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Isolation and hopes of India's transgender people

People on the margins of society are keen to have an education and a decent job

George Kannanthanam, Bangalore

George Kannanthanam, Bangalore

Published: December 24, 2020 05:44 AM GMT

Updated: December 24, 2020 07:07 AM GMT

 Isolation and hopes of India's transgender people

Most of Bangalore's transgenders become beggars or sex workers. (Photo: YouTube)

Last Saturday, I rushed out of a Christmas program for the differently-abled people at the Bangalore Archbishop's house around 5 pm. Vinod's seven missed calls alerted me about my commitment to join him on a carol program.

I had tried to wriggle out of the carol programs, citing my other commitments. I had stopped going for carols in 2001 when I was a parish priest. But Vinod insisted that I join because it was a special carol program with a special group. But, of course, he kept it a secret as to what was special about it.

By 7 pm, I was right in the middle of Yeswanthpur Market, the largest in Bangalore. Vinod led me to a rather large room that had hardly any light. Sitting around were women in all colors and looks. I immediately recognized they were all transgender people. It was a brothel. I was shocked.

I have been in Bangalore for 40 years and had never seen one. Vinod introduced me to them. "This is Father George. He was the one who provided the food kits, which I gave you twice during the Covid lockdown."

I could see their faces brightening up, and soon there was a connection. They came over to thank me. Some of them fell at my feet. I could see the gratitude in their eyes. One of them said: "But for those provisions, we don't know how we would have survived. Three months we struggled without any customers."

There were 15 of them. They lived in three houses around the area and they were gathered in one place for the program. Each house had five members called "Chelas" (disciples) and living with a "Guru."

The Guru considers the Chelas as daughters. There is an obvious hierarchy in the Hijra community and no one revolts against it. Most of them were in their 20s, looking beautiful in their make-up for the night. Some of the younger ones hang around their house to lure customers.

Soon, the Good Quest Foundation volunteers, a group of young professionals who formed themselves as a society three years ago, started with the carols. Every one of the inmates clapped and joined the songs, sung in Kannada, Tamil, or English, in the language of their choice. Food packets with a burger sponsored by McDonald's and sweets were shared among them, which they received with a smile.

As we were about to leave, they wanted us to pray for them. Vinod asked them what they would like to be prayed for. Most said for acceptance from their families. Most were thrown out of their houses and even after many years their families don't accept them. This is the hardest part of their life, missing their loved ones forever. We could see some of them wiping their tears as we prayed for a family reunion.

Boys and girls in teens, when they feel they belong to the opposite sex, try to express it in their behavior and dress. This becomes unacceptable to the parents, who eventually drive them out of their houses or they leave of their own accord, unable to cope with the family pressure and social reactions. In cities, they find their peer groups who lead them to a sex change operation, which costs about 200,000 rupees (US$2,720). They have only two options to live: either beg, which 80 percent of them choose, or be a sex worker.

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As we left, each one of them came forward to wish us happy Christmas. Some of them said, "Praise the Lord." They could not hide their Christian identity. Some of them kneeled to ask for special blessings. There was a picture of Jesus on the wall, with many other gods. The Hijra community is open to worshiping all three major religions--Hindu, Muslim and Christian.

As we moved out, customers were waiting outside to sneak in. They had grown restless at our presence inside for quite some time. Masks provided them a good means to hide their identities. We had kept the Santa cap to express our identity too clearly.

We moved on in about 30 minutes. We proceeded on the Mumbai highway towards Dabbaspet. We continued to visit another 11 brothels on both sides of the road until about 1 am. Of course, being on the national highway, the night was still early for them.

In every place, they waited for us, which is rare in a setting like this. This was possible only because of Rakshitha (who did not want her name changed), who was part of the transgender community.

Rakshitha is one of those rare members from this community who completed her graduation and is now working for a multinational company, coordinating the affairs of her company in 12 Asian countries. That has made her also acceptable to her family, who allowed her to come back live with her parents. She was our guide for the program.

Rakshitha knew each of these places. Most of them are small shed-like buildings on the roadside. There was not even one decent house. Most of them said that financial difficulties and loans were a major challenge for them. Many asked us to pray for better business when we asked for their prayer request, a prayer we found difficult to make. Of course, we were accustomed only to the prayer of the good people.

Rakshitha had informed them about our coming. Of course, in some places, we had to wait for the customers to leave. Rakshitha would go first to the houses and speak to them and find out if it was a good time to come and if they were comfortable with our visit. Only after Rakshitha signals from the house we will get out of the car. Not even in one place were we refused entry.

In some places, the Guru stood outside the closed door within the house as there were customers inside. According to Rakshitha, each customer pays about 200 rupees and each deals with about two to three customers a day. The amount is divided among all the members. Part of the income is also paid to the Guru for her protection.

Most of the houses had about half a dozen members. There were two houses with about 10 members. Some of them wanted to show us their dancing skills. Some were so excited to take a photo with our guitar. They were delighted to pose for photos with us.

The Gurus were quite concerned about the young Chelas. They asked if we could help them get educated. Some who had completed their higher secondary school wanted to get a job. Good Quest was already working with some of these groups to engage them with income generation programs. We promised to get back to discuss the details. This was not to be just a carol program once a year. We should have the good news of an alternative lifestyle to offer them. Vinod discussed the possibilities of tying up with my organization, The Project Vision, on taking this forward.

I have spent the last 34 years of my life with alcoholics, prisoners, those affected by leprosy, HIV, disabilities and disasters. Maybe God is calling me to my next mission with another group on the peripheries. I have been traveling on this route for the last five years to my rural campus near Gauribidanur, where I live and work with visually challenged people. I have traveled hundreds of times on this road but never realized such a group existed and longed for a new life. This carol event was special. It opened my eyes. As one of the volunteers remarked: "This is the best carol program in my life."

Driving back to my house around 2 am, the words of Pope Francis came whispering. "Fleeing, refusing to share, locking ourselves in comfort are nothing less than slow suicide." (Evangelium Gaudium 272). And I shuddered.

We covered just a few among the 12,000 transgender people in the city, while there are about 40,000 across Karnataka. Every road has several houses like this.

Transgender people are just one of those unwanted groups in our cities. There are many more such groups –- colonies where those affected by leprosy or HIV/AIDS and refugees live. No carols reach them. Our parishes and institutions are happy singing for their sheep. Jesus' lost sheep are still lost. Jesus would be heartbroken.

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