India’s Supreme Court has recognised transgender people as a third gender, in a landmark ruling.
"It is the right of every human being to choose their gender," it said in granting rights to those who identify themselves as neither male nor female. It ordered the government to provide transgender people with quotas in jobs and education in line with other minorities, as well as key amenities.
According to one estimate, India has about two million transgender people.
Campaigners say they live on the fringes of society, often in poverty, ostracised because of their gender identity. Most make a living by singing and dancing or by begging and prostitution. Rights groups say they often face huge discrimination and that sometimes hospitals refuse to admit them.
They have been forced to choose either male or female as their gender in most public spheres.
"Recognition of transgenders as a third gender is not a social or medical issue but a human rights issue," Justice KS Radhakrishnan, who headed the two-judge Supreme Court bench, said in his ruling on Tuesday.
In 2009, India’s Election Commission took a first step by allowing transgenders to choose their gender as “other” on ballot forms.
But India is not the first country to recognise a third gender. Nepal recognised a third gender as early as in 2007 when the Supreme Court ordered the government to scrap all laws that discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. And last year, Bangladesh also recognised a third gender.
Tuesday’s ruling comes after the Supreme Court’s decision in December which criminalised gay sex by reversing a landmark 2009 Delhi High Court order which had decriminalised homosexual acts.
According to a 153-year-old colonial-era law - Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code - a same-sex relationship is an “unnatural offence” and punishable by a 10-year jail term.
Legal experts say Tuesday’s judgement puts transgender people in a strange situation: on the one hand, they are now legally recognised and protected under the Constitution, but on the other hand they may be breaking the law if they have consensual gay sex. (x)