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Transgender Persons Face Workplace Harassment

Transgender Persons Share Harrowing Workplace Harassment Experiences, Laws Effective Only On Paper.

By Kritika Kalra and Nihal Kumar
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Transgender Persons
A transgender person | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

In a move that has caught the attention of the legal community and the public alike, Padma Lakshmi, Kerala's first trans lawyer, has taken a stand against discrimination and transphobia within the very halls of justice she sought to uphold. She recently wrote a letter to Kerala’s law minister, and brought to light the disturbing experiences of transphobic abuse and gender-based isolation she has endured at the hands of senior lawyers, including two government pleaders inside the courtroom.

Lakshmi's disturbing experiences are far from isolated incidents. Numerous trans persons employed across various sectors have voiced similar concerns, highlighting a pervasive issue of deep-rooted workplace harassment and discrimination. Alarmingly, this mistreatment is not limited to interactions with colleagues but is also perpetrated by employers themselves, painting a troubling picture of the challenges faced by the trans community in professional environments.

Read More: How Does India Treat Members Of LGBTQIA Community?

"Facing transphobic slurs and being isolated by my peers was a shock to my belief in the justice system," Lakshmi shares, highlighting the verbal abuse from senior lawyers that marred her professional journey.

In a personal account to The Probe, Lakshmi shares the depth of her struggle, one that began long before her legal career. "Being bullied and stalked has been a part of my life since childhood," she states. "However, facing such harassment within the confines of a courtroom, a space that is supposed to symbolise justice and equality, was both new and deeply disturbing." Her ordeal is not just confined to interactions with fellow lawyers but extends to encounters with government officials as well.

Padma Lakshmi
Padma Lakshmi, Kerala's first trans lawyer | Photo courtesy: Social media 

"I was shocked at the level of workplace harassment that I faced, and that too inside the courtroom," she expresses in disbelief. Her journey to becoming a lawyer, driven by a desire to escape the bullying as a child and focus on her passion for reading and law, seems to have circled back to a familiar pattern of discrimination, but this time in a professional setting.

Padma Lakshmi Highlights Flaws In Law That Protects Trans Persons 

In a critical examination of the legal framework governing the rights of trans persons in India, Lakshmi sheds light on the significant shortcomings of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act of 2019. Despite the Act's intentions to safeguard the trans community, its effectiveness is being questioned due to what Lakshmi identifies as lenient punishments and bailable offences.

Under Section 18(d) of the Act, any individual causing harm or endangering the safety, health, or well-being of a trans person is liable for imprisonment ranging from six months to two years, along with a fine. Lakshmi, however, argues that this is insufficient. "The main problem lies in the leniency of the punishment for such gross harassment or abuse, be it physical, sexual, or mental. It's a bailable offence in India, and that's a major issue," she asserts.

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"The accused have no fear of the law as it stands. We need stronger deterrence. These offences should be made non-bailable," she urges. Her criticism extends beyond just the penalties; it touches upon the inherent discrimination in the legal system. "There's so much discrimination even in law. People think this world is only for binary individuals. The Indian Penal Code (IPC) doesn't have a single word about trans individuals. It's like an entire gender is being removed from the legal books," she laments. 

Challenges Faced By Trans Persons In Legal Profession

Despite the introduction of Rule 11 in the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Rules 2020, which mandates the establishment of a Transgender Protection Cell in each district and a state-level cell, the reality on the ground remains starkly different.

Ankan Biswas, West Bengal's first trans advocate in the Legal Services Authority and a practitioner at the Calcutta High Court, has drawn attention to the disturbing prevalence of workplace harassment. Recounting personal experiences, Biswas says, "When I began practising in 2013, the level of harassment I faced in the lower court was alarming. I was subjected to inappropriate questions about my personal life, and the way people looked at me in social gatherings was very odd. This isn't just my problem; it's a common issue many of us face."

Ankan Biswas, West Bengal's first transgender advocate in the Legal Services Authority
Ankan Biswas, West Bengal's first trans advocate in the Legal Services Authority | Photo courtesy: Ankan Biswas | X

Highlighting the gap between legal provisions and their practical implementation, Biswas continues, "The law talks about grievance redressal mechanisms, but they exist only on paper. Many establishments haven't set them up." Illustrating this point, Biswas shares an incident involving a junior colleague at the Bar Council of West Bengal. "When this colleague of mine requested to have his name changed to reflect his present gender identity, the council refused. This is blatant discrimination. The Supreme Court has clearly stated that individuals have the right to acquire their name and gender as per their choice. Yet, when a statutory body like the Bar Council fails to uphold this, it reflects the extent of the problem."

