Suraiya, a 31-year-old transgender woman, begins her day in the early hours at the traffic signal at Ashram Chowk in New Delhi. She has a masters degree, but she has to beg to make a living. “It shatters me from within, but I have been left with no other option,” she said.
Unable to find employment, Suraiya faces abuse and sexual harassment on a daily basis. “It is very hard to sustain on the chillar [pennies] people give us,” she said. “But it’s even worse to continuously deal with the kind of people who say ‘come into the car, we will pay you more’ but will not give me a single rupee otherwise.”
Suraiya, whose name has been changed in this story to protect her identity, was 23 when she ran away from her home in Anantnag district of Jammu & Kashmir in 2015. She was escaping the violence and harassment of a conservative family environment, where she was often forced to behave in accordance with the male gender assigned to her at birth — and punished when she didn’t. She arrived in New Delhi in search of acceptance.
Suraiya found it hard to find a job that fit her qualifications — most schools were unwilling to hire a visibly trans person. She eventually settled for a job as a sales team leader at an outlet of a multinational fast food chain. But just as she thought things were looking up for her, she was confronted with a new challenge: name-calling, abuses, and biased treatment from her co-workers. Fearing repercussions, she never complained to the management. But after a year of working there, she was fired without notice. Suraiya believes her gender identity was the reason for her termination.
Suraiya holds a Bachelors in education from Degree College, Anantnag and an MA in political science from the University of Kashmir. However, she found it impossible to find another job to support herself. When all doors closed, she had to turn to begging. "I’m pushed against the wall and denied my rights. Why would I beg if I had a job?”
A 2017 survey commissioned by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) reveals a crisis of opportunity for transgender people in India. Suraiya’s educational achievements make her an outlier in the trans community — only around 5% of the 900 trans people surveyed had post-graduate degrees. Complete deprivation of education is far more common — around 1 in 3 trans people had never attended school.
Regardless of qualifications, trans people across India are forced to fight stereotypes, stigmatisation, and systemic injustice in the quest for employment opportunities. Just 6% reported that they held formal jobs, whilst the majority (54%) either had no work or had to resort to informal — and often dangerous — occupations like begging, sex work, and badhai (a customary practice which involves members of the the Hijra community, which includes trans and intersex persons, being paid to offer their blessings on occasions like childbirth and weddings).
In 2014, India’s Supreme Court in its landmark NALSA judgement officially affirmed the fundamental rights of transgender people — including the right to self-identify their gender and not face any discrimination as a result of that. The court also recognised that the transgender community is socially and educationally disadvantaged as a result of systemic discrimination and issued a slew of directions aimed at securing their rights and dignity. Among these was a recommendation for reservations in educational institutions and public sector employment.
The judgement has spawned a movement, with trans activists across the country relentlessly and vociferously putting pressure on the government and courts to deliver on a specific demand, which they believe holds the key to the transgender community’s liberation: horizontal reservation.
The essence of horizontal reservation
Reservations or affirmative action in India came about as a means of addressing the centuries-old system of inequality and discrimination based on caste. The reservations granted to various historically oppressed castes were meant to ensure their representation in government and other public institutions, which would otherwise be dominated by the privileged castes because of the wealth and power they had accrued over generations. In the words of the architect of India’s constitution, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, reservations represent “protection against the aggressive communalism of the governing class, which wants to dominate the servile class in all fields of life.”
Currently, the central government grants a 15% quota to Scheduled Castes (SCs) or Dalits, 7.5% to Scheduled Tribes (STs) or Adivasis and Tribals, and 27% to Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in education and public sector employment. There is also a 10% reservation for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) of traditionally privileged castes (EWS reservation has been a contentious issue. Legal scholars have argued that it defies the fundamental basis of the reservation system by creating a quota for groups that benefited from the caste system. But it was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2022).
Horizontal reservation, as envisioned by trans activists, would create a sub-quota within each of these existing categories for transgender individuals.
However, the central government has turned a deaf ear to the demands of the trans community, taking the position that there will be no separate reservation for transgender people. In other words, if they belong to any of the marginalised castes, they can avail benefits of the already existing reservations, but they will have to compete with cis-gender people for the same set of resources.
While the Supreme Court too has refused to enforce its own recommendation for reservations in the NALSA judgement, individual states have shown greater initiative. In Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh, where transgender individuals have already been granted reservations, they are included in existing categories like Other Backward Classes and Most Backward Classes (Tamil Nadu’s equivalent nomenclature for OBC).
However, proponents of horizontal reservation argue that lumping the transgender community into existing categories creates more problems than it solves. In her petition filed in the Supreme Court, Grace Banu, an anti-caste and trans rights activist, illustrates the flaws: Under this scheme of reservation, a Dalit or Tribal trans person will have to choose between the existing caste-based quota (SC or ST quota) and the OBC category, because all trans persons are clubbed under OBC. If they were to choose the SC or ST category, they would be forced to compete with cis-gender SC or ST individuals. And if they were to opt for the OBC quota, they would not only have to compete with cis-gender OBC individuals, but they might also be compelled to compete with privileged caste individuals who qualified for that quota because they are transgender.
Thus, the system continues to propagate discrimination because it cannot recognise the double deprivation an individual experiences when they simultaneously hold marginalised caste and gender identities. “The fact that most trans persons don't have access to the same resources [as cis persons], do not have access to family support, social acceptance, all of that is completely erased [by this scheme of reservations],” said Kanmani Ray, a trans lawyer based in Chennai. “It just guarantees that they are losing opportunities.”
