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Turning words to action in India’s fight for transgender rights

In 2014, India’s Supreme Court ruled that transgender people have the right to self-identify as men, women or as a “third gender.” While this decision established historic legal protections, the realities of day-to-day life remain challenging for many in India’s transgender community.

Despite the discrimination, harassment and abuse she has experienced as a transgender woman, Dhananjay Chauhan, one of North India’s most influential advocates, is fighting to improve transgender rights.


A growing community

In Chandigarh, the capital of the northern Haryana and Punjab states, Dhanajay leads the region’s Transgender Organization and organizes the annual Pride Walk.

Dhananjay has organized Chandigarh’s LGTBQ Pride Walk since 2013, but struggled to find people who would openly participate in the event. The LGBTQ community has long remained underground in Punjab, where issues of sexuality and identity largely remain unspoken.

“Acceptance of LGBTQ (people) was slow,” Dhananjay said. “Due to stigma, society was not participating openly in Pride. They felt shame.”

But within the past year, Dhanajay has seen a surge in support for the LGBTQ community and participation in her annual Pride Walk.

People from across Punjab sing and dance their way through Chandigarh in the 2017 Pride Walk. People from across Punjab sing and dance their way through Chandigarh in the 2017 Pride Walk.
People from across Punjab sing and dance their way through Chandigarh in the 2017 Pride Walk.

Financial and logistical support from the Consulate General of Canada in Chandigarh and other local partners helped encourage wider participation in Chandigarh’s Garvotsava, or “Festival of Pride,” which grew from one day in 2016 to one week in 2017.

The growth and success of Pride Walk speaks to the courage and persistence of the local LGBTQ community and dedicated activists like Dhananjay.

After the Canadian Consulate and other partners made their support for Pride Week known, Dhananjay said “students and society (saw) this they started coming out to support us.”


Recognizing "Third Gender"

Consul General Christopher Gibbins holds the Pride flag during Chandigarh’s 2018 Pride Week.
Consul General Christopher Gibbins holds the Pride flag during Chandigarh’s 2018 Pride Week.

Following the success of the 2017 Pride Week, Dhananjay continued to encourage the promotion of LGBTQ rights in Chandigarh.

She partnered with the Canadian Consulate and western Punjab’s Guru Nanak College to host a conference on transgender issues and acceptance across Indian society.

The conference involved a panel discussion and seminar on “third gender” rights, which drew a crowd of over 300 people. The concept of “third gender” refers to the ruling by the Indian Supreme Court that allowed transgender people to identify as a gender other than male or female.

In his speech as Guest of Honour, Consul General Gibbins noted the rights of LGBTQ people in Canada have only been gained after a long, on-going struggle, and that many people in Canada still face discrimination.

He said, as Canadians, diversity and inclusion are “a fundamental part of who we are… and that includes the LGBTQ community.”

Over the past year, Canada’s Consulate in Chandigarh has demonstrated continued support for LGBTQ leaders like Dhananjay by participating in a variety of events, from a theatre production to a panel discussion to the Pride Walk, and looks forward to more opportunities to empower and encourage the local LGBTQ community.

“The LGBTQ community here is slowly finding its voice,” said Consul General Gibbins.

Canadian advocacy has set a precedent for activists to reach out to institutions across northern India to seek their assistance in supporting LGBTQ and specifically transgender issues.


Making progress

Dhananjay Chauhan discusses issues facing India’s “third gender” community with a crowd of over 300 people
Dhananjay Chauhan discusses issues facing India’s “third gender” community with a crowd of over 300 people

After hearing Dhananjay’s speech at the panel discussion, the President of Guru Nanak College announced the College would offer free tuition and assistance with room and board for any transgender applicant.

While many milestones still remain for LGBTQ rights to be fully practiced across India, Dhananjay has seen this type of recognition grow throughout her own life.

Dhananjay said the support of the Canadian Consulate “gave us a platform to raise our voices through our visibility.”

“I am the first transgender student of Panjab University doing (their) Master’s in Human Rights and Duties,” she said.

“For the first time, students have seen transgender students in their college. We have friendly spaces now.”


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