India’s Supreme Court for the first time recognized a third gender Tuesday in a judgment aimed at giving transgender Indians their own legal status and better legal protection and privileges.
The Wall Street Journal reports that: “A two-judge bench ruled that transgender people will now have the option to identify themselves as a third gender—instead of just male or female—in government documents, including passports and identification cards.The Supreme Court said discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation violates constitutional guarantees of equality, privacy and dignity.
“This is an extremely liberal and progressive decision that takes into consideration the ground realities for transgender people in India,” said Anitha Shenoy, a lawyer who helped argue the case. “The court says your identity will be based not on your biology but on what you choose to be.”India is the latest of several South Asian countries to recognize a third gender. Neighboring Nepal has added a third gender option to government documents, as have Pakistan and Bangladesh. Germany became the first European country to recognize a third gender last year, allowing parents to mark “indeterminate” on birth certificates.India’s top court Tuesday also directed the federal and state governments to include transgender people as members of the country’s “backward classes,” an official designation, often based on caste, which entitles socially and economically disadvantaged groups to affirmative action in school admissions and state employment.The decision is revolutionary, some activists said, especially for a court that just last December reaffirmed a colonial-era law criminalizing homosexuality.In that ruling, the court upheld Section 377 of the Indian penal code, which makes consensual gay sex punishable by a prison term of up to 10 years.Tuesday’s judgment pointed to the country’s history of discrimination against transgender people. India’s roughly three million transgender people are particularly vulnerable to public harassment, violence and sexual assault, the court said.India has a vast and varied transgender community. Perhaps most prominent are the hijras, typically male to female transgender people who often live in close-knit groups and whose members are sometimes castrated.Hijras have had a place in Indian society for centuries, and their presence at a wedding or after the birth of a child is considered auspicious. Still, they remain deeply marginalized. In recognition of this deep-seated stigma, the court directed federal and state governments to address the “fear, shame, gender dysphoria, social pressure” and depression that afflict India’s transgender community. It also said transgender people should have access to separate public toilet facilities.”