In Suraiya’s case, horizontal reservation could have offered an opportunity in the form of a teaching job at a government school. For 25-year-old trans woman Ayesha, who aspires to be a doctor, it could’ve meant a chance to study at the prestigious All India Institute of Medical Sciences — last year, she was denied a seat despite securing an all-India rank of 11 in the entrance exam because there were just 6 seats available, all of which went to cis-gender persons. For Prithika Yashni, a trans woman from Salem in Tamil Nadu, who became one of very few transgender police officers in 2015, it could’ve eliminated the need to file multiple court cases to get the job: first to even have her application treated as valid, then to ask for the cutoff marks to be lowered, and finally to challenge her disqualification from the process because she had failed to meet the required time on the 100m run by 1.11 seconds.
In 2021, Karnataka became the first state in the country to grant horizontal reservation to trans people, allotting them 1% of government job openings across caste categories. This victory came after years of legal struggle led by Jeeva, a trans rights organisation.
Jayna Kothari, a senior advocate at the Supreme Court, who was among the lawyers who fought the case, draws parallels between horizontal reservation for trans people and the existing horizontal reservation for women. “Just as there are reserved seats for women in government employment [across caste categories], similar horizontal reservation should be provided for transgender individuals across SC, ST, OBC, and general categories,” she said.
Jayna said that many trans people have been able to use the new provision to secure jobs in Karnataka in the two years since its implementation. On November 18, 2022, Karnataka’s then education minister B.C. Nagesh announced that the state had recruited three transgender teachers for the first time under the new reservation policy.
While the Karnataka reservation policy has certainly opened the doors of public sector employment for the trans community, its implementation is far from perfect. A year later, Deccan Herald reported that the three teachers were yet to begin their employment due to the vagaries of public sector employment — unrelated legal challenges have prompted a court to stay the recruitment. Unable to find other jobs, they are struggling to support themselves — Deccan Herald quoted one of the teachers, Pooja, saying that she is worried that she might have to return to begging on the streets.
“Horizontal reservation has emancipatory potential, but they are not a magic tool,” said Kanmani. “It is like a foot in the door. It opens the door to opportunity. Right now, the door is not even open.”
Qualified but unemployable
Jane Kaushik, a 30-year-old OBC trans woman, holds a bachelor's degree in education and a master's degree in political science, both from Sunrise University in Alwar, Rajasthan. Over the past two years, Jane said she has lost two jobs because of discrimination based on her gender identity.
In November 2022, she was hired as a teacher of social sciences at a private school in Lakhimpur Kheri, Uttar Pradesh. “I was assessed through interviews, but when the school administration got to know about my gender identity—that I am a transwoman—they refused to take me for the role, citing that parents may have issues or children may have objections,” said Jane. In the face of objections from Jane, they eventually relented and allowed her to work — on the condition that she would keep her gender identity a secret from the staff and the students.
However, the students quickly discovered that Jane was a trans woman and she became the target of name-calling and taunting. Within a week of her joining, she was terminated. queerbeat contacted the school's administrators to understand why Jane was fired, but no response has been forthcoming.
In July 2023, she received a job offer from another private school — this time in Jamnagar, Gujarat. While she was travelling to Jamnagar by train, her phone rang. It was a HR officer from the school, calling to berate her for not disclosing her gender identity in her resume, Jane told queerbeat. She clarified that she had in fact mentioned her gender in her resume and even disclosed that she had undergone gender affirmation surgery. Jane said the school then informed her that they would not be proceeding with the hire, claiming it would be “unsafe” for the students to have a trans teacher because her presence could “mislead” or “spoil” them.
When queerbeat reached out for comment, the school’s HR officer denied having any knowledge of the incident. Jane has initiated legal proceedings against the Jamnagar school. The case is currently being heard in the Supreme Court.
After the discrimination she has faced in the private sector, Jane has been looking for employment in government-run schools. But as numerous petitions filed by trans activists in courts around the country argue, there has been an absence of concerted effort from government agencies to implement the NALSA judgement’s recommendations towards recognising and supporting the candidature of trans people in public sector recruitment. As a result, recruitment processes continue to automatically weed out trans people at every stage. Jane could not apply for a vacancy advertised by the Delhi Subordinate Services Selection Board because the application form only allowed for male or female teachers.
Much like Prithika nearly a decade ago, Jane had to go to the courts to enforce her basic right to apply for the job. “I cannot ask for my rights from the people; I can only ask for them from the state,” she said. Unlike Prithika though, Jane is able to build on the NALSA judgement to push for systemic change. Her petition demands that separate vacancies be advertised for trans persons in all government teaching jobs in the NCT of Delhi. Jane added, “I am an OBC, and I am a transgender woman as well. I am already in the reserved category [as an OBC], but what benefit am I getting based on my gender identity? What about the discrimination I have faced my whole life due to my gender identity?”
Kanmani believes that while horizontal reservations will not solve all the challenges faced by the trans community in seeking education and employment,“there would be fewer hoops to jump through. A trans person would not need to keep proving that they are entitled to an opportunity.” And that, in her view, would be enough to sow the seeds of generational change. “It will mean that some amount of pressure will go away. It can get them a job and at least pay their bills. Then, trans people will be able to think about the next generations, we'll be able to aspire towards upward mobility.”