‘Us’ and ‘them’ in a ruthless society

The National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) recently staged a music concert — with a difference. There were 10 artistes on the stage. Some of them carried unusual musical instruments and drums. They were dressed in the traditional costumes of their locale.

Nothing strange, except that the main conductor of the concert was India’s leading Carnatic musician, who sat cross-legged in their midst to lend his own vibrant voice to sing duets with them and produce a beautiful symphony of sound and rhythm.

Hosted as a rendering of “different cultures,” this presentation of TM Krishna with the Jogappas was not just an evening of entertainment. Bringing a much-maligned section of society into the mainstream and sharing a reputed space with them in an institution of eminence was a bold public statement of social inclusiveness by the Magsaysay award winner.

The Jogappas are a transgender community from Karnataka who are fighting stigma and discrimination in a society that does not accept what is “different.”

Transgender persons are not exclusively masculine or feminine. Unfortunately, their gender non-conformity has led to them being labelled as mentally sick persons.

Not just in this country but the world over. They have suffered social ostracism, invited ridicule and even been driven to mental illness as a result.

WHO ruling

In this context, the latest ruling by the World Health Organisation (WHO) that gender non-conformity should no longer be viewed as a mental disorder will benefit transgender persons across the world. New diagnostic guidelines have also been approved by its governing body representing 134 member-states.

Many progressive countries have been guilty of diagnosing transgender persons as mentally sick patients and even recommending hospitalisation. In India, parents are known to disown their transgender children. Such discriminatory attitudes, added to the social stigma attached to gender variations, has driven transgender persons to insanity and even suicide.

The medical profession is no less guilty in this regard. But that is because gender differences have always been listed as “mental disorders”, which medical professionals all over the world followed.

The stigma and discrimination (unfair in any case) were partly due to the categorisation of gender variations as psychiatric problems. As a result of this wrong tag, doctors referred them to mental asylums for treatment.

The revised WHO guidelines have not come a day too soon. It is a landmark ruling for the transgender population which will be able to seek medical care hereafter without being viewed as “mentally disordered.”

It is now up to governments to reform their medical systems and their outdated diagnosis. Doctors, too, should welcome the change, which will make it easier for them to convince such patients that they are not mentally ill.

It is hoped that these reforms will remove the harmful myth surrounding sexual variations. They will liberate people whose only sin is to be different in a ruthless society that makes no allowances for those who do not conform.

Societal acceptance

The climate in our own country makes it more difficult for non-conformists to thrive. There is zero tolerance for anything or anyone who dares to be different. Whether it is in the way you dress, behave or live, the majority dictates the “correct” norms.

When even trivial differences in dress, behaviour or lifestyle are not tolerated, one can imagine the social ostracism meted out to persons with a different sexual orientation. They are condemned as “unnatural” and fit to be shunned.

The Supreme Court may have passed a supportive judgment for India’s transgender community to give them a legal identity by recognising them as a “third gender.” But it is only when society accepts them as such that their battle will be won.

India is still a harsh place for such individuals to live peacefully. We may not burn them at the stake or pillory them to death, like Joan of Arc and other martyrs were. But we shun them and cast them out of our polite circles. Or worse, pity them.

In a land of timeless epics which celebrated sexual and other variations in men and women, and even made heroes out of them, such intolerance and bigotry seem out of place.

Did not Bhishma’s nemesis come in the form of a transgender in the Mahabharata? Arjuna adopted the role of Brihannala, a transgender, during his 13-year exile.

When wise sages like Vyasa accepted them as “normal,” why do we who swear by the Hindu dharma treat them with contempt?

In this stifling, hypocritical environment, a lone musician’s brave attempt to defy society by sharing a public platform with the Jogappas sends a strong message to all that “they” too are one of “us.”

That they don’t need your condescending pity but deserve your respect. It is a message of inclusiveness that should work better than any legal reform.

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