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Stigma, paperwork: Hurdles hit transgender vote in India election

An election official marks the finger of a Kashmiri migrant with indelible ink at a special polling booth set up for Kashmiri migrants during the fourth phase of the general election in New Delhi, India, May 13, 2024. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

An election official marks the finger of a Kashmiri migrant with indelible ink at a special polling booth set up for Kashmiri migrants during the fourth phase of the general election in New Delhi, India, May 13, 2024. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

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Even as more people register to vote as trans, their turnout was low in the Lok Sabha election and numerous voting barriers remain

  • Turnout trails far behind among transgender voters
  • Persistent stigma, ID hurdles deter many from voting
  • Campaigners welcome small gains, demand more action

LONDON/BANGALORE - Anjali Siroya has spent years fighting for transgender rights in India, but among the hundreds of millions of votes cast in the giant election that ended last week, her ballot was missing.

Like thousands of other trans Indians, the 26-year-old decided not to vote because she did not want to register with her Aadhaar national ID, which lists her male birth gender.

The only other option - changing her gender on the card - would have involved dealing with "traumatic" bureaucracy, she said. She holds a separate transgender ID card, but that is not eligible for voter registration.

"Getting registered to vote with my dead name or my chosen name were both problematic," Siroya, who works for the Humsafar Trust, an LGBTQ+ non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Mumbai, told Context by video call.

More than 48,000 people had registered to vote as trans by March 2024, up from 39,683 in 2019, a senior election official said at the time, but it is still only a fraction of India's trans population in the nation of 1.4 billion people.     

Transgender activist Anjali Siroya speaks to a woman at the information centre for a queer film festival in Mumbai, Maharashtra, May 2024. Thomson Reuters Foundation / Aniket Narawad

Transgender activist Anjali Siroya speaks to a woman at the information centre for a queer film festival in Mumbai, Maharashtra, May 2024. Thomson Reuters Foundation / Aniket Narawad

Transgender activist Anjali Siroya speaks to a woman at the information centre for a queer film festival in Mumbai, Maharashtra, May 2024. Thomson Reuters Foundation / Aniket Narawad

The latest data released by the country's Election Commission also points to low rates of participation by the community overall.

In the penultimate phase of voting, the turnout for people listed as "third gender" was less than 20%, compared to over 60% for both male and female participants, the data showed.

The highest turnout for "third gender" voters was recorded in the fourth phase, at 34%, compared to a 69% turnout overall.

In Mumbai, just over 1,000 trans people registered to vote in the city - up 73% since 2019 - but the average turnout for the community in Maharashtra state remained below 30%, according to official data.

'It's traumatic'

Trans people face several big hurdles if they want to vote.

Changing their legal gender to the gender they identify with or a "third gender" is one way to avoid the distress of using IDs listing their gender assigned at birth.

But Siroya, who lives in Mumbai, said that was also difficult.

Changing gender on an Aadhaar card is a lengthy process that requires paperwork to be sent to the parental home - a no-no for Siroya because her parents do not accept her trans identity. 

"It's traumatic for me to go through the process of getting a voter ID card ... and to vote as a man is difficult," Siroya said. 

Since trans people were granted legal recognition in India in 2014, there have been government efforts to increase their inclusion, including boosting their participation in elections.

A "third gender" option appeared on ballot papers for the first time in India's 2019 general election, and trans people can now apply for TG cards - a trans identity card - which gives the holder access to benefits such as healthcare and training programmes, but cannot be used to vote.

In February, Prime Minister Narendra Modi - who won a third term in the election but with a vastly diminished majority - highlighted his government's policies to engage with the community.  

Ahead of this year's mammoth voting exercise, the Election Commission sought to make it easier for people to vote as trans, launching an electoral participation programme with enrolment camps across the country. 

"If trans people are struggling to go to offices, Election Commission people came to us instead so the community don't feel threatened, scared or intimidated by the process," Rudrani Chhetri, one of the founding members of LGBTQ+ community-based organisation Mitr Trust, in New Delhi. 

"It can be particularly difficult for people to deal with that process in more remote parts of the country."

Marginalised trans community

India is home to approximately 488,000 trans people, according to the last population census in 2011. LGBTQ+ organisations estimate the real number is likely higher. 

While LGBTQ+ issues featured in the manifestos for both of India's two main parties, activists said the pledges were not enough to bring lasting change, including to members of the marginalised trans community.

Trans Indians often leave their family homes and education at a young age due to discrimination, resulting in many making ends meet by begging or doing sex work.

"Someone who is socially marginalised ... their politics revolve around securing food, a sustainable life, and survival," Siroya said. "The right to vote is a later priority."

Shaine Soni, an activist and former Miss Trans Queen India who was chosen as an election "icon" to promote participation, said the barriers to voting - such as the distress of having to vote using their birth name - must be addressed.

Trans people also run the risk of encountering discrimination and harassment by going to the polls, she said. 

"A lot of people ... didn't want to go through the humiliation of the process," Soni, 33, said by phone.

"If someone is going through gender dysphoria or depression and struggling to make ends meet, they don't want to go out and experience that," she added.

But even though trans turnout trailed, campaigners in Mumbai said they had been encouraged by the increase in the city.

"We want more and more numbers to come out (and vote) so people can see there is a movement," said Shankari Madam of the Kinnar Asmita, a non-profit working for trans rights in Mumbai. 

"No one will care about the views of this community if we are not voting for them. We have to be able to tell them, we have elected you now, these are our demands and hold them accountable." 

(Reporting and writing by Lucy Middleton in London; Additional reporting by Aniket Narawad in Bangalore; Editing by Helen Popper.)


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