THEY ARE WILLING, BUT THE CITY ISN’T
40,000+ transgender community in the state are waiting for an opportunity to work, without fear of being chastised, in the mainstream. Some have ventured in from the fringes. How has the city treated those who made the journey?
Twenty-five-year-old Rakshitha has attended 32 job interviews in the last two-and-a-half years. She usually leaves the interview room with “We’ll get back to you”, “We have to consult higher authorities” and such ringing in her ears. But she doesn’t get her hopes up, already knowing the outcome. None of these MNCs, international hotels or NGOs where she has interviewed will get back to her. It’s not her educational qualification or experience that’s the issue. It’s the fact that Rakshitha is a transgender.
Rakshitha, who has completed her Bachelor of Arts in Sociology, Economics and Political Science has given interviews for several posts — receptionist, personal assistant, data entry — over the years. Even as there is much talk about an inclusive work environment for the third gender, the 40,000+ group in Karnataka is not only grappling with a lack of opportunities but also the insensitive attitude of employers. According to Akkai Padmashali, founder member Ondede, an organisation working for children, women and sexual minorities for dignity-voice-sexuality, the root cause of the issue is a phobia towards sexual minorities.
Rakshitha agrees. In 2011, after much struggle, she got a job at a KSRTC booking counter in Basaveshwaranagar through a referral. But the job didn’t last long thanks to “customers who complained that they weren’t comfortable interacting with me” and advised the owner that their business was suffering because he had a transgender on board. “How are we supposed to lead our lives? We also have to pay bills. The rent for my room itself is Rs 5,000. If I don’t pay it on time, I will be asked to vacate it. At the KSRTC ticketing job, I was told I was causing trouble to customers. Instead, I should have been the one feeling bad—with their hurtful comments and sniggering. People were always complaining to the owner that they were uncomfortable with me. But I just chose to ignore them,” she says.
Lack of jobs
The transgender community’s biggest issue is that the jobs simply don’t exist. This, even though they are ready to grab any opportunity that comes their way. Often, being ostracised can have near-tragic consequences. Like in the case of Viji (35), who hasn’t been trained in a particular skill set. After her family shunned her and her stint in a small-time phenyl delivery business 20 years ago didn’t work, Viji attempted suicide not once, but thrice. Today, she is not doing anything. “When we go for our collection, shopkeepers say we should work. When we turn around and ask them for a job, there’s silence. There are so many things that make our lives painful and unemployment adds to it,” she says.
Rakshitha, who has a part-time job as a volunteer at Ondede, admits that she is staying on only because she hasn’t been given the opportunity to work in the mainstream. “Most interviewers call us for job interviews out of sympathy,” she says. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they also ask appalling questions— “why and how did you become like this,” Rakshitha says.
At the interviews she has attended, she has even requested if she can work from home, which would “ease the discomfort” others feel in having a transgender as a colleague. “We are requesting opportunities,” she says, recalling an instance when she was turned down at an English tutorial class in Basaveshwaranagar, where she had wanted to take up classes.
Even as it means skipping breakfast and lunch on most days, she refuses to resort to sex work or begging. “I’m depending on others in the community to help me pay for my room in Yeshwantpur. People just throw money at our faces. It’s so shameful,” she says. As she literally begs for opportunities, Rakshitha has realised over the years that she is in the midst of a hypocritical society. “People are turncoats. They say something and do another,” she says.
The landmark decision to appoint a transgender, Anu C in the High Court of Karnataka in 2012, Padmashali says, has “slightly” changed the attitude towards the community. But she points to another problem, which has been on the rise—a discrimination within the community itself. “While those who speak English have better chances, the non-English speaking are fighting two battles. How are we going to fight that now?” she wonders.
Which is why, Sunita (name changed on request) has taken up a journalism course in a city college. That is a landmark choice in itself. “We’re labelled thieves or sex workers, which is why we are barred from the mainstream. But we also have the desire to lead a regular life—study, work and settle down with a family. Instead we’re considered unworthy, incapable of doing anything,” she says.
Worse still, she feels that they are not even given an opportunity. “Now once I finish my course, I have to be prepared with a Plan B in case I don’t get a job in the mainstream. In that case, I have to look at options such as starting a newsletter or doing something on my own,” says the 27-year-old.
But at least this would be better than the sex work that she had to resort to, to sustain herself a couple of years ago. “There was a time when I’ve offered myself for Rs 10 just so that I could drink a cup of tea. On good days I’d make Rs 300 while at other times it would be Rs 30. But there were times that I needed the money, and no one would give me a job. How are we supposed to fill our stomachs?” she asks.
Some like Priya (34), who now runs a one-room salon on Tumkur Road choose to work on their own. After struggling with a job in the garment sector for 11 years, where people used to laugh at her, she decided to put her beauty skills, which she had picked up during a three-month course, to use. “I always had to sit with the elderly at the garment factory who were more understanding, because the younger lot would make fun of me,” she says. But when Priya decided to open a beauty parlour four years ago, things were not easy, whether it was finding a place to live or equipping her salon.The toughest part was convincing customers to make use of beauty services—threading, waxing, pedicure, haircut, mehendi application, bleach etc. “Even now, there are times when clients walk in and then say they’d rather go somewhere else as soon as they see me. It does hurt, but I’ve let it pass,” she says.
Priya, who makes anywhere between Rs 5,000 and Rs 8,000 in a month, reconciles that being avoided by customers is a small price she has to pay in comparison with begging in public or being tortured by the police and the public. “Now, I go for stitching lessons thrice a week during the lunch break. That way I can add to the income,” she says.
Similarly, it’s been a long battle for Sunita, who ran away from home after not being accepted by her family. Teasing, cruel remarks, and isolation by lecturers and classmates led her to quit her BBM course at United Mission College, after which she started living with the community in 2008.
In 2012, she finally got a job as a programme associate with a tourism company. Her family, after seeing a report in the media, reconnected with her. “Someone had told them that I was involved in sex work. They were disgusted and had distanced themselves from me,” she says. By then, through a saving of Rs 50,000 collected from work over time (and another Rs 50,000 that she borrowed), Sunita had undergone a Sex Reassignment Surgery and had had breast implants. “The first time my mother saw me, she refused to believe that it was me. She started crying and it took time for her to believe that I was now a woman,” she says.
In Christmas 2013, Sunita’s mother called her home. But, she was asked to come in a burqa, out of fear of what the neighbours might say. “I was introduced as a friend. And every time I visited, I was expected to wear a burqa,” she says. It was only a year later that her mother stopped worrying about what people might say. “Every step in our life is a struggle. When we go to the police station, cases are not registered, when it comes to employment we’re not counted.No one bothers about us,” Sunita says. She’s enrolled herself at an evening college, and holds a job between 9 am and 4 pm. “Not just the money, I know the difficulty in getting a job. I’ve been rejected so many times,” she says. Padmashali feels that several from the transgender community could benefit from vacancies in the government sector which remain unfilled. “There’s a lot of talk, but that doesn’t translate into action,” she rues. Equality and diversity mean little to this group, who has experienced workplace discrimination.