Imagine growing up in a family where your skills and talents are the last thing your parents are concerned about and your gender, the first. If you’re a woman who has lived most of her life fearing the guillotine of patriarchy, you may be able to relate to this struggle.
I’m sure we can all recall incidents when parents were as disappointed by the birth of a girl child as they’d be if the child was born with a chronic or fatal illness. Let’s not forget the Indian government's ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ campaign, because that’s what it takes for this nation to realise that women are people too. That said, can one even fathom the struggles of persons that identify as non-binary or transgenders in India — where we so conveniently label them as ‘third’ genders as if it were a consolation for not being born as a boy or a girl.
In 2012, the Bombay High Court, two years prior to the Supreme Court’s NALSA judgment which led to the recognition of the ‘third’ gender, passed another landmark judgment stating that there is no law which prohibits sex-change surgery. This was a life changing moment for 21-year-old Bidhan Baruah who was fighting for the right to self-identification. Little did Baruah know that the judgment would turn the lives of thousands of others too.
In a candid conversation with Outlook, Swati Bidhan Baruah, Assam’s first —and India’s third— transgender Lok Adalat judge and advocate shares her journey of how she strives to bring the ‘third’ or ‘other’ gender to the forefront in Assam.
Growing up in a typical Assamese home as a transgender child must have been challenging in itself but four years ago, you became the Assam’s first and the nation’s third transgender judge. How would you describe the journey?
It has been a long and hard battle but my aim has always been clear. I excelled at academics and learnt early in life that education will never fail you as a weapon of choice. Right from the time I attained the age of puberty, I started to feel changes in my body that led to confusion in my mind. I was very aware that this was not the body which I should have been born in.
There was not much medical advancement back then and it was very difficult to approach doctors or experts back then. There was not much information available and although there were internet cafes, I could only search on google and find experts faraway in Thailand, not in India. I did, however, manage to find two or three doctors who told me about sex-change and gender reassignment surgeries that were performed outside India. I eventually got in touch with one of them.
I was just 21-year-old but the discrimination that I faced was as common as what other trans persons face every day. I was humiliated at home, even around our homes where we reside. Some women would call me ‘half-lady’. I was used to them attempting to shame me but I never took this to be a barrier of any kind. I knew what I wanted to do with my body and apart from that, I was very determined to attain all my career goals. I even knew what higher education I wanted to pursue.
As a 21-year-old, with no support from your family, you set sail on your journey to self-identification. Can you tell us what obstacles you faced along the way and how you dealt with them?
It was the year 2011 when I finally decided to undergo the surgery at Saifee Hospital in Mumbai. I left home and contacted the doctors there. I also started my psychiatric counseling. Back then I had a friend who worked in one of the news channels there who I met with one day. Little did I know that my friend was carrying a hidden camera, recording our entire conversation which got aired. This was how my parents learned about the surgery. My family issued a legal notice to the hospital management and the doctors, thereafter which the doctors refused to go ahead with the procedure unless there was a court order.
On May 7, 2012, I still remember it was a Monday, the Bombay High Court finally passed the landmark judgement that said sex-change surgery is not illegal in the eyes of law. This wasn’t just a green signal for me but also for many other people like me. The whole incident changed my entire perception and ideology and I began to think that if I had to endure so much, then there must be so many others living closeted who do not have a chance to come out and be themselves. That was the moment I decided to pursue law to fight for the rights of those in the community.
You are a practicing advocate and a courtroom can be nerve-wracking even for women, owing to the deeply ingrained patriarchy that we’ve so often witnessed. How difficult was it to navigate your way around?
It quite frankly has not been as intimidating as one would think, although in the legal profession, you’re often seeing patriarchy at play. Yes, that still prevails. I, however, haven’t found any discriminatory behaviour among the judges but there are people who can give you clinchy looks and there are a lot of mindless whispers. It’s almost as if they’ve seen an alien sometimes! You just ignore them after a while. I don’t seem to be bothered.
It’s the Pride Month - the time when we wake up from our slumber once a year to talk about issues faced by the LGBTQI community while celebrating love and individuality. You think there is a point being missed here, or are there things we’re forgetting to address?
You know, now that June is here, we’re talking about a plethora of problems faced by ‘other’ genders, who remembers November?
The 20th of November is observed as Trans Remembrance Day when we memorialise countless murders caused due to transphobia. With all due respect to the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual communities, I believe that it is their sexual orientation which makes them queer whereas in case of transgenders and intersex persons, this is our gender identity or gender dysphoria.
Most of the people who step into pride rallies come from relatively well-off families. You will find very few who will stand up for themselves from the grassroots, from much lesser privileged families who are also genuinely facing a problem, but have lost their voices in the crowd. It’s time we take a step back and help them too.
Transgender kids are still facing problems coming out to their own families and we know well by now that discrimination begins at home. If your family takes a stand, nobody will have the courage to say anything to you but when your own family begins to ill-treat you and looks at you as an outcast, it is no surprise that sooner or later your relatives, your neighbourhood and the society will start treating you that way. If a parent stands up for their kid today and says, yes, I have a trans child and I am proud of it, will an outsider then have the audacity to say anything?
Accept your own child, there is no social humiliation in that. In my own case, after the Bombay HC judgment, I had to sit my educated family members down with four psychiatrists and five psychological counselors to help them understand, who will do this at the grassroots? Just like feminism, we need waves of gender sensitisation movements to bring about a major shift in perception of people towards transgender people.
A message to the trans youth who, in addition to all the problems faced by other youth, have to worry about their gender identities or sexual orientation – something that others have never have had to worry about.
There are crises, there are obstructions, there will be humiliation from society but if you give these problems space in your life, you will see nothing but distraction. My advice to youngsters is to concentrate on studies and make the most of the education system, because that is the only weapon through which you can fight an unfair society. History has proved this time and again.
When I started my fight, no one had my back. Even those transgender activists who we look up to, watch them on television, and read about them in papers, they have all had struggles which they put behind them. They stood alone. ‘Juddho koribo lagibo!’ (You have to wage war!) Don’t fight like a fool. Even if the world abandons you, you will have education with you.
Baruah’s contribution to inclusion of the ‘other’ gender in Assam
From the creation of transgender quota in Assam’s leading universities to bringing in rules for transgender persons to sit for the state’s civil services exams, and even challenging the process of National Register of Citizens to be invalid, which left over 2,000 transgender persons out of the process, Baruah has left no stone unturned to empower trans community in Assam in her capacity.
She also drafted progressive policies for the community in the state, some of which she laments weren't implemented in letter and spirit. In the recent past, Assam Police issued an advertisement for a newly established commando battalion where 2,500 posts were announced vacant for transgender persons and about 200 to 300 posts for sub-inspectors.
“I am doing what I’m supposed to, now whether or not the community takes a step forward in this direction is up to them,” Baruah tells Outlook.