An Indian Hijra (transgender person)

India’s Supreme Court has ordered the Indian government to officially recognise transgender people as a third gender.

In the ground-breaking move, the country’s highest court ruled that trans people must be allowed to select a third gender category of “transgender” in all official documents.

The ruling is expected to help the marginalised millions who don’t identify as one of the two traditional gender variants – estimated to be around two to three million people – to access healthcare, education and jobs.

Known as Hijra in India and South Asia, transgender people often organise in communities but also face poverty and many are forced into begging to survive.

“It is the right of every human being to choose their gender,” said the court in its ruling, insisting that the matter “is not a social or medical issue but a human rights issue.”

It asserted that “Transgenders are also citizens of India,” adding that “the spirit of the Constitution is to provide equal opportunity to every citizen to grow and attain their potential, irrespective of caste, religion or gender.”

The court also ordered the government to include transgendered people in its welfare programmes aimed at vulnerable groups.

India’s election commission in 2009 allowed voters to choose an “other” option when registering to vote. Both Bangladesh and Nepal have previously also officially recognised a third gender.

The Indian Supreme Court’s progressive and human-rights based ruling is in sharp contrast to its December 2013 decision which restored the 153-year-old colonial-era ban on gay sex – seen by human rights groups as a step backwards for the country.

The court said then that gays and lesbians were too small a community to warrant constitutional protection and that it should be up to lawmakers to change the anti-gay law and not the courts.

The court has since agreed to consider a request that it re-look at the judgement.

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