Safe and accessible public spaces are crucial to enjoying one’s human rights to life, liberty, dignity, freedom of expression, freedom of movement, rights to health, water, and sanitation. Without safe and equal access to such places, transgender persons cannot fully enjoy equality and equal protection as individuals and members of their communities. Accessing their rights to public spaces is difficult for many trans people. Due to discrimination based on gender identity or expression, transgender people endure the weight of social and economic marginalization. Transgender persons who have lost their homes, employment, faced maltreatment and violence, or have been unable to receive healthcare, often face this reality.
Accessing one’s right to the city’s infrastructure also encompasses daily movement through public transport, which yet again becomes a sight of conflict, bigotry, and harassment around the trans identity. This inaccessibility of public transport does not just violate the right to the freedom movement of a trans person but also creates a hindrance in accessing their right to work, education, and health. Access to public transport is compromised because of discrimination against trans folks with real or perceived non-normative gender identity and expression.
Where most of the infrastructure in the country is bound within the binaries of gender, physical access to transport becomes a barrier. The gendered nature of entrance to most of the public modes of transportation including ticket booking forms, security screening at train stations and airports, and toilets at railway stations and the airport raises the question of who are these infrastructures taking care of. Security screenings at train stations and airports regulate access to public transportation services such as local trains or metros, railways and air travel. There are normally two rows, one for men and one for women, with female security guards overseeing the frisking of ladies and male security guards overseeing the frisking of men. Trans people are frequently made to defend their presence in one line or another, resulting in a public debate about their gender identity or worse, are bullied into aligning with the societal perception of one’s gender.
During an interview with a trans woman in Delhi, she admitted she avoids using public transport because of inconvenience related to security checking. Talking about one of her experiences, she said, “There was a lot of rush. I was just about to get checked [in the women’s queue], there must be some 2-3 women in the queue before me. These women made an issue of me standing in the women’s queue and asked me to shift to the other one. Like standing with me makes them less of a woman. The security guard called me once to the gents’ queue, I refused to go. Then they called out very loudly and told me the same. I didn’t go, I opposed it, but then, I thought it became the only choice to me”.
A trans man said, “Frisking always invites me for inappropriate touch. Also it becomes hard to use a binder if you want because there’s a threat of its detection”.
This limits their identity to nothing more than the perceived judgment of people around them. Even if a trans person crosses these physical barriers of the transport system, the journey within the mode again is a challenge. Further, public transport is also a site of gender-based violence and harassment, which contributes to a general feeling of insecurity in accessing it. The fear of harassment, bullying and the predominant gaze from the public, especially male co-passengers, further makes it hard for a trans individual to use a public bus or a metro. Sometimes co-passengers ask trans people and gender non-binary persons uncomfortable private questions about their gender identity, and at other times, verbally abuse, mock and jeer at them.
One of the trans women said: “I have faced hostile behavior from both men and women. Men are worse. If we sit in [women’s] seats, they become uncomfortable, and if we sit in men’s seats, we become uncomfortable. Then they hold their hands on us or sit really close to us [as coaches]”.
Another one said, “Listening to comments in a bus like ‘Kaise hai jaaneman, Kitna leti hai ek raat ka, kahaan rehti ho.’ They often end up touching my body while giving me money. This is very common to us.”
Also, while looking at the supporting infrastructures like toilets at the metro or other terminals, the binary nature of these infrastructures further restricts the mobility of trans people to the public transport.
The gendered aspect of security screening for public transportation, gendered restrooms, and violence or harassment are all hurdles to trans people using public transportation. In addition, being unable to safely access public transportation infringes other rights and adds to marginalization.
This avoiding of public transport leads to the trans population using alternative modes of mobility, which are safer and better but at the same time, not as affordable either. On being asked what type of choices they make to ensure safer commute, one of them said, “I always prefer to travel with autos. This is safe and they don’t judge you. Sometimes they also help me to get some clients (for sex work). You need not go through any of the discrimination. But I end up spending a little more because of this”.
A trans man said, “Fitting in is the best that you can do. I try dressing up or acting up a little feminine and choose the women queue of my choice because I don’t want to be frisked by a man. Also, avoiding travel with another female friend usually helps. Otherwise, I tend to avoid the metro.”
Due to fear and stigma across the streets, trans people also tend to choose alternative travel paths which are safer, yet can lead to longer travel time and added inconveniences. Another said, “Public transportation accessibility is necessary for the achievement of other Indian constitutional rights, such as the right to work, life, health, and the right to freedom of movement. Finally, the inaccessibility of public transport as a result of discrimination based on forbidden identification markers such as sexual orientation and gender identity would result in a violation of transgender people’s other rights.”
Trans people’s rights to dignity, freedom of movement, equal opportunity and non-discrimination are all violated by systemic hurdles that prevent them from using public transportation. Activities like frisking should be made touch-free, irrespective of gender. While state governments are coming up with incentives for free public transport for cis-het women, there should also be similar incentives for trans people. Further, allocating reserved seats can also help trans people achieve better reliability over public transport. The gender bias in the transport-related infrastructure needs to be radically addressed.