents. 

At 15, Tina was coping with more than just harassment and violence in school. She was also forced to leave her home. “I am not the first or only trans kid to feel alone in their own family. I would be continuously beaten by my father because he could not understand why I can’t simply live like a boy,” she recalled. “My younger brother despises me because his friends call him ‘chhakke ka bhai’ (a queer person’s brother) and bully him. So I understand their reasons for annoyance but it nevertheless has a deep sadness in me.”

A 2018 study conducted by National Human Rigts Commission (NHRC) on human rights of trandsgenders in India reported that discrimination against trans children began early, at home and in school. “Transgender children suffer verbal and corporal abuses at the hands of their parents, siblings and other family members. Most of them keep their identities as transgender secret till it is impossible for them to hide it forever,” the report said. 

The study also pointed to the fact that transgender children do not have the legal right to inheritance. Even the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019, which grants protection against discrimination regarding residence, is silent about their inheritance rights.

Making of ‘criminal identity’

Many generations of Van Gujjars were classified as Denotified Tribes or Vimukta Jati by the British regime in India and treated as “criminals” under the Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) of 1871. Part II of the act further criminalised gender non-conforming people as “eunuchs”. 

Both these acts were either replaced or repealed – the CTA was struck down by India in 1949, and replaced with the Habitual Offenders Act of 1952. Part II was annulled in 1911. However, many anti-caste and LGBTQIA+ activists believe that the provisions continue to inform the treatment of trans and tribal minorities and offer little to no change in their conditions (here and here). 

“To this day, draconian provisions of the CTA find their way into the statute books through acts such as the Telangana Eunuchs Act, 1919, that allow for “registration and regulation” of transgender persons, adding to the existing stigma, and abetting arrests of transgender persons engaged in begging or sex work,” says a 2018 Indian Express report. “Even as recently as 2011, the Karnataka Police Act was amended to include a section 36A, titled “Power to regulate eunuchs,” providing impunity to the police to arbitrarily arrest and detain transgender persons.”

The Telangana Act was temporarily put on hold by the state High Court, and the High Court of Karnataka directed that the word “eunuch” in Section 36A be changed to “person”. However,  a 2017 research paper Crime and rhetorical abuses against sexual minorities: A dinner table discussion in India, highlighted how many sections under Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860 such as Section 268 of “public nuisance” and Section 320 of “grievous hurt”, continue to be biased against transgender people.

Grassroots change

For someone like Tina, navigating the spaces created by the queer movement is not easy either. Jatin Pawar of Pravah, who identifies himself as a queer Dalit, believes that in India the movement is led and dominated by the elite and offers little support to those from marginalised communities. His own Dalit identity, he said, was a hindrance. 

“Delhi queer circles are occupied by elite, upper class and caste-privileged people. So somebody like Tina, who belongs to an intersectional identity and whose community has faced years of oppersseion and criminalisation, is neither fully accepted in the anti-caste movement nor in the queer movement. Maistream caste and queer movements too fail those like her,” he said.

Leaving home at 15 was the toughest phase of her life, said Tina. “But I was accepted and welcomed by some of my community members,” she said. That acceptance, although very minuscule, motivated her to give her life another chance. She re-enrolled in school and also applied for job internships of which “Van Gujjar children are not even aware”. She now wants to enrol for an undergraduate degree.

Tina works as a mentor for these Van Gujjar children while also managing her studies and internship.

She was the first person from a rural area to have been selected for the SMILE internship, primarily meant for urban youth. The internship has not just opened up a new path for her but also brought new perspectives to the organisation. “Our institution was not really equipped to sort of engage with someone who has an identity other than a gender expression,” said Pawar. “Tina led us to modify our policies, structures and designs.”

The organisation has now made it mandatory for its young members to tell their story, be respectful of each other’s pronouns, chosen names, sexual orientation and gender identity. “We also ensure that out of 50 selected applicants for any of our internships, 10 should be from the LGBTQIA+ community,” he said. 

At Pravah, Tina takes keen interest in social work. “She’s very passionate about education and determined to do the tasks that she’s been working on with me. I see her as a role model for her community because her life and journey can actually help a lot of trans youth of Van Gujjar community not just in coming out but also navigating their own journey,” said Chand. 

‘Village still sees me as male’

However, Tina’s personal life remains grim. “People of my village get confused as they see a male body so obviously they address me by my deadname and pronouns,” she said. Tina believes that legal and medical transition would reduce this hostility. 

However, the NHRC report reveals that more than 57% of transgender persons  willing to get gender affirmative care are unable to bear the exorbitant expense. This is a violation of the Supreme court guidelines in NALSA (National Legal Services Authority vs Union of India) judgement which mandates the central and state government to provide medical care to trans persons at hospitals. 

“There are tons of cases of urban trans people unable to transition because there is literally no policy infrastructure in place. So in this cruel system where private clinics charge arbitrary rates, the process is a punishment. Medical institutions are yet so transphobic and social support remains negligible, you can gauge how difficult it would be for a tribal trans to get gender affirmative care in a rural area,” said Chand.

  • Jyoti Thakur is an independent journalist based in Delhi.

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