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Stigmatization, Frequent Assaults: Everyday Life For Transgender Persons In Pakistan

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“My biggest wish was that he [her father] should consider me as his own,” said Ashi, a trans woman speaking to NPR. On 9th September of this year, a trans person was killed while another was fatally injured in Peshawar.

In an attempt to understand the issues pertaining to the trans community, I tried to find a book on the subject–a book written by a trans person. To my astonishment, apart from a comic book, I couldn’t find a single book about the lives of trans people or the issues that they face in our country. The comic book I found was not written by a transgender person either. This realization became more arresting once juxtaposed with the kind of visibility that trans people have enjoyed in India. I was able to find a score of books written about transgender people in India. Moreover, I did not need to turn the web upside down to find a book written by a trans person regarding their issues.

Trans people have been around for as long as modern humans (or let’s include our ancestral apes too). Trans people were previously called sissies or cross-dressers Avant la Lettr. Human history is rife with “cross-dressers”. Joan of Arc is just one such cross-dresser– the fearless and undaunted female solider of the Hundred Years War. She was burnt at the stake for heresy. She was charged for dressing as a man, particularly a warrior. Her cross-dressing was found heretical by the papal authority, and she was condemned to death. Much can be said and written about important transgender people in history. However, the point is to establish visibility. The significance of being seen for what one is and not how the society demands one should be is also underscored by the fact that almost all the trans folks rebel against the gender binary when it’s enforced upon them, and at times with significant risks to their own lives. They run away from their houses into the jaws of a society that is untowardly hostile to their existence but refuse to subjugate and give up their freedoms.

Many of the freedoms and rights that the LGBTQ+ community of the West takes for granted today were the result of hard-won battles by a bunch of drag queens and trans women. Trans visibility and activism came to the fore in the jazzy years of the 1960s. Activism against the established gender binary was heralded by trans people like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. In 1966, trans people of San Francisco refused to be arrested when police were called upon them at Compton’s Cafe in Tenderloin. The ruckus that followed was bloody, violent, and raucous. For the first time, trans persons stood in incredible defiance against a system that sustained itself by keeping them deprived of their rights. A few years later, on 28th June 1969, in Manhattan, a series of riots took place at Stonewall Inn located at Christopher Street. The drag queens fought back when the police came to arrest them. Their actions started a riot which continued for days. The demonstrations and riots were bloodstained, and they have been a part of popular culture because the LGBTQ+ community wasn’t cowed. Instead, it was bold and fearless. Stonewall Riots gave birth to the Gay Liberation Movement. It was a riot that changed the course of history, not compliance.

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In Pakistan, the last decade has been a decade of legal victories for the Trans community. Years of activism by the community culminated in the passage of the Transgender Persons Act in 2018. Notwithstanding the legislation, the community continues to live like pariahs. A trans life in Pakistan continues to be stigmatized, atrophied, and a frequently assaulted experience. It doesn’t matter whether you are an educated trans person or not, the discrimination is pervasive. An educated transgender who overcomes a myriad of backbreaking obstacles to get an education will most likely get discriminated against once they apply for jobs. The heart-breaking stories of Riffie Khan or Dolphin Ayanbear stand testimony to this reality.

When Alisha, a trans activist who was shot eight times was brought to Lady Reading Hospital (the biggest hospital in KP), the doctors refused to admit her into either male or female wards. While friends of Alisha and other activists tried to convince doctors and staff to treat her and get her into a suitable ward, attendants with the patients kept nagging and ridiculing them going as far as asking them if their breasts were natural. Imagine seeing your loved one dying in front of you at a hospital, and the people around you rather than protesting with you against the injustice ask you if your genitalia are natural enough?

Qamar Naseem, a trans activist who was present at the scene, said that “The doctors kept asking the injured Alisha if she only danced and how much she charged whereas the blood laboratory guy asked them if their blood was HIV positive or not,” Alisha died. She was not given the intensive care she needed, and the maltreatment she and her friends suffered puts the Satan to shame.

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Similarly, while the Supreme Court decided that transgender people can self-identify with any gender identity, sex-changing therapies are not provided in clinics across Pakistan. The Supreme Court also said that a two per cent quota would be allocated for transgender people in government jobs. However, the community is still waiting for the decision to get implemented. In such dire circumstances, they resort to dancing or sex work. The majority of Pakistani men and women alike are repulsed trans people in KP especially, men have degenerated into merciless and brazen killers of transgender people. Transgender people live on the fringes of society trying hard to get by. In Pakistan, trans life does not mean gay balls, ballroom culture, drag queens, and vogueing. Instead, it means a life in which a trans person will have to suffer unendurable inhumanity at the hands of cishet people. It means a life where their right to life will often be questioned, let alone provided access to health care or job opportunities. A common Pakistani man will tell you that the trans community itself is a source of their plight. At the same time, you may try, in vain, to disabuse him by quoting innumerable bone-chilling incidents where the community has been at the receiving end of the violence and injustices meted out to them by the cishet Pakistan. We need to have a nuanced discussion about our trans community and how we can make up for what we have been doing to them. Nuance is often inimical to our collective wisdom which, in this case, is rooted in the suppression of minorities and deflection of responsibility by creating half-baked narratives such as the trans community has itself chosen to live this way.

Kate Bornstein in her book “Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation” wrote that “It’s easy to fictionalize an issue when you’re not aware of the many ways in which you are privileged by it.” We too need to stop deflecting the blame on trans community and remediate the harms we have inflicted on them. Or the trans community itself needs to snatch their inalienable rights by breaking away with how it’s traditionally viewed –a monolith of aw-shucks– and enact its versions of stonewall riots.

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Naya Daur