How Public Data On The LGBTQIA+ Community Is Shaped And Erased In India
"They live in the cities. They are not a part of us. We have never seen one here,” said an elderly woman, while others sitting in the circle nodded. This brief conversation happened in 2018, during one of my field visits in a distant village of Andhra Pradesh. It may have been a passing remark, but these words communicated how society continues to treat LGBTQIA+ persons as “public secrets.”
Invisibilising LGBTQIA+ individuals as “public secrets”
A public secret is not just a conversation about taboo, but a systematic legacy of driving a social group towards extinction. This retributive system has 4 elements:
- Weaponising the production of public knowledge to shape ideologies as facts. Science was selectively used to legislate laws that criminalised trans-queer bodies. Biological essentialism was an intellectual genocide to strip the human body of its anatomical diversity. For the community, the biological birth came attested with social death – experienced every day in moments and relations.
- Erasing the LGBTQIA+ community from our collective history, to only romanticise their punctuated presence in myths and mythology. It was a political act of denying them a history of their own, a history of being ordinary.
- Persecuting LGBTQIA+ persons from normative families and public spaces to keep them invisible to the public eye or conscience. Social stigma was employed as policing agents to drive them out of opportunities for education, health, or employment.
- The most visceral element of all, socialising LGBTQIA+ persons to experience their bodies as dysphoric confinements, with integrity and desire as its permanent in-mates.
As sociologist George Simmel puts it, “secrecy holds a social function”. The patterns of concealment in our society explain how political power shapes information flows, restrictions, and blockages in contemporary society. For the powerful, controlling data means controlling the beating heart of this country’s conscience and an individual’s informed ability to self-identify their gender.
Consequently, in a densely populated country like India, data remains extremely germane to the complete enjoyment of rights. From recording initial entries of a citizen through birth certificates to issuing necessary identification documents like Aadhar card, voter identity card, ration cards, driving licenses to more specific details like health history, the existence of an individual's correct information in official state records is a fundamental outcome of right to equal recognition and equal protection under the purview of the law. However, a community, whose more visible ancestors - Hijras, Kinnars, Kothis were publicly persecuted and catalogued in the criminal registries, to which place, with what trust, and for what promise do they go to enroll for equality?
Politics of Labels and Surveys
The Indian Government has played a proactive role in the construction of views like “minuscule minority of unapprehended felons” or “urban elite” for the LGBTQIA+ community. Even a surficial reference to the 2011 Census of India could have informed the Solicitor General of India that most of the transgender community belongs to rural areas, which might also be indicative of a similar pattern for the larger LGBTQIA+ community.
Population-related datasets generated by various government bodies are not simply objective. Even before the enumerators hit the field, at the framing stage, demographic indicators are laced with a political consideration of capturing only what the government would like to recognise and acknowledge in its scheme of policy making. A more disaggregated gender identity category or inclusion of sexual orientation would practically deliver the Supreme Court’s affirmation of the principle of self-identification to everyone’s doorstep in India.
At present, there are only two national statistical sources that record demographic details about the transgender community in India. The 2011 Census of India and the Election Commission of India’s election records post-2014 are the only publicly available data repositories which have their own shortfalls. The 2011 Census recorded the transgender population when homosexuality was still criminalised under IPC 377 and before the Supreme Court of India extended constitutional recognition to transgender persons in India. Whereas the ECI’s 2014 and 2019 general election records depict how less than 10% of the already undercounted trans community were able to access a voter ID in the largest democracy of the world.
Even after the NALSA vs Union of India Judgement of 2014 and the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2019, the Indian Government does not envision a public data system responsive and inclusive of the LGTBQIA+ community. The website of Niti Aayog enlists an inventory of 82 National Surveys, conducted by various governmental agencies and contractors, like the National Family Health Survey, which fail to account for gender-disaggregated socio-economic indicators inclusive of the LGBTQIA+ community. The reluctance to register LGBTQIA+ persons in public surveys essentially excludes them from being counted as a separate marginalised group with unique needs and challenges during the process of policy or law-making.
Its dangers were laid bare in the open when a Trans Rights Activist Vyjayanti Vasanta Mogli filed a petition in the Telangana High Court praying for life-sustaining relief for the socio-economically excluded transgender communities in the State of Telangana during the Covid-19. The learned Court expressed distress in how the Telangana State Government had no reliable demographic data at the municipal level to actualise the delivery of ration items to the aggrieved community. The High Court noted -
"Although this Court had asked the exact figures with regard to the population of the transgender community in the major cities of State, in para 11, a bald statement has been made that the (State) Government has identified 2,175 transgenders in the State of Telangana Whether this number includes the transgenders in the major cities of Telangana, or merely in the GHMC Area is unclear."
The recently concluded Supreme Court hearing on the marriage equality case reads into the anxiety of the Indian Government of publicly recording trans-queer persons as singular and social units. To be visible in official state documents is to exercise one’s undeniable constitutional claim to governmental welfare programmes, and a desire for normalcy of life. A positive verdict will significantly rupture the generational concealment of the LGBTQIA+ community as a public secret. It will force the government to acknowledge how the entire public information system was designed to keep LGBTQIA+ persons out of it and how it saved itself from doing the reparative and mainstreaming work owed to the community.
At present, we have trans-queer students in schools and colleges but no data to make our education system more accessible and inclusive. We have ill and ailing queer individuals but no data or training manual to make medical services sensitive to their identity. We have trans- queer couples loving and living together but no mechanism to formalise their union.
Our public information system and associated bureaucracy requires an overhaul to be sensitive and accessible to diverse gender and sexual minorities. The fact that only 12,507 transgender persons have applied for a Transgender Certificate till date, serves the government an important cautionary message that - any progressive step towards the inclusion of an under-documented social group cannot be hyper-documentation to validate one’s existence.