The Queer Question in Delhi’s Public Transport
Why should we be forced into your binary?
NEW DELHI: The state government’s proposal to make rides in public transport free for women has already sparked controversy. Over the past week, the AAP government’s proposition has been welcomed as well condemned by parties and people. According to Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, free rides for women will ensure their safety and access to public transport, dissuading them from using perilous alternatives like shared rides or hitchhiking.
Despite some support from the public, there are certain apprehensions about the move: the revenue loss for the government, a possible deterioration in the quality of bus or metro services, and the absence of subsidies for others, such as low-income groups, senior citizens or students.
Amidst the criticism, the queer question has been left unraised. The government has yet to specify whether trans women, intersex or gender fluid people will be granted the concession. So the issue confronting the queer community is whether to conform to this particular binary, which is not typically their choice.
Such policies assume that everyone is either male or female, and enact the assumption. This becomes a problem for people who are not cisgender, or do not identify with their assigned or biological sex. Implementing such schemes pushes members of the queer community to the periphery, or force them to integrate into the mainstream of power, on power’s terms.
They are proof that even today queer individuals in India are perceived as a ‘minuscule minority’, to quote from the infamous judgment, that can be ignored or treated as inferior.
According to queer activist Alexander Balakrishnan, such legislation, while well intentioned, leaves out people who do not fit into the binary. Their bodies become policed. They are forced to place themselves within the binary just to fulfil a legal guideline, or to take advantage of a needed subsidy.
‘Even something as simple as a security check becomes a nightmare for queer people who do not fit into the binary, because they are forced to undergo a physical security check not on the basis of their preferred gender identity, but on the basis of their visible physical features, i.e. whether to the outside world they appear typically male or typically female,’ Balakrishnan told The Citizen.
He believes that as it stands, the policy will lead to further pressure on queer people to conform, and force themselves into the narrow hierarchy of ‘woman’ and ‘man’.
Trans rights activist Taksh Sharma supports the policy given ‘the wealth disparity between men and women’ but agrees that ‘there has been no cohesive attempt to define gender in the policy. How will the government define gender?’
Sharma also raised the important question of safety. ‘How does the government plan to ensure their safety in the metro and in buses?’ She has concerns over the risk of policing and harassment methods like proving your ‘identity’, verbal and physical abuse, and inappropriate touching during the security check.
Sharma observed how many people feel threatened or uncomfortable when their fellow passengers are trans men or women. ‘There have been times when my butch friends were judged by passengers on the basis of their physical appearance, and were policed by them into vacating the women’s coach.’
According to her the policy emphasises the safety of women but not of queer individuals. She strongly feels that the policy is discriminatory towards people who identify as women but are not biologically women. ‘I still don't know a viable alternative to this scheme, but there must a proper structure to such policies regarding these concerns before they are implemented,’ Sharma believes.
But trans woman activist Vqueeram Sahai expressed his agitation about associating a women’s issue with a trans issue. ‘It is a reservation for women which will guarantee them a safe space. Trans people will come up with new coping strategies like they always have, because they have not really been welcomed into the public domain, let alone in public transportation. We will get to know how strict the policy is once it is implemented.
‘For the Delhi Government to define who a “woman’ is will be a task. It will only increase the security and surveillance of women, which will lead to our neglect, because even women are uncomfortable sharing the same space as us.’
There is concern about the legal documentation trans women would require to take advantage of such concessions. ‘Their documents should reflect that they are female, which is a large bureaucratic gatekeeping procedure. The policy remains unclear for those who are legally “transgender”. And a lot of it will remain contingent on the passing privilege of a trans woman,’ Raabiya, a trans woman student, told The Citizen.
For queer activist Krishanu, it is the government’s fundamental duty to recognise queer individuals when framing such policies. ‘They haven’t revealed how they’ll go about it. I’m not sure about our trans and intersex women members – it may proceed to ignore the rest of us completely, or if it does recognise us, it would still be an obligation fulfilled by the government, nothing special or celebratory about it.’
‘I don't get it when people celebrate things like mere recognition of our identities and their “woke inclusivity”. This is very basic and is due from everyone to the queer community,’ Krishanu added.
The onus now lies with the Delhi government to make the most of this policy. Will it turn out to be more progressive, or just another policy that neglects queers?
Two years ago the government of Kerala hired 23 transgender persons as staff on the Kochi Metro, in a step that is often perceived as progressive. But soon after, 11 of of the employees quit their positions due to inadequate pay. Transgender or TG IDs were also introduced for Metro employees and passengers to facilitate their commute – but something as basic as sex and gender had not been clarified in the IDs, and were interchanged.
Policies such as the Delhi government has proposed are necessary steps towards gender mainstreaming. They can lead to a removal of social stigma and reduce the disparity between men and women fabricated by society. But their framers must put in the work to include statistical outcastes who have been shunned for too long. Equal integration must extend beyond the binary.