India’s Harvey Milk

Protest, Status Symbols, Get a Job

A transwoman from the once "untouchable" Dalit caste has been elected mayor in the industrial town of Raigarh, in Chhattisgarh state, India. Hugely popular, the 35-year-old independent candidate Madhu Kinnar won with more than 33,000 votes, reported the Press Trust of India yesterday. She beat her opponent from the ruling BJP party by more than 4,500 votes.

Mayor Kinnar is the first openly trans person to be elected mayor in India. And she's a Dalit, in a nation where 1 out of 4 Indians still practice "untouchability" toward Dalits and other members of India's "Scheduled Castes." (According to the latest India Human Development Survey, 27% of people polled either admitted they practised untouchability or stated that it would not be ok "for a Scheduled Caste person to enter your kitchen or use your utensils.”)

But, says Kinnar, "it was the public support that encouraged me to enter the poll fray for the first time and because of their support only, I emerged as the winner." Running on popularity, Kinnar says she was able to spend very little on her campaign: an estimated 60-70,000 Rs., or about 1,000 dollars. Kinnar promises to restore ration cards for poor people, and has called "cleanliness and construction of drains" her priorities.

Like many of India's marginalized trans community, Mayor Kinnar's formal education stopped early. In the 8th standard (middle school), she dropped out to work, earning her living by singing and dancing on the trains that run between Howrah and Mumbai. She stopped in 2014 only after having been invited to run for mayor by the local community.

That was the year India's Supreme Court recognized transgender as a legal gender. "It is the right of every human being to choose their gender," wrote the court. "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."

As early as 2009, transgender people in India won the right to check "other" instead of male or female on ballot forms. But while new legal and civic space has increasingly been made for India's historically-recognized trans people, the nation's queer community still need more lawmakers on their side: homosexual intercourse remains illegal, defined by Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code as "carnal intercourse against the order of nature."