Breaking Barriers, Confronting Challenges: Dr. VS Priya, Kerala's First Trans Ayurvedic Doctor 

To get a perspective on the extent of discrimination, we spoke with Dr. VS Priya, Kerala's first trans Ayurvedic doctor. Born Jinu Sasidharan in Thrissur, Kerala, Dr. Priya recognised her true gender identity early in life but faced considerable mockery and discrimination, leading her to a decision for a gender reassignment surgery. 

Reflecting on her experiences, Dr. Priya shares, “Transitioning came with its own set of challenges. I can't have a child, but I'm comfortable in my skin. Trans persons face challenges from birth, primarily due to a lack of sex education and gender sensitisation in our country. This discrimination extends into various facets of our lives, including the workplace. We're a vulnerable group, often subjected to grievance and neglect due to our minority status. Our big problems frequently go unaddressed. Empowerment is the only way forward for us.”

Dr. VS Priya, Kerala's first transgender Ayurvedic doctor
Dr VS Priya, Kerala's first trans Ayurvedic doctor | Photo courtesy: Dr VS Priya | Instagram

Further discussing the plight of the trans community, Dr. Priya emphasises the gap between legal provisions and their practical application. "Being a trans person, I understand the hardships my community faces. There are laws intended to support us, but they often remain unimplemented," she states. 

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Trans Teacher Jane Kaushik's Battle Against Workplace Discrimination

Jane Kaushik, a trans woman and a teacher also shared her distressing experience of being allegedly forced to resign from a private school in Uttar Pradesh. Jane alleges that her termination was solely based on her gender. Contrary to her claims, the school cites "incompetence" as the reason for her dismissal.

Jane recounts the conditions of her employment, "I was given a job offer with the stipulation that I not reveal my gender identity to staff members and students. When the principal learned that some students had discovered my identity, I was immediately asked to resign." She questions the school's rationale, "They later claimed it was due to my incompetence. But why was I selected in the first place if I was deemed incompetent?"

Jane’s story sheds light on a broader issue faced by trans individuals in securing employment. "We struggle for basic rights like education and employment. Employers are often unwilling to hire trans persons," Jane states. Despite her qualifications, she faced repeated rejections. "Even schools that initially selected me based on merit would deselect me upon learning of my trans identity."

Jane's journey to employment has been fraught with challenges, "Finally, I found a job. But in the past, I've been asked to conceal my gender identity. When we aren't hired, where do we go? I've seen well-educated trans individuals resort to menial jobs or even sex work due to the lack of gender awareness and sensitization programs in our country."

The issue extends to the job application process itself. Trans individuals, despite having a Trans Identity Certificate, often face the dilemma of identifying themselves as male or female, as many job applications lack a third gender option. This leads to their identity being revealed in their resumes, often resulting in them waiting in vain for an interview call.

Despite legal frameworks intended to protect the rights of trans persons, the reality of everyday discrimination and harassment persists, largely unmitigated by governmental action. The Indian system, though progressive on paper, lacks in tangible execution. The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act of 2019, while a landmark legislation, falls short in its enforcement. Trans individuals continue to navigate a labyrinth of societal prejudice and institutional apathy. The workplace, a sphere where one seeks professional growth and financial stability, often becomes a battleground for basic dignity and acceptance for them.

This discrimination isn't limited to overt acts of hostility or exclusion. It is also evident in subtler forms such as biases in hiring processes, lack of supportive workplace policies, and the absence of gender-inclusive facilities. The mandated grievance redressal mechanisms and protection cells are more often than not, non-functional or non-existent. The result is a silent, continuous erosion of the trans individual’s right to a safe and equitable work environment.

Jane Kaushik, a trans woman and teacher from DelhiJane Kaushik, a trans woman and a teacher from Delhi | Photo courtesy: Jane Kaushik

The government's role in this scenario is pivotal yet remains largely passive. The absence of comprehensive anti-discrimination laws that explicitly include gender identity allows for loopholes and legal grey areas. Moreover, the lack of government-led sensitization programs for employers and employees perpetuates ignorance and prejudice.

To address the persistent issue of workplace harassment, Jane emphasises the importance of increased visibility and representation of trans individuals in various professional settings. "Integrating more trans persons into workplaces can foster a culture of understanding and acceptance," she elaborates. Jane believes that this enhanced presence can break down prejudices and stereotypes, allowing colleagues to see beyond gender identities to the shared human experience. "It's through regular interactions and shared work experiences that barriers are broken, and empathy is built," she adds, underlining the transformative power of inclusion in changing perceptions and attitudes in the workplace. 

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