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India activists use Independence Day to reiterate call for equality

Government, private institutions continue to exclude transgender people

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(Photo by Rahul Sapra/Bigstock)

India on Aug. 15 celebrated 76 years of independence. 

This year’s Independence Day was very different. The Indian flag was everywhere; on cars, taxis, trucks, homes and government buildings. The country celebrated its true identity — Bharat, the Sanskrit name of India. 

Sanskrit, the world’s oldest language, is part of India’s cultural identity. But the country’s LGBTQ and intersex community is still searching for true inclusion in different government and private institutions. 

The Indian Supreme Court in 2018 struck down the colonial-era law that criminalized homosexuality. Four years later, on Aug. 15, Prime Minister Narenda Modi addressed the national from the Red Fort in Delhi, and talked about his vision for the country by 2047, but he did not specifically address the LGBTQ and intersex community.

The Indian government and private institutions do not allow people to choose gender-neutral or genderfluid identity markers. The use of appropriate pronouns for the LGBTQ and intersex community in public or private institutions is not very common either.

The Washington Blade sought comment from the Indian Post, the world’s most heavily used mail system, for comment on the issue, but it did not reply.

The Indian Post offers a variety of mail, insurance and banking services to its customers. While analyzing the saving account opening form, the Blade found that there are only three gender options: Male, female and other.

The Supreme Court in 2014 recognized transgender people as the third gender in a landmark ruling and ordered the government to provide welfare programs to the community.

“It is the right of every human being to choose their gender,” said the Supreme Court.

The available gender options force one to identify either with male, female, or other as trans even if they are not any of these. The Madras High Court in 2021 laid out an agenda of inclusion for the LGBTQ and intersex community, but the majority of government and private institutions are still far from following these rulings.

The Blade also contacted public sector banks as well as private ones like HDFC Bank; Central Board of Secondary Education; a national level education board; Axis Bank and the Department of Social Justice and Empowerment, but received no response.

The Blade reached out to the Bank of Baroda, one of the country’s public sector banks. 

A person with the bank’s HR team hung up the phone when asked to comment. The bank has a branch in New York, but it did not respond to a request for comment.

Not everything, however, is as bad as it seems. 

Kerala, a state in southern India, in January 2021 decided to include “transgender” as the option in all government forms for a more inclusive approach. Following the Supreme Court judgment, the state established a district board for the trans community that can respond to trans-specific ID cards. 

Government and private institutions are failing to achieve complete gender inclusivity — including the use of proper pronouns — in spite of efforts to enact progressive policies for India’s trans, lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and intersex communities.

Tamil Nadu, another state in southern India, on Aug. 20 published a document from its Social Welfare and Women Empowerment Department

The document included a glossary of terms to be used to address the LGBTQ and intersex community, and it came from the Madras High Court. The Tamil Nadu government mandates the use of terms from the glossary in all institutions, including the media, to address community members. It includes “thirunangai” (trans women,) “thirunambi” (trans men,) “pal puthumaiyar” (queer) and “oodupal” (intersex.)

Many high school students with whom the Blade spoke said the use of these terms would be a positive step towards inclusivity, but private schools and other institutions do not provide many options for those who want to select their gender.

The Blade in December 2021 reported the National Council of Educational Research and Training published a manual to make teachers and students more sensitive to LGBTQ and intersex issues. It was meant to create a more inclusive environment for trans students, but the organization withdrew the manual after conservative activists protested.

To make sense of how gender identity and sensitization about gender can affect students in schools, one must look back at February of this year, when a student of Delhi Public School, a premier private school, died by suicide by jumping off his residential building. His mother in a complaint she filed with the police alleged her teenaged son faced extreme harassment at school over his sexuality.

Changes in colleges and universities are also coming, but the pace is slow. 

The Blade in April reported that the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research became India’s first gender-neutral university. With this new policy, the university also included the gender-neutral prefix Mx.

The Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai, a premier institution in India, and other central government-funded institutions have accepted and are supporting LGBTQ and intersex inclusion by allowing the formation of an LGBTQ and intersex club at the campus. But gender options other than male, female and other, are still not available on the institute’s entrance exam or during the admission process.

