Kerala is pioneer in transgender rights. So where are the transgender voters?

Despite measures to bring transpersons into the mainstream, participation of the community in elections remains low

India is home to about half a million transgenders, who were recognised by the Supreme Court in 2014.

Kerala has been a pioneer in the field of transgender rights in the country. It was the first state in India to announce a transgender policy after the 2014 Supreme Court judgment established the right to equality and equal protection for transgender persons. It was also the first state to set up a board for the welfare of transgenders in 2016. Earlier this year, the Kerala government decided to include ‘Transgender’ as a gender option in all its application forms as well as voters’ lists.

Yet despite these measures to bring transpersons into the mainstream and help them integrate into the society, participation of the transgender community in elections – the ‘festival of democracy’ – remains low.

According to Election Commission data, only 37 per cent of transgender people cast their votes in the assembly election. 37 per cent of the total 221 transgender voters in the state.

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Officials say that although the government has a liberal approach, practical difficulties exist in ensuring voting rights of transgender people.

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“We have a very liberal approach towards transgender persons, but we have to follow procedures. A person should be available at the address provided with the EC when our officers go there for verification. Otherwise, that person will not be included in the list,” says Tikkaram Meena, the chief electoral officer of Kerala. He says that members of the community are not always available at their respective addresses.

Transgender poet, activist and author Vijayarajamallika’s experience suggests there are other issues. Despite being well-known, casting vote has never been an easy process for her.

“I had to meet the additional district magistrate on the previous day of the [local body] election last year,” she told The Federal. “I received my transgender identity card long ago. I have also notified the change of name in the official gazette.” However, Mallika says her name and sex in the voters’ list still says ‘Manu Krishnan’, ‘male’.

Mallika says that other voters need only their voter ID card, but a transgender voter has to carry several certificates as well, including an identity certificate and a name change certificate. “The government follows a transgender-friendly policy, but bureaucrats know little about us,” she says.

No Home, No Residential Proof

“A person needs to have a home in the first place,” says Sheethal Syam, a member of the state transgender cell. Transgender people are often displaced from their homes when their identity is revealed. Hence most of them are not able to get voter ID cards. According to Sheethal, there are an estimated 30,000 transpersons in Kerala (who have disclosed their identity). “We all know that this is not the actual figure. Only those who have the courage to come out and a support system to help them are being counted.”

Ironically, a new law approved by Parliament to protect the rights of transgender people may have had an undesirable effect.

“Self-declaration of identity was sufficient before the new law – Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 – was enacted. Now a certificate of sex reassignment surgery is required,” says Sheethal. A gender reassignment surgery is a long, painful and expensive process, she says.

Less than a thousand transgenders in Kerala have an identity card, says Laya Maria, a former member of the transgender cell and an activist of the Democratic Youth Federation of India, the youth wing of the CPI-M. Maria has a vote in Changanassery constituency, Kottayam district. She says the district administration has made efforts to add more transpersons to the voters’ list. “Discrimination and stigma is the root cause of all problems. Many do not have a permanent place of residence. Not only do transgender people get thrown out of their own homes, they find it difficult to rent a place as well,” says Maria.

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Raga Ranjini, secretary of the transgender wing of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee, says the government needs to take more steps to ensure the voting rights of transpersons. “There are a lot of issues to be resolved. The election commission has listed us as ‘third gender’ and not as transgender,” she says.

Multiple IDs, Absence of Streamlined Process

Prijith PK, president of Queerythm, a community-based organisation, says there is an urgent need to streamline the process of providing identity cards.

“There are many people with multiple IDs,” he says. When the Department of Social Justice provides a transgender person with a new ID, other documents – voters’ ID, Aadhaar Card, for example – should also be updated, Prijith says.

Prijith also believes that the number of transgender votes does not reflect the actual number of transgender people in the state. “We have to count all of them to get a realistic picture of the participation of the transgender community in elections.”

The process of adding names to electoral lists is today digitised and that could also present a problem to transgender people. “We have not addressed the huge problem of digital divide,” says Prijith. “There are many who do not know how to do this process online.”

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