A few days ago, Ms. Maneka Gandhi, Union Minister for Women and Child Development, made a shocking statement in Parliament where she referred to transgender persons as ‘other ones’, and followed it up with a sniggering laugh which also led her fellow MPs to laugh and thump the tables. She has now provided an apology for using the term ‘other ones’, and claimed that she did not ‘snigger’ but was ’embarrassed at her own lack of knowledge’.
. @Manekagandhibjp We are #NotOtherOnes or your pets. We are equally human, equal citizens. APOLOGIZE to the entire transgender community NOW, for your extremely derogatory, insenstive reference and gesture. This does not behove a Cabinet Minister! Appalled, Anguished, Ashamed ! pic.twitter.com/v9uPwm8VEj
— Meera Sanghamitra (@meeracomposes) July 27, 2018
I sincerely apologise for using the term ‘other ones’ during the debate on the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018, in Lok Sabha. I did not ‘snigger’, I was embarrassed at my own lack of knowledge.
— Maneka Sanjay Gandhi (@Manekagandhibjp) July 30, 2018
Her initial statement and this inadequate apology have already received widespread criticism, the most prominent being from Meera Sanghamitra which already explain well enough why exactly it is so problematic that a prominent Union Minister still does not know how to refer to transgender persons. This post is an attempt to place Maneka Gandhi’s statement in the larger context of gender justice, and the turn it has taken under this government in particular.
First of all, a very simplistic view of ministerial responsibilities might suggest that ‘transgender rights’ is under the domain of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, which has already been heavily criticised for its bill on transgender rights replete with shocking absurdities. That does not absolve other ministers, especially not the Minister for Women and Child Development, from being sensitive to social justice and the power of their words and gestures.
Taking an expansive view of women’s rights, one must also acknowledge that almost all transgender persons, either due to being assigned female at birth or because of defying traditionally ‘male’ gender roles and/or living as women, face gender based violence in similar ways as cisgender women do. Moreover, many transgender persons start facing violence as children, either within their natal families or in schools and other environments which should ideally be safe spaces for them. Therefore, as Minister for Women and Child Development, concern for transgender rights and issues is very much her responsibility.
However, it is not surprising at all that such a shocking statement was made. After all, Maneka Gandhi has earlier been in the news for her shocking remarks about marital rape. Her government has also been complicit in their initial silence on the Kathua and Unnao rape cases, and as a response to the widespread outrage, bringing in a draconian ordinance providing for death penalty for those who rape children below 12 years of age, without considering its implications in a context where the overwhelming majority of child sexual abuse is committed by family members or acquaintances.
This government has repeatedly failed to take into account the concerns of different communities or activists who have worked on specific issues for decades, whether it is transgender rights or prevention of child sexual abuse or now this bill against trafficking. In this most recent case, the discussion that was happening in Parliament was already dismissive of sex workers’ rights.
This government has repeatedly failed to take into account the concerns of different communities or activists who have worked on specific issues for decades.
This ignorance or malfeasance, whatever it is, is not even unique to this government or political party. Just days after the shocking statement by Maneka Gandhi, Alka Lamba who is an AAP MLA made derogatory references to transgender persons on Twitter. Going back in the past (and one doesn’t need to go very far), if one were to start making a list of stupid things said by politicians about transgender persons or even queer persons in general, the list would include names from across the political spectrum even within the last 4-5 years.
In this context, Maneka Gandhi’s statement is nothing new, even if it is still highly problematic. What is heartening to see, though, is the concern not just among transgender persons and activists already engaged with their rights or queer rights in general, but even among allies at large who have expressed their shock and disgust at her remarks, and are making an attempt to educate themselves as well about the right terms to be used for transgender persons.
On that note, we thought it might be a good idea to look at the appropriate terminology while referring to transgender persons. First of all, it is important to understand that even ‘TGs’ which Maneka Gandhi hesitatingly used and has referred to in her apology, is not always an appropriate term. While it is true that many transgender persons themselves, especially in India from traditional and cultural transgender communities, may self-identify as ‘TG’ or ‘third gender’ and use the term ‘transgender’ as a noun to describe their gender, its usage and meaning is actually much wider.
the word ‘transgender’ is not a noun but an adjective, and it does not represent a gender, but a description of how we relate to the gender assigned to us at birth.
Transgender is an umbrella term to describe any person who does not identify with the gender assigned to them at birth. This includes trans men (those assigned female at birth but who identify as men), trans women (those assigned male at birth but who identify as women), and a wide range of non-binary identities and terms used by people who do not identify with either end of the ‘gender binary’. Thus, the word ‘transgender’ is not a noun but an adjective, and it does not represent a gender, but a description of how we relate to the gender assigned to us at birth, its antonym being cisgender which means those who continue to identify with the gender assigned to them at birth and who typically constitute ~99% of the population. Therefore, it is not ‘a transgender’ but ‘a trans woman’. It is not ‘the transgenders’ but ‘the transgender/trans community.’
Trans people may use medical interventions or various aspects of gender expression to align how society perceives us and our bodies with our identities, though this is not true for all of us and at all times. Moreover, many people who can be described as transgender according to the definition mentioned above, may not actually use it to describe themselves. Appropriate usage includes not just these terms but also the phrases around them, e.g. many trans persons may not like the phrase that they ‘identify as’ or ‘identify with’ a particular gender, but simply say that they ‘are’ ‘trans men’ or just ‘men’, ‘trans women’ or just ‘women’, or any one of the non-binary terms, just like cisgender persons might say that they ‘are’ ‘cis men’ or just ‘men’, or ‘cis women’ or just ‘women’.
A good thumb rule, therefore, is to just ask what terms, name and pronouns one uses for themselves. For example, I use the phrase ‘queer woman assigned male at birth’ to refer to my gender, sexuality, and my history of a gender transition, a history which is ideally nobody else’s business.
A good thumb rule, therefore, is to just ask what terms, name and pronouns one uses for themselves.
However, given the widespread oppression of trans persons in our society, due to the same patriarchy which is also the cause of women’s oppression, an awareness of transgender rights and terminology is definitely the business of the Union Minister for Women and Child Development.