“We agree that despite various rulings and judgments passed by the Supreme Court, there is still a long way to go for having better inclusion in government institutions. Though from having ‘male’ and ‘female’ as the only two default options to choose from, there has been increasing inclusion of ‘genderfluid’, ‘others’, ‘prefer not to say,’ etc., as categories of identity in many, if not all, places,” said Khushi, a representative of Saathi, an LGBTQ and intersex support group and a club at the Indian Institute of Technology. “Yet to make this phenomenon or this change a habit or routine, there is a lot that needs to happen. Given the way Indian society is structured, this entire idea many a time falls on deaf ears.”

Khushi from Saathi (Photo courtesy of Khushi)

Saathi throughout the year organizes workshops, movie screenings and informal meetings for everyone, including straight people who want to understand the community.

“To bring about a change, the government bodies have to consistently use inclusive language across its portals. Being inclusive in the school/college admission process as well as a further commitment to a gender inclusive and friendly environment can go a long way,” said Khushi. “Apart from that government can support already existing academic level and independent organizations that uphold the LGBTQIA+ cause. Anti-harassment policies can be gender neutral. In case of universities there can be courses that run-in sex and gender identity. There can be compulsory nonbinary gender orientations. There are many other things that can be done but the point is that though slowly but surely some change is coming through.”

Instagram in 2021 announced the inclusion of the LGBTQ and intersex community by providing the option to add pronouns. But Meta’s picture-sharing app is still far from providing the Indian LGBTQ and intersex community with this feature. 

The Blade reached out to Meta for a comment on the issue, but the company, which faces accusations of failing to prevent the incitement of violence in neighboring Myanmar, did not respond to multiple requests.

While talking with the Blade, Kumaresh Ramesh, a former Saathi coordinator, said that even though the courts have decriminalized same-sex relationships and advanced the rights of people in the trans community, there is a lot of work left to be done to mainstream acceptance in the society. 

Ramesh graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology last year and is no longer part of Saathi. While expressing his opinion, he suggested some measures which can help normalization of other gender and pronoun use.

“While one can litigate in court for enforcing these changes, we should also work on organically making it commonplace. For instance, if we make it a point to state our preferred pronouns and encourage others to do so, the government will eventually have to follow suit. I would like to request professors and teachers across disciplines to also state their preferred pronouns while they introduce themselves. This could be a small but powerful step towards fostering acceptance,” said Ramesh.

“Although IIT Bombay is centrally-funded and the current central government has not come out in support of the LGBTQ community, the administration has been largely supportive of Saathi, especially in the more recent years as awareness about the community has gone up. Talking about the government, intent is the key. If the government wishes to further the acceptance of the community, the importance of diversity and inclusion should be taught to school students. Greater representation of the community in school curriculum will increase acceptance not just in the young generation but also their parents and grandparents.”

Neysara, the founder of Transgender India, an online portal that supports the trans community and creates awareness, said that preferred gender-neutral pronouns are important for the Indian trans community. She also said that to make preferred/gender-neutral pronouns one of the centerpieces of Indian trans discourse would be a prime example of blindly copy-pasting western trans discourse to India without any understanding of the cultural context.

“Forget the pronouns printed in a form, most trans people in the country are not even allowed to enter SBI (one of India’s largest public sector bank) or a post office,” said Neysara. “How will they even see this form? Such tokenistic moves of printing a word on a form is super easy, what’s more difficult is inclusion, reform and sensitization. That’s what we need in any office.”

Neysara, founder of Transgender India, an Indian trans rights group. (Photo courtesy of Neysara)

Ankush Kumar is a freelance reporter who has covered many stories for Washington and Los Angeles Blades from Iran, India and Singapore. He recently reported for the Daily Beast. He can be reached at [email protected]. He is on Twitter at @mohitkopinion

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UN human rights experts condemn Taliban over treatment of LGBTQ Afghans

Extremist group regained control of country on Aug. 15, 2021

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Two men in Kabul, Afghanistan, in July 2021 (Photo courtesy of Dr. Ahmad Qais Munzahim)

United Nations human rights experts on Monday sharply criticized the Taliban over its treatment of LGBTQ and intersex people and other groups in Afghanistan.

