Despite the Indian parliament passing a bill decriminalising homosexuality last year, activists in the world’s most populous democracy are now mobilising to resist further state repression in the form of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill. The law was passed by the Lok Sabha (House of Commons) in December 2018, and now needs only to pass the Rajya Sabha to become an act. The law will force transgender people to be screened, deny them their right to self-identify, and criminalise the traditional practice of collecting offerings as a means of support. It even proposes lighter sentences for crimes committed against trans people, effectively legitimising violence against them.
We traveled to Kolkata to find out about the trans-led struggle for collective liberation in West Bengal. There, we visited the Amra Odbhuth queer cafe space and met with trans rights activist and sex worker advocate Raina Roy.
“How will this interview help trans people?”
Raina Roy, dressed in a turquoise sari and blazing with quiet assurance, wants to know if we are yet more mainstream journalists seeking to manipulate the narrative around trans people.
“All they want to know about is the sex work.”
I share that I am queer and identify as non binary, and that we are involved in radical politics and trans liberation back home. Once convinced of our solidarity, she holds nothing back in speaking with us.
“Sex work is work within the trans community. It’s a very double operation; you’re a trans within the society and you’re a sex worker within the trans community. I am a human rights activist. I am a sex worker. I am proud to be a sex worker. I’m working with gender sexuality. When you don’t say anything about sexual issues, that means you are very much in heteronormativity, heterosexuality and the entire phobia of discussing sex.”
Across India there are large numbers of working-class and lower-caste hijra who traditionally survive as performers and artists, as sex workers or through the spiritual practice of requesting offerings in return for blessings. Raina Roy has worked tirelessly alongside the hijra community, as well as with middle-class and educated queer and trans people who sell their labour. She is director of the group Samabhabona, a unique and innovative trans-led organisation that works with an intersectional political analysis – the idea that people experience multiple oppressions across overlapping identities, such as caste, class, gender and race.
As well as intersectionality, Samabhabona applies left organising methods and radical honesty against discrimination to promote the rights of trans people. Their mission is to support the neglected and excluded populace by creating a united front to challenge hetero-patriarchy and to directly organise against oppressive laws such as the Transgender Bill.
“In every work there is a system. When you are selling your body, it means the same as when a software engineer is working in the office. Is he or she not selling their brain, not selling their intellectual part from their body? If you apply socialism or intersectionality, or the idea of an oppression free society, it means it is work. Sex work is work. So why are we ashamed till now?”
Like many in West Bengal, Raina was raised in a leftist family. After several early relationships, she began to position her sexual relations with men as a form of work. She did not used to identify as trans, but began to live and work alongside trans-identified sex workers in the areas of Kolkata in which they operated. As she did, her politics became increasingly radical.
“I read George Bernard Shaw, and I can remember the line, “Marriage is legal prostitution,”. I’m absolutely okay with that definition. When a couple says “we’re living together” that’s automatically the power and labour divided within them, you know? One of the person who take the power and who have that capacity and the other one who is staying opposite. I believe rather than marriage to live in, but I don’t live with a guy seven days together, you know, that is impossible.
“I felt irritated about politics because they [left activists] are just writing poster in the newspaper with a red colour and they are watching intellectual films. I was quite confused about gender identity constructions. I started to read the leftist feminist books but found the definitions to be very stereotypical.”
As in many places, in India trans people and sex workers are often excluded from feminist spaces. Alienated by liberal intellectual feminism, it was on the streets with other trans workers that Raina had powerful experiences of self-organisation and solidarity, such as the collective use of clapping as a weapon to deter violence when faced with danger.
“They say about me “Oh, she’s a sex worker; she’ll always support a sex worker.” “You know Raina, Raina created the organisation to promote sex work.” Yes, I want to promote sex work.”
Samabhabona has created a union to actively organise through social media platforms like WhatsApp and real life meet-ups, as well as through the provision of legal awareness workshops, skills training and community mental health.
“We wanted to create something so that people will start to say about their job, and that they should feel proud to say they’re sex workers. That is my politics. The unions are divided based in the city and the suburbs. We have a union in the north, in the south, in different areas. And then you have the bigger union. What we’ve done is we’ve mobilised. Everyone uses their smart phones now so we use basic apps like WhatsApp to create these groups. They’ve been growing. If you look at a meeting, say 50 people come via WhatsApp and by word of mouth, there would be 100. The aim is to be able to mobilise so if one person has an issue then everyone goes in that specific area. Even if it’s not the entire group, ten people can go and support them. From the organisation we give them the resources because we have connections. For example, when legislation comes out we transcribe the material and we distribute it, making everything that is happening out there accessible on the bureaucratic level.”
As well as working logistically to form alliances with other rights groups and promote a dialogue about trans-feminism, there is a drive to culturally and artistically value the trans community.
“Drag performance is a traditional occupation. The dance performers migrate to different parts of the country. We document their stories, having them write about it or tell us about it. It can be a video or a written piece by them with the intention of reclaiming the narrative from a journalist in the mainstream media, and letting trans people say their own stories about their lives on their own terms.”
One typical discrimination against both trans and sex work is not only the moral objection, but from the economic sustainability of such work. Simply put, what happens to sex workers or trans people when they are too old to work? In an Indian context, this is connected to cultural norms of family relations, and the tradition of parents being taken care of by their children in old age.
“I say that it is pathetic for our country that we don’t get pension for doing sex work. And When we’re talking about socialism, when we’re talking about the Intersexual Movement, we’re talking about all those big, big things, it’s more acceptable than when a person is giving service to another person because of sex. If that’s your view, that means you are not doing the movement on sexuality, you are actually people who are phobic to tell and discuss about sex. I argued with one friend of mine at a debate on decriminalising sex work, and she said: “what about when trans people are doing crime within the sex work?” I just stopped her and I said, “Are you sure that all LGBT people are very honest, ethical, that they are very good people and that there’s no negativity there?”
The activists of the Transgender Union and of Samabhabona are on the front lines in organising to protest the Transgender Bill 2018, risking constant and genuine bodily violence and continued oppression. As trans people across the globe continue to struggle for equality and inclusion, the level of dedication and passion shown is a blazing example of fearlessness for all to take courage from. If you wish to support, you can do so here.
~ Interview by George F.