“Home is the safest place”: Pune transwomen recount experiences in public spaces

On Trans Remembrance Day, Pune's transwomen gathered to remember those who lost their lives to transphobia, and shared tales of the stigma, bullying, harassment and fear that they face everyday.

For the transpeople of Pune, November 20 was an important day. “We have come here for all the transpeople who lost their lives to transphobia,” said Rishi, a trans-rights activist, on this “Trans Remembrance Day”. “We want to observe this in public, these tragedies took place in public and it is only right that we are here and we are being seen”. 

If you have lived or travelled around Pune you will have heard of and visited the shopping area of Tulsi Baugh, just four minutes’ walk north of Budhwar Peth, the city’s red light district. Many transwomen have their work spaces and homes in a part of Budhwar Peth. But  despite the proximity, rarely does one see a sizeable population of transwomen in Tulsi Baugh, a popular destination for so many cis-women.”

“When I go to Tulsi Baugh, there are only a few shops that I can visit as most shopkeepers refuse to sell to us” said Meena (name changed), a transwoman activist. Activities and pleasure so easily accessible to cis-women (a term for women who identify with the gender that they were assigned at birth) is restricted to her due to her gender identity. “It isn’t just the shopkeepers who make it hard, but cis-women who come to shop there as well. They visibly shy away and cringe when we come to shop/eat in the same place as them”. 

Most transwomen I spoke to preferred meeting me at their homes as compared to the cis-women, who are comfortable in public locations. “The safest place for me is my home, where I have my agency and people know me,” added Meena when asked if she was comfortable meeting in a park.

“People get worried coming to Budhwar Peth, especially women like you, but this is where I feel safest. Going outside of this area is what makes me feel unsafe,” said Pat (name changed), a transwoman who runs her own community-based organization in Pune. “Budhwar Peth gives many trans-women the freedom of being in public spaces that are restricted to them by the public in other parts of the city”.

Growing up in Pune, I always believed it was one of the few cities in the country considered safe for women. Pune was recently placed 143 out of 231 cities in the list of Mercer’s Quality of Living Ranking, which takes into account crime rate amongst other things. But I have come to realise that this safety was reserved for me because of my caste, class, and the female gender identity that I was assigned at birth. 

Most conversations and apps on public safety are geared towards upper caste and upper-class women like me, completely missing out other target audiences like transwomen. Though visible in public spaces, they are often missing from public safety discourse. The hazards they face at work and in interacting with the public get no policy attention. Their visibility in popular news media is also fraught with the media misgendering them, being dismissive of their gender identity, objectifying them and rarely covering issues faced by trans-women. In fact, in March 2018, a big mall in Pune, Phoenix mall, denied entry to a trans-woman and said trans people are not allowed into malls. 

The Gatekeepers

What would public safety mean in reality to transwomen in Pune and who are the people who make these spaces safe or unsafe for them? Is it individuals like the female guard who stopped the trans-woman at the mall, or the public at large which supports exclusionary practices that keep transwomen out of public spaces? Most transwomen I spoke to said that they often find themselves in a situation where they can be harmed, and that the police and the general public rarely come to their help.  Other cis-women I spoke to said that they feel safer in crowded spaces.

This was in stark contrast to what transwomen I spoke to experience in the city. Some cis-women I talked to, like Avisha (name changed), a psychologist, claimed to have been scared of transwomen because she grew up being told to stay away from them and had experiences with trans-women that make her wary of them, while others show other forms of transphobia. With such worrying public perceptions towards trans-women, it is not surprising that trans-women have the burden of trying to pass themselves off as cis-women constantly in public spaces, so as not to be discriminated against.

 “When I am traveling alone at night or even during the day and I am harassed on the street, the public rarely comes to help,” said Lata (name changed). “The police you can absolutely forget. We have to rely on other transwomen to come to our aid, which is also why we usually go to work in groups.” 

Many transwomen have stories of being ill-treated by the police when they go to lodge complaints. Lata, a hijra woman, laughed at my naïve belief that she must feel safer during the day when more people are around. Having grown up in Pune, Lata said it isn’t only the men who make her feel unsafe in public but women too. “When I take a seat reserved for women in a bus, the women grumble audibly, move away, and worse take their children away from me, like I could infect them” said Lata. 

Many transwomen said they prefer to take Ola and Uber rather than public transport because of this. “I go wherever I want and whenever I feel like, but I do that because I know the city and I have connections with the police,” added Lata.

Public perception

“It is not the same for my trans-sisters, and going to a new place is worrying, because we don’t know how people will perceive us,” said Shaloni (name changed), a transwoman activist. “Moving to my house was difficult because it took over a year for my neighbours to be comfortable with me and for me to get familiar with them.” Activists like Shaloni, Pat and Meena run community- based organizations to help trans-women get identification, run public awareness campaigns, help them gain employment, help them through doctor and police visits etc. Most transwomen I met were either sex-workers, activists, or performers and many of them, like Lata, say they can be their true selves only after escaping their parent’s homes. 

But thanks to activists like Shaloni and others, the city’s transwomen continue to fight for their rights by networking, organizing rallies, protests, besides being visible in public spaces as individuals and as a community, even at the risk of being harmed. None of the trans-women I spoke to were defeated by the gatekeeping by upper class people in public spaces, and continue to fight for their right to be there. Apps and campaigns on public safety and safe cities, like #MakeMyCitySafer focus on women’s safety alone and often leave out transpeople.

At the remembrance gathering on November 20th. Pic: Amla Pisharody

“Stigma, bullying, harassment, fear, all reside in public spaces and happen in the public and we must be here talking about the lives lost to transphobia and spreading awareness amongst the public,” said Sonali Dalve, another trans-activist at the event on Transgender Day of Remembrance, where participants talked about the loss of lives of trans-people and discussed the lack of inclusion within the Transgender People (Protection of Rights) Bill 2018. Chandini Tai, a trans-activist and community worker, said “We will keep coming here and standing up for ourselves. Others may not come and stand with us, but we will always keep pushing for better lives and inclusion.”

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