“Two years ago, the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan. Since then, the policies they have imposed on the Afghan population have resulted in a continuous, systematic and shocking rescinding of a multitude of human rights, including the rights to education, work and freedoms of expression, assembly and association. Consistent credible reports of summary executions and acts tantamount to enforced disappearances, widespread arbitrary detention, torture, and ill treatment, as well as arbitrary displacement have caused increased concern,” reads a statement that Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the independent U.N. expert on LGBTQ and intersex issues, and others signed. “The hardest hit are women and girls, ethnic, religious and other minorities, people with disabilities, displaced persons, LGBTQ+ persons, human rights defenders and other civil society actors, journalists, artists, educators and former government and security officials.”

“Despite reassurances by the Taliban de facto authorities that any restrictions, particularly in terms of access to education would be temporary, the facts on the ground have demonstrated an accelerated, systematic and all engulfing system of segregation, marginalization and persecution,” the statement further notes.

The Taliban regained control of Afghanistan on Aug. 15, 2021. The last American forces withdrew from the country 15 days later.

The State Department in its 2022 human rights report notes the Taliban “criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual activity, and representatives routinely enforced this position through violence, intimidation, harassment and targeted killings.” 

“Under sharia, conviction of same-sex sexual conduct is punishable by death, flogging or imprisonment,” reads the report. “Individual Taliban members made public statements reiterating that their interpretation of sharia includes the death penalty for homosexuality.”

The report further notes the Taliban “takeover of the country increased fears of repression and violence among LGBTQI+ persons, with many individuals going into hiding to avoid being captured by the Taliban. Many fled the country after August 2021. LGBTQI+ persons faced increased threats, attacks, sexual assaults, and discrimination from Taliban members, strangers, neighbors and family members.”

Outright International and Human Rights Watch in January 2022 released a report that includes interviews with LGBTQ and intersex Afghans who the Taliban have targeted. They include a 20 year-old man who said Taliban members “loaded him into a car” at a checkpoint and “took him to another location where four men whipped and then gang raped him over the course of eight hours.” The report also notes the Taliban beat a transgender woman in Kabul, the Afghan capital, and “shaved her eyebrows with a razor” before they “dumped her on the street in men’s clothes and without a cellphone.”

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Transgender Pakistanis face uncertain future

Khyber province clerics ban trans people from dancing at weddings

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Jannat Ali at WorldPride 2021 in Copenhagen, Denmark (Photo courtesy of Jannat Ali)

The transgender community’s history on the Indian subcontinent spans thousands of years.

The community has historically thrived, but discriminatory colonial laws left it isolated and trans people faced violence in the subcontinent. Pakistan is no exception.

A group of 26 tribal clerics in Pakistan’s Khyber province on July 7 banned trans people from dancing and playing music during weddings. They ruled clergy would not perform wedding rituals at any marriages that included dance and music.

The clerics in their decree said they will not perform the last rites of an entire family if any one of them disobeys the decision.

The Washington Blade reached out to Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif for comment, but his office did not respond.

“They have been doing it for a very long time. In 2015, there were so many cases when trans persons have been killed because of being artists because they were performing, and gender as well. The violence in Khyber province is apparently higher as compared to other provinces. But now other provinces are also replicating,” said Jannat Ali, a Pakistani trans activist and executive director of Track T, a trans rights organization. “Transphobia is increasing in other parts of Pakistan. The government is playing very smartly and being neutral as the current government is a right-wing conservative, and elections are about to come.”

The National Assembly in 2018 passed the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, which allows for a trans person to be legally recognized. The law also prohibits any discrimination and harassment based on gender identity.

While talking with the Blade, Ali said Pakistan’s trans community faces a dilemma because it feels as though the British colonial era has returned. She said things were moving in a good direction after 2018, but an anti-trans campaign has begun.

“After Khyber, I think, Punjab (a province in Pakistan) will be the next target,” said Ali.

Violence and attacks on the trans community have increased in Pakistan in recent years. 

Marvia Malik, the country’s first trans television anchor, in February was attacked outside her home in Lahore. 

She gave a statement to the police and later received threatening calls and messages from unknown numbers. A group of people shot at Malik while she was returning home from a pharmacy at night. She survived.

The Council of Islamic Ideology, a constitutional body that advises the Pakistani government and Parliament on Islamic issues, last year said the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2018 is not in accordance with the Shariah law. The council further stated many of its provisions are not consistent with Islamic ideology, and warned against it.

“I believe that everyone deserves to be respected and treated equally, regardless of their gender identity. Unfortunately, some people feel the need to discriminate against others based on who they are. It’s important for society to stand up against discrimination and promote acceptance and understanding of diverse identities. Everyone has the right to live their life without fear of persecution or discrimination,” said Anusha Tahir Butt, chair of Transgender Empowerment Organization in Pakistan. “It’s possible that this ban could lead to increased violence or discrimination against transgender individuals not only in Khyber province but also in other parts of Pakistan. People need to speak out against this kind of discrimination and work together to create a more accepting and inclusive society. Governments and institutions need to take a stand against discrimination and protect the rights of all individuals, regardless of their gender identity. Education and awareness-raising can also play a role in promoting acceptance and understanding of diverse identities.”

Butt also said it’s unfortunate that discrimination against trans people continues to take place in Pakistan, despite the country’s nondiscrimination laws. While talking with the Blade, she suggested leaders and politicians need to speak out against such discrimination and work to create a more inclusive society. Butt also said silence on this issue can be seen as condoning discrimination and that is not acceptable.

“This is such an alarming situation for the transgender community because the transgender community is already facing threats in society. In recent times, there was objection over the Trans bill (the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2018) — a bill, which was giving fundamental rights to the community. Now, such a threat to the transgender community will only get worse, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is the province where we receive news regarding violence in the community,” said Veengas Yasmeen, founder editor and a journalist of Rise News, a digital news organization in Pakistan.

“In the province, clerics are in the habit of issuing fatwas in 2021 and 2022 where they barred women from going to the market, women should be accompanied by a male companion,” added Yasmeen. “I believe that this is not limited to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa against the trans community, but it may lead to other provinces. If conservatives bar transgender persons from joining events, then how can they survive because the government does not offer them sufficient jobs? Unfortunately, the Pakistan state is as silent as a grave over the issue, which is also strengthening mullahs. If someone is thinking that such a ban is only on the transgender community, they should not forget that conservatives, one day, will move toward you and issue the fatwa against you. I wonder, in the 21st century, some people are afraid of music and dance, both are a form of peace and love. If you are removing peace and love from your society, you are creating a society without souls.”

Pakistan’s religious court in May struck down key parts of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2018. The court had said many of its provisions are against Islamic ideology.

“This is indeed sad and distressing on so many levels. The reversal of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act of 2018 has exposed Pakistan’s transgender population, especially transgender women, to increased violence and discrimination,” said Rikki Nathanson, senior advisor for OutRight International’s Global Trans Program. “We recognize that cultures and societies have varying beliefs and practices. In this case, the ban imposed by the clerics reflects their interpretation of religious or cultural norms. It is distressing to learn about the growing violence experienced by transgender individuals in Pakistan, particularly after the recent repeal of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act of 2018.” 

“Our partners in Pakistan have informed us about the heightened vulnerability this community faces in other areas, as these attacks have transitioned from virtual to physical acts of violence, some even resulting in fatalities,” she added. “The severity of these threats has escalated to such an extent that several notable transgender activists have been forced to leave Pakistan and seek asylum elsewhere.”

Nathanson added this trend “is concerning and deserves attention.”

“These issues must be addressed to stop the cycle of marginalization that is affecting not only the mental health but overall well-being and safety of the transgender community of Pakistan,” she said.

Ankush Kumar is a freelance reporter who has covered many stories for Washington and Los Angeles Blades from Iran, India and Singapore. He recently reported for the Daily Beast. He can be reached at mohitk@opiniondaily.news. He is on Twitter at @mohitkopinion

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Bisexual YouTuber challenges fellow South Koreans

Anti-gay protesters confronted Kelsey the Korean at Seoul Pride festival

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(Photo courtesy of Kelsey the Korean's Instagram page)

Kelsey the Korean is a bisexual YouTuber best known for her refreshing directness and crazy life stories. Made obvious by her username, she is a Korean named Kelsey making videos in English about South Korea, LGBTQ issues, sex, mental health, her family feuds and more, with the aim of fostering a no-bullshit insight into South Korean society. 

You’d never guess by watching Kelsey’s videos about her colorful sex life or uncensored stories about her over-bearing “tiger mom,” but Kelsey is actually an introvert. 

“A lot of people assume that I’m extraverted but it’s like, uhh … I’m not. In reality it’s one of the best jobs [YouTuber] for an introvert ‘cause you don’t have any co-workers basically, and you can just talk to a camera,” she said. “People sort of get scared when they meet me in person — or startled — because they’re like, “You’re so quiet, are you mad?’”

As an open bisexual woman in a conservative country, Kelsey is brave. 

“It’s harder than North America in general, it depends on which district obviously [of America] because I’ve heard even in America there are some places where it’s as conservative as Korea, so I don’t want to make it like a dichotomy where the West is so ‘open’ and Korea is ‘not,’” she said. “In Korea it’s definitely harder to find people in my generation [25- to 30-years old] that are open — which is a little bit shocking to me — but it’s easier in other ways because Korean people are not very outspoken.”

A 2021 survey showed that 26.5 percent of South Koreans would accept an LGBTQ neighbor, 13.8 percent would accept an LGBTQ co-worker and 5.3 percent would accept an LGBTQ best friend.  

(Photo courtesy of Kelsey the Korean’s Instagram page)

Kelsey is not a complete stranger to anti-LGBTQ hate. 

In one of her YouTube videos she visited gay Pride in Seoul which was met with homophobic protestors. 

“Last year was really shocking because there were so many Christian protestors who were really mad, and the shocking thing was they even brought their children, who were like 5 or 7 and made them hold ‘gay people have AIDS’ [signs],” she said.

Seoul’s Queer Culture Festival (gay Pride) hit a wall this year when it was denied a permit by the Seoul Metropolitan Government, despite holding the festival in Seoul Plaza for many years. The Seoul Metropolitan Government’s reasoning was that another group had requested access to Seoul Plaza on July 1 so the government gave the other — a Christian youth concert — priority. Despite this setback, Seoul’s Queer Culture Festival organizers didn’t let this stop them celebrating pride at an alternative space. 

(Photo courtesy of Kelsey the Korean’s Instagram page)

South Korea has rapidly progressed since the Korean War and society is more open-minded and accepting but society is still not open enough to accept openly LGBTQ people. How does Kelsey feel about the future of LGBTQ rights in Korea? 

“Oh God, I’ve only been following gay rights in Korea for five years,” she said. “It’s not good because since the Yoon administration, they’re making it harder definitely.”

Yoon Suk-Yeol is the current politically conservative president of South Korea.  

(Photo courtesy of Kelsey the Korean’s Instagram page)

“As for the future of LGBTQ rights in Korea, I don’t know. It could go either way in my opinion. Even in the youth I don’t see that much change, but our youth percentage is declining, so there’s gonna be more boomers as time goes on and they’re not gonna be open. They’re gonna be really boomer,” she said.

Although Kelsey wants more LGBTQ acceptance in Korea, education on transgender identity in a Vancouver school was a step too far for her. 

“With LGBTQ rights, Korea is very conservative but I was really taken aback by how far the west seems to have taken it because when I was in Vancouver six months ago I became friends with this 8-year-old boy and he was in elementary school. He said that in Vancouver it was very left politically and in his public elementary school during sex-ed they taught his class that there [are] infinite genders. Then a trans person came in and just talked about his life trauma — I guess — and how they wanted to be called ‘they.’” she said. “I [was] so shocked to hear that because, personally — maybe I’ll change my mind and be so shocked at how conservative I am reading back to this article in 10 years — but right now that is too far for me. I don’t want it to be in public education [that] you can be trans or you can be gay when you’re 8- [years old].”   

Kelsey wants to uplift other LGBTQ viewers who watch her YouTube channel. Her words of advice? 

“First of all be patient because people like me who are Gen-Z and multicultural pick the best country they’ve been in — in regards to how it benefits them — and they’re like ‘Why isn’t my country, right now, not fitting that standard?’” she said. 

Kelsey calls herself a multicultural Korean because she lived in Australia and Canada. 

“It’s gonna take a long time for Korea to change,” she said. “The conclusion I came to is that I’ll just do whatever I can, but I can’t be overwhelmed or too stressed